Local leadership drove the creation of Minnesota’s Internet and still does, say early visionaries

Fun take on the Blandin Broadband conference earlier this month…

DULUTH, Minn. (Sept. 27, 2016) – In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Minnesota’s broadband leaders gathered at the  Border-to-Border Broadband Conference in Duluth on Sept. 14 to recognize the work of MRNet, the first organization to bring the Internet to the state. The conference was sponsored by Blandin Foundation with support from the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Office of Broadband Development.

The Advancing the Vision Award recognizes the Minnesotans who, 25 years ago, had a vision of creating an information network to enhance research and educational opportunities and to increase productivity and competitiveness of businesses throughout the state.

“Most Internet activity in other states started out in a single university or in state government,” said former MRNet CEO Dennis Fazio. “That did not exist in Minnesota. It was left to the scattered visionaries and engineers of change.

“I see that this is still how our digital cosmos is developing here: not from the top down, but from the energetic and cooperative effort of enthusiasts from all corners.”

“It is because of the visionary leaders like the MRNet pioneers and broadband builders of today that Minnesota is blazing the trail to border-to-border broadband 25 years later,” Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation, told conference participants.

“Our experience, and the state’s history, tells us that in broadband work, leadership matters. These networks don’t just build themselves. It takes hard work, cooperation and perseverance. No one is going to do it for us.”

More than 150 broadband leaders gathered at the conference and shared stories of progress for rural Minnesota, including:

  • RS Fiber – one of the six state Border-to-Border Broadband grantees featured — will bring fiber to the home and farm serving 10 communities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley Counties by 2022.
  • Community broadband champions in Chisago County discovered through a survey that 31 percent of respondents would start a home-based business if they have better broadband. Building for this future means building with fiber, said Chisago County HRA-EDA Director Nancy Hoffman.
  • Consolidated Telecommunications Company COO Kristi Westbrock said that community broadband champions are an important factor for her company when considering new markets.
  • Paul Bunyan’s GigaZone delivers Gigabit Internet service to nearly 19,000 residents in a large territory across northern Minnesota, the largest gigabit network in rural America. Conference keynote and Paul Bunyan CEO Gary Johnson said of his cooperative’s approach to rural broadband, “We want to be the enablers not the throttle of innovation.”

More highlights of the conference are online at https://blandinonbroadband.org/.

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NOTE TO EDITOR: Photos available upon request.

About Blandin Foundation: Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural Minnesota communities by investing in community leaders and working with partners to expand opportunity for all residents. Located in Grand Rapids, Minn., it is one of only a handful of foundations in the U.S. focused exclusively on rural communities and the largest rural-based private foundation in Minnesota. Information on Blandin Foundation grant-making, leadership development programs and public policy initiatives: www.blandinfoundation.org. Information about the Blandin Broadband Communities Program: http://broadband.blandinfoundation.org/

2016 Minnesota Broadband Conference Recap

The Role of Co-ops in Advancing the Broadband Vision

A panel moderated by Bernadine Joselyn of Blandin Foundation. When rural Minnesotans first needed electricity and then telephones, cooperatives formed to meet the challenge. Today, we are seeing an expansion in the role that cooperatives are playing in meeting rural broadband needs. Leaders from four rural cooperatives will share how they are dealing with the demand for better broadband from their current members and neighboring communities. Learn how these cooperatives make their decisions about partnerships and new markets:

  • Stacy Cluff, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative
  • Robin Doege, Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative
  • Kent Hedstrom, Runestone Telecom Association
  • Kristi Westbrock, CTC-Consolidated Telecommunications Company

Todd-Wadena Elelctric Coop – only have 3.5 members per square mile. So population density is an issue. Deploying a smartgrid was a driver as well. We’ve been tlakign about broadband for 5-6 years and nothing has change. Last year we started to really look into broadband. We’ve been working with WCTA and Blandin. We did a feasibility study. We learned that a fiber build-out would be $48 billion. The costs are so high and ROI to hard that a 50 percent match doesn’t help much. We need 75 percent. So we are supporting others that are building out local broadband – we are working WCTA.

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative – Half of our members are seasonal. We have been providing internet access since 1997. We realized that the incumbents were not going to come into our area. We’ve applied for grants and been unsuccessful. We are talking with CTC to form a partnership for FTTH. Aitkin County is least served. We’ve seen more people move to our satellite rather than keep incumbent DSL

CTC – post broadband surveys to gauge impact of grants. Served 468 customers – many seniors, few children, very rural. Sent surveys out 9 months after they got broadband. Reliability and tech services is more important than price. Home have multiple devices. Only 2 percent did not use the Internet – despite the average age. 36% found that having broadband helped their businesses.

Runestone – biggest community is 1300 people.

How do you decide about partners and new market?

  • We have three people approach us about going into their area. We told them what we needed. They got it – it being letter of support for a grant application. That drive helps.
  • We look for community drivers and champions. The community seems to think that someone is making big money with the rural networks and that’s not the case. If it were the big providers would offer service.
  • The payback models are over 9 years, which means we have to go slower. City and counties need to be able to help pay or the State needs to look at 70-80 percent match.
  • We can’t take unnecessary risks.
  • We look for experts.
  • Projects need to be realistic and
  • We look at areas that really need our help – those who won’t be served by an incumbent in 2 years

Advice to share:

  • The 50/50 grant model doesn’t work
  • If we really want border to border we need to rethink 50/50 model
  • The challenge from the incumbents need to be revisited.
  • Wireless might be helpful in low population density areas.
  • Our legislators don’t know what the technology should be. They don’t understand the technology.

At Assn of MN Counties – we talk about projects that are in process. We sometimes need funding too. We’re looking at a pocket of money for partial projects.

Federally they had ongoing funding – recognizing that there was a need for continued support. But that is no longer the case. We need to let the Feds know it’s a problem. If Minnesota wants to stay progressive they want to look at continued funding too.

Metro legislators don’t know why they might support rural projects.

Advice for really unserved communities

  • Have skin in the game – maybe even getting funding from some of the subscribers.
  • Community champions
  • There isn’t a cookie cutter solution

Honoring and Learning from our Past: Celebrating MRNet and MN’s first 25 years of the Internet

mrnetMRNet was formed in 1987 as an association of members interested in getting the Internet, which, at that time, was a 56K connection to the NSFNet at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. In 1991 (25 years ago!) MRNet incorporated as a non-profit. And we are pleased to celebrate MRNet and its role in bringing the Internet to Minnesota with an award.

Here’s the inscription:

Advancing the Vision Award – MRNet

In recognition of the Minnesotans who, 25 years ago, had a vision of creating a network of networks to enhance research and education and to increase the productivity and competitiveness of businesses throughout our state.
September 14, 2016
Border to Border Broadband Conference
Duluth, MN

 

Dave Bergum accepted the award on behalf of the team. Dennis Fazio – the first employee of MRNet was unable to make the event – but also sent his comments:

Navigating Challenging Broadband Decisions

A  panel moderated by Bill Coleman of Community Technology Advisors. As more modern broadband networks are deployed across Minnesota, elected officials in counties without high-quality, ubiquitous broadband are feeling the pressure from residents and businesses to make it happen. At the same time, the availability of DEED grants and CAF2 funding and changes in technology are making the landscape all the more uncertain.
Bill will be talking with local broadband champions to illuminate their decision making process around key questions in a dynamic broadband deployment landscape. Panelists:

  • Valerie Halvorson, City of Madison
  • Scott Higgins, Martin County
  • Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County HRA-EDA
  • Tom Johnson, Nobles County

Notes (I am posting with limited proofing as I take notes on the next session:

Martin County – They have done a feasibility study and are looking for options for a border to border grant.

Madison – The only unserved city in LqP County. LqP got ARRA funding for all areas except Madison. They were “served” at the time. But that has left them behind.

Chisago County – Just north of Twin Cities – we don’t have good service. We did a survey to all county residents (900 responses) about their broadband and we mapped the results. We learned about the providers and how satisfied they were. “If you had better broadband what would you do?”  About 70-80 percent of the people currently travel to the TCs for work. People really want to telecommute. We don’t have a college – many people (45%) would do. 31% would start a business. “Gaming may not a higher use of broadband – but it matters when people want to buy a home.”

Nobles County – We formed a meeting with government folks (schools, local government). We met first in March 2014. Broadband became a hot topic among all users. Lismore is applying for funds for Border to Border grant. We are supporting their effort – although they haven’ asked us for financial support.

What is good enough for broadband?

For Madison – only FTTP. Everyone around us has FTTP to compete we need it. I don’t want to spend public dollars on anything less. The speed goals and definitions keep changing; we want to build for the future. Broadband should not be a barrier. We

 

For Nobles County – know what’s not good enough. Back in the day – any connection would be have been good. But now we knew we need to go for a Gig.

 

For Martin – what are your people willing to pay for? We began with the goals that are established and are building from there.

 

For Chisago – We’re building for the future. We need a gig. Every year people increase broadband use by 30%.

How does CAF 2 play in your planning?

For Martin – Frontier came to our meetings. Early on the offered to be a partner with CAF 2 funding. The challenge is that they don’t go to all areas. We are trying to add dollars to get them to go faster than the CAF 2 requirement of 10/1

For Chisago – we were talking about a feasible study when we found that Frontier is upgrading in our areas. We want FTTP but any upgrade is worth it. We don’t want to invest in it but we’ll take what we can get. Will 253 going to be good enough. We don’t feel like it will be. We don’t know what CenturyLink’s plans are in our county. One town is talking about a shared grant for OBD funds.

For Nobles – the county is eligible for some CAF 2 funding but we don’t know what the providers are going to do. The coop is willing to talk to us. CAF 2 required speeds are a bridge.

How do you select a partner?

Chisago – we keep in communication and we are trying to form relationships with the incumbent providers and cooperatives in other parts of the state. Although it’s difficult to start a conversation before you have a project.

Nobles  – the partners selected us. We met with several providers. One committee member talked to a lot of the townships. Hard for bigger providers to come up with an ROI but the cooperative could.

Martin – We’ve had a lot of providers so me to the meeting. Frontier is a major player.

Madison – I sent letters and contacted local providers. I was honest with them about our needs and they let me know that they don’t have the engineer staff now to look at it.

Wired vs Wireless?

Nobles – we want both. We’ve had good experience with MVTV helping us get people online. And some people will be OK with slower speeds – at least for now.

Martin – wireless continues to improve but not fiber.

What is role with local financing?

Madison – local financing allows us to be partners. We are looking at tax abatement – and a grant to the provider. Having financing gets you a seat at the table.

We are looking at subordinate service district model where only the people getting the upgrade would pay the taxes in Sunrise Township

We did some ancillary funding. But there’s a role to provide some investment  – from feasibility studies and more. There’s a growing interest

How do you get started?

The visioning meeting was key to the activities we’ve done. The survey was very helpful.

Closing Advice:

  • Outreach
  • Educating local officials
  • Find the people who are passionate
  • Have conversation with communities who aren’t unserved. Are there underserved communities that will be leapfrogged
  • Need champions
  • Need to keep it on the forefront
  • Build relationships
  • Look at the risks of not doing it.

Advancing the Vision Learning Stations – Community Success Stories

The sessions includes Learning Stations featuring projects funded through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Station presenters:

  • Border to Border Phase I (St. Louis County), Northeast Service Cooperative (invited)
  • Central Itasca County Fiber, Paul Bunyan Communications
  • FTTH Project (Renville and Sibley Counties), RS Fiber
  • FTTP Project, Rock County Broadband Alliance
  • Middle Mile (in 20 southwestern MN counties), MVTV Wireless
  • Winona County Whitewater Area, Hiawatha Broadband Communications

(videos will be added as they are uploaded)