Broadband listening session: recipe for broadband success in MN and questioning why federal funding goes to DSL

Earlier today I attended a broadband listening session in Faribault hosted by Farm Foundation, NTCA, CoBank, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. and USDA.

The morning was divided into three sessions:

  • E-Connectivity Needs in the Upper Midwest with Bill Esback (Wisconsin State Telecom Association) and Steve Fenske (Minnesota Association of Townships)
  • Connecting Rural America with Danna Mackenzie (Office of Broadband Development), Kristi Westbrock (CTC) and Brian Zelenak (Mille Lacs Energy Coop)
  • Update from DC with Jannine Miller (USDA)

I was able to record most of it and I’ll share my notes below ASIS. There were just a few moments I wanted to highlight.

Bill Esback spoke about CAF 2 – federal funding from the FCC that is used to build out broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 up (10/1). A gentleman from Jaguar asked what the price cap carriers are putting into the ground. Esback said CenturyLink & Frontier are using DSL. AT&T is using fixed wireless. The follow up question was – why would the government want to fund a technology that’s already outdated? One upload will not be enough to push the technology up? Esbeck said it was a matter of resources – we did the possible, not the best.

Danna MacKenzie noted key pieces of the Minnesota broadband model – a model that at least 18 other states have looked at:

  • The broadband TF
  • Getting state speed goals in statute
  • The state surplus made it easier to get funding.
  • Establishment of the Office of Broadband Development – in economic development agency was helpful too
  • State mapping
  • Grants are helpful to encourage partnerships

An interesting recipe that other states want to follow. But more importantly in a year when the Task Force is scheduled to sunset and the funding wasn’t allocated – I think this could be a goal list for Minnesota. If we lose pieces of this roadmap, we may lose ground in being a national broadband leader.

Also I’m going to ask for a kind eye when you read the following more complete notes. After I left the meeting, we started the family drive to pick up a kid in Winnipeg. And we’re still on that drive. BUT I wanted to get these notes to people while it was still news.

Bill Esbeck – There is a digital divide for areas that are served by Price Cap Carriers – the rural, rural divide. Bigger issue in areas with low population and low population density.

CAF 2 is designed to target rural broadband buildout. In MN $510 million goes to 4 companies to buildout. We are more than halfway through that 6 year program.

A-CAM is set up for smaller providers. USF offers legacy support to providers. It’s important that these are fully funded by FCC to ensure viability, affordability of broadband.

Steve Fenske – MN Association of Townships
Townships are places between place on the map. The most rural areas. They have been left out of broadband coverage. The OBD maps show us that these areas are uncovered.
There are rural cities and the places outside – we are those places.
Broadband is now as important to use as transportation.
The other problem we have – everyone wants to do something but there’s a technology paralysis. People (esp policymakers) worry about what is best. We need to recognize that there isn’t one silver bullet. People talk up 5G but that won’t be a solution in rural areas. We need to do something. The OBD grants have helped. Partnering with providers has helped.
When I looked to move – I looked for broadband service and I’m not alone.

QUESTION: Is 10/1 access adequate?
Ive heard it’s OK for one person to do email. Maybe video streaming. BUT it’s not enough for a family. It’s not enough for 4K video. When a household has access everyone wants to use it.

When we do the build – why do 10/1 when it’s only going to need to be redone?

What is fast enough?
Netflix recommends 3 Mbps for standard, 5 Mbps for HD, 25 Mbps for ultra HD.

Why 10/1 goal when broadband goal is 25/3?
We don’t have funding available on national basis to focus on 25/3. But it’s a good first step. Two kids can’t watch video at the same time but you can telecommute.
10/1 is often advertised speed. That doesn’t means that’s what people get. My speeds slow down once kids get home from school.

What is total cost to get Wisconsin covered?
It depends but it seems like the FCC is paying for half.
Target for CAF 2 is 10/1 – 230,000 customers in Wisconsin some may have higher speeds because they are closer to the equipment and the speeds are reliant on distance.

QUESTION – Barbara – running for house – Townships don’t have emails. We tried to reach people for a Blandine application and not having email was a problem. We are moving to mail-in voting.
We spend a shocking amount on postage because our members don’t have email. Broadband needs to be available for folks to start to use it. (from Steve F)

QUESTION – Bruce Miller – (MN Farmers Union)
I still see people who talk about when the powerlines came over the hill. Those people are still waiting for broadband. We’ve hosted 16 listening sessions. After high cost of health care and some specific ag issues – broadband is a top 5 concern. We’re not talking access to Netflix here. Farmers want to run their business.
It is like rural electrification. We think the CAF 2 program is the most similar tool. Affordability is an issue – broadband providers will not charge more in Wisconsin.

QUESTION – Jake from Jaguar – What are the price cap carriers putting into the ground?
CL & Frontier is using DSL. AT&T is using fixed wireless

I know bigger providers can do more BUT from a person who understand technology – why would the government want to fund a technology that’s already outdated? One upload will not be enough to push the technology up?
It’s a matter of resources. We did the possible, not the best.

QUESTION – If you can connect remotely – that means jobs. Ask at FarmFest who needs broadband to use what implements. And the data is only valuable if you can upload it.

QUESTION – TJ from MN Grange – we know that broadband is needed to get people to move to your area.

QUESTION – The cities have EDAs; the counties don’t. So how do you map of economic develop opportunities?
Some folks can help – such as Blandin. Mark Erickson was one who did that in his area. Call them and see how they made it work.

Next panel:

  • Danna Mackenzie
    Kristi Westbrock
  • Brian Zelenak

Find out what all of the partners need
Teach people how to be partners
How may other states have statutory goals? Many don’t.

Kristi – Partnership with many cities and managing other networks
In Little Falls there was a company that needed better broadband. That spurred the need for action. We look at 10/1 broadband access as not acceptable if you want to run a business
We’re 200 miles from Lutsen, yet we are able to meet their needs. You don’t need a local provider – distance doesn’t matter as much with the network.

Brian – Overnight I got to go from electricity to broadband.
There are 43 electric cooperatives in MN.

We have 7 members per mile. (Investor network has about 32 customers per mile.) We were built because it wasn’t cost effective to bring electricity to rural areas. We’re owned by members. We’re not here to make money. We have 400 members on satellite or wireless – but we’re completing our first FTTH projects with CTC with funding from OBD. We will be serving up to 850 homes.
We got a 30 percent take rate out the door; not bad when 46 percent of our population is seasonal.
We didn’t want to reinvest the wheel – so we work with CTC.

Why did Mille Lacs Energy Coop get into broadband?

  • Quality of life for members
  • Econ development
  • Broadens revenue base
  • Makes it easier to run electric business

People move to areas for high speed internet access. Realtors tell us people only want to look at lake property that has broadband. Now think about a business looking to relocate!

QUESTION: From CoBank – There are 19 of us – we lend to telcos and other providers and parts of the network. You have to be careful how you finance. First – why isn’t there a service already. (Probably not economically viable.) Don’t want to overbuild. We are careful about that.

What we learned in broadband partnerships?

  • Partners need to make sure they find and support success for each partner.
  • Mutually beneficial is essential
  • Trust is important and keep it simple

QUESTION: Barbara – How did you decide your geographic boundaries?
The PUC maintains a map of electric service territory and there’s a challenge process if you want to go into another area. So we looked at that. We looked at density of location. We spec out service to everyone in geographic location. Some part were easier than others but we committed to it.
One community we focused on community emergency services needs. Another we focused on students who needed better access. There were family homes and farms.

QUESTION: Broadband is more than watching Neflix. At South Dakota Extension Service is working to help people make better use of broadband.

QUESTION: What can the federal government do to make it easier to expand broadband?
Easements are out there that allow for telecom equipment if it relates to electricity – but we can’t use it for providing service to others. It would be nice to get rid of that clause.

QUESTION: MN Farmers Union – are you looking at affordability?
OBD – we are aware of it. We pay attention. With our grants we include affordability as part of the grant requirement. The federal urban comparability rate study is the only tool available right now. And we give weight to applications that have low income option. Also we have the lifeline program – unfortunately it’s not clear what the future of that program will be.

Jim Beattie Bevcomm – in 1998 we deployed broadband plan – 256k it was $84/month. Now we offer 30Mbps for $64. The internet is essentially a utility. Broadband is a pretty good bargain today.

Jannine Miller – USDA
Sec Purdue has made broadband a priority.
Best Practices in MN are helping us with what works and what doesn’t.
Broadband is 21st modern infrastructure that the entire country deserves. It’s vital for communities to succeed.
Precision ag will transform how we feed Americans and people in other parts of the world.
We haven’t done a good job making the business case for broadband in rural areas. We have seen that once available, people will take broadband.

What can the federal government do?
Facilitate interstate commerce

The Omnibus Act of 2018 – gave people things to do
Checking efficacy of federal funds
Dep of Commerce is working on mapping & streamlining installations
Dep of transportation – grants for roadway projects and inform broadband of construction for rights of way access

USDA we have $800 million in funds for telecom in rural areas – mostly for broadband. We’re working on a more customer-friendly process.

We’re thankful for new funds ($600 million)  and solid framework with flexibility.
We hope we will be able to go into areas where the risk is high – maybe have flexibility that we had in time of ARRA. Overbuild is not allowed. Any are without access for 10/1 can receive funding.

If Netflix says 3 Mbps down is minimum required for video –then 3 Mbps up should be minimum too.

2 thoughts on “Broadband listening session: recipe for broadband success in MN and questioning why federal funding goes to DSL

    • The Blandin Foundation is releasing a report today or tomorrow that I think you’ll find interesting. I’m actually out of the office – but I will try to make sure you get notice. Very interesting!

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