Federal broadband funding alone isn’t enough for Minnesota rural communities to meet state goals, finds new report

A press release from the Blandin Foundation about a new report written by Bill Coleman on the implementation of CAF 2 funded networks in two Minnesota communities…

A new Blandin Foundation report finds that telecommunications companies relying only on Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF II) to build broadband networks in rural Minnesota will not equip residents with speeds that meet the state’s broadband goals. The paper, “Impact of CAF II-funded Networks: Lessons Learned from Two Rural Minnesota Exchanges Left Underserved,” explores the effects federal broadband investments are having in Lindstrom and Braham, MN.

The CAF II program is designed to spur broadband development in unserved, high-cost rural areas. The program will infuse $2 billion into broadband projects that make service of at least 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload available to more than 3.6 million homes and businesses across America by 2020. To date, four companies (CenturyLink, Consolidated Communications, Frontier Communications, and Windstream Communications) in rural Minnesota have received $85.6 million to bring Internet service to 170,355 rural homes and businesses.

Using GIS base maps and a GPS-enabled camera, lead researcher Bill Coleman of Mahtomedi-based Community Technology Advisors, conducted field research to identify CAF II-funded broadband equipment in two rural Minnesota communities, Lindstrom and Braham, MN.

After mapping available speeds to end customers based on their distance from the broadband-fed equipment, Coleman found that, even after CAF II investment, the majority of land within these two exchanges will have access to speeds less that Minnesota’s 2022 state broadband goal of 25/3 mbps. These improvements will fall severely short of Minnesota’s 2026 goal of 100/20 mbps.

“Minnesota has set ambitious broadband speed goals that position our communities for future success,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation. “It’s important that decision makers know that, without weaving together local, state and federal resources, CAF II-funded projects will be inadequate to support most broadband-based economic and community development. This will hold rural communities back from reaching the potential they imagine for themselves.”

Minnesota can look to examples of communities that have partnered with Internet providers to combine local, state and federal resources to finance and build networks to offer faster service than CAF II-funded networks alone.

Fish Lake Township, located in Chisago County, rallied community residents to support a $1.23 million bond for broadband projects. They combined local money with a $1.8 million Border to Border Broadband Grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and $1.5 million in CAF II funding to build a world-class, fiber-to-the-home network.

“There is a way forward for communities to get the network they want, but it will take collaboration at all levels,” said Joselyn. “Reaching Minnesota’s broadband goals will position our state – both rural and urban communities – to stay competitive in the growing digital economy.”

The full report is online at https://blandinfoundation.org/content/uploads/Impact-of-CAF-II-funded-Networks_WEB.pdf

West Virginia is looking to Minnesota (Blandin) research report for path for better broadband

The Register-Herald suggests that West Virginia look at the report that Bill Coleman and I wrote last fall (Measuring Impact of Broadband in Five Minnesota Communities) to make plans for their broadband future…

With growing talk and debate on how to expand broadband in the Mountain State, leaders might want to look to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for a path forward.

A recent study published by the Blandin Foundation and completed by Treacy Information Services and Community Technology Advisors, “Measuring Impact of Broadband in 5 Rural MN Communities” takes a look at the efforts in a variety of rural counties spread throughout Minnesota and how those efforts have paid off.

The demographic similarities between Beckley and southern West Virginia with one county in the study are striking.

Using formulas to predict future values, gathering community data and host community interviews, researchers with the study traveled to Beltrami, Crow Wing, Goodhue, Lake and Sibley counties to get an on-the-ground perspective of the issues.

The report goes on to specifically compare the Minnesota communities with specific West Virginian communities.

Blandin report on Public ROI for Public investment in rural broadband in Daily Yonder

It was fun to talk to Tim Marema from the Daily Yonder in Austin (Texas) after presenting with Bernadine Joselyn on the Case Studies Measuring the Impact of Broadband in Five Minnesota Communities – which I worked on with Bill Coleman. Then it was funny to see that interview in the Daily Yonder yesterday.

One question I really liked was sort – why do the study?

Marema: What interested me in this report is that someone could look at this for their own community and, in a rough and ready way, come up with a back-of-the-envelope estimate on what the public return on investment might be in high-speed fiber-to-the-home. Are the methods you used useful to other communities that are looking at broadband investment? 

Treacy: I think it would be …  Because all of a sudden if you’re having a conversation about how much tax money are we willing to put into a solution, well that factors in. I mean if it’s going to increase taxes by only $100 a year, and you know that you’re going to see an increase in value on your home, and an increase in economic benefit of $1,850 [on average for each house], well that $100 seems pretty minor. 

We’re looking at helping people do that back on the envelope math at the broadband conference this fall. (That’s still in development.)  I do hope people are able to use the formulas to figure out ROI for the community and household.

Blandin Broadband eNews: Federal and MN policymakers on broadband

Map of MN broadband grant projects

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. https://wp.me/p3if7-4D6

Funding Available from USDA
USDA is seeking applications for grants under the Socially-Disadvantaged Groups Grant program to provide technical assistance to socially-disadvantaged groups in rural areas. There is room for broadband-related projects. https://wp.me/p3if7-4D2

MN Broadband Task Force May Meeting
In May, the Task Force heard from experts on cyber security at the State, the Education Superhighways (including an update on e-rate and impact on Minnesota Schools) and a presentation on bitcoin and blockchain. https://wp.me/p3if7-4C0

Minnesota Legislature – actions and reactions
In the end, no funding was dedicated to broadband grants in the Legislature because the grants were part of a large supplemental budget bill that was vetoed. Below are articles related to that ongoing conversation in reverse chronological order

Federal Legislature – actions and notes

Provider News

Local Broadband News

Lincoln County
Lincoln County Broadband Feasibility Study finds wireless is more affordable but not permanent fix https://wp.me/p3if7-4AU

Murray County
Murray County Broadband Feasibility Study finds fiber in stages may be possible over years, fixed wireless already available. https://wp.me/p3if7-4AK

Murray & Pipestone Counties
Starting with a feasibility study, moving to getting funding and deploying broadband is happening in communities in Murray and Pipestone Counties through various projects. https://wp.me/p3if7-4Cb

Nobles County
Telecompetitor posts a profile of Nobles County and their journey toward better broadband. https://wp.me/p3if7-4Br

Pickwick is getting online thanks to MN State Funds and HBC https://wp.me/p3if7-4D0

Pipestone County
Pipestone County Broadband Feasibility Study finds that building broadband will require grants https://wp.me/p3if7-4AX

Healthcare facilities in Pipestone County need broadband for telehealth applications https://wp.me/p3if7-4Bx

Minnesota WiFi is bringing service to residential and business subscribers across six counties around Rochester. https://wp.me/p3if7-4C4

St Paul
Saint Paul Public Library extends computer and wifi access to Giant Wash Coin Laundry https://wp.me/p3if7-4C6

Yellow Medicine County
Yellow Medicine County Broadband Feasibility Study finds wireless is a temporary solution, grants needed for fiber builds https://wp.me/p3if7-4AN

Upcoming Events & Opportunities

We are looking to add MN broadband-related events to the Blandin on Broadband blog calendar. https://wp.me/P3if7-4yG If you have an event you’d like to add please send it to atreacy@treacyinfo.com

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

I hope that the screeching halt to the legislative session does not bring an equally painful pause to community efforts to improve Minnesota’s broadband progress.  Those areas with quality broadband are moving fast ahead of the unconnected places.  Economic developers forced to work on improving broadband are left at the starting gate while developers in connected communities are supporting creative entrepreneurs, transforming their workforce to meet tomorrow’s needs and creating a place in the global economy for their community.


The loss of $15 million to the Border to Border grant is a huge blow to the many rural places – counties, cities and townships – that have been organizing, strategizing and perfecting broadband implementation plans.  The lack of state funding will put more onus on local resources to fill the gap the provider partners need to make their business case – whether their ROI hurdle is 36, 60 or 120 months.  Communities will have to be smart in how they participate in these projects.  If the funding balance swings too far to the public side, public ownership of networks will require serious consideration.  Communities can then decide whether to partner with a single or with multiple operators to offer services over the public infrastructure.  There are excellent working models for this framework around the country and elsewhere.


As the candidates at all levels, maybe most importantly at the local level, hit the campaign trail in the coming weeks, questions about their real commitment to rural broadband deployment need to be asked and answered.  Be specific in your questions and demand specific answers and commitments.  Many candidates will not know much about broadband besides that their prospective constituents want it and need it.  Use the MN Rural Broadband Coalition website (mnbroadbandcoalition.com) to educate the candidates in your area.

Most of all, keep working on your broadband plans and keep developing relationships with prospective partners.  There will likely be opportunities for which the prepared will be ready and the unprepared will miss out.  Don’t miss out!

Save the date Oct 23-24 for the 2018 Fall Broadband conference: Border to Border Broadband: Transforming Minnesota

It’s not too early to start getting excited for the Fall Broadband Conference….

Rural Minnesota communities are “above average” in broadband access and use; 78% of rural Minnesota households enjoy fixed internet access at speeds the FCC defines as broadband, compared to 61% of rural residents nationally who have access to those speeds.

Drawing inspiration from around the state, this year’s conference will showcase this success with a look at the variety of approaches that rural communities have developed to expand broadband’s impact, leverage investments, and bridge the digital divide.

Join policymakers, economic and community development professionals, and community broadband champions from across the state for this annual opportunity to Learn — Connect — Engage

More information and registration coming soon!

Broadband service spreading in rural Murray, Pipestone counties

The Globe reports on a process that Nobles, Murray and Pipestone Counties have used to move to better broadband in their areas…

The widespread utility of broadband has led several southwest Minnesota counties to invest their time and money into researching the topic, and make serious progress in the process.

In 2016, Nobles County conducted a broadband feasibility study with CCG and Slayton-based Finley Engineering. Shortly after, the state’s Border-to-Border grant program awarded Lismore Cooperative Telephone nearly $3 million to create a hybrid fiber and wireless network that will provide baseline broadband speeds to most of the county and ultra-fast fiber to hundreds of homes. The project is expected to be completed by mid-2018.

Last year, Murray County and Pipestone County partnered with four other southwest Minnesota counties and the Blandin Foundation to conduct feasibility studies — also done by Finley and CCG — in hopes of getting a similar outcome.

Pipestone County’s study was completed in February 2017, and later that year, Ruthton-based Woodstock Telephone received a $363,851 grant from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband to provide fixed wireless broadband to rural Pipestone County.

Murray County is still working on access…

“The county does not plan to build a broadband network but is open to talking with providers who are interested in extending service to our citizens and may need financial assistance to do so,” Rucker said. “Murray County had the feasibility study completed so that any provider who wants to extend broadband service to our unserved and underserved areas could use the study as background to apply for state or federal grants to do so.”

The county has seen significant broadband investment from Woodstock since 2015, when it installed two wireless broadband towers around Lake Shetek. It continued over the last two years, installing eight internet coverage sites in the area, including towers in Lake Wilson, Slayton and Edgerton. The company plans to add another tower south of Chandler this year.

The towers, which are fed with fiber, provide 50Mbps download speeds at a range of six miles, according to Terry Nelson, Woodstock general manager. The speeds and service can vary, however, as wireless internet can be disrupted by geographical features such as hills, trees and windmills.

“We’ve done wireless in a lot of these areas, but there’s still little pockets that we can’t hit with some of our wireless,” Nelson said. “I would definitely never say the county is 100 percent covered, because it’s not.”

An October 2017 report from the state found 99.8 percent of Murray County households have access to 25/3 broadband — up from 50.47 percent in July 2016 — and more than 52.9 percent can access 100/20 — up from 41.56 percent. The numbers in Pipestone County are 97.87 and 79.73 percent — up from 79.36 and 44.54 percent, respectively — but Dawson said the numbers shouldn’t be relied on.

Counties recognize wireless as a means to meeting 2022 state goals, but at looking for fiber to reach 2026 goals…

Minnesota wants 25/3 speeds mandated statewide by 2022. By 2026, the required numbers will be raised to 100/20. Reaching those speeds consistently is nearly impossible with wireless internet, Dawson said.

“The wireless that we’re talking about is capable of that within a mile or so, but you would have to put a cell site at every farm — that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Instead, broadband experts agree the ultimate solution is delivering fiber-to-the-home, reliably delivering 1-gigabit (1000Mbps) speeds.

Lismore Telephone is installing fiber to every household in Leota and Wilmont and hundreds of homes along its 135-mile fiber ring, but it is expensive. In addition to $6 million between the state and Nobles County, the county had to throw in an addition $1 million in cash and $2.57 million in taxable general obligation tax abatement bonds to make it work.

That’s with fiber costing around $20,000 per mile, and the price won’t be coming down any time soon, Dawson said.

“You are already in a state where fiber is as cheap as it will possibly be,” Dawson said. “With 50-foot deep soil, they can get it in real easy. Minnesota can bury fiber for $20,000 a mile, where in a lot of parts of the country, that’s $50,000 a mile.”

For Woodstock, a successful fiber formula has been delivering directly to large businesses, where the return on investment makes it doable.

Broadband Communities in Austin Texas – talking up Minnesota’s successes

Bernadine Joselyn, Bill Coleman and I are in Austin talking about Minnesota at the Broadband Communities in Austin Texas. Specifically, we are talking about the Case Studies Measuring the Impact of Broadband in Five Minnesota Communities.

First – people are pretty impressed with Minnesota. We have broadband grants, we have an awesome Office of Broadband Development, we have smart economic developers and everyone seems well above average.

Second – people have had good questions – like how can they bring the info in the study to their own communities. The answer is that it’s helpful to know that when public funds are spent on broadband, the public benefits. Specifically households with access to broadband see an increased economic benefit of $1850 per year and the value of the house goes up three percent. Those numbers are average estimates but given the stories we’ve collected, they seem conservative. And knowing that benefit per household has got to make it easier to quantify the benefits of investment.

Third – we are also able to make the point that to really drive economic growth, a community needs broadband (and we’re talking MN state goal of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up by 2026) and needs help using it with economic developers, educators, healthcare providers – people who help train, promote and support smarter use of broadband. And that’s what we were proud to show off in Texas this week.