What can we learn from 2020 MN Broadband County Rankings

Each year we take a look at Minnesota county rankings and create profiles to help understand which communities are having success and what aspects of that success might help set policy or be replicable in other communities. The Office of Broadband Development track percentage of each county with access to broadband as defined by three speeds 25 Mbps down and 3 up, 100 Mbps down and 20 up and symmetrical Gig. This report looks at access to 100/20, which is the state speed goal for 2026.

The latest round, we have the advantage of getting updated rankings just a few months after publishing the profiles so we are better able to ascribe cause and effect.

Lessons from Top Ranking Counties

County percent Ranking last year ranking
Rock 99.93 1 1
Lac qui Parle (LqP) 99.83 2 3
Ramsey 99.74 3 2
Clearwater 99.59 4 4
Beltrami 99.24 5 6
Lincoln 99.03 6 7
Hennepin 98.51 7 8
Pennington 98.19 8 10
Big Stone 98.05 9 9
Swift 97.45 10 5

There are lessons we learn from the top-ranking counties. But the lessons from the top have more to do with being dealt a good poker hand than how to play with a bad hand. (And in some ways, as we’ll see, the bottom ranking counties confirm that being dealt a good hand is an undeniable benefit.)

A provider who is engaged in providing top ranking services is a gift to a community. Of the top ten counties, at least six are served by cooperatives, two are metro-based counties and two are served by local providers. The metro counties have the advantage of being profitable to serve so it’s an easy call to invest in upgrades. Cooperatives and local providers tend to be invested in the local community as well as their profit margin; they know that if broadband helps local businesses those local businesses can remain loyal customers and perhaps upgrade their service tier. Cooperatives have the advantage of stated priority to serve their members and slower expectations for return on investment. Often we’ll hear a cooperative plan for a 10+ year return on investment cycle.

That doesn’t mean that these communities haven’t worked hard to get better broadband. Several counties (Rock, LqP, Big Stone and Swift) have worked with providers to get Minnesota Border to Border grants. That help has included making a financial investment as well as help with writing grants and making the case that broadband is a necessary investment to residents and decision makers. Lincoln County worked on a feasibility study and used it to work with their local cooperative. Being a engaged partner can make a county  more attractive but only if the provider is willing to partner.

Lessons from Top Ranking Counties

County percent Ranking last year ranking
Murray 54.37 78 77
Aitkin 52.77 79 78
Carlton 52.04 80 79
Traverse 50.97 81 80
Isanti 50.43 82 81
Todd 48.38 83 82
Yellow Medicine 48.07 84 83
Redwood 45.21 85 85
Pine 39.72 86 86
Kanabec 25.81 87 87

There are also lessons to be learned by looking at the bottom ranked counties. There are assumptions you might make – do they have lower population density, are these poorer counties or are they not interested in broadband. Two of the counties are listed in counties with lowest population density; but so is one of the best served counties. Many of these counties are listed as having lowest median income but again so are some of the best-served counties. Another assumption is that these counties have not been interested or engaged in getting better broadband in their communities but actually all but one of them have worked with the Blandin Foundation on expanding broadband access and/or use in their counties. Many have worked for years on getting better broadband.

Four of the counties at the bottom of the list are primarily served by a national provider who has received federal funding to build broadband but only to speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 up; although they can build to faster speeds. The difficulty is that this prevents other providers from wanting to go into the area. It especially make it difficult to pursue a Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grants; they are set up so that incumbent providers can challenge an application in their area if they serve the area or plan to serve it.

(Potential sidebar?)
Federal funding has the potential to open some doors although it also has the potential to make it worse. Unprecedented amounts of funding will be going into deploy better broadband in the next few years. How they dole out funding and speed requirements will impact the success.

Lessons from the Most Improved Counties

Twenty-nine counties improved their ranking in the last year. Most bumped up a spot or two but a few made significant changes.

County percent Ranking last year ranking delta
McLeod 77.65 49 74 25
Brown 83.27 34 50 16
Houston 83.16 36 51 15
Faribault 65.51 72 84 8
Meeker 70.73 64 72 8

Four of the five most improved counties were awarded grants in 2021; that includes McLeod County, Brown, Faribault and Meeker. Houston got a fairly sizable grant ($2.8 million) in 2019. It seems likely that improvement can be attributed to the grants. It seems simplistic to say that but it’s also nice to see an impact in State funding.

McLeod and Houston Counties have not been focused on improving broadband. They had providers that were invested in getting grants in their area. In fact, both counties were beneficiaries of grants were multi-county in scope. The hope is that this ignites an interest in more engagement but there is no guarantee.

The other three counties have seen local engagement in broadband:

Lessons from Last Year’s Most Improved

A frustrating theme has emerged looking at the counties and broadband – actions and engagement from the county does not ensure broadband success. Nothing beats an invested provider. But in the last couple of years, there have been counties that have taken steps that are worth consideration and none more so than Lincoln County, the most improved county at last ranking. They went from 40 percent access to 100/20 to 99 percent – boosting them from 83 to 7 in a year! They have been active in trying to get better broadband for years and there was a renewed interest going back to 2016.

With help from the Blandin Foundation, Lincoln released a feasibility study in 2018, which indicated Fiber to the Premise would cost $8.5 million in eastern Lincoln County. The community was able to go to the provider (ITC) with the budget and maps.

The plan included an overbuild of some Frontier areas but did not include Tyler and Ivanhoe. ITC said they were able to invest $2.5 million and looked at CAF reverse auction. That left the community with a $6 million bill to make up the difference. They applied for a Minnesota Border to Border grant; they found a way to include Tyler and Ivanhoe, which brought the project to $10 million. Unfortunately, they did not get the funding.

The county decided to move ahead on their own. They were able to bond for $5 million. The area is fortunate that they have seen expansion in wind industry, which has led to production tax, which could be used for a special project such as broadband.

A few actions worth highlighting feasibility study, partnerships and agile resilience. Having a feasibility study provides a roadmap and makes it easier to approach potential provider partners as well as funders and to help policy and decision makers understand their options.

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