MN Broadband Task Force March meeting note: asking leg for funding in light of coronavirus?

The MN Broadband Task Force met via Webex today. They recorded the meeting and I suspect it will be made available – but for now we have my very MacGuyver-esque version. The sounds was hard to hear at times, I’m sure that’s reflected in the video.

The subgroups reported on their initial discussion. (Notes below.) At the end of the meeting (last 30 minutes or so) the Task Force Chair (Teddy) proposed some pretty aggressive recommendations for the Legislature to increase funding (to $76 million) and remove other barriers to encourage faster deployment of broadband.

The Task Force members had more conservative responses to the suggestion and it sounds likely that they will ask for funding but perhaps not the other items. (Notes below.)

Also – I took full notes…

[Please forgive typos – I wanted to get the notes up fast and get my kid’s books from school before they close.]

Can we do more work together, less in small group?
The smaller groups may vet speakers for large group and we will get updates from small groups at monthly meeting.

Subgroup 1: Minnesota Model—Work plan, challenges, deliverables (Chair: Shannon Heim; Members: Steve Fenske, Brian Krambeer, Theresa Sunde, Paul Weirtz

What is the MN Model? Partnership – Office of Broadband Development, Provides and Communities – working in collaboration, not competition

We should better understand what the Office of Broadband Development does.

We need to know what small groups aren’t doing.

Agenda items:

  • Challenge process
    • Mediacom was told that they couldn’t go into an area because incumbent was going to upgrade. They haven’t upgraded in two years. Maybe we need a challenge audit
  • Speed goals are important but don’t fit here.
  • Mapping update
    • Timing is important
    • NEO Partners is worth a look
  • OBD challenges
  • Broadband and COVID-19

COMMENT:
Another part of the MN Model is collaboration

Subgroup 2: Barriers and Technology—Work plan, challenges, deliverables (Co-Chairs: Marc Johnson, Dave Wolf; Members: Nolan Cauthen, Steve Giorgi, Jim Weikum)

The pandemic might be an opportunity to learn. We sent surveys to students as soon as we heard schools were closed. We had 10-12 percent of students with no access. Another 10 percent seems unlikely to do well with online learning.

This might be a chance to do some statewide surveying on need but also impact/success of online education in process.

Goal topics:

  • We need to look at speed goals.
    • 25/3 is already outdated or will be soon
    • Need to start with 100/20
  • Look at what technologies can meet speed goals
  • Define barriers
    • Geography
    • Funding
    • Legislative resistance to changing speed goals
  • Look at lessons learned from pandemic.

Things to bring to the large group:

  • Investigate technologies

Subgroup 3: Economic Development and Digital Inclusion—Work plan, challenges, deliverables (Chair: Bernadine Joselyn; Members: Dale Cook and Micah Myers)

Problems:

  • Not everyone has access
  • Greater appreciation for role of broadband

Goals:

  • Review past Task Force reports
  • Develop with new recommendations
  • ID stories of broadband impact
  • ID speakers on the topics – esp folks who have received past grants
  • Contribute to discussion of speed goals

UPDATE

We did send a letter to the Governor. But we were told that the focus now is all COVID. But we have been hearing a lot of issues with inadequate broadband in rural areas for rural health.

Broadband is a critical infrastructure in time of COVID-19. We need access to telehealth and keep sick people at home as long as possible, And with online triage we could recommend specific hospitals. Now is a good time to remind Governor of the need.

We are drafting a recommendation for the Governor or Legislature. We are going to request funding beyond the $30M requested earlier.
We are going to up the request to $76M – based on numbers from the 2018 Task Force report. We might increase State match o 75 percent in some areas. ANd we want to remove  $5 Million cap on State grant.

MN Dep of Ag has has a revolving loan fund (thru Rural Finance Authority). We could create a similar program for broadband.

We want to explore giving DEED Commissioner to work with other State Department and Fed to fast-track permitting process.

COMMENTS:

PW: These are major change recommendations. Even if we ask for accelerated funds – it will still be 9 months before we get shovel in the ground. This seems like too much. We have $40M; we have a request for $30M but this request seems tone deaf. There’s no recognition for private investment.

SH: I agree. These are interesting ideas for debate. This is a complete rewrite of the MN Model. We need to make sure the numbers are right. I have questions about the math from the 2018 report based on expectation of funding being spent on CAPEX vs OPEX. We don’t know if there are enough people to do the work now?

SF: If we could get it in writing it might be easier to take in the details.

BJ: We could make the case the investment in broadband is part of a COVID-19 response. RIght now a lot of funding is going into short term solutions; broadband is more long term. Maybe we can just approach the Governor with the $30 million request as part of the COVID-19 response.

BK: We need to look closer. We need to look at environmental and permitting barriers of deploying fiber.

MJ: I agree with others. Let’s focus on funding for now.

TS: I agree it sounds like a lot now.

We will work on a new approach based on comments from Task Force members.

PUBLIC COMMENT:

Brent Christensen: MN Telecom Alliance

People are asking about network in a busier world. It really hasn’t changed much for us. Traffic is the same, hours are shfting. There’s a huge increase in streaming and that is mostly off the network with caching.

We are working on making sure that our staff is listed as critical workers so that we can get people connected.

Half of our members have signed on to the Keep America Connected pledge.

Half of our members have programs for low income customers; the other half are working directly with the schools.  Pretty much everyone is working on this – not all is advertised.

We are seeing a huge spike in new orders. Those people are not asking for low income options. So it turns out that cost may not have been the biggest barrier for people.

We need to determine the difference between short and long term solutions!

Nathan Zacharias: MN Broadband Coalition

COVID-19 is proving that broadband is an important utility to keep people working, learning and staying healthy. But only for those who have it.

We are seeking more funds. We are asking for an annual appropriation of $30 million as we have been. We have bipartisan agreement and that’s helpful as the Legislature is looking for bipartisan bills.

We want the Task Force to join us in asking the Governor for broadband funding.

Anna Boroff: MN Cable Association

All MN cable companies have signed the Keeping American Connected pledge. They are helping with wifi spots.

We are working to serve low income customers.

The broadband network is working well but keeping an eye on it. Again the traffic is similar but peak times are shifting.

Next meeting April 29 (tentative) – planning face to face but waiting to see what happens. Please continue the subgroup meetings

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