Blandin Community Broadband Program Update

From the Blandin Foundation

As the rural broadband landscape transforms, so too is our broadband programming. While Minnesota plans for federal investments in digital equity and adoption, we will be exploring the ways we can adapt to make sure rural community interests are centered and supported. As we grow into a new chapter of our work, we will be phasing out existing broadband programming and grantmaking. Our October gathering will also mark the final broadband conference hosted by Blandin Foundation.

Big changes are on the horizon for broadband in rural Minnesota and Blandin Foundation remains committed. Digital access and literacy are essential to rural opportunity and prosperity, and we want to make sure our work is evolving with the needs of your community.

We look forward to celebrating at the October conference our big broadband milestones and dreaming together of a digitally equitable future as we reflect, recharge and inspire new generations of champions.

Updated Matrix of Blandin Broadband Community Projects

Every year Blandin updates a list of Blandin-funded projects. It’s a fun list if you’re trying to brainstorm ideas for your own community. Here’s an abridged list:

  • Austin Area – Focus Groups with Traditionally Underrepresented Populations – Better understand the technology needs of diverse groups in the Austin Area by hosting a series of focus groups with underrepresented groups, including but not limited to senior citizens, non-English language speakers, and individuals with disabilities and their caregivers.
  • Austin Area –  Translation Software – Bridge the communication gap in the Austin Area through the use of translation software. Austin Public Schools currently serves families representing 45 home languages, and nearly 50% of students identify as a member of an ethnic minority. Translation assistance is needed throughout the community.
  • Austin Area – Public Access Privacy Rooms – Facilitate access to and use of technology through the creation of at least three “Zoom Rooms” strategically placed around the city that people can use to conduct private business including job interviews, parent-teacher meetings, medical appointments, etc.
  • Austin Area – Digital Literacy Training – Build digital literacy skills around the community by hosting digital literacy training classes. Targeted populations include the elderly, ESL families, and people wanting to improve their work skills. Austin Area Development Corporation of Austin Small Business Resiliency Through Technology Help small businesses innovate, update, and flourish by promoting the availability of Mower County’s micro-grant program. Participating small businesses will receive a technology assessment to pinpoint resiliency gaps in operations, marketing, or online presence, and have access to matching grants to address issues.
  • Austin Area – Community Tree Nursery – Promote the creative application of technology and address environmental justice by designing and constructing a gravel bed tree nursery to grow trees to augment loss associated with aging and dying trees throughout the community. The nursery will be used as an educational tool through videos, photos, and articles shared online.
  • Austin Area – Affordable Connectivity Program Promotion – Connect qualifying families to affordable internet service by promoting the Affordable Connectivity Program through various community engagement efforts, including assisting them with the application process.
  • Big Stone County – Smart Rooms – Expand technology access around the county by creating four Smart Rooms in four communities that residents can use for remote meetings, trainings, and connect with friends and family.
  • Big Stone County – Lakeside Apartment – Broadband Access Improve educational and career opportunities by ensuring low-income residents in public housing have access to computers and the internet. The project will expand Wi-Fi to the common areas of Lakeside Apartments for both building residents and residents of other public housing units in Ortonville.
  • Big Stone County – Assistance for Veterans – Increase access to educational opportunities and support services among veterans by offering technical literacy training.
  • Big Stone County – Training for Small Businesses and Organizations – Increase the sophistication of use of broadband to help small businesses and organizations, with a special emphasis on artists, sell and market their products and services.
  • Lincoln County – “At Home in Lincoln County” Website – Promote and market Lincoln County to residents and visitors by expanding the current countywide website to include a comprehensive overview of the county’s communities, resources for residents and visitors, business information, and events and activities.
  • Lincoln County – Ivanhoe Broadband Community Survey – Determine Ivanhoe residents’ satisfaction with current broadband offerings and gauge interest in a potential fiber optic network by conducting a community broadband survey.
  • Lincoln County – Public Wi-Fi – Access Increase access to the internet by providing public Wi-Fi access at parks and other spots where people gather around the county.
  • Lincoln County – Internet Safety Programs – Educate parents, students, and community members on internet safety by conducting training programs on Social Media Safety and Internet Fraud and Scams.
  • Mahnomen County – Conference Room Tech Upgrades – Improve the effectiveness and efficiency of community meetings by upgrading technology in the Mahnomen City Hall conference room, allowing them to host virtual meetings. The room will continue to be available to various community organizations.
  • Mahnomen County – Youth Asset Map – Build new technology knowledge and skills among youth in 4-6 th grades by conducting workshops where students will create 3-5 informational QR spots around Mahnomen educating visitors about attractions and traditions.
  • Mahnomen County – Food Shelf Computers and Inventory Software – Improve the efficiency of Helping Hands Food Shelf and improve access to food for community members by providing a computer and implementing a software program to track inventory and use, including allowing clients to pre-order food.
  • Mahnomen County – Library Technology – Upgrade Increase library-users’ access to technology through the purchase of a new machine capable of color printing, copying, scanning, and faxing.
  • Mahnomen County – Co-Working Services Launch – Provide support and services for entrepreneurs and small business owners by providing free access for two years to the co-working space for White Earth Nation tribal members and other qualifying Mahnomen County entrepreneurs.

Fed broadband funding lessons from 2010 help with funding today: Madison & Appleton MN finally getting fiber!

It feels like the before-times, out on the road talking to folks in rural Minnesota about broadband and more. Traveling with Mary Magnuson, we made a few stops this week, starting with the UMVRDC (Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission) to chat with Dawn Hegland and Kevin Ketelson.

UMVRDC supports Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in Western MN. Broadband-wise this list includes some of the best and worst served counties in Minnesota.

Communities need awareness and education

Dawn has been working with the Blandin Foundation since the early days of MIRC (2009); she knows her stuff. Yet, as I say some of their counties are well served and others aren’t. One reason is that some communities are willing to invest, and some have not been. It makes the case for continued need for awareness and education.

Communities like LqP were early into the game, getting ARRA funding back around 2010, when some communities were still asking what broadband was. Post pandemic few communities (or community leaders) need a definition for broadband but the ones who needed it before were at a serious disadvantage during the pandemic shut downs. Swaths of communities were left to try to work, study and stay healthy in communities with inadequate and unreliable Internet access. While just down the road, folks had fiber.

So, while generally people understand the need now (and it remains a top concern in the annual regional survey), people don’t understand the ins and outs of technology. People think “the government will take care of it” or don’t appreciate the difference between fiber and satellite. Decision makers are often consumers online (getting email or watching videos) not producers (uploading work files, homework videos or selling online). They think because they are happy with local connections that others will be as well. But that is often not the case, especially if they are trying to recruit new businesses or young families to the area.

Understanding the landscape helps

Understanding the technology is only half the battle for community leaders. Especially now, you need to understand the funding options because rural broadband is expensive and a lot of State and Federal money will be going to deploy broadband over the next few years. But the applications are onerous and it’s important to find the right fit to serve the whole community, which leads to a long broadband story in the area with a soon-to-be happy ending.

As I mentioned earlier, LqP was an early adopter. They got federal funding for FTTH more than 10 years ago … to most of the county. Unfortunately, Madison, the county seat, was not eligible for the upgrade because the maps showed that they were already “served.” In 2010, that meant they has access of speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 up. So for 10 years rural LqP has had fiber and the county seat has not. They have been actively looking for help to funding to support fiber deployment (because even the county seat in LqP is pretty rural) but had not been successful until now.

Last summer, UMVRDC helped Madison and Appleton apply for CARES funding from the state to build better broadband. (Appleton was in a similar position as Madison, but in Swift County.) The requirements and conditions of the grants were different than other opportunities and it turns out a good fit for both areas. There were awarded the money and Acira is working on Madison now and soon to be moving to Appleton. (Mary and I happened to run into folks from Acira in town too. They were excited to finish the jobs they started 10+ years ago!)

While I’m happy to share the good news of Madison and Appleton, I offer it also as a cautionary tale. Again, unprecedented funding is going into broadband in the next few years but most folks I’ve heard from feel that it won’t cover universal broadband and areas left unserved (or underserved) will have a difficult time catching up once the money is gone. That gets me back to the first point – communities need awareness and education.

Cloquet Broadband Committee recommends partnership with CTC

The Pine Journal reports

During a Cloquet City Council work session Tuesday, April 5, the Cloquet Broadband Committee provided an update to the council about the responses to its broadband survey and the next steps the committee will be taking.

Holly Hansen, the city’s community development director and a member of the broadband committee, said the county at large struggles with broadband issues.

After receiving survey responses and continuing to research solutions, the next steps for the committee include finding a partner to help plan and work with the city to develop a better broadband infrastructure.

After interviewing companies in the area, Hansen said the committee recommends moving forward with a possible partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company.

Lincoln County students learn about downsides of Internet and Social media

I’m thankful to the Tyler Tribute for letting me reprint their article on a recent meeting of students and lawyers about some tricky areas of internet and social media use by teens. I have done similar training in the past so I know how important it is. Often kids are given a very powerful tool with limited safety training, which can be dangerous. Lincoln County schools (with help from the Blandin Foundation) found a way to open dialogue…

Three schools gather at RTR for assembly on downside of the internet

Tuesday, March 22 the students in grades 5-8 from RTR Public school, along with Hendricks Middle School and Lake Benton Elementary, met in the RTR Performing Arts Center for an informative meeting about

the downside of the internet. The presentation was given by Joshua Heggem and Kristi Hastings of Pemberton Law Firm, located in Fergus Falls. The presentation was brought to the schools by the efforts of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.

Hastings has represented numerous school districts for many years and talked about social media, technology and mistakes that other kids have made on social media that in turn will hopefully be a good learning tool to

prevent kids making these mistakes themselves.

This presentation came about as a response to the amount of cases they were seeing coming in, “When we started this, it came about because we were seeing so many disciplinary things coming across our desks. Expulsions and other serious consequences; Three kids getting kicked out of sports they love playing because of mistakes they were making on social media,” Hastings told the group. They came up with this presentation with a desire to get ahead of the rise they were seeing in cases based around social media, bullying using social media, and technology use and the dangers it presents.

Statistically, 97% of all kids in grades 5-8 are using social media of some sort every day. “I’m a huge fan of social media myself, so you’re not going to hear that it’s bad or that you shouldn’t use it at all because there are so many positive things that come with social media—the ability to connect with people all over the world, communicate with family and friends—these are all positive things that prior generations didn’t have.”

Hastings went on, “We are just focusing on the downside of social media and unfortunately, as lawyers, we see a lot of it.” Joshua Heggem shared a story of how quickly things can happen when social media is involved. “An instance I had once; a group of seventh graders who had made a Snapchat group for their class—they made it with the intent of bullying one classmate.

During these hateful comments aimed at the student, someone said they were going to put a hit out on the classmate. Within hours there were sheriffs at the school interrogating kids for terroristic threats.” Heggem recanted to the kids, “Some kids were charged with crimes; kids were getting suspended. The kid who made the threat, I believe was expelled from school.” Heggem made it clear that expulsion comes with heavy consequences, “That means you can’t set foot on school grounds, you can’t play any sports, you can’t even go to a sporting event, you can’t go to the football field.” Along with all those who faced charges and school consequences, there were also kids that needed mental health services after the ordeal, including the child who had been the subject of the bullying. Even if the kid who said the threat never meant it, the words were still out there on social media and have to be taken seriously. Heggem made it clear to the kids that things can’t be taken back once said on social media no matter how safe or secure you think it is. Hastings touched on things that don’t happen on school grounds; for instance, a kid initiating a fight at the park across the street of the school as opposed to on school grounds. “These school rules follow you when you are at a school sponsored event, when you’re here on school grounds, but also when you do things that negatively impact other kids’ ability to come here and learn,” Hastings explained.

This brought them to the next topic, “We do have a state law here in Minnesota that prohibits bullying of your classmates; things that are intimidating, threatening, abusive or harmful,” Hastings touched on. “Any bullying

that you carry over online is treated the same way. So, for instance, if you push a kid into a locker, that is the equivalent of bullying online and will carry the same punishment.”

They brought up “group thought” which is the concept that someone comes up with an idea and the group just goes along with it. “It happens a lot in our school cultures and climates because kids have not fully developed. Often times, the ability to say no I’m not interested in that idea/activity,” Hastings explained. An example used was one of another small school in Oakes, North Dakota which gained national news recognition.

“They had a tradition there of making a straw man before the homecoming game every year. So they would make the straw man and then burn it in a bonfire and then play their game,” Hastings told the kids. “A couple of

years ago, someone in a group came up with an idea—let’s make a noose and hang the straw man. Then someone comes up with the idea to put a jersey on it. Well, they put the number of the only player that is a person of color for the other team on the jersey. Someone in the group took a video of it, probably shared it with their close friends and contacts and someone recognized it was quite racist and it made national headlines. What it does, is it makes the world look at your school and question who lives there, what are they teaching here,” Hastings further explained to the kids.

The presentation touched on many topics that kids today are coming in contact with more and more every day—things like sending/receiving nude photos being a technical form of child pornography which is punishable by law, sharing pictures of your friends as a joke from the locker room is a form of privacy invasion and punishable by law. All the topics were relevant and appropriate.

Another presentation was given for the high school grades 9-12, after the middle school was done as it is a topic of discussion worth having from middle school on.

Community Conversation in Chisago County with Ben Winchester

Last week I attended a great session in Lindstrom Minnesota (Chicago County) where Ben Winchester was keynote. Here’s the official description of the event …

MN rural sociologist Ben Winchester presents his “Rewriting the Rural Narrative” keynote speech at Chisago Lakes Performing Arts Center in Lindstrom, MN. Prefaced by Chisago Lakes Chamber Exec Director Katie Malchow and her description of local Blandin Foundation grant programs, Ben leads the audience through a fascinating dose of rural reality, unveiling all the media and anecdotal misinformation that gives rural Minnesota a bad rap. Speech followed by a panel discussion with 3 local newcomers and what it’s like to move out to the Chisago Lakes area. Video by Jack Doepke, Chisago Lakes Public TV.

[at the speaker’s request, this video may be taken down in 30 days – so late April 2022]

Ben is always an engaging speaker. He has more statistics than Carter’s got pills, he’s on the frontlines and he is able to make connections clear. His mission last week seemed to be to remind attendees that rural areas are not dying. As he said, how can rural areas be dying and yet, it’s so hard to find a house to buy in a small town?

The rural/urban/suburban population numbers get skewed because once a town grows too much – it slips into a new category. So the biggish small town suddenly becomes suburban or metro.

Rural folks have to help change the narrative that rural is dying. Recognize that your town isn’t in the middle or nowhere – especially with broadband – you’re suddenly in the middle of everywhere. On tactic is to think regionally, not hyper-locally. Your hometown may include you’re the towns of your home, school, work and hobbies.

Ben’s talk is inspiration and it’s fun to hear from the panel of transplants to Chisago County too.

Cloquet (MN) is asking residents to take broadband survey and speed test (Carlton County)

Pine Knot News reports…

Cloquet schools superintendent Michael Cary spoke about how important reliable and affordable high-speed internet is for today’s students. The Cloquet Broadband Committee is asking residents for a few minutes of their time to complete a survey about their internet service. Local business people and public officials gathered Wednesday morning to talk about the need for reliable high[1]speed internet in today’s world, and how the pandemic has exposed some of the deficits in the city of Cloquet

Here’s more info on the survey…

Thanks to the selection of the city of Cloquet as a Blandin Broadband community, the city has more resources now to evaluate needs and options to improve service within city limits. But they need more information from residents and businesses about their access to the internet: cost, reliability, speed and more. The information gained will help guide the city and community leaders on opportunities to explore ways to improve broadband services. That’s where the survey comes in. Through Jan. 31, the city is reopening its broadband survey at https://www.goctc.com/cloquet for individuals and businesses within the eastern Cloquet city limits. A map puts the borders of eastern Cloquet at Kinden and West St. Louis River roads to the north, Crosby Road to the east, Moorhead Road to the south and Pinewood Drive and the St. Louis River to the west. Scanlon is not included, nor is the Fond du Lac Reservation, which will be rolling out its broadband fiber to all residents within the FDL Reservation territory, including the western municipal city limits of Cloquet. Those without internet access can get assistance with completing the survey at the Cloquet Public Library. Anyone who completes the survey will be entered into a drawing to win an iPad. People can test upload speeds at this website: https://broadband.ramsmn.org/mn-rural-broadband-coallition%5B1%5Dinitiative.

OPPORTUNITY: In Cloquet MN, please take the broadband survey to help plan for better broadband (Carlton County)

Fox21 News reports

 A foundation is recognizing Cloquet as an area of rural Minnesota that could use some help boosting its access to broadband internet.

The Blandin Foundation offers $75,000 matching grants to help advance technology goals for communities that apply to be a part of the program, and Cloquet is one of the newest cities to receive funding from it.

Now, Cloquet is asking residents to fill out a survey so city leaders can better understand what the internet needs are in the area, so they can help more residents connect to broadband services.

Leaders say that these past two years have shown how reliant society is on internet access to be able to work or learn from home.

“We forget sometimes that there are people in our communities who don’t have that same access,” Dr. Michael Cary, the ISD 94 superintendent, said. “And it becomes extremely critical in situations where we have to deliver education or learning through that medium.”

Dr. Cary added that 25% of Cloquet students don’t have access to reliable high speed internet.

The survey runs until January 31st, and you’ll be entered to win an iPad if you take it.

BBC Cohort meeting – learning about what’s happening with broadband communities in Minnesota

Yesterday the Blandin Broadband Team met with incoming and outgoing Blandin Broadband Communities. The seasoned folks gave advice to the newbies, especially in how to make broadband planning possible in the pandemic world.

We also heard from each of the communities about some of their highlight projects for example, Ottertail spoke about their community smart room/zoom rooms and broadband availability mapping too, White Earth spoke about their elders initiative, Chisago Lakes talked about their community survey and broadband infrastructure work and the virtual manufacturing tours (for students looking at careers) and Le Sueur talked about their economic development summit and the Google Suite work.

Blandin takes a look at last two years with grantees such as White Earth Nation

Regularly the Blandin Foundation takes a look at the various communities they have been working with to promote, deploy and use better broadband. They use the Mountain of Accountability Framework as a tool to help learn from the past two years. The graphic to the right gives an overview of the pieces of the assessment.  You can check out the full report to find out how many YouTube subscribers the Blandin Broadband channel has or total amount of grants awarded. But my favorite part is checking in on each of the communities helped – and for sake of archive and brevity of post I’m going to share them each separately:

White Earth Nation is the largest reservation in Minnesota.
The broadband situation across the reservation is uneven.
While nearly 90% of residents have access to fixed, non-mobile broadband that meets the 2026 state speed goal of
100 MBPS download and 20 MBPS upload, there is a broad
swath across the middle of the reservation that is un- or
underserved (red in the figure to the left.) Cellular service is
also a concern across the reservation.
The Steering Team’s focus was increasing Wi-Fi access across the reservation and getting devices and internet connections to those who need it most, which they deemed to be families with students, and elders.
The team instituted an elder lending program to provide devices and mobile hotspot access to older residents on an as-needed basis, with recipients being allowed to check out the devices for several weeks at a time. Along with the device lending, digital navigation services are provided on topics such as telemedicine, online classes or meetings, and social engagement.
The lending program for students and families focuses primarily on internet hotspots rather than devices, since
younger people often have device access through schools or
cell phones. The hotspots allow students access for schoolwork. Families living in tribally owned and operated
housing units were given priority.
Public access projects include installing Wi-Fi hotspots in communities to provide safe and secure locations for
residents to access the internet and installing cell signal boosters in communities with poor cell service. They will also install televisions in White Earth Public Transit buses to improve communications across the reservation, including announcements, daily information, and marketing of community events.

Blandin takes a look at last two years with grantees such as Otter Tail County

Regularly the Blandin Foundation takes a look at the various communities they have been working with to promote, deploy and use better broadband. They use the Mountain of Accountability Framework as a tool to help learn from the past two years. The graphic to the right gives an overview of the pieces of the assessment.  You can check out the full report to find out how many YouTube subscribers the Blandin Broadband channel has or total amount of grants awarded. But my favorite part is checking in on each of the communities helped – and for sake of archive and brevity of post I’m going to share them each separately:

Erin Smith, Otter Tail County BBC team member and Director of the Viking Library System, had this to say about her BBC experience during a meeting with Foundation staff in April 2021:
“During this past year broadband and these tools are how people have stayed connected. It’s so imperative that everyone has that opportunity – [both] during the pandemic and going forward too. I just think there’s a lot of purpose and meaning to the work… it’s been a bright spot!”
Indeed, as the pandemic took hold in 2020, participants in the county’s visioning process identified as priorities getting broadband access to families and individuals without
(through subsidized services, public Wi-Fi), enhancements to help kids be successful in the distant-learning environment imposed due to COVID, and public education around why broadband is important to everyone in the county – for schools, healthcare, attracting and retaining businesses, and more.
The Otter Tail County team implemented a number of projects to redress equity issues that came to light due to the COVID pandemic. For example, the county distributed one hundred Tech Packs to residents impacted by the pandemic. The packs contained a laptop computer, wireless hotspot device with six months of prepaid internet service, and digital resources for jobseekers from CareerForce. This
project was identified through the BBC visioning process, but the County primarily used CARES funding to pay for it, extending the reach of the overall BBC effort. Of the tech-pack recipients, 54% reported not having internet access at home.
Two other projects were identified through the BBC program but funded by CARES. The first was Smart Rooms – six indoor public meeting spaces with audiovisual equipment for use for job interviews, virtual meetings, distance learning, and more. The rooms are located at four public libraries, the Battle Lake City Hall, and the City of Vergas Event Center. More spaces may be identified and funded with Blandin dollars.
New public Wi-Fi access was made available in four locations: Battle Lake Public School parking lots, Underwood School activity buses, Kirkbride Park in Fergus Falls, and downtown New York Milles. More locations are being explored.
Two projects implemented address knowledge workforce. The first was a Virtual Career Fair and additional STEAM offerings in summer childcare programs. In previous years Greater Fergus Falls and the School District hosted in-person career fair to introduce students to local career opportunities. Shifting the fair to a virtual format actually allowed them to expand to six businesses outside the Fergus Falls area and expanded marketing efforts county-wide. The STEAM element allowed Fergus Falls YMCA to expand coding education and other technology education offerings. Also, Perham Boys & Girls Club added coding robots to their programming, and they explored digital media and arts in other kids’ programming. Another project focused on improving business resilience through technology by offering technology audits to local small businesses, and then using what they learned to provide specialized learning opportunities for participating businesses.
The Otter Tail County team made good use of the fifty PCs for People computers provided by Blandin Foundation. They targeted senior citizens and families receiving human
services assistance. They purchased webcams to complement the computers and offered tech support and digital literacy resources.

Blandin takes a look at last two years with grantees such as Le Sueur

Regularly the Blandin Foundation takes a look at the various communities they have been working with to promote, deploy and use better broadband. They use the Mountain of Accountability Framework as a tool to help learn from the past two years. The graphic to the right gives an overview of the pieces of the assessment.  You can check out the full report to find out how many YouTube subscribers the Blandin Broadband channel has or total amount of grants awarded. But my favorite part is checking in on each of the communities helped – and for sake of archive and brevity of post I’m going to share them each separately:

Le Sueur County has been working with the Foundation on broadband for several years, a connection first sparked in 2018 at a regional broadband summit Blandin helped facilitate for Region 9 Economic Development Commission.
Blandin’s initial support to Le Sueur included grant funding for a Robust Network Feasibility Study and staffing support to move projects forward. An early result of the study was a 2019 DEED Border-to-Border grant for almost $2 million (matched 1:1 locally) to upgrade service to 417 households, 88 farms, 59 businesses, and four anchor institutions (all unserved) in rural areas around the communities of Montgomery, Heidelberg, and New Prague.
This work positioned county broadband champions for a successful BBC effort, focused mainly on communications, public access and training, and addressing broadband-enabled economic development opportunities. The Steering Committee has remained focused on their goal to increase broadband access/adoption/use by implementing projects designed to increase the technical capacity of residents through training and through better high-speed access through public hotspots, loaner devices and advocating more highspeed internet throughout the county.
Le Sueur County maximized the impact of their BBC resources by utilizing CARES funding to implement projects identified through the BBC process. The first project funded in part with the help of CARES dollars sought to improve access to technology throughout the county by increasing the number of public access sites and offering new training
opportunities, with an emphasis on Zoom and similar applications that support community connectivity.
Two other CARES-funded projects were communications focused. One amplified the work of the Le Sueur County Broadband Initiative (LCBI) through enhanced
communication and marketing, including improving access to county-wide calendars, and offering integrated community education classes. A fun component of this project was a Broadband booth at the 2020 Le Sueur County Fair. The booth’s materials, signage, survey, and volunteers generated much discussion and interest in broadband planning efforts around the county. Fair-goers noted and appreciated the brand-new free Wi-Fi on the
fairgrounds, which greatly enhanced their fair-going experience. The second communications-focused project was the purchase of Google Suites for Business for LCBI,
including training for all team members.
In an effort to explain how and why the county spent CARES Act dollars, the impacts of the investments — and assure residents that the County is committed to making
broadband available to all — the team created a video: Le Sueur County: the County that CARES about Broadband. The video premiered in October and so far has been shown at county board and department meetings. It will be posted on the county’s website and shown to townships. Additional segments with emergency services and human services
focuses will be available soon.
Another project addressed the lack of economic development at the county-level. LCBI, in partnership with Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund, hosted a community asset mapping workshop to identify opportunities
for collaboration, and spur innovative ideas across the county – not just in cities – on how to best utilize the unprecedented levels of federal funding expected in the coming months.
The meeting was timely and fruitful, involving over sixty people, including county and township officials, staff from cities across the county, regional intermediary agencies,
business leaders, and educators. Meetings between LCBI and city administrators and elected officials to discuss their capacity for economic development work followed. They
learned that only two cities in the county have full time staff dedicated to economic development. All supported the concept of the county stepping in to support their
economic development work. This culminated with a presentation to the Le Sueur County board in October with a recommendation to hire a county-wide economic development director. The board unanimously supported moving in this direction.
Another project to increase staff support for LCBI fizzled, through no fault of the team.
They had planned to welcome a Lead for Minnesota Fellow to work on broadband in partnership with Tri City School District, but the identified fellow dropped out of the
program. The team continues to work on alternatives.
Between CARES funding and the Fellow not working out, at the time of this writing Le Sueur County has around $50,000 Blandin funds left to allocate. The team is planning a “relaunch” event in December 2021 including a revamp of the steering committee due to changes in personnel in the schools and at the county, bringing in new voices. They anticipate communications continuing to be a major focus moving ahead. They anticipate completing their BBC work in 2022.

Side bar:
Impact of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is an FCC program designed to bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it. The Phase
I reverse auction ended on November 25, 2020 and winners committed to bring broadband to over five million homes and businesses in census blocks that were entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. The FCC is currently in the process of going through long-form applications and making final award decisions. Once formally awarded, winning providers have
six years to complete the projects.
One wireless provider won over three quarters of the over $400 million awarded to Minnesota in the auction phase. The FCC is still considering whether to approve their long-form application.
This has left large swaths of the state in a holding pattern, including Le Sueur County. LCBI team leader Barbara Dröher Kline has been a vocal advocate for communities affected by the uncertainty of the RDOF auction. She spoke with MinnPost in January 2021:
Barbara Dröher Kline, a broadband consultant working with Le Sueur County, said the county had applications rejected by the state for two broadband projects for
roughly 500 homes in areas that could potentially be served by LTD. Both are next to parts of the county where the county and other partners built fiber infrastructure with $547,000 from the federal stimulus CARES Act.
Dröher Kline said about two-thirds of eligible areas in Le Sueur County are now covered by LTD’s winning bids, which means they may get broadband, but it also
may take years. She suggested the state ask the feds to withdraw RDOF funding in areas where the state program can build infrastructure quickly. “It would have been a drop in the bucket (for LTD) and we’d have fiber in the ground this spring,” Droher Kline said.
As of November 2021, the final award decision has still not been made, and communities wait. Barbara laments, “If feels like we’re going backward.”

Lincoln County becomes a Blandin Broadband Community to continue broadband increase

The Marshall Independent reports…

Residents of Lincoln County have already done a lot of work to improve their Internet access. But there’s still plenty of work to do to catch up to present-day needs, said speakers at a virtual meeting this week.

It is true, the last county profiles indicted that they went from 40 percent access to broadband at 100 Mbps down and 20 up to 99 percent access! They are looking to do more with the broadband by becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC)…

This year, Lincoln County was named one of six new Blandin Broadband Communities. The Blandin Broadband Community (BBC) program is a two-year partnership between rural Minnesota communities and the Blandin Foundation. The communities chosen for the program work with the foundation to develop local broadband projects. Lincoln County will need to allocate and spend up to $100,000 in funding.

“We’re so happy to have been chosen by Blandin,” Robinson said. “They’ve been a partner with Lincoln County for quite some time in our broadband goals.”

Over the past few years, fiber networks have been expanded in Lincoln County, and the city of Ivanhoe is now the only part of the county without fiber optic cable running to homes and businesses, Robinson said.

At this point, Lincoln County has done a good job of getting broadband, but there are still gaps in whether people can access and afford it, Robinson said.

“I do think we need to spend some time researching why they’re being left behind,” he said.

I suspect we’ll hear more later…

The next step in the process for Lincoln County will be an online brainstorming meeting on Tuesday. The meeting will be a chance for residents to talk about projects they would like to implement with BBC grant funds. The meeting will also talk about voting and volunteering for teams that will put projects into action, said Mary Magnuson of the Blandin Foundation.

Blandin, Northland, IRRRB helps Arrowhead leaders focus on broadband

Grand Rapids Herald Review reports

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders throughout Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region (Aitkin, Cook, Carlton, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis Counties) came together to assess their communities’ strengths and challenges in building and sustaining broadband-powered economies. Based on what they learned, eight projects emerged and will be supported through regional grants.

“Arrowhead Regional leaders had the courage and tenacity to dedicate time during a pandemic to look deeply at how broadband was propelling or, because of the lack of it, preventing community growth,” said Tuleah Palmer, president and CEO at Blandin Foundation. “These small grants will kindle the real power of this initiative – the collaborative, innovative spirit living within our rural communities.”

Here are some of the grants that were funded…

  • With an $8,000 grant, St. Louis County School District 2142 will map students’ homes within the St. Louis County School District (including Nett Lake, NorthWoods, Tower, Babbitt, Cherry and SouthRidge) to determine existing broadband speeds and plan for a wireless broadband network to encompass the 3,850 square miles of the district. Leading the project, Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) is working in partnership with the Northeast Service Cooperative on a proposed wireless network build off their middle mile fiber network that runs throughout the service area. Ultimately, the project hopes to serve many of the district’s 2,200 students at the lowest possible cost.
  • Iron Range Tourism Bureau will develop a co-working space and expand their outreach and recruitment of remote workers. This project builds on their Hello Iron Range initiative, a talent attraction initiative that promotes the region’s workforce opportunities and connects incoming and existing residents to local networking events and resources.
  • Minnesota’s Children’s Press will create a new youth-, knowledge- and tech-driven genre of literature with help from a $35,000 grant. Through this project, youth will collect and map locations of litter in Grand Marais and on the shores of Lake Superior using ArcGIS Mapping software. Following data analysis, youth will write, illustrate, and publish a book about their findings and solutions. An outreach campaign will focus on both the findings of the project as well as the process and it will include presentations to local leaders, workshop offerings, a website housing free civic digital journalism resources and a social media series.
  • Smart North will plan for and implement a pilot project for smart streetlights and mobility hubs in the City of Grand Rapids through the support of a $50,000 grant. This infrastructure will allow city departments to access and share data, enable robust 5G connectivity throughout the city and provide municipal WiFi access. In partnership with The Grand Iron Range CAV Initiative, this effort will support the test of the country’s first autonomous shuttle vehicle in a rural, all-season community.
  • Northspan seeks to strengthen equitable digital access across the Arrowhead region through their Welcoming Community initiative with the support of a $50,000 grant. Through this project, Northspan will gather regional broadband data to create a baseline for fair, equal access to broadband and technology and explore how it impacts people of various race/ethnicities, income, education and ages within the Arrowhead region. This data will inform a series of conversations and engagements on why digital equity gaps exist and inform programming to address gaps.

Checking in with MN community broadband leaders around Minnesota

It’s always fun to check in with the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) participating community leaders. Today the Blandin Broadband team checked in with a few of the communities. It was a look back at what I’ll optimistically call the tail end of the pandemic and a helpful look at what everyone is expecting moving forward.

We started with a list of how we are all going to use broadband to celebrate summer. But the conversation also well more work-focused practical. Turns out that we have mixed feelings about the transition from online meetings to live-only or hybrids. It seems like we landed on hybrids are good when the expectations are honestly set. The conversation also got into practicalities of dealing with state versus federal funding and how those don’t always play well together and how folks are going to handle training in the real-virtual world.

If you’re a community leader and you’re wondering yourself how to handle the role of technology and balancing the transition to “normal” life, this may be an instructive conversation to hear.