Minnesota leading the way to bring broadband to rural communities through collaboration

Here is the official press release from the Blandin Foundation on the conference last week…

BRAINERD, Minn. (Oct. 31, 2017) – “The number-one threat to community and economic development in the 21st Century is the digital divide,“ said technology researcher and development expert Roberto Gallardo last week at the Border to Border Broadband Conference, co-hosted by Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.

“Rural communities can take a big piece of the digital-economy pie if leaders look inward and develop the assets they already have at home,” Gallardo said.

Gallardo, assistant director and community economic development specialist at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, urged more than 150 broadband leaders in the room from across rural Minnesota to double-down on local efforts to prepare for the digital economy.

Gallardo showed conference participants how economic benefits to Minnesotans could be boosted by nearly a billion dollars over 15 years if broadband access and use improved. This number comes from the Digital Divide Index (DDI), a tool Gallardo created to look at broadband infrastructure, adoption and socioeconomic makeup at the county level to determine the amount of missed economic benefits due to lack of broadband access and use. Ranging in value from 0 to 100, where 100 indicates the highest digital divide, Minnesota scores a 21.51, positioning the state as a national leader in bridging the digital divide. DDI profiles for all Minnesota counties are at https://blandinonbroadband.org/.

Blandin Foundation-commissioned research released at the conference informed attendees about the impact public investment in broadband infrastructure has had on five well-served rural Minnesota communities. Using formulas to measure annual economic benefit per household and increased home value with broadband, findings indicate that each of the communities will recoup public investment within one to six years.

“This research looks at economic benefits to an entire community, not just to a broadband provider,” said Ann Treacy of Treacy Information Services, the report’s co-author. “Just because there’s not a business case for a provider doesn’t mean there aren’t economic benefits to be had for the community.”

The case studies report can be found at www.mnbroadbandcasestudies.org.

Cooperation: a broadband development strategy

In hard-to-reach rural areas, new forms of cooperation are needed to reach the last mile, said conference speaker Kevin Edberg, executive director at Cooperative Development Services.

“Communities have to think differently, think collaboratively, to see progress,” said Edberg. “We need to rediscover what it means to connect with our neighbors and our communities if we’re going to have the things that we want.”

Successful broadband partnerships start with conversation and assessing assets, said Laura Withers, director of communications at NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, during her address to conference attendees.

“Broadband partnerships are the future of our industry,” Withers said. “Minnesota is leading the charge and we’re noticing it at the national level.”

Public-private partnerships lead the way for broadband expansion in Minnesota

From fixed wireless to fiber, cooperative partners to legacy providers, eight public-private partnership were highlighted to illustrate the many ways Minnesota communities are finding the right Internet solutions to fit their needs. The projects had been funded in part by the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, which has funded 72 projects totaling more than $65 million and are currently reviewing proposals to grant an additional $20 million. A complete project list can be found at https://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband/grant-program/.

One of the grants featured at the conference was $1.7 million awarded to Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) to reach Aitkin County, Minnesota’s least-served area. MLEC has partnered with nearby Consolidated Telecommunications Company to bring fiber optic service to year-round residents and draw in new seasonal residents.

OBD Executive Director Danna MacKenzie’s leadership was recognized during a special ceremony during the conference, citing the national award she recently received for “outstanding individuals that identify local broadband needs and apply homegrown solutions.”  MacKenzie received the “National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisor’s “Hero of the Year” award.

“The reason that the Minnesota program has risen to national attention is that all of us working at the ground level are pulling on the same set of oars,” MacKenzie said. “I accepted this award on behalf of everyone in this room. Thank you for your work.”

“Minnesota has a lot to be proud of,” agreed Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation. “We are beginning to see the impact that creative broadband partnerships can have in a rural community. We cannot stop. Only by working together will Minnesota realize the full potential of border-to-border broadband.”

For 14 years, Blandin Foundation has tackled rural broadband as a strategic priority, positioning it as a national leader and partner in community broadband leadership development and adoption. Partnering with more than 75 communities, the Foundation has invested more than $9 million in rural Minnesota’s capability to design and claim their future, one enabled by high-speed Internet and the digital literacy to put it to work for all residents.

A full archive of conference sessions is at www.blandinonbroadband.org


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

Media contact:

Blandin Foundation

Allison Ahcan, Director of Communications

C: 218-259-2893 Arahcan@blandinfoundation.org Blog http://outposts.blandinfoundation.org and http://www.blandinonbroadband.org

Twitter @BlandinFound

Digital Divide Index scores for all MN Counties – a MN Broadband Conference highlight

Last week’s Minnesota Broadband conference was so content rich, I thought I might post some of the highlights this week at a more leisurely pace.

A top highlight was Roberto Gallardo’s presentation – The Digital Age: So What? (You can see Roberto’s slides and video presentation.)

Roberto walked us through the impact and growing speed of technological changes to set the stage for looking at counties in Minnesota to see whether we are prepared for the digital age. Specifically he looks at

  • Infrastructure and Adoption (Do people have access to broadband and do they use it?)
  • Socioeconomic factors (age, poverty, education,
  • Combines those to get a DDI number

The higher the number the bigger the digital divide. You can learn a lot from the numbers in terms of planning a strategy to combat digital  – if you’re Infrastructure number is high – you need better infrastructure. If you’re Socioeconomic number is high, you may need more digital inclusion programs.

Minnesota scoring is:

  • DDI – 21.51
  • Socioeconomic – 41.37
  • Infrastructure – 21.02

Roberto shared county profiles for all Minnesota counties.

Roberto also took a look at how counties have fared based on their DDI number (or their quartile). He found that counties in the highest quartile (remember higher is bad)

  • Saw the greatest population decline from 2010-2015
  • Saw the greatest decline in establishments
  • Saw the greatest decline in jobs

Check it out and see how your county compares to the rest of Minnesota.

Archive of the 2017 MN Broadband Conference – Bridging the Gaps, Expanding the Impact

Below are notes and (for most sessions) video archive of the presentations:

Bridging the Gaps – Expanding the Impact through Community-Provider Partnerships: #MNBroadband Conference 2017

Broadband Learning Stations featuring stories of partnerships and perseverance that define the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program participants. All sessions highlight what it takes for community success.

Here are descriptions of each session:

“Cooperatives Cooperating”
Grantee: Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC)
Project: MLEC Phase I Fiber to the Premise in Aitkin County
Grant Award: $1,757,640                               Total project cost: $3,515,280
Description: MLEC has partnered with CTC to bring fiber optic service to a significantly underserved area in Aitkin County.  Not a typical partnership, but a unique arrangement to bring much need broadband to MLEC members.
Key Partners:  CTC
50 percent local match provided by MLEC
Community and Economic Development Impact: This project is the first phase of what MLEC hopes to be a growing project to bring fiber optics to many of our members in Aitkin and Mille Lacs Counties. The project area is unserved rural areas primarily around lakes. The population is comprised of year round residential and a significant seasonal population. MLEC hopes benefits of providing connectivity will improve the lives of those in the area through increased access for education, workforce development and lead to increased time seasonal residents spend in the region resulting in increased spending locally on goods and services.
Advice for people preparing a project application: Start the conversations early with your partners. Don’t under estimate all the details which need to be discussed and clearly understood, along with the time to develop a healthy working team.  Have a business plan in place or started and be open to changes.  Having people say they want the service and getting commitment requires a lot of marketing.  Develop a marketing plan which includes how and when you will reach out to potential customers. As a new fiber provider MLEC has relied on CTC for guidance in marketing but also has had to get creative with how to market to the area. The best piece we had were yard signs that stated Fiber was coming to a signed customer’s home.
Key Learnings: Communication needs to be open. Keep asking questions, never assume the others knows something about the business or what you understand.
Work together to find solutions that work for each party, as in our case nothing was cookie cutter about our partnership.
For more information:
Name & Title: Stacy Cluff, Information Systems & Technology Administrator
Phone number: 218.927.8227
Email: scluff@mlecmn.com
Organization name: Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative
Mailing Address: PO Box 230, Aitkin MN 56431
Name & Title: Joe Buttweiler
Phone number: 218.454.1275
Email: joe.buttweiler@connectctc.com
Organization name: CTC

“Persistence and local marketing pay off”
Grantee: Woodstock Communications
Project: Westbrook FTTP
Grant award: $412,319                                   Total project cost: $916,424
Description: This is a complete fiber to the home project including the entire city limits of Westbrook.  The city has 404 passings with 368 households, 29 businesses and 7 anchor institutions.  Westbrook is a town that is currently served by Century Link with DSL.
Key Partners: Woodstock Communications asked for 45% grant from the State.   The remainder of the funding (55%) will be provided by Woodstock Communications.
Community and Economic Development Impact:  The community of Westbrook sent in numerous letters of support asking for better service for their town.  Westbrook is a very aggressive community with great people and businesses, and offers a great place to raise a family.  The only thing they lacked was adequate broadband to attract new businesses and families, and keep from losing the ones they have.  Westbrook has a public school, assisted living, city hall, nursing home, public library, police station, community center, fire hall, ambulance department, and is the smallest city in Minnesota with a full hospital.  The hospital is a division of Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls and needed faster speeds and better reliability to stay competitive.  The public school will now be able to hold the South West Regional Schools quarterly meeting in Westbrook because of the fiber build.
Advice for people preparing a project application:  Working with and having the support of the community leaders is critical.  Support is needed not only for the application but also to make the project a financial success.  We attended city council meetings, Kiwanis meetings, ran articles in the local paper weekly and opened an office on Main Street for customers to come in and learn about us.
Key Learnings: We learned how critical broadband is to a community.   Also, not only did this build bring fiber to the home to the town, it also enabled us to provide a wireless service to the rural community as well.  We also have a better take rate than we had anticipated.
For more information:
Name & Title: Terry Nelson—General Manager
Phone number:  507-658-3211
Email: terry.nelson@woodstocktel.net
Organization name: Woodstock Communications
Mailing Address: 337 Aetna St., Ruthton, MN 56170

“Truly inspiring — businesses & neighbors working together”
Grantee: Wikstrom Telephone
Project: Rural Alvarado Broadband
Grant Award: $43,481                        Total project cost: $95,240
Description: BEAMCO and Wikstrom Telephone partnered to build a Fiber to the Home network for farms and businesses in rural Alvarado, extending a new route to 12 customers over 6 miles. BEAMCO took the lead to sign up customers and get financial contributions from those in the project.
Wikstrom Telephone is the ISP and was responsible for the engineering, construction and operations of the network.
Key Partners:     BEAMCO      16% percent local match provided by Beamco/customers
Wikstrom    34% percent local match by Wikstrom Telephone
OBD/DEED  50% Grant
Community and Economic Development Impact: The goal of Beamco was to bring Broadband to his rural Engineering and manufacturing facility, and connect all of the farmers and residents along the way. It provided the necessary infrastructure to keep employment at the Beamco plant and enhance the education and business needs of other farms. A key use for many rural farms is security, and process monitoring of agricultural operations.
Advice for people preparing a project application:

  • Find a good partner with similar culture and goals
  • Split up the work equitably and get commitments early
  • Take the time to meet with people face to face

Key Learning’s:

  • Anything is possible with persistence and people with common goals.
  • Having OBD/DEED available to connect partners should be utilized more!

For more information:
Name & Title: Alan Lundeen, P. Manager
Phone number: 218-436-5214
Email: alundeen@wiktel.com
Organization name: Wikstrom Telephone Co.
Mailing Address: 212 S Main, Box 217 Karlstad, MN 56732

“Government and local companies making great things happen”
Grantee: Palmer Wireless
Project: Big Lake Industrial Park
Grant Award: $90,988                                    Total Project Cost: $211,600
Description:  Palmer Wireless built a fiber network to approximately 18 businesses in the Big Lake Industrial Park.  The businesses in the park were only receiving 25 mbps or less speeds downloads and uploads of less than 5 mbps with their current internet provider through Ethernet lines.  Palmer Wireless has given the businesses a symmetrical fiber connection with options of 1 gigabit speeds.
Key Partners:  Palmer Wireless, Sherburne County and the City of Big Lake and with a 43% match provided by the State of MN Border-to-Border Grant.
Community and Economic Development Impact: The City of Big Lake and Sherburne County were asking for broadband/internet providers to come to their aid and provide the desperately needed broadband in the Industrial Park.  The current businesses were threatening to leave and they were not able to attract any new businesses to their community with the lack of broadband to the 79 acre park.  There are 25 acres still available for sale.  The size and cost of the project in relation to the number of businesses wasn’t financially possible for any provider to bring cost effective fiber to the park.  The Broadband Grant from the State of Minnesota made it possible.  Palmer Wireless was also able to bring fiber on our own to the schools and the police department, who also were thirsty for a fiber connection and were lacking viable broadband outside of the Industrial Park.
Advice for people preparing a project application: Palmer Wireless was able to meet with all of the businesses before applying for the grant to see what their needs were.  Palmer worked directly with the City of Big Lake’s Community Development Director to make sure all of the businesses in the park were contacted.  Palmer Wireless also has developed a relationship with Sherburne County in bringing better broadband to our community.  Palmer Wireless was one of a few providers to participate in Sherburne County’s Sherband group and also in the Blandin Broadband Community group. It is important to get buy in from all the participants including the businesses, local government and the contractors that are performing the work.  We used a local contractor that knew many of the businesses and that helped with the coordination of the installations.
Key Learnings: Fiber networks are vital to business growth and development in underserved areas.  Broadband Providers need to work directly with our communities, city and government leaders to ensure these state of the art broadband networks get built.
For more information:
Name & Title:  Laura Kangas, CFO & Albert Kangas, COO
Phone number:  320-743-5110
Email:  Laura.kangas@palmerwireless.net
Organization name:  Palmer Wireless
Mailing Address:  2848 2nd St. S., Suite 105, St. Cloud, MN  56303

“Reality Rocks!”
Grantee: Rock County Broadband Alliance, LLC (RCBA)
Project: Rock County, MN
Grant Award: $4.9 million                             Total project cost: $12.64 million
Description:  Build out of fiber to Rock County in extreme southwest corner of MN.  Project included all rural areas of the county and the rural towns of Jasper, Hardwick, Kenneth, Beaver Creek, Magnolia and Kanaranzi. The project passed just over 1100 locations with connected customers at the culmination of the grant period of just under 900.  RCBA, LLC is a wholly owned commercial subsidiary of Alliance Communications Cooperative, Inc., a South Dakota company that serves 13,000 customers in the tristate area of SD-IA-MN.
Key Partners:  Local match of $1,000,000 from the county of Rock, MN.
Community and Economic Development Impact:  The rural areas of Rock County were extremely underserved in the past. The grant application included testimonials from businesses, families, schools, etc. regarding how the lack of affordable, reliable broadband service in the areas affect family life, restrict educational opportunities, prohibit rural telemedicine opportunities, among many other examples. Following the project completion, a tour was put together by the Rock County administrators to show the broadband board how much the addition of broadband service had already affected Rock County, MN. The tour included the local radio station, a confinement system builder, a feed mill operation and the rural consolidated school system. Testimonials were read to the group as well from local physicians that live in the rural areas of the county regarding their experience with the enhanced services. News of future economic development in the county already has leaders excited.  A recent announcement of planned construction of a shrimp hatchery that will generate 330 construction jobs, $14.5M of labor income, and long-term impact of $23M annually and 124 new long term jobs is great news for the county. Other economic development in the county is also under way.
Advice for people preparing a project application:  Collaborating with county leaders has been a great experience for staff of RCBA, LLC. They have helped with everything from day one of the project and have been the projects biggest cheerleaders and advocates.
Key Learnings:  This was RCBA’s first experience of building outside our current service area where we do not already know our customers that we will be serving with the new technology. Although people were excited for the new service, the company also had to not only bring the services to them, but also gain their trust before they would become our customers. Much of the work was contracted, but RCBA employees were also very involved in the process making sure the new customers were treated well and any issues were quickly resolved. The key to the success of the project was to have local support and to treat the customer right from day one.
For more information:
Name & Title: Kari J. Flanagan, CFO
Phone number  (605)594-8228
Email: karif@alliance.coop
Organization name:        Rock County Broadband Alliance, LLC dba Alliance Communications
Mailing Address:              PO Box 349, Garretson, SD  57030-0349

“County commitment, building on neighboring success”
Grantee: Renville County
Project: Renville County Broadband
Grant Award: $807,966                                 Total project cost: $2,071,709
Description: Construct a fiber ring in Renville County and connect it to RS Fiber Cooperative’s existing system in Sibley County to provide broadband service to 193 households, and 102 businesses and community institutions.  Without this initial fiber ring, extending broadband service to serve additional unserved and underserved areas in the county would not be feasible.
Key Partners: Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), Renville-Sibley (RS) Fiber Cooperative, and Renville County. 61% local match provided by Renville County and HBC.
Community and Economic Development Impact:  This project will benefit many unserved home and farm businesses, and it will help attract new businesses and compete for people and economic opportunities along the Minnesota River basin.  Area farmers will be supplied with reliable, scalable surveillance and automation solutions, children will be able to complete homework from their homes, and healthcare institutions will be able to transmit electronic medical information faster than before – resulting in an improved quality of life for rural residents.  Renville County has experienced a 25% reduction in population over the past 30 years.  Broadband service will stimulate health outreach, educational attainment, business, and job and population growth.
 Advice for people preparing a project application: Partnering on an application strengthens the impact on underserved rural areas. This project required collaboration amongst public sector, non-profit, and for-profit organizations, which resulted in greater resources and capacity.
Key Learnings: The expansion of fiber networks into unserved and underserved areas always creates more opportunity. Quality of life improvements through fiber optic broadband availability always creates demand from the areas contiguous with existing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks.
For more information:
Toby Brummer, General Manager for RS Fiber and Business Development Director for HBC
Direct 507-450-7757

“Cable provider and township partnerships”
Grantee: Mediacom Minnesota LLC
Project: Harris Township Broadband Build
Grant Award: $224,369    Total project cost: $773,686
Description: Build out broadband infrastructure in Harris Township including the University of Minnesota Research Farm to provide speeds that surpass the broadband service goal of 25/3 to 262 households and 6 businesses/community anchor institutions.
Key Partners: Mediacom Minnesota LLC and Harris Township together received numerous letters of support for this project along with many survey responses in favor of the proposed broadband project.
Community and Economic Development Impact: Harris Township is a large area with an estimated 3,400 residents. As a growing community Harris Township needs better internet service as some of the areas have no internet services currently being offered.  Resident’s need internet to work, and to help draw new business to the area. Children need internet to do their homework. The school system (ISD318) has issued iPads to students in grades 7-12 to bring home, and most have homework to turn in online. With the slow and/or no service, a lot of students are falling behind.
Advice for people preparing a project application:  Mediacom has found that working together with the cities/counties/townships, etc., on an application strengthens the impact on all unserved/underserved rural areas.
Key Learnings: Broadband is important to improve quality of life for residents and make businesses more competitive. Without grants and partnerships with the community, projects like Harris Township may not be possible.
For more information:
Jason Janesich, Senior Manager – Area Operations
Direct 218-262-0005
Mediacom Communications
3105 E Beltline Suite 2
Hibbing, MN 55746

“Fixed Wireless: Key Part of Comprehensive Broadband Solutions for MN Vitality”
Presenters: InvisiMax, Nextera Communications and MVTV Wireless
Description: Fixed Wireless is a broadband solution used by several current and past broadband grant awardees, as both a hybrid solution alongside wireline technologies and as a stand-alone solution, for improving broadband access, speeds, and capacity, especially in low population density rural areas of Minnesota.  It’s also a solution in metro locations, especially for business needs. Learn more about this technology and how it is applied to community and business development opportunities.
Community and Economic Development Impact: Minnesota is home to a diversity of population densities, landscape features (rock, prairie, forests, lakes, and bluff country…), and diverse business and community development opportunities and challenges, for rural and metro areas alike. Fixed wireless broadband is a key part of the comprehensive package of broadband technologies that help meet those varied development environments, and in doing so, helps drive Minnesota’s economic and community vitality.
Advice for people preparing a project grant application that includes and/or features fixed wireless: Fixed wireless is a complimentary broadband technology implemented in whole or in part as a solution to meet the diverse needs of both consumers (business and residential) and providers. Considerations should be given to economic and social impacts as well as the viability of the services offered.
Fixed wireless technologies currently exceed multi-Gigabit speeds and are already being deployed in both metro and rural settings. Fixed wireless as a technology is reliable, mature, readily available and evolving more rapidly than any other broadband technology.
Key Learnings about Fixed Wireless:  A snapshot of technologies from WiFi, WiMAX, 4G LTE and 5G; implementation, adaptation and viability.
For more information:
Tim Johnson, Operations Manager
MVTV Wireless
1790 Hwy 212 W
Granite Falls, MN 56241
Greg Arvig, President
Nextera Communications
7115 Forthun Rd, Suite 100
Baxter, MN 56425
David Giles, President
126 W. Johnson Ave.
Warren, MN 56762


Recognition of Office of Broadband Development: #MNBroadband Conference

We want to recognize  Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, as the recipient of the 2017 Community Broadband Hero of the Year Award from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA).

Understanding the Community Impact of Investment in Rural Broadband: #MNBroadband Conference 2017

Check out the report – Measuring Impact of Broadband in 5 Rural MN Communities

Hear about five rural Minnesota communities that are using world-class, ubiquitous high-speed broadband to make a difference in their communities. They are growing and attracting businesses.  Retirees and talented workers are choosing to make these communities home. Economic developers are implementing strategies centered on knowledge workers and innovation creating unique and effective community brands. These communities are doing it right, combining great broadband networks with smart economic development strategies. Instead of attempting to plan for the future, these places are planning from the future – realizing and seizing opportunities.

Learn what we have observed – on site and through data – about the positive things happening in connected Greater Minnesota. Community leaders will share stories that will inspire others to continue their pursuit of advanced technology adoption over robust broadband networks. These stories showcase the tremendous potential being unleashed from investments in rural broadband.

And the news of the report turned us all around…

Thanks to CTEP worker Brandon Phan for his notes:

  • “it’s not about the $$, it’s about the quality of life
  • Ability for people to work remotely while on vacation à impact on quality of life
  • “when someone can work anywhere, where would they choose to live”
  • Med School opening in 2019 in Sibley County
  • Sibley experiencing some serious innovation
    • 2nd highest median income, lowest% of college degrees
  • with broadband, a home can increase its value by 3%
  • “we need providers to build for the future, not today”
  • Creating a culture of use w/ internet is so important à sustainability

11:15am Panel Discussion

  • 47 entrepreneurs use the Launchpad in Beltrami County for the space and broadband
  • Med school coming to Sibley in large part thanks to fiber, broadband
  • Question is how to attract people to come to Brainerd for work…going beyond just the tourism reputation
  • Gamin presence in Brainerd growing…broadband!
    • There’s more than just hunting, fishing, vacation destination (perceptional issue)
  • The 3 B’s
    • Breweries, broadband, and bicycles
      • “a brewery signals you have a funky town”