In a letter sent today from Blandin Foundation President Kathy Annette, a set of insights on rural Minnesota’s broadband needs, developed by the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board, were offered as a resource to candidates running for office…
On behalf of Blandin Foundation I am writing to thank you for undertaking the hard work of running for office and to call attention to an issue critical to the vitality of the community you seek to serve: broadband.
Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural Minnesota communities by investing in community leaders and working with partners to expand opportunity for all residents. It is one of only a handful of foundations in the U.S. focused exclusively on rural communities and the largest rural-based private foundation in Minnesota.
In 75 years working with rural leaders, we’ve learned that thriving communities are built on hard work. On the hard work of leadership, of reaching across differences to build lasting connections and of listening.
We’ve listened to leaders across rural Minnesota who say — broadband access is necessary for our communities to survive and thrive.
We agree and that’s why since 2003 Blandin Foundation has partnered with countless communities to get the affordable broadband access they need and the skills to use it. We offer technical and financial resources to support community leaders as they tap the power of broadband to create resilient, connected futures.
To guide our work, we formed a statewide advisory group – the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board – made up of telecommunications providers, community economic developers, elected officials and technology experts. In 2005 the Strategy Board adopted a set of principles for decision-makers. These principles, endorsed by the Foundation, offer a guidepost for navigating complex technology policy challenges while keeping the public good at the center of public discourse.
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available to everyone in Minnesota, including businesses, institutions, and individuals. While ultimately all Minnesotans will need this service, this goal will necessarily be achieved in stages.
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to provide symmetric speeds and facilitate source-to-source communication. Download speeds support consumption; upload speeds support economic development and wealth creation.
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available at rates people can afford. It also needs to be affordable to build. Where the market does not reward private investment, the public sector must step up.
Competition among service providers should be encouraged. Competition increases customer choice and promotes innovation.
We must achieve world-class state-of-the-art service based on global standards. We cannot afford just to be better than our neighboring states.
The deployment and use of ultra high-speed broadband is a challenging goal that can benefit from public and private entities working together.
Ultra high-speed broadband policy should be promoted regardless of the technology platform that delivers it. The best technology for delivering ultra high-speed broadband may not have even been invented yet.
Regardless of the technology used for ultra high-speed delivery, all systems must seamlessly interoperate with all other technologies.
The 2005 work of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board was prescient, as has been the work of the various state broadband task forces created and supported by Governors Pawlenty and Dayton. Recent task forces have upgraded the state broadband goals and supported the creation and funding of the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program. This program has directly funded deployment of robust broadband in many areas of greater Minnesota. Still there is much more to do and the consequences of inaction will be harsh for those left behind.
In service to our mission of being a trusted partner and advocate for healthy rural Minnesota communities, Blandin Foundation is aware of broadband’s critical role in their vitality. And as you prepare to serve, working hard to understand the challenges facing your constituents, the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board offers as a resource a set of insights related to Minnesota’s broadband goals.
This knowledge is informed by the Foundation’s 15 years’ experience working on broadband access and adoption in communities across the state and by the personal knowledge and expertise of board members, individually and collectively. As a whole, they represent the perspectives of rural people, rather than of any service provider.
As the election season approaches, we are reaching out to all candidates running for public office this fall to share these recommendations geared at creating and supporting the most effective broadband deployment and technology adoption programs possible
- Continue the Governor’s Broadband Task Force
The Task Force provides an opportunity for community members, advocates, providers, consumers, and others to have input and make recommendations on broadband policy in Minnesota. It recommended to the legislature our state’s current broadband goals and reports annually on progress, including in digital literacy, cyber security, innovation and broadband-enabled economic development.
To ensure that the Task Force fulfills its public mission, the next Governor should conduct a membership and representation review. The Strategy Board believes that, in its current form, those within the broadband industry (service providers, vendors and trade associations) have outsized representation compared to elected officials, consumers, business owners, agriculture, and people living in unserved and underserved areas.
- Optimize the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund
Significant portions of Minnesota, especially rural areas, still lack adequate broadband services. Recognizing that rural broadband subsidies are required for successful deployments that meet state goals, we recommend that appropriate tools and programs be created by the legislature. The existing grant program gives providers the financial incentives they need to extend and improve networks in the hardest places to reach in Minnesota. The total grant amount requested by all applicants far exceeds the money allocated to the fund to date, demonstrating strong continued interest in the program. The lack of 2018 funding was a serious blow to those preparing to seek funds for 2019 construction.
Project partners have expressed concern with the single-year funding model currently used by the Legislature. The application timeframe to complete the complex task of blending engineering, finance, partnership agreements, and community support into a competitive application is not conducive for larger, long-term projects. Stable, biennial funding – incorporated into DEED’s base funding – would give confidence to providers and communities alike to continue to plan and build the partnerships required to prepare effective project proposals. Including the Grant Program as part of the base budget in FY 2020/21 is of highest priority.
Public leaders committed to maximizing the public benefit from the fund should be aware of opportunities to improve some details of its administration. For example, the $5 million grant cap per project hinder projects of larger geographic scale, whole counties or multi-county network builds. Scale matters when building infrastructure. In some cases, larger projects allow for more cost-efficient network planning and construction. They also can offer ubiquitous coverage across rural counties.
Finally, the Fund’s challenge process remains an obstacle to building the best network possible to communities. Under the current rules the challenge process is overprotective of incumbent provider interests – the company already serving the area where the project is proposed – and discourages non-incumbent providers from participating. Incumbents are not required to install the same or better service as proposed by the non-incumbent applicant; rather the process allows the incumbent challenger to prevail as long as they commit to improve service ‒ not to 2026 speed goals ‒ but just enough to prevent a grant, to the long-term detriment of the community.
- Continue the Office of Broadband Development
The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is testimony to the fact that improving broadband networks and services across the state is a shared, non-partisan priority for all Minnesotans. The OBD provides a critical link between communities and providers and administers the Broadband Fund while documenting successful infrastructure project design and management. The Strategy Board believes the Office also should be resourced to promote the adoption and use of broadband, including broadband-based economic development, so that the highest possible value is gained from broadband infrastructure investments.
- Address Digital Equity
A growing digital divide threatens Minnesota’s future prosperity. Every Minnesotan, regardless of their ZIP code, should have a device, a network connection and the skills to meet their online needs, including access to health care and education resources, employment and training and tele-work opportunities. Access denied is opportunity denied. The Office of Broadband Development should be funded to support digital equity efforts statewide.
- Commitment to State Speed Goals Using Scalable Technology
State policies should prioritize strategies that lead to achieving the state’s 2026 speed goals of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. The Strategy Board strongly endorses the current requirement that projects funded with state dollars must meet scalability requirements. State investment in broadband should prepare the state for the future. At a minimum, this requires funding projects that meet the current scalability standards.
- Continue Mapping While Reviewing Processes
Accurate broadband maps are essential for sound investment and development policy and for addressing the needs of Minnesota’s un- and underserved communities. The Office of Broadband Development should continue to have resources to map Minnesota’s broadband networks. Advancements in technology, such as fixed wireless services, should be carefully and accurately accounted for in mapping of unserved and underserved. Broadband service providers should be encouraged to cooperate responsibly with OBD in this process.
- Evaluate New Broadband Solutions
Policy leaders should review and highlight opportunities for creative technology, financing and partnership solutions to meeting the state’s broadband goals. Removing statutory and administrative policy barriers is a good place to start.
- Ensure Rural Business Connectivity
For rural business development, broadband connections must be redundant, reliable and symmetrical. All communities need to be able to support tech-dependent businesses, whether in downtown areas or industrial parks.
- Support Rural Business Tech Transformation
Advanced broadband networks are necessary, but not sufficient to help emerging and established small and medium-size firms make effective use of connectivity. Quality tech support and strategic business planning and implementation resources are necessary for cost-efficient and effective technology adoption. In addition, rural schools, health care providers, governments and non-profits would benefit from similar tech support.
I hope you find these insights from the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board helpful as you delve into the broadband issue and begin to think about the broadband policies that you will support.
Strong rural communities need broadband access to thrive and its going to take leadership, investment and cooperation at all levels to make it happen.
Our Blandin broadband staff is available to connect you with people and knowledge should you like to explore any of these insights in greater detail; Bernadine Joselyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 327-8728. You will also find significant information about rural broadband and other perspectives in two places:
With appreciation for your public service, and on behalf of the rural Minnesota communities we serve,
Dr. Kathleen Annette, President & CEO
on behalf of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board
Joe Buttweiler, CTC – Consolidated Telecommunications Company
Stacy Cluff, Mille Lacs Energy
Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County HRA EDA
Steve Kelley, U of MN Humphrey School Public Affairs
Jon Linnell, North Region Health Alliance
Scott Marquardt, Southwest Initiative Foundation
Dan Pecarina, Hiawatha Broadband Communications
Rich Sve, Lake County Commissioner
Fred Underwood, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Madonna Yawakie, Turtle Island Communications