Blandin Broadband Communities: Strut Your Stuff Gathering Notes

November 14, 2019
South Central Service Cooperative

Recently Bill Coleman and I had the pleasure of meeting up folks from three of our current Blandin Broadband Communities – Swift County, Rock County, and Cannon Falls –  to talk about their broadband projects.  To compare notes we used the Intelligent Community Framework: Broadband Infrastructure; Workforce; Innovation; Digital Equity; Marketing & Advertising; and Sustainability.

The Cannon Fall’s team told us, “We had projects that touched our whole community – all different points across our community.”  Swift and Rock County also reported on projects across multiple ICF pillars.

Here below is a summary of some of the broadband work currently underway in these communities. These efforts inspire me.

INFRASTRUCTURE/ACCESS

Cannon Falls

Water tower and water storage facility is now 20 years old and needs attention.  The city needs help understanding what’s up there. The city does have the money to hire someone to do this.

Families are paying too much for Internet in our area.  We have online learning days now – that saved our school district last year.  Some providers responded that “it’s too cold” for the Internet to work.

Rock County 

Hot spots 

The library has five portable hot-spots for check-out. Each hotspot can support 15 devices. “Incredibly popular.”  They check out for two weeks. We have had some problem with people who repeatedly want to use the equipment.  Folks paid the late fee instead of returning the equipment.  Late fee raised from $1/day to $25/day.

More hotspots?  We want to keep the hotspots after the grant runs out.  It’s $200/mo for the five of them.  We have demand for ten, but couldn’t support the subscription cost for that many. Also – now wifi available in many county parks and camp sites – could impact demand for the library’s hot spot?

Wifi on school buses 

Two transferable units are now installed and working well. They are used on activity buses as appropriate.  School will pay for these hotspots going forward.  $900/for two hotspots/yr.  These devices can support 50/60 students.

Wifi at Campgrounds 

In partnership with Alliance Communications, free public wifi has been installed at four campgrounds, including a state park and a ball field.  Delivering 100 MG symmetrical. Included 12 months of subscriptions – after that, each city has agreed to pay for ongoing costs.  Parks are allowed to suspend over the winter.  Also installed cameras for the City of Hills to help monitor their unstaffed camp ground.  Cities were very receptive to this project.  They will add a bit to their camping fees to cover ongoing costs.  There is a campground in Jasper, MN, county line goes through the town.  The campground is privately owned by the quarry.  Paperwork for the donation has never been recorded. Goal was to put one in publicly-held property – Jasper is a hold-up, because of the ownership question.

Swift County

We don’t have a champion for hotspot check-outs in our libraries.  Swift County is looking to bring wifi public access to city parks and county parks. Hearing these examples will help me.

Co working space had been a topic.  Looking at new options for an empty building in Benson for some departments – allowing the court house to be a “justice center.”

WORKFORCE

Swift County

Case IH; biggest employer in the county, worked with Ridgewater College to design and deliver a welding course, “Tooling U.”  Students got computers if they needed them.  Full practicum welding training.  16 fully passed the test in 5 weeks, now qualified to get a job as a welder. They had a waiting list. Pay $18-22 hour.  Case provided all the equipment, materials.  People had to agree to come to the classes and wear steel toe shoes.  ~$1000/person cost.  Students kept gloves/helmet.  Innovative program….. first we thought we’d train high school students. Next steps?   Would we do it again? Yes.  But it’s expensive.  We need grant funds for this.  Can DEED fund this for $20,000?  They tend to offer training for folks who already are employed.  Great instructor. That made a difference.  A lot of the success is thanks to great people involved.

Rock County

Community Ed led a project to host an Ag event in mid-August.  70 attendees; fewer than hoped. Good age range. Three speakers: Chip Florry, Ag marketer; a Luverne native who is an Ag precision lecturer; and speaker on security on the farms.  Local Ag groups were very involved.  Lots of vendors.  Alliance. SDSU; Extension. Hyper local presenters was an element of success.  Targeted to farmer/producer.  Banks helped to market.  Folks who attended said they found it very valuable.  No fee to attend.  Instead of 9 – noon, 7 to 10 with beer.  Beer instead of coffee.   Community Ed (Karen) would like to do this again and could take the lead on doing it next time.  Could add vendors – that would help the event be self-sufficient.  As an alternative format, disaggregate the content and offer it once/wk over coffee in a coffee shop?

INNOVATION

Cannon Falls

Business Education

Grow Cannon Falls has hosted chamber breakfasts on using social media and has created a “Discovery application.”  Helps companies do self-assessments of their tech needs/opportunities and then connect with marketing resources to create/improve on-line presence.  Chamber is a one-man show. Looking at how to help modernize the chamber’s connectivity.  Have the chamber be the hub for the community.

Online HS newspaper “The Lantern”

Interested teachers want to help students publish an on-line newspaper are now partnering with Anna Braataas, whom they met at the broadband conference.  About 30-40 students are contributing content.  Also exploring the idea of “relighting” the middle school’s “Candle” newspaper in an online version.

VR Head-sets for memory care residents 

Inspired by a presentation at the broadband conference, four VR head-sets have been purchased for two memory care facilities in Cannon Falls.  Facilities staff received three-hours of training on using the equipment; they are excited.  Headsets are fully loaded with content, plus they get a year of subscription use. $16/mo going forward (per set).  $1,000 per head set fully loaded plus subscription for a year.

Swift County

STEM Camp

KMS schools organized a full-day summer STEM day camp curriculum for 80 elementary grade students. Based on positive feed-back from students and families, Community Ed hopes to continue this next year, but funding is a challenge; the curriculum is expensive.  Maybe expand to Benson, if funding allows.  $5,000 of Blandin investment.

Digital Marketing/Consulting

Ten businesses have received digital marketing assessments and marketing consulting in two rounds of the program. Examples: general hardware store/grocery store dealing with a Dollar General coming to town; a local newspaper that doesn’t have a website; a realtor.  People love her services.  Used a competition format to identify served businesses. Marketing: mailed personalized letters with brochures to business owners.

County Fair App

Our goal: get more youth involved in 4H in our county.  Found someone in Extension in Iowa to help us create and set up an app to server our 4-Hers and their families. It cost us $500/for two years’ subscription.  The app has a spot to sign up, registration forms, calendar of (local) events, registering your fair projects, link to fair campground reservations, links to University site; to training opportunities; options to do push notifications.  Uploaded show books onto the app. First in the state to have an app like this. Helpful during the fair.   Served as a pilot for 4H for the university; U trying to develop something like this for 4H across the state. Was tried out during the fair.  The internet in Appleton is not great. It took four months to build the app.  Marketing through word of mouth, newsletter.  100 out of 300 youth have downloaded it after three months.

There is a need to improve connectivity at the fair: Possible action: county could reach out to Verizon, copy state representative.

DIGITAL INCLUSION

Rock County

Library programming

We’ve had lots of fun programming at the library, including scary story reading at a Haunted Halloween patch, and very successful Monthly Trivia nights at the local brewery. It was so much fun.  Monthly Trivia night at the brewery.  Last month: 96 attendees!  29 teams! 16 – 80 years old.  PBS came to film the event.  It’s very easy to do.  Winners get a gift card.  Trophy.  Use FB and Instagram to promote the event.  1200 followers on Instagram.

Blue Mound Towers

Two computers with internet access were installed in the Blue Mound Towers low-income housing complex in Luverne.  Many residents have mobility issues.  The building’s manager is on the broadband steering committee. When looking for PCs for People recipients, they got involved.  There is public wifi downtown… but it doesn’t reach this housing complex.    Some individual residents also got PCs from PCfP.

Generations Senior Center

The Center lost its partner at ACE (the new version of RSVP)…. and is now beginning a building project that is to include a computer lab with six computers.  So far, three have been set up in a temporary configuration.

Computer Education Videos 

Alliance Communications is producing educational videos to help with wifi problem-solving and posting them on their website and YouTube.  Five have been completed so far: two on equipment trouble-shooting; two on email – trouble testing email issues; one on top ten issues why your wifi isn’t working.  4700 views on one of the first videos.  Customers like the local content/local origin.  16 topics developed so far.  Purchased some equipment and editing software.  Otherwise, not a high cost activity.

Adobe primer editing software. SDN provided advice on camera equipment purchase.

PCs for People

Worked successfully with schools, including a school in Nobles county that serves families that live in Rock county.  Preschool families were solicited.  Distributed a total of 60 PCs in response to demand.

We staffed a presence at the Rock County Fair.  We learned that you need free stuff to get folks to come to your table.

Computer classes at Community Ed 

Classes offered: Tech for Seniors. Some of them were one-on-one classes, including in the library. Google and Google Sheets.  Cyber Security.  E-book. Marketed through community ed.  Community ed charges.  Library does not.  Library does not charge for classes offered at the library.

 

Cannon Falls 

PC for People

We worked with social workers in the schools to identify recipients, and also with retirement homes.  30 families received computers in a distribution event on Sept 22.  Possible partnership with Three Rivers, an affordable housing developer nonprofit.  Hope to give one to local food shelf, but she won’t take them.

 

Swift County

PC for People

The process of working with the schools was really hard.  One school didn’t care – they have laptops for their kids.  Other schools wouldn’t share data.  We managed to give away 30 of 50 computers.  We will work with HRA to continue to distribute the rest.  Want to add an instructional piece on community engagement (census, library access).

 

MARKETING/ADVOCACY

Cannon Falls

Branding:  Local foods has been identified as an economic development opportunity for Cannon Falls and the Use of Cannon Roots is gaining some momentum.

Swift County

Six out of eight communities in Swift County have created community websites.  Some Mayors have told their clerks not to be involved.  Half of communities had no website at all. Golden Shovel is the gateway/host. The committee has tried to promote the regional brand: “Enterprising by Nature.”  People don’t search by counties, they search by cities.  ADA compliance issues have required attention.

Rock County/Luverne 

We are working on social and media marketing optimization. Using a local business for this training.  Meeting with businesses one-on-one for up to six hours/org.  each organization had to pay $100.  Blandin paying for the rest. E-commerce is a big need.  Goal of serving 20 businesses.

Laurentian Chamber Strut Your Strut Tour: working on access building a taste for innovation

Yesterday we met with the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce to talk about their broadband projects. This group represents the cities of Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron, Virginia and surrounding northern Minnesota business communities. They came up with a scoring system to make sure that communities understood expectation of grant applications. We had some questions about some applications but the project funding has gone through.

To generate proposals, they visited with all communities and talked to them about the opportunity. We sent out a request form. We set a deadline and were pleased with responses. Here are some of the projects and project ideas:

  • There’s a charter school that’s working on a tech program. Many at risk students are there so we’re trying to work on improved broadband access for the students and families.
  • We want everyone to contribute to the feasibility study and we have raised most of it. We need only $1500 more. We have two communities that have yet to contribute.
  • We’re working on a Small Business Saturday app – that will be a tool that they can use beyond the launch day.
  • Right now the education-based grants are more for equipment and access than curriculum. They are hoping for more curriculum focused grants in the next round. This has opened the door to greater collaboration in several areas. A new school is opening in 3-5 years.
  • There might be a fun project working with the Humane Society
  • Working on public wifi access – there is limited to no public access now.
  • Could look at collaboration through centralizing management of multiple public access locations
  • Providing wifi in outdoor spaces is more difficult than you might think. You need someone to own it.
  • They are looking info emergency stations off the bike trails
  • There are some projects with the workforce centers. They are going to build a remote location for interviews. (So Delta or BCBS could interview candidates remotely.)
  • PCs for People – they will provide transportation to folks who need computers
  • Chamber will do tech updates – mostly improving the conference room with improved laptops, projector, phone system. They started with a tech audit.
  • Doing technology and digital marketing project so businesses can improve their sales. We hope to work with 15 businesses in the first round. They will promote through the Chamber.
  • We’re starting to look at a coworking space.
  • A TEDx event is still on the wish list

It’s important to make sure that the people who are charged with doing the project, really want to do it. And we know that once the projects hit the ground that will build a greater interest.

East Range Communities of Aurora, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes and Town of White: Strut your Stuff Tour

Yesterday we met with IRBC community East Range Communities including Aurora, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes and Town of White to talk about their broadband projects. There is one school district in the area. In 1984, the towns starting working together. The IRRB was involved with the collaboration. (In fact the website they have been working on as part of this project has been an opportunity to remember their collaborative history.)

Mobile Training Lab

Just getting going. They’ll be working together in use soon – once start of school rush dies down. The libraries will offer training – such as library resources, coding, finance training. The mobile lab, includes a project and other equipment that make it easier to do on site training.

Public WiFI

Includes access in Bikwabik (city center), and libraries in Hoyt Lakes and Aurora. This has also led to some work in the libraries in terms of choosing best options for wifi and library network and computer placement. The equipment has been ordered based on library needs. They plan to let the wifi bleed outside the walls. (Which can mean 24/7 access.)

Questions:

  • Does Frontier hold a trump card for extending wireless in the area? Not true.
  • Recent Council meeting – people thought no one needed to work on broadband here because Zeto is here. That’s not true. Also heard that we should be working on 5G – not fiber. We don’t think that’s right.
  • DO you think you’ll do more wifi networks? Yes, community center, campgrounds, school athletic facilities

Community Website: http://erjpb.com/

A website about who the East Range is and what’s going on in the area. It’s about 70 percent done. It used to be focused on broadband only – not it’s much broader and broadband is a small section.

They are looking for community-wide calendar events.

Business Retention and Expansion Visits

Currently surveying existing businesses. We’re talking about broadband and more – what are their business needs how invested are they in the area. They have visited with some of the larger employers. (It’s easier to schedule with the larger businesses.

We might look at working with Chambers and other aggregate businesses to at least sent a survey (not conversation) to gauge how they feel.

People like living in a small town, people like to ride an ATV in the town.

We are seeing that as a Credit Union we can’t offer services that other Chambers, in better served communities, can offer.

Businesses are running into problems with Frontier. It can be more than a week before they can schedule repairs – despite the fact that they get CAF II funding to make improvements.

PCs for People

  • 7 computers given theo libraries
  • 43 computers given to families

LTE Feasibility Study

Meeting monthly. Raised $45,000. We are equal opportunity in our approach to getting funding. We don’t want to leave anyone out.

We are getting excited both in learning about the demand in the area and the dark fiber that already exists.

It turns out in many ways the market survey is maybe even more important than detailed engineering because if/when you start to work with a broadband provider, they will want to do their own engineering.

Educating people about broadband can be difficult.

Intelligent Community Regional Workshops – notes

Pleased to share notes from the Intelligent Community Regional Workshops. They met to go over how to apply to become an Intelligent Community. Here’s more info on the ICF…

ICF publishes research based on the data provided by communities like yours around the world. The goal is to provide cities, towns and regions of all sizes with evidence-based guidance on achieving economic, social and cultural growth in the challenging digital age.

By completing this questionnaire, you will:

  • Receive a free Snapshot Report offering six insights into your community’s global competitiveness.
  • Be considered for one of ICF’s By the Numbers public rankings of Inteligent Communities.
  • Become eligible – with your permission – to compete in the Intelligent Community Awards.
  • Have the opportunity to purchase an Analytics Report that provides in-depth analysis of strengths and weaknesses as well as recommendations for change.

There is no cost to submit a questionnaire. If you wish to be considered for the 2020 Intelligent Community Awards, the deadline to submit a questionnaire is September 23, 2019. Click here to learn more and submit your questionnaire. Nominees for the Intelligent Community Awards are evaluated based on ICF’s six indicators that make up the ICF Method. Click here to learn more.

You can check out the questions you need to answer. And info from the presentation…

Nelson Communications gets NTCA award for digital outreach programming for seniors

Broadband Communities reports on Nelson Communications, a vendor that has worked with BBCs (Blandin Broadband Communities) in the past…

Telecommunications provider Nelson Communications Cooperative announced that they have been awarded the NTCA Smart Rural Community Collaboration Challenge Grant to connect remote seniors, using remote monitoring and socialization technology GrandCare Systems.

This grant is part of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association’s (NTCA) initiative to highlight and support efforts that make rural communities vibrant places to live and do business. The grant promotes broadband-enabled solutions for communities and supports collaborative efforts in economic development, education, energy, health care, and public safety.

Providing Broadband Enabled Elder Care Services

Nelson Communications Cooperative, located in Durand, Wisconsin, plans to use GrandCare technology to provide broadband-enabled elder care services to seniors in rural Wisconsin. GrandCare is a large touchscreen system designed to help seniors easily stay connected with their families. It also provides telehealth, activity monitoring, and many socialization features.

“Nelson Communications is proud of our longstanding commitment to our customers and the communities we serve,” said Christy Berger, general manager of Nelson Communications Cooperative (DBA Ntec). “We also recognize that our broadband is a powerful tool for positive change and improving quality of life. In partnership with GrandCare and WSTA, we hope to demonstrate the role broadband can play to connect lonely and socially isolated senior citizens.”

Nelson Communications will leverage their connectivity and GrandCare’s communication, remote health, and activity monitoring to help engage, connect and empower seniors living in rural and remote communities.

Tower area to join Blandin broadband initiative

The Timberjay reports

The Tower-Soudan area is the newest member of the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) on the Iron Range program. The program is an intensive, two-year partnership between rural Minnesota communities and the foundation.

The Tower Economic Development Association submitted the successful application to be one of the four new communities in this year’s program. They are hoping to attract other area communities to be part of the process, including surrounding townships, Bois Forte, area schools, medical providers and assisted living facilities, DNR offices, and the state park.

“Our area has been anxiously awaiting more technological growth for quite some time,” wrote Joan Broten, TEDA Vice-Chair. “To be able to entice more businesses, families and tourism with world-class internet access would give us the edge we need to grow and sustain our local economies.”

“We have some amazing, well-educated, hard-working, fun-loving individuals ready to help with promoting and developing our area,” she wrote. “The Iron Range BBC would provide us with the stepping stone we have needed to promote our area.”

Selected communities work through a proven process to define their technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use, and seek technical assistance and resources to meet their goals.

 

Welcoming the latest cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities – a peek at how the sausage is made

Last week the Blandin Broadband Team met up with the newest BBC cohort – Swift County, Cannon Falls and Rock County. I don’t always share notes from these meetings – but the crowd was just the right size for capturing parts of the day and sharing a little bit about what it’s like to be part of the BBC.

Communities apply to the BBC program. Once in, they commit to work on broadband adoption for 18 months. Broadband coach (and economic developer) Bill Coleman walks them through visioning sessions, choosing priorities, building partnerships. They create a plan for the future and then are invited to submit proposals to the Blandin Foundation. As a BBC community, they will generally get $75,000 for these projects. What I think it awesome is that they get a ton done with many relatively small grants.

Last week we got started. Each member of the cohort talked about what success would look like to them…

Then they got a presentation from Bill (and me – on digital inclusion) …

The also heard from Bernadine Joselyn on the high level hopes and Mary Magnuson on the nitty gritty of expectations. We were also joined by Sam Drong of PCs for People. Each community gets 50 refurbished computers to distribute to the community. Some heartwarming stories come from those computer distribution parties!

Here’s a little clip of some of the group work Each community worked to consider their strengths and weakness in terms of the Intelligent Community Framework.

So now they are off. Next step – a series of meetings with Bill and the planning begins.