Bill Coleman and Chris Mitchell ask – Are CAF II Investments Helping Rural Minnesota?

The podcast is a good listen. Here’s the intro from Community Networks

In the most recent report from the Blandin Foundation, Researcher Bill Coleman from Community Technology Advisors and his crew put boots to the ground to examine the results of Connect America Fund (CAF II) investments. Bill recently visited our office in Minneapolis to discuss the report with Christopher for episode 318 of the  podcast.

You can download the report, Impact of CAF II-funded Networks: Lessons From Two Rural Minnesota Exchanges here.

Bill and Christopher discuss the challenges Bill and his team encountered when they initially decided to gather documentation on what services CAF II funded projects brought to rural Minnesota. In order to get past those challenges, the researchers devised a methodology that other communities can reproduce.

Once the team had answered the technical questions about infrastructure, they analyzed the results and applied them to Minnesota’s statewide goals for broadband access. They determined that, in addition to lack of transparency regarding CAF II network plans, the tendency to invest in slower speeds, including DSL, will not help Minnesota achieve its goals.

For people living in urban areas who have grown accustomed to broadband within reach, it’s hard to imagine the situation in rural Minnesota, where there are still homes that have no access to the Internet at all. The disparity in speeds and availability complicate the idea that rural folks should have access to high-quality connectivity at the same levels as people living in urban centers.

Blandin Foundation Offers Candidates Insights on Rural Broadband Needs

In a letter sent today from Blandin Foundation President Kathy Annette, a set of insights on rural Minnesota’s broadband needs, developed by the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board, were offered as a resource to candidates running for office…

On behalf of Blandin Foundation I am writing to thank you for undertaking the hard work of running for office and to call attention to an issue critical to the vitality of the community you seek to serve: broadband.

Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural Minnesota communities by investing in community leaders and working with partners to expand opportunity for all residents. 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.

In 75 years working with rural leaders, we’ve learned that thriving communities are built on hard work. On the hard work of leadership, of reaching across differences to build lasting connections and of listening.

We’ve listened to leaders across rural Minnesota who say — broadband access is necessary for our communities to survive and thrive.

We agree and that’s why since 2003 Blandin Foundation has partnered with countless communities to get the affordable broadband access they need and the skills to use it. We offer technical and financial resources to support community leaders as they tap the power of broadband to create resilient, connected futures.

To guide our work, we formed a statewide advisory group – the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board – made up of telecommunications providers, community economic developers, elected officials and technology experts. In 2005 the Strategy Board adopted a set of principles for decision-makers. These principles, endorsed by the Foundation, offer a guidepost for navigating complex technology policy challenges while keeping the public good at the center of public discourse.

Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available to everyone in Minnesota, including businesses, institutions, and individuals. While ultimately all Minnesotans will need this service, this goal will necessarily be achieved in stages.

Ultra high-speed broadband needs to provide symmetric speeds and facilitate source-to-source communication. Download speeds support consumption; upload speeds support economic development and wealth creation.

Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available at rates people can afford. It also needs to be affordable to build. Where the market does not reward private investment, the public sector must step up.

Competition among service providers should be encouraged. Competition increases customer choice and promotes innovation.

World Class
We must achieve world-class state-of-the-art service based on global standards. We cannot afford just to be better than our neighboring states.

The deployment and use of ultra high-speed broadband is a challenging goal that can benefit from public and private entities working together.

Ultra high-speed broadband policy should be promoted regardless of the technology platform that delivers it. The best technology for delivering ultra high-speed broadband may not have even been invented yet.

Regardless of the technology used for ultra high-speed delivery, all systems must seamlessly interoperate with all other technologies.

The 2005 work of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board was prescient, as has been the work of the various state broadband task forces created and supported by Governors Pawlenty and Dayton. Recent task forces have upgraded the state broadband goals and supported the creation and funding of the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program. This program has directly funded deployment of robust broadband in many areas of greater Minnesota. Still there is much more to do and the consequences of inaction will be harsh for those left behind.

In service to our mission of being a trusted partner and advocate for healthy rural Minnesota communities, Blandin Foundation is aware of broadband’s critical role in their vitality. And as you prepare to serve, working hard to understand the challenges facing your constituents, the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board offers as a resource a set of insights related to Minnesota’s broadband goals.

This knowledge is informed by the Foundation’s 15 years’ experience working on broadband access and adoption in communities across the state and by the personal knowledge and expertise of board members, individually and collectively. As a whole, they represent the perspectives of rural people, rather than of any service provider.

As the election season approaches, we are reaching out to all candidates running for public office this fall to share these recommendations geared at creating and supporting the most effective broadband deployment and technology adoption programs possible

  1. Continue the Governor’s Broadband Task Force
    The Task Force provides an opportunity for community members, advocates, providers, consumers, and others to have input and make recommendations on broadband policy in Minnesota. It recommended to the legislature our state’s current broadband goals and reports annually on progress, including in digital literacy, cyber security, innovation and broadband-enabled economic development.

    To ensure that the Task Force fulfills its public mission, the next Governor should conduct a membership and representation review. The Strategy Board believes that, in its current form, those within the broadband industry (service providers, vendors and trade associations) have outsized representation compared to elected officials, consumers, business owners, agriculture, and people living in unserved and underserved areas.

  2. Optimize the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund
    Significant portions of Minnesota, especially rural areas, still lack adequate broadband services. Recognizing that rural broadband subsidies are required for successful deployments that meet state goals, we recommend that appropriate tools and programs be created by the legislature. The existing grant program gives providers the financial incentives they need to extend and improve networks in the hardest places to reach in Minnesota. The total grant amount requested by all applicants far exceeds the money allocated to the fund to date, demonstrating strong continued interest in the program. The lack of 2018 funding was a serious blow to those preparing to seek funds for 2019 construction.

    Project partners have expressed concern with the single-year funding model currently used by the Legislature. The application timeframe to complete the complex task of blending engineering, finance, partnership agreements, and community support into a competitive application is not conducive for larger, long-term projects. Stable, biennial funding – incorporated into DEED’s base funding – would give confidence to providers and communities alike to continue to plan and build the partnerships required to prepare effective project proposals. Including the Grant Program as part of the base budget in FY 2020/21 is of highest priority.

    Public leaders committed to maximizing the public benefit from the fund should be aware of opportunities to improve some details of its administration. For example, the $5 million grant cap per project hinder projects of larger geographic scale, whole counties or multi-county network builds. Scale matters when building infrastructure. In some cases, larger projects allow for more cost-efficient network planning and construction. They also can offer ubiquitous coverage across rural counties.

    Finally, the Fund’s challenge process remains an obstacle to building the best network possible to communities. Under the current rules the challenge process is overprotective of incumbent provider interests – the company already serving the area where the project is proposed – and discourages non-incumbent providers from participating. Incumbents are not required to install the same or better service as proposed by the non-incumbent applicant; rather the process allows the incumbent challenger to prevail as long as they commit to improve service ‒ not to 2026 speed goals ‒ but just enough to prevent a grant, to the long-term detriment of the community.

  3. Continue the Office of Broadband Development
    The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is testimony to the fact that improving broadband networks and services across the state is a shared, non-partisan priority for all Minnesotans. The OBD provides a critical link between communities and providers and administers the Broadband Fund while documenting successful infrastructure project design and management. The Strategy Board believes the Office also should be resourced to promote the adoption and use of broadband, including broadband-based economic development, so that the highest possible value is gained from broadband infrastructure investments.
  4. Address Digital Equity
    A growing digital divide threatens Minnesota’s future prosperity. Every Minnesotan, regardless of their ZIP code, should have a device, a network connection and the skills to meet their online needs, including access to health care and education resources, employment and training and tele-work opportunities. Access denied is opportunity denied. The Office of Broadband Development should be funded to support digital equity efforts statewide.
  5. Commitment to State Speed Goals Using Scalable Technology
    State policies should prioritize strategies that lead to achieving the state’s 2026 speed goals of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. The Strategy Board strongly endorses the current requirement that projects funded with state dollars must meet scalability requirements. State investment in broadband should prepare the state for the future. At a minimum, this requires funding projects that meet the current scalability standards.
  6. Continue Mapping While Reviewing Processes
    Accurate broadband maps are essential for sound investment and development policy and for addressing the needs of Minnesota’s un- and underserved communities. The Office of Broadband Development should continue to have resources to map Minnesota’s broadband networks. Advancements in technology, such as fixed wireless services, should be carefully and accurately accounted for in mapping of unserved and underserved. Broadband service providers should be encouraged to cooperate responsibly with OBD in this process.
  7. Evaluate New Broadband Solutions
    Policy leaders should review and highlight opportunities for creative technology, financing and partnership solutions to meeting the state’s broadband goals. Removing statutory and administrative policy barriers is a good place to start.
  8. Ensure Rural Business Connectivity
    For rural business development, broadband connections must be redundant, reliable and symmetrical. All communities need to be able to support tech-dependent businesses, whether in downtown areas or industrial parks.
  9. Support Rural Business Tech Transformation
    Advanced broadband networks are necessary, but not sufficient to help emerging and established small and medium-size firms make effective use of connectivity. Quality tech support and strategic business planning and implementation resources are necessary for cost-efficient and effective technology adoption. In addition, rural schools, health care providers, governments and non-profits would benefit from similar tech support.

I hope you find these insights from the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board helpful as you delve into the broadband issue and begin to think about the broadband policies that you will support.

Strong rural communities need broadband access to thrive and its going to take leadership, investment and cooperation at all levels to make it happen.

Our Blandin broadband staff is available to connect you with people and knowledge should you like to explore any of these insights in greater detail; Bernadine Joselyn can be reached at or (218) 327-8728. You will also find significant information about rural broadband and other perspectives in two places:

With appreciation for your public service, and on behalf of the rural Minnesota communities we serve,

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Kathleen Annette, President & CEO
on behalf of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board

Joe Buttweiler, CTC – Consolidated Telecommunications Company
Stacy Cluff, Mille Lacs Energy
Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County HRA EDA
Steve Kelley, U of MN Humphrey School Public Affairs
Jon Linnell, North Region Health Alliance
Scott Marquardt, Southwest Initiative Foundation
Dan Pecarina, Hiawatha Broadband Communications
Rich Sve, Lake County Commissioner
Fred Underwood, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Madonna Yawakie, Turtle Island Communications

Blandin makes Broadband Communities Mag FTTH Top 100

Broadband Communities Mag has an annual list of the top 100 organizations that make Fiber to the Home possible for communities. Here’s what they look for:

In selecting the FTTH Top 100, the editors looked for organizations that advance the cause of fiber-based broadband by

* Deploying networks that are large or ambitious, have innovative business plans or are intended to transform local economies or improve communities’ quality of life

*Supplying key hardware, software or services to deployers

Introducing innovative technologies with game-changing potential, even if they have not yet been commercially deployed

*Providing key conditions for fiber builds, such as early-stage support or demand aggregation.

They include a nice quote from Kathy Annette…

“Rural leaders know that to have strong economies, quality education and health care, and lifestyle options, broadband is necessary. After years of hard work, Minnesota is seeing the impact of partnerships among community leaders, state funders and community-minded providers. This winning combination is the way forward to connected communities that work for all.” – Dr. Kathleen Annette, President and CEO, Blandin Foundation

And here is what they say about Blandin…

Blandin Foundation 877-882-2257 Key Products: Grant making, community leadership development, public policy programs Summary: Since 1941, the Blandin Foundation, a private foundation based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has been dedicated to strengthening rural Minnesota communities. Its Broadband Initiative, launched in 2003, helps communities educate citizens about the need for ultra-high-speed broadband and plan and execute broadband projects. The foundation has published informational guides, sponsored conferences and educational events, and supported many feasibility studies for the development of robust, high-speed broadband networks. It has supported implementation of broadband applications in schools, health care facilities and other institutions and for home-based users and has promoted broadband adoption in rural communities. In 2018, Blandin will select eight rural Minnesota communities for two-year partnerships with the foundation to advance local broadband initiatives.

The list includes a few Minnesota entities. You can check them out.

Blandin Broadband eNews: Broadband in the community, in research and campaigns

Border to Border Broadband: Transforming Minnesota Oct 23-24
Join policymakers, economic and community development professionals and community broadband champions from across the state for this annual opportunity to learn, connect and engage.

Impact of Competition on Investment
The Institute for Local Self Reliance latest research finds that big cable and telecom companies fight over urban customers, not rural customers. They recommend that rural communities find their own way to bridge the digital divide.

MN County Ranking are out. How did you do?
The Office of Broadband Development released the Minnesota County maps and data. Here are the top served counties in MN (based on speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up)

  1. Red Lake – 99.99% ranks 1
  2. Rock – 99.93% ranks 2
  3. Ramsey – 99.84% ranks 3
  4. Swift – 99.64% ranks 4
  5. Clearwater – 99.58% ranks 5
  6. Beltrami – 99.40 % ranks 6
  7. Stevens – 99.22% ranks 7
  8. Hennepin – 99.18% ranks 8
  9. Big Stone – 98.91% ranks 9
  10. Anoka – 98.87% ranks 10

Broadband Task Force hears from Broadband Champions
The MN Broadband Task Force heard from the MN Broadband Coalition on their recommendations for the Legislature. They also heard from Bill Coleman on recent study on the limitations of CAF II funded networks and from Ann Treacy on the community return on public investment in broadband.

A New Blandin Broadband Communities Cohort Begins
Swift County, Cannon Falls and Rock County are the latest groups to form a BBC cohort. They met with the Blandin Broadband Team to talk about how they are going to focus on broadband expansion in their communities in the next 18 months.

Broadband in the Elections

Local Broadband News

A look at broadband projects in Aitkin MN, including hotspots that have encouraged private investment in FTTH, a community landing page and training.

Chisago County
Lack of internet access was listed as a potential problem to attracting people to Chisago County in their most recent Comprehensive Housing Needs Analysis.

A look at broadband projects in Chisholm MN, including hotspots everywhere, connected Discovery Center, portal and hopes for the schools

A look at broadband projects in Cook MN, including classes, hotspot checkout and library programming

A look at broadband projects in Ely MN: Feasibility study, digital marketing, coworking and Elyite website.
A recent business broadband survey in Ely shows that selling is top benefit to local businesses.

A look at broadband projects in Hibbing MN, including digital marketing and connectivity through the libraries and community center.

Iron Range & Red Wing
Minnesota Monthly highlights communities experiencing a Rural Renaissance and credits broadband technology with helping the Iron Range and Red Wing.

Kandiyohi County
LTD Broadband expanded wireless service to the lakes area of Kandiyohi County with new equipment on water towers in Spicer, on Green Lake, in New London and a tower site by Long Lake.

Lake County
Lake County gets first bid for Lake Connections broadband. Lake County network might cost locals money, but it has opened economic opportunity.

Mountain Iron/Buhl
A look at broadband projects in Mountain Iron/Buhl MN, including cool forest education program, new school equipment and feasibility study.

Polk, Clearwater, Pennington, Marshall and Red Lake counties
Garden Valley Telephone Company received a $20 million loan from the USDA to construct 295 miles of fiber and FTTP facilities.

Southeast Minnesota
Mabel Cooperative Telephone, MiEnergy Cooperative and Spring Grove Communications will create a new company, MiBroadband to provide fixed, wireless broadband to areas of Southeast Minnesota and Northeast Iowa.

Southern Minnesota
Consolidated Communications will boost broadband speeds in Mankato, North Mankato, Amboy, Cambria, Eagle Lake, Ellendale, Faribault, Garden City, Good Thunder, Janesville, Lake Crystal, Madison Lake, Mapleton, New Richland, Nicollet, Pemberton, St. Clair, St. Peter, Vernon Center and Waseca.

Twin Cities
CTEP members present on digital Inclusion projects in the Twin Cities, including a look at broadband equity.

Upcoming Events & Opportunities

We are looking to add MN broadband-related events to the Blandin on Broadband blog calendar. If you have an event you’d like to add please send it to

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

It is exciting to work with three new communities in the Blandin Broadband Communities Program.  This group of communities is unique in our Blandin team experience of working with 36  communities in four previous cohorts.  Each of these three communities is or is in the process of being very well-served.  Swift and Rock Counties have county-wide broadband service, mostly over FTTH, via new competitors Acira and Alliance Communications; both companies are cooperatives.  While HBC is now completing its Fiber to the Home network within the City of Cannon Falls, this area still has some broadband challenges in the rural area.  The strong connectivity in these communities puts the opportunity in front of community leaders to begin the effort to transform their communities, making full use of these advanced telecommunications networks.

Which of these communities, and other communities that are well-served, will invest in their own future to make their communities competitive for attracting people and investment?  This will take vision and commitment, demonstrated by new equipment and tech services purchases.  Employees will need training.  The Blandin Broadband Communities Program is designed to spur cross-sector community collaboration to ease tech investment decision-making and enable community-wide training for current and future workforce.  Over the next several months, these communities will be convening stakeholders and planning their future, designing projects that meet community needs, led by community champions.  With their information highway installed, their future is firmly in their hands!  BBCs, start your engines!

Many people are aware that Blandin Foundation uses the Intelligent Community framework in its work with community broadband and vitality initiatives.  Each year the Intelligent Community Forum ( conducts a competition to name the most intelligent communities in the world.  I encourage you to consider applying for this competition.  The initial application, available online at is not challenging and each participating community receives a benchmarking report on how it compares to other participating communities in the areas of broadband, knowledge workforce, innovation, digital equity, sustainability and advocacy.  I recommend this as a good use of time and as a way to educate local policy makers on what it takes to compete for people and investment in the global economy.

Rural Renaissance – broadband is paving the way in some MN rural communities

The latest Minnesota Monthly highlights the peril and the hope for rural communities…

Even in areas that weren’t hit hardest financially, changing times have made it hard for small communities to retain talented young people—who have migrated to cities—and, with them, diversity, opportunity, culture, and access to technology. To top it off, natural calamities (such as blizzards, flooding, and tornadoes) continue to shake rural communities’ literal foundations—a 1997 flood decimated East Grand Forks, and a 1998 St. Peter tornado caused $120 million in property damage. There are challenges in rural America that won’t be solved overnight.

But in the small towns of greater Minnesota, many things are also going right. Innovation can come from within, and here we have seen models of ongoing reinvention.

The article highlights broadband work on the Iron Range…

Like many rural communities across greater Minnesota, a brighter future in the Iron Range is tied to entrepreneurial growth afforded by broadband internet access—which varies based upon infrastructure, population, and investment.

“In the countryside around Ely and Hibbing, the broadband service pretty much disappears,” says Bill Coleman of St. Paul-based firm Community Technology Advisors (CTA). “That’s a challenge. Living there can be pretty attractive—if there’s connectivity. There’s a strong correlation in areas that are connected attracting younger workers and families.”

CTA runs feasibility studies to assess options for broadband access by area. Public versus private investment varies, and generally speaking, the fewer homes per mile, the greater the likelihood that public money will be necessary.

“Every community is different,” Coleman says, pointing out that while communities on the western end of the Iron Range have excellent connectivity, and east Lake and Cook counties offer further success stories, other communities have broadband access but see spotty services and rising prices. One encouraging sign is Ten Below Coworking space in Ely, which offers the town’s first fiberoptic broadband connection funded by a $15,000 Blandin Foundation grant.

And in Red Wing…

Red Wing, a southern town of about 16,500 has become known over the past century-plus as a business center for mills, factories, a once-bustling port, and, more recently, the shoes that bear the community’s name. And today, it’s showing the way for communities in rural Minnesota that aspire to be tech hubs.

Hiawatha Broadband Communications provides Red Wing with one of the state’s best broadband networks, which led to the 2013 creation of Red Wing Ignite. The business accelerator hosts events to connect tech entrepreneurs with advisors and investors and has launchd education initiatives that foster science and technology talent in young people.

“The key to innovation in greater Minnesota is collaboration,” says Ignite executive director Neela Mollgaard. “We can’t work in silos. We need to work together across organizational and city boundaries, and put the entrepreneur and business first.”

Red Wing was recently the only rural town to join the national US Ignite’s innovation-focused national network of about 20 Smart Gigabit Communities, alongside San Francisco, Austin, and the entire state of Utah. “This is so farmers in Goodhue County can use precision agriculture etechnology to improve their crop yields,” Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote in a message of congratulations to Red Wing Ignite. “Business owners will have the best technology to compete not just in the state but across the globe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border to Border Broadband: Transforming Minnesota – Oct 23-24 in Brainerd

I wanted to pass this on…

You’re Invited – Border to Border Broadband: Transforming Minnesota
October 23-24, 2018
Madden’s on Gull Lake – Brainerd, MN

We hope you will be joining us for Border to Border Broadband: Transforming Minnesota, our annual broadband conference, October 23-24 at Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd. This year’s event will showcase and celebrate the transformative power of community passion fueled by high-speed broadband networks. But communities won’t be able to take advantage of all that broadband can offer if not everyone has access to it, and the skills to use it. That’s why you won’t want to miss, Climbing the Digital Use Ladder: Digital Inclusion, Adoption and Innovation.

Digital Inclusion is a ladder with steps that increase constantly. While some are inching to get on the ladder — others are beating the path to the top. You’ll hear from both ends of the spectrum during this half-day session on Tuesday, October 23 — and walk away with a few ideas you can implement tomorrow, and a few to work toward in the future.

Presenters include the ever-growing PCs for People on their refurbished computer distribution program, remote exercise programs for seniors from the Winona Friendship Center, precision agriculture from a Minnesota farmer, virtual reality projects that help with training, tourism and civic engagement as well as a few training programs.

Check out the conference webpage for more details, including the preliminary agenda, and register today!