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.

Chisago Lakes surveys show that more than 60 percent not happy with broadband speed or reliability

Thank you to Chisago Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce for sharing their recent survey of broadband access and use in the community. They had 726 respondents, which is pretty darned good. They ask, is your broadband enough – for school and/or work? And they ask about broadband satisfaction with broadband reliability and speed – turns out in both categories, more than 60 percent of respondents said their satisfaction was poor or fair.

Chisago Lakes is part of the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) program, which means funding from Blandin and coaching from Bill Coleman helped get this done.

Chisago Lakes Strut Your Stuff: manufacturing tours, new website, getting seniors connected

Today we met up with the Chisago Lakes BBC team. Like the other BBC communities, Chisago has been dealing with the COVID challenges of the last year. They have been focus on a few areas:

  • Getting older folks connected with computers and training (computers going out now)
  • Getting better broadband in the area, including a survey, push to get people to take the speed tests
  • Working with businesses – specifically doing video tours of manufacturing plants for students
  • Building a new website for the Chamber – to be unveiled very soon

All of the efforts are off the ground, a few are just about ready for prime time. I am particularly looking forward to some of the stories they have collected from folks who are happy and unhappy with their home broadband.

Le Sueur County Strut Your Stuff: great innovation – luckily because they have access challenges

Today we met up with the Le Sueur County BBC team. It was a reminder of how lucky some counties are that they have broadband because they have providers who are/were interested in deploying it. The Le Sueur team is engaged and innovative. They have had some great projects happening in the area but also, they need to work on getting better broadband. They have done surveys and mapping and even got some strong applications in for Broder to Border state funding but that was thwarted when LTD Broadband was awarded federal funding that disqualifies the county state proposals.

Even with all of that – the meeting was inspirational. The team is excitement about getting a Fellow from the Lead for America/ American Connection Corps over the next two years to help them with existing and future projects. You can learn more in the recording of the session and the PowerPoint below.

Otter Tail County Strut Your Stuff: zoom rooms, tech packs – getting people connecting during COVID

Today we met up with the Otter Tail County BBC team. They updated us with how their broadband adoption programs are going. A quick reminder, BBC is a Blandin program that has been helping communities use technology wisely for years through focused grant opportunities and broadband coaching with Bill Coleman. Otter Tail started their journey in 2020, which means they were one of the inaugural all-online communities. So it was even more inspiring to hear what they accomplished and how they did it.

One presenter really summed up the program in the last year, “During this last year especially, broadband has meant connection. And connection is essential right now.”

Here’s a list of the Projects:

  1. Free Wi-Fi in selected locations around county: deploy Wi-Fi hotspots around the county
  2. Zoom rooms at libraries, community centers, etc: deploy several rooms throughout the county where people can participate in meetings or interview for jobs, and more.
  3. Tech packs: Free laptops and hotspots for individuals who qualify, with an emphasis on those seeking employment.
  4. Youth exposure to technology: collaboration between local schools and MState to increase youth access to coding and provide exposure to tech careers.
  5. Marketing to recruit high-tech companies and teleworkers: diversify the local economy by recruiting tech companies and teleworkers to the County.

You can check out the video and PPT below:

New projects on the Iron Range help increase broadband use

Hometown Focus reports

New broadband initiatives were launched in the Chisholm-Balkan area through the Iron Range Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) program. A collaboration of community partners included: Balkan Township, City of Chisholm, Chisholm Economic Development Authority (CEDA), Chisholm Chamber of Commerce and Chisholm Independent School District #695. Each organization led one or more of the following projects: [list is abbreviated]

  • A new website for Balkan Township that includes a community calendar, recycling and municipal services, township government news and automated reservations for the community center.
  • Marketing videos to promote life in Chisholm.
  • A new website for the city of Chisholm
  • Public Wifi improvements at the Chisholm Public Library.
  • 10 mobile internet hotspots available to check out
  • A scavenger hunt app for Chisholm’s community events.
  • Free digital marketing assistance to 10 Chisholm small businesses
  • Public Wifi access on Chisholm ISD school buses.
  • 100 mobile internet hotspots
  • Improved public wifi at Minnesota Discovery Center
  • A distance learning project by Minnesota Discovery Center

The Institute for Local Self Reliance highlights the work of Le Sueur County

The Institute for Local Self Reliance highlights the work of Le Sueur County on their road to getting better broadband…

Over the last three years, Le Sueur County, Minnesota has assembled a task force of citizens, local officials, and business leaders which have succeeded in dramatically improving broadband for thousands of residents who previously had poor or no connectivity. In doing so, they’ve also forged relationships, inventoried local resources, and created a model which is likely to see the landscape go from one where nearly all residents in the county were under- or unserved by basic broadband at the beginning of 2018 to one where the vast majority of the community will have access at 100/20 Mbps in the next couple years. And if efforts continue to succeed, it’s possible we might see full fiber coverage in Le Sueur by the end of the decade, making it one of the most connected counties in the state.

They follow the story from start…

Until the middle of the last decade, residents were largely on their own to find solutions. Starting about five years ago, however, things began to change. One Le Sueur resident who had paid individually to bring better Internet access to her home so she could run her small business took the initiative to bring up issue to the county board. Shortly thereafter, a diverse and energetic group came together to form the local broadband task force, including community residents, the IT director for a collection of the town school districts, IT Manager for Le Sueur County Jeff Niesen, local business leaders, the county board, and the county administrator. All agreed that there was a case for better broadband for homes as to drive economic development.

Le Sueur worked on a feasibility study…

Work to improve local connectivity began in 2017, when the county helped secure a $50,000 from the Blandin Foundation to do a feasibility study and look for solutions. At the same time, in 2018 the county put out a broadband survey to get a handle on where service was and wasn’t (for reasons we’ll reiterate until we’re blue in the face or it’s fixed), illustrated in the map to the left where red areas of the county are unserved, purple areas underserved with connections between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps, and green areas served by wireline broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps. By 2019 these preliminary endeavors were done, but the county — realizing that tackling the entirety of the $14 million project consisting of 800 miles of fiber in one attempt was unrealistic — approached expanding broadband in a targeted and incremental fashion instead.

That led to a successful MN Border to Border broadband grant…

The first move was to use the feasibility study as the basis for issuing an RFP to partner with local ISPs to apply for a Border to Border Broadband grant operated under the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) program, which in 2019 led to a successful partnership with a local telephone company for a project covering 225-250 homes using 100 miles of fiber in Derrynane (pop. 525) and Lanesburg (pop. 2,100) Townships on the northern end of the county, along with a handful of homes in nearby Montgomery and Lexington townships.

Then reaction to the pandemic…

Le Sueur had no more warning than did any other community in forecasting the current pandemic, but when it hit the local broadband task force kicked into high gear. Three projects were realized to bring better connectivity to the region.

  • The first of these is a partnership with ISP MetroNet using CARES Act funds for a fiber network expansion which has connected about 420 homes (including 59 completely unserved) using 49 miles of fiber in Waterville, Kilkenny, Montgomery, Cordova, Sharon, Lexington, and Kasota.

  • The second project is a partnership with NetWave Broadband to add wireless hardware to seven towers throughout the county in Cleveland, Cordova Township, Kasota Township, Le Center, Montgomery, Tyrone Township, and Waterbill with a rough range of seven to ten miles each to bring service up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds out to the remaining 80% of the unconnected.

  • Third and finally, the county has installed free public Wi-Fi access to seven areas around the county, including boat landings, community parks, and campgrounds.

Blandin gets a nod…

You can see the gains made in te last two years in the map to the left, where red areas (unserved) turned purple and purple areas (underserved at <100/20 Mbps) turned green. Le Sueur is a Blandin Broadband Community for 2020-2021, and the county attributes its success over the last three years to the energy brought by local residents and county officials. It seems from the outside that part of their success, also, has been in finding and forging relationships with local and regional ISPs to the benefit of both residents and those companies.

Tele-Mental Health Portal helping reach folks in Region 9

Earlier this week Bernadine Joselyn, Mary Magnuson and I had a conversation with Kristian Braeken at Region 9 about their telehealth plans and programs (supported with Blandin Foundation funding). It’s interesting to hear about what they are doing and the impact they are having but a key point is how they are using this to ensure that they have a healthy workforce, which makes this as economic development issue as well as community development and health.  (Also worth nothing that the project started late in 2019.)

Region 9 serves the following counties: Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca and Wantonwan. They have created a portal that provides referrals and access to mental health services. Actually better than that – they didn’t create anything, they found a solution with Direct Assessments and Counseling. It’s been a great way to reach community members who can be geographically out of reach. And it’s been a great way to connect those people (and others) to providers and counselors who do not necessarily live in the area.

Being able to access counselors outside Region 9 has been a coup because there’s a shortage in the area. The push to move everything online (due to COVID) has opened up everyone’s interest in doing more things online. Zoom was a niche word a year ago; now everyone is doing it so there’s a growing comfort level.

Some regulations have been loosened making it easier to use accessible technology. And with the stress of a pandemic, job loss and change, students doing everything differently and with seniors experiencing more acute seclusion the need is greater. Also, Region 9 works with people who require court mandated assessments and services.

People have found that they like it. Within a month, the portal was operating to capacity. People with court mandated assessments appreciate the convenience. Many other experience the privacy of services from home. They found that before the online option people might drive a couple hours to get service or forego services altogether. And going online has opened the door to more diverse clients, especially immigrant groups.

By all accounts it’s been a success. It’s easy to see that much of this will continue to serve a purpose even after the stringent rules aroudn COVID are relaxed.

Le Sueur County chat: broadband reliability is a hindrance but also spurring optimism

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), you can see that Le Sueur County has a lot of unserved places (in pink). They have been working on changing that. In fact, I think Le Sueur (in part) is to credit for doing such an amazing job with their local speed testing that has gone statewide! During the conversation I heard a lot of optimism and frustration. High level – there was frustration with reliability, data caps, access and digital skills. There was optimism with the increased attention broadband was getting because it was important in keeping life as normal as possible (school, work, access to healthcare) during the pandemic. A COVID silver lining, Le Sueur is using CARES funding to improve broadband use.

Thank you to the large group that joined us: Barbara Droher Kline, Shannon Frost, County Commissioner John King, Carl Menk, Ann Traxler, Susan Rynda, Janet Nordstrom, Marlene Johnson and Bill Coleman. They spoke about their work and personal experience – and many have positions to be thinking about the community perspective. Ironically, several attendees had broadband issues getting on the Zoom call, in part because we met during a thunderstorm.

There was frustration is reliability. Someone pointed out that they switched from CenturyLink to Mediacom for the speed but have found the connection to much less reliable. There’s a teacher who had experienced three outages in the last week 2 weeks before school even starts! I heard folks mention reliability more than I do in some other communities.

There’s frustration with limited access. Barbara mention folks with developmental disabilities living in community settings who don’t have sufficient broadband to work. John mentions that broadband has gone from a nice to have to a must-have. Everyone is noticing the need, even veterans that hadn’t felt that way before. Families really noticed this once the schools went online. They tried to support folks without access with hotpots but those don’t work everywhere. So the plan this year is to again have hotposts and also WiFi access in the school parking lot and via van that can go to various areas. Data caps are another frustration, especially for people in the county.

There’s frustration with digital skills. Shannon mentioned in lack of digital skills being a barrier to getting things done in the schools; it starts with the terminology and tech support.

There’s also a lot optimism about the increased awareness and interest in the need for better broadband and even the increased use. Carl and several other attendees brought up the power of being a BBC (Blandin Broadband Community). In fact, Le Sueur is the first COVID community to go through the program, which means where previous communities met in city halls, church basements and coffee shops – Le Sueur met online with Broadband coach Bill Coleman. While they clearly miss the opportunity to interact in person, it sounds like it’s going really well. Ann brought up the opportunity that broadband brings to equality to the community.

The County Commission meetings have gone online. Sue spoke about how healthcare are moved online – thanks to quickly learning and waivers and there’s great hope that the waivers will continue moving forward. Half the staff love it and love the privacy; the other half are struggling. My favorite observation came from Janet, who noted that using broadband because of COVID is better for introverts.

Le Sueur County is looking at using CARES funding to improve broadband use so there is a direct impact. So even if broadband hasn’t been a universal help to handle COVID, COVID has been a help to getting better broadband.

Aitkin County is moving forward with broadband in some areas – get the low down

Thank you to Ross Wagner and Aitken Age for making my job so easy today with a editorial from Ross…

The one thing I get the most questions, comments and complaints on is the broadband situation in Aitkin County. And understandably so, we are nearly at the point where the internet affects every aspect of our lives. Folks in rural communities sometimes wonder if the world will pass them by if they are not connected to the internet with broadband. Broadband is actually more of a concept with no set measures. The State of Minnesota defines broadband as minimum download speeds of at least 25 megabits/second and minimum upload speeds of at least 3 megabits/ second. Broadband is delivered through fiber optic lines. Aitkin County is not in the business of being an Internet Provider. However, we have initiated the Aitkin County Broadband Grant Program, with $450,000 from the economic development fund. We feel the most effective long-term solution is to work with existing internet providers by providing the financial assistance needed to bring broadband to Aitkin County.

Here’s what they are working on…

Aitkin County is very fortunate to have local providers who are willing to invest in Aitkin County, they operate here and are willing to look long term. They are Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC), SCI Broadband (SCI) and Emily Cooperative Telephone Company (ECTC). All received State Border to Border grants in 2019 and $5,000 from Aitkin County as a local contributing partner to the grants. In 2020 the State of Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Grant will again be offered. Aitkin County is currently soliciting proposals for two $75,000 grants from the Aitkin County Grant fund and will be offering $15,000 for local contributing partner matches for local providers applying for the State Grant. Both MLEC and SCI have previously received Aitkin County grants.

And here’s what they hope to see soon, thanks what they were working on last year…

So just which areas of Aitkin County have been awarded grants to internet providers for 2020? Esquagamah and Round Lake areas will see broadband brought to approximately 242 unserved and 103 underserved locations by ECTC. The MLEC has a grant that will serve 282 unserved and 225 underserved households in areas of Farm Island and Nordland Townships. MLEC was awarded a Community Connect Grant from the USDA, for a project in Rice River and Spaulding Townships and areas of the East Lake Community. The project will pass 235 homes and businesses. SCI has a project that will serve 269 unserved homes, in areas of Glen Township. In addition to the Glen Township area, SCI will be finishing up previous project areas around Big Sandy Lake and Clear Lake.

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable:Social Media for Community Broadband

The June 16 Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable discussion centered on social media practices in Community Broadband Initiatives.  I did a brief history overview beginning with Google Fiber and their community competition and went up through today’s collaborative environment with friendly providers’ use of fiberhood survey practices.    From there, the conversation went to a more general overview of successful social media strategies.  We talked Facebook. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Next-door and TikTok.  Multiple folks chimed in with both successes and challenges of the use of social media in communicating with customers and community members.  We talked extensively about magnifying your social media strategies by re-tweeting, liking posts, tagging and hash tagging.  We also had a good conversation about the need to ensure accuracy of your own posts and to work to fight disinformation.  Thanks to all who chimed in!  It made it a very interesting conversation.

On Tuesday June 23, we will talk about the rapid emergence of telehealth in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  To contribute to the conversation, find out what is now available from your own health care network or even bring your own tele-health care experience!

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable: Polco’s civic engagement platform notes

Thanks to Matt Fulton of Polco (www.polco.us) (matful@polco.us) for an excellent presentation on the Polco community engagement platform.  The survey tool allows local units of governments and other entities to quickly and easily set up surveys to gather community input on any topic.  The basic Polco platform is free to use and Polco offers upgraded features for a fee.  It is easy to embed the surveys right on a web site or blog or newsletter.  Results can be seen by geography or demographics.  Survey respondents can be verified through a registration function which also enables the results by neighborhood features.

There was great interest and questions by roundtable participants.  There was a question around privacy and the verification process.  The verification process guarantees that people are not voting multiple times and provides geo-coding oof results.  People do not have to use the verification process, but some functionality is lost.  There were also questions about how community organizations could use the tool for organizing and informing citizens about issues like water quality and youth engagement.  There was also discussion about the need to write good survey questions – Polco has some online tools as well as examples to guide survey development.  There were also concerns about how representative poll results might be if there is an unrepresentative sample of survey respondents.  Organizers can check the demographic and geographic representation of the responses and actively market the survey to increase the responses to make it more representative of the community.  There are also ways to use Polco to do a random sample survey rather than an open poll on the community web site or Facebook page.  With so many public entities now using Zoom meetings and more limited opportunities for public input, online tools used correctly can play a signifiant role in filling the participation gap.

Next Tuesday morning at 9 am, June 16, we will take a look at some examples of the use of social media in community broadband organizing.  If your community is making effective use of online communications to spur your broadband projects, please send me some links so that I can look at them in advance.  Thanks for your help on this!

Five public safety broadband projects led by East Range Iron Range Blandin Broadband Communities program

Hometown Focus (in Virginia MN) write about public safety projects deployed by the local Iron Range Blandin Broadband Communities program (BBC)…

The East Range Joint Powers Board recently implemented five new broadband projects that improved public safety and essential emergency services as part of the Iron Range Blandin Broadband Communities program (BBC). The Joint Powers Board encompasses the communities of Aurora, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes and Town of White.

Police squad car laptops: East Range law enforcement received upgraded laptops in each squad car. With all squad cars operating on the same system, the police increased their efficiency, communication and response time serving the East Range communities.

Ambulance laptops: Hoyt Lakes Ambulance Service updated its technology to keep communication connections with St. Louis County’s new Computer Automated Dispatch (CAD) system. This ensures timely and efficient response times by Hoyt Lakes EMS, and it provides them with information about patients, call locations and safety of the scene.

EMS training laptop: Hoyt Lakes Fire & Ambulance Service received a laptop to conduct training for their staff and first responders. Trainings include: Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Advanced Medical Life Support, Prehospital Trauma Life Support and Pediatric Advanced Life Support.

Public safety building SMART board: Hoyt Lakes Fire & EMS departments received an interactive whiteboard to use for mandatory emergency response and public safety training.

Fire department iPads and hotspots: Palo Volunteer Fire Department received new iPads and hotspots to assist with locating homes when responding to residential fires.

EVENT June 9: Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable: Polco’s civic engagement platform

The next Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable will feature a presentation by Matt Fulton of Polco.  According to their website, “Polco’s civic engagement platform makes meaningful communication between community leaders and the people they serve not only possible, but enjoyable.”    See more at www.polco.us .  Be prepared to share how your community is using online tools to engage citizens and the benefits and challenges of that engagement.  The Blandin broadband team will share its experience of moving it Blandin Broadband Communities project development process online.  Join us Tuesday, June 9 at 9 am by registering here: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwoc-2qrDotHNMilSss2LwHaw92XEhj3fqi .

Please share your ideas for future discussion topics to broadband@blandinfoundation.org