IEDC report on how economic developers are expanding broadband access

The IEDC has written a guidebook of sort to help economic developers promote better broadband. As they say…

In response to the market’s failure to provide universal, affordable, reliable access, public networks and publicly facilitated solutions continue to grow. Economic developers play important roles in planning and  implementing these solutions, which this paper shows in three main sections:

  • A broadband “crash course” – key things to know about how broadband works
  • An overview of different communities’ strategic approaches and technical solutions
  • Actions economic development organizations are taking to expand access

And…

Five in‐epth case studies are included showing how economic development organizations have played a  central role in improving broadband access in their communities. Those roles include:

  • Convening stakeholders,
  • Gathering data,
  • Engaging in strategic planning,
  • Helping evaluate solutions, and
  • Helping secure financing for solutions.

This is a great tool if you’re in a position where you have to sell the idea of broadband. If you’ve been doing this for a while, the story won’t be new but the stats are. Here are just a few:

  • In 2021, major corporations, including Ford in Michigan and Target in Minnesota, have said they are giving up significant office space because of their changing workplace practices.
  • 51% of respondents said their corporate clients are now considering moving their business operations
  • A joint study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon found that in Virginia alone, universal broadband would mean at least $2.24 billion increased annual sales, $1.29 billion annual value added, 9,415 added jobs, and $452.4 million in annual wages.

The report also, as indicated goes into the nuts and bolt of broadband, such as…

  • Why satellite access doesn’t substitute for fixed access
  • Why 5g isn’t the answer to better community access
  • The digital divide: Who doesn’t have internet and why?

They even draw a few examples from Minnesota, especially Chisago County…

Chisago County, Minn. Case highlights:

  • Solution involved collaboration with incumbent ISP
  • Public funding layered on private investment got higher-quality service
  • Help from a rural community foundation
  • Role of survey data and citizen involvement

Minnesota has a couple of advantages when it comes to expanding broadband service. One of those is a longstanding commitment by the state to the goal of universal broadband access for residents (at speeds of 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026). The other is the Blandin Foundation, which, as part of its vision to create healthy, inclusive rural communities in the state, has focused for years on helping expand broadband access.

In 2015, Chisago County, located roughly an hour north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, began its broadband efforts in earnest. The work was spearheaded by the Chisago County Housing & Redevelopment Authority – Economic Development Authority (HRA-EDA) and its executive director, Nancy Hoffman. (Hoffman previously worked on broadband access in another rural Minnesota county and also has served as chair of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition.)

Chisago County was accepted into the Blandin Broadband Communities program, an intensive, two-year process in which rural communities define their technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use, and access technical assistance and resources to meet their goals. Each community also has the opportunity to apply to the foundation for a $75,000 matching grant for locally developed projects.

Led by a local steering committee, in 2016, one of the first actions was to survey county residents about their current broadband access, whether they would subscribe to better service and for what they would use it (such surveys are useful both to determine demand and to use in grant applications). The results found that 94 percent of residents would subscribe to better broadband service for uses that included improved quality of life, education, telecommuting and starting a business. Seventy-six percent of Chisago County working residents commute out of the county, so part of the goal from the HRA-EDA’s perspective was to give people the opportunity to work, shop and stay closer to home by telecommuting or starting their own business. The study also showed that numerous homebased businesses paid too much for poor service or had to find other locations to upload or download files.

Once the county had data on unserved/underserved areas and potential demand for improved service, the technical solution became the question. The steering committee began by talking to incumbent providers (of which there were seven in the county, including telephone and cable providers CenturyLink and Frontier).

They found a willing partner in CenturyLink, which had received federal Connect America Funds (CAF II) that it planned to use to upgrade service in half of Sunrise Township using DSL technology; CAF II speed requirements are just 10/1 Mbp. (Frontier served the other half of the town and declined to participate). To secure faster, more reliable service, the township proposed to invest local funding, combined with a grant from the state’s Border to Border Broadband grant program, to prompt CenturyLink to build a fiber-to-the-home network that met (at minimum) the state speed goals of 100/20 Mbps.

A petition signed by 50 percent of the residents in favor of the project helped spur Sunrise Township to action. The township raised the funds by bonding through a subordinated service district, assessed by parcel, rather than property value. After seeing Sunrise Township’s success, other communities began pursuing similar strategies to improve service. Fish Lake Township, also in Chisago County, has since completed a project in which it raised funds for the local share by issuing tax abatement bonds (property owners are assessed by value). Nessel Township followed suit the next year with the same financing model. The cost savings by having high-speed Internet much outweighed the additional cost the residents pay, which is about $100 a year or $10 a month.

Takeaways:

  • Get the right people together. Don’t worry about titles. Bring in people who get things done.
  • Cultivate personal passions. Harness the energy of where the group wants to go. Don’t fight it.
  • Show people they’re not alone. Work on building relationships of mutual trust. Relationships will carry the work forward.
  • Show successes early and often. Break down the project into bite-size pieces that the community can grab hold of and achieve. Celebrate the successes to re-energize before starting on the next piece. Sources: Interview with Nancy Hoffman; Blandin Broadband Communities Program, Blandin Foundation

And a few other mentions…

  • [Federal covid-19 relief funds] Many states and communities used CARES Act funds for infrastructure projects (which had to be used by the end of 2020, limiting flexibility). Itasca County, Minnesota, committed $293,000 in CARES funds to complete four projects in the county. The city of Chesapeake, Va., used it to fast-track the engineering design for a 170-mile fiber backbone that will connect over 200 sites and lay a foundation for gigabit broadband.
  • The Cargill Foundation, Blandin Foundation, Bush Foundation, and numerous other foundations and businesses based in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region donated $2.35 million in grants to the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity (MBCRE) and Partnership for a ConnectedMN to address digital inequities that affect many Minnesota students. Grants fund the distribution of laptops, fiber internet installation, training for digital literacy, and more

 

This entry was posted in Building Broadband Tools, MN, Research by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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