Blandin Foundation works with cohorts of communities to expand local broadband. The cohort works with a broadband coach (Bill Coleman) and has access to funding for small grants through a year and a half. After each cohort, Bernadine Joselyn does a deep dive analysis into the program using the Mountain of Accountability Framework.
Over the weekend, I’m going to pull out detailed summaries of each communities. I have been cataloging them in process, so the stories aren’t new but there’s great value in having the start to finish reports. Today, I’m going to inclusion the reflection segment, which actually is a look back on the last 15 years…
Reflections on Fifteen Years of Investment The occasion, in 2019, of the fifteenth-annual Blandin broadband conference, prompted staff to look back at the work through the lens of the objectives originally established for the program in 2003:
- Generate awareness among leaders about the need for action to improve broadband access and adoption.
- Increase rural business and residential use of broadband.
- Increase public and private investment in broadband.
Since 2003, Blandin has worked on broadband with 71 communities in 58 (out of 87) Minnesota counties in support of over 380 community projects.
Impacts on Internet Access: Of the 48 network feasibility studies Blandin has funded to date, 28 have been either fully built out, partially built, or are under imminent construction. Thirteen studies have been used to develop applications to the state’s broadband grant fund to build the network they envision; nine of these projects were funded in the most recent grant round in 2019. In addition, many of Blandin’s community partners have increased broadband access through adoption projects that make free public wifi available in public parks, laundromats, on school buses, and in local businesses and coffee shops. Impacts on Broadband Adoption: Since 2003, in collaboration with the computer refurbisher PCs for People, Blandin has resourced and supported our seventy-one community partners to distribute computers and subsidized internet connections to 2,300 income qualifying families. Blandin Broadband Communities also have launched a wide range of digital literacy training programs for residents and businesses.
Through this program, many communities have come to better appreciate the important role that libraries play in their civic and economic life. As a result, many have increased their financial support for libraries and their staffs, and for increased library hours.
Impacts of Broadband Use: Since adopting it in 2009 for the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities program, Blandin Foundation has used the Intelligent Community Framework with each of our forty-four partnering communities as a tool for helping them improve broadband access and adoption.
Using this framework, between 2004 – 2019 the fortyfour Blandin Broadband Communities designed and implemented a total of 409 projects that advance their technology goals.
Some projects – like this one sponsored by the Koochiching Technology Initiative – touch as many as four of the six elements of the Intelligent Community Framework: Broadband, Knowledge Workforce, Innovation, and Digital Equity:
“To increase broadband adoption and use by helping the International Falls Public Library expand its services in the community, including through improved Wi-Fi access at Smokey Bear Park, six LinkedIn Learning mobile internet subscriptions for checkout, expanded reference service to texting and LiveChat, and the addition of Adobe Creative Cloud software for use by patrons in the library’s new recording studio.”
For the purpose of the following analysis, staff has coded the 409 community broadband projects implemented since 2009 by up to two ICF model indicators. See Appendix B for the data table.
Summative Sorting of 409 Community Projects by ICF Element: Distribution and Intersectionality: To inform their broadband planning and investments, Blandin Broadband steering committees conduct an analysis of existing community assets using the ICF elements and are encouraged to create projects that address gaps and opportunities they identify.
The 281 community projects that fit a single ICF category (68.7% of the total 409 projects) are distributed fairly evenly across the five ICF elements, suggesting communities saw opportunities in each. Digital Inclusion had the most projects, at eighty-two, followed by Advocacy with sixty-seven projects. Knowledge Workers and Innovation tied for third place at fifty-six projects each. The
twenty broadband infrastructure projects not paired with Digital Inclusion or any other element are mostly feasibility studies and community surveys.
Communities designed projects that paired the ICF elements of Digital Inclusion and Innovation with each of the other four elements. Advocacy was paired with three other elements; Broadband was paired with two.
The sixty-seven projects that pair Digital Inclusion with Broadband Infrastructure represent over fifty percent of the paired projects – nearly thirteen percent of the total 409 projects – and give a sense of the scope of the impact of these investments. Funded projects brought free public wifi to public parks and trails (27); school buses (6 districts); public housing (3); libraries (6); and twenty-eight public community spaces, like township halls, community centers, and downtowns.
Impact on the Level of Public and Private Investment in Broadband Access and Use: Since beginning the broadband program in 2003, Blandin Foundation has invested over $4.4 million dollars of grant funding and leveraged $65 million in community match and $5.8 million in investments by funding partners – for a total of $16.7 million in direct investments.
The Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program, launched in part as a result of the efforts of Blandin and our partners in the work, has to date invested $109 million in state funds, matched with $146 million in private and local dollars, in the form of 140 broadband expansion projects across the state.
Of the 140 grants made by DEED, 52 or 37% of the awarded communities, received technical assistance from Blandin in gathering data, ensuring the project reflected community input, and gathering community support.