eNews: MN Monthly Recap June 2022: Legislative & funding updates

Blandin Community Broadband Program Update
While Minnesota plans for federal investments in digital equity and adoption, Blandin Foundation will be exploring the ways they can adapt to make sure rural community interests are centered and supported. As they grow into a new chapter of their work, they will be phasing out existing broadband programming and grantmaking.

Save the Date! 2022 Blandin Broadband Conference
Join the Blandin Foundation for the final Blandin broadband conference at Grand Casino Mille Lacs on October 11-13 to explore how to maximize public and private broadband investments in your community.

Call for MN Border-to-Border Broadband Applications
Applications are open for Border to Border Grants. The funding available is $95 million. As designated in the 2022 legislative session, $25 million has been appropriated from state general revenue funds as available funding for the next round of the Minnesota broadband grant program.

MTA and MREA ask PUC to relook at LTD’s status as ETC
Minnesota Telephone Alliance (MTA) and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA) filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, asking them to revoke the ETC status for LTD Broadband. LTD has qualified to apply for federal (RDOF) money. For more than a year, communities who might be served by LTD have been waiting to hear on their status. Many have concerns about LTD’s ability. LTD needs the ETC designation from the MN PUC to qualify for the funds. The PUC asked for community comments on the petition to look again at LTD; those comments have been filed and currently there is an opportunity for others to reply to the comments. Then the PUC will decide if they will look into the revoking the ETC designation.

MN Broadband Task Force Meeting May 2022: Cybersecurity
The Task Force heard from several experts from the field of cybersecurity. They talked about the Legislature including a letter the Task Force had sent to the policymakers asking them to consider a greater investment in broadband grants than had been on the table.

State Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

Federal Policy

Vendor News

Local Broadband News

Appleton & Madison
Federal broadband funding lessons from 2010 help with funding today: Madison & Appleton MN finally getting fiber!

Bemidji
Bemidji’s broadband leaves them poised to succeed – says Dave Hengel

Ceylon
Ceylon approves broadband contract with FREA (Martin County)

Crosby & Ironton MN
CTC and Crow Wing County pursue CARES funds for Crosby and Ironton MN

Dawson
After 12 years the Computer Commuter (mobile computer lab) rides into the sunset (LqP County)

Duluth
Duluth resident skeptical of provider follow through with public funds

Grand Marais
Grand Marais broadband project nominated for national award

Hutchinson
DEED Commissioner and Nuvera CEO talk about increased need for upload speeds in Hutchinson MN

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County, Charter Communications partner on $800,000 broadband project to serve 170 customers with ARPA funds

Le Sueur County
Le Sueur County Broadband Fair getting local attention to build greatest demand for better broadband

Litchfield
Litchfield gets fiber from Meeker Cooperative (Meeker County)

Little Falls
Little Falls and Morrison County making plans for better broadband

Madison
Madison Mercantile: When broadband makes community easier (LqP County)

Mankato
Mankato Clinic expands virtual care across 13 facilities (Blue Earth County)

Rural Minnesota
Being online helps older adults learn about and access some activities in rural Minnesota

St Louis County
St. Louis County says yes to Rice Lake broadband project

Upcoming Events, Opportunities and Resources

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

As my work with Blandin Foundation comes to a close, I want to pay tribute to all of the community leaders with whom I have worked with over the past 15 years.  Broadband development in rural places is never easy.  Community broadband initiatives can require hundreds of hours of staff and volunteer time with no guarantee of success.  Community leaders never asked for this role; they generally have their hands full with traditional community infrastructure like sewer, water and roads.  Insightful leaders recognized, some sooner than others, that the community needed to get engaged with energy and persistence to stimulate investment.  Minnesota is lucky to have leaders like those who have participated in the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition.  If not for those volunteers, the legislature might have never continued to fund the broadband program.

It has been very gratifying and lots of fun to work on broadband with all of you.  Thank you!

Save the Date! 2022 Blandin Broadband Conference

From the Blandin Foundation

It’s time to celebrate!

We’re excited to be back together, in-person with you for our 2022 broadband conference.

With robust public investments in both broadband access and use, the path forward for digitally connected and thriving rural Minnesota communities has never been clearer. Unprecedented resources are coming and communities with a plan will benefit the most.

Join us at Grand Casino Mille Lacs on October 11-13 to explore how to maximize public and private broadband investments in your community. Hear from communities who have forged the trail for better infrastructure and graduated from fighting for access to creating avenues for every community member to have the devices and skills they need.

We will be in touch soon with more details, registration, and lodging information. 

After 12 years the Computer Commuter rides into the sunset (LqP County)

Mary Magnuson and I finished our tour of Western MN, with a final visit to the LqP Computer Commuter, a mobile computer lab and classroom that has been touring 6 sites a week around Lac qui Parle County. In 12 years, they have served about 500 people out of a county of 7,000. It received early funding from the Blandin Foundation. We thought it might be around for 5 years tops but Mary Quick has kept it running well past expected lifespan.

Mary drives the tricked out former hotel van around helping people use technology. Originally, the bus served a lot of students with new computers and free printing but in the last few years the patrons have aged. While we were in the library, Mary and I heard from the librarian that she had spent time in the Computer Commuter using the CC computer to watch videos while trying to learn new software on her own laptop. So many people have great stories like that. In fact, if you have a grandparent from LqP who knows how to use Zoom, you can probably thank Mary!

Many of the patrons have helped keep the Computer Commuter going the last few years with donations and generous memorial donations. Mary is moving out of the area but, as she says in the video, she’s there to help anyone who is interested in a similar project in their community.

Fed broadband funding lessons from 2010 help with funding today: Madison & Appleton MN finally getting fiber!

It feels like the before-times, out on the road talking to folks in rural Minnesota about broadband and more. Traveling with Mary Magnuson, we made a few stops this week, starting with the UMVRDC (Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission) to chat with Dawn Hegland and Kevin Ketelson.

UMVRDC supports Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in Western MN. Broadband-wise this list includes some of the best and worst served counties in Minnesota.

Communities need awareness and education

Dawn has been working with the Blandin Foundation since the early days of MIRC (2009); she knows her stuff. Yet, as I say some of their counties are well served and others aren’t. One reason is that some communities are willing to invest, and some have not been. It makes the case for continued need for awareness and education.

Communities like LqP were early into the game, getting ARRA funding back around 2010, when some communities were still asking what broadband was. Post pandemic few communities (or community leaders) need a definition for broadband but the ones who needed it before were at a serious disadvantage during the pandemic shut downs. Swaths of communities were left to try to work, study and stay healthy in communities with inadequate and unreliable Internet access. While just down the road, folks had fiber.

So, while generally people understand the need now (and it remains a top concern in the annual regional survey), people don’t understand the ins and outs of technology. People think “the government will take care of it” or don’t appreciate the difference between fiber and satellite. Decision makers are often consumers online (getting email or watching videos) not producers (uploading work files, homework videos or selling online). They think because they are happy with local connections that others will be as well. But that is often not the case, especially if they are trying to recruit new businesses or young families to the area.

Understanding the landscape helps

Understanding the technology is only half the battle for community leaders. Especially now, you need to understand the funding options because rural broadband is expensive and a lot of State and Federal money will be going to deploy broadband over the next few years. But the applications are onerous and it’s important to find the right fit to serve the whole community, which leads to a long broadband story in the area with a soon-to-be happy ending.

As I mentioned earlier, LqP was an early adopter. They got federal funding for FTTH more than 10 years ago … to most of the county. Unfortunately, Madison, the county seat, was not eligible for the upgrade because the maps showed that they were already “served.” In 2010, that meant they has access of speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 up. So for 10 years rural LqP has had fiber and the county seat has not. They have been actively looking for help to funding to support fiber deployment (because even the county seat in LqP is pretty rural) but had not been successful until now.

Last summer, UMVRDC helped Madison and Appleton apply for CARES funding from the state to build better broadband. (Appleton was in a similar position as Madison, but in Swift County.) The requirements and conditions of the grants were different than other opportunities and it turns out a good fit for both areas. There were awarded the money and Acira is working on Madison now and soon to be moving to Appleton. (Mary and I happened to run into folks from Acira in town too. They were excited to finish the jobs they started 10+ years ago!)

While I’m happy to share the good news of Madison and Appleton, I offer it also as a cautionary tale. Again, unprecedented funding is going into broadband in the next few years but most folks I’ve heard from feel that it won’t cover universal broadband and areas left unserved (or underserved) will have a difficult time catching up once the money is gone. That gets me back to the first point – communities need awareness and education.

TC Business looks at MN digital divide and support to close it – including the Blandin Foundation

Twin Cities Business looks at the digital divide in Minnesota, especially in a COVID (post-COVID?) world..

In fact, a study early in the pandemic by Common Sense Media and Kids Action showed that more than 150,000 Minnesota students lacked the devices needed to connect to remote schooling, and another 250,000 lacked access to the internet. Communities of color, rural families, and students in tribal nations are disproportionately affected because of higher poverty rates in these Minnesota populations.

The digital divide can be documented far beyond the rural parts of Minnesota. It includes many urban and suburban families, children, and adults who are not connected, nor do they have the devices to do so.

They also look at some of the efforts in Minnesota striving to close the gap and/or keep the gap shallow…

ConnectedMN is an alliance of philanthropic, business, and government organizations that distributes grant money to nonprofits to support access to devices, connectivity, and computer training in specific regions and among targeted communities. …

Standalone nonprofits, including PCs for People and Tech Dump, profiled in this issue as winners of TCB Community Impact Awards, get computers into the hands of people who need them and ensure that recipients have the connectivity and training to use them. In 2021, PCs for People provided 55,000 computers to low-income Minnesotans and helped 18,000 people with internet connectivity.

[Thanks to PC for People for a correction: they distributed over 57,000 computers and did connect over 18,000 households, but that was national, not just Minnesota. Added June 18.]

Philanthropies such as the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids have worked for years on broadband access for Minnesotans. Blandin’s early advocacy and sustained efforts began back in 2003. Its overarching goal: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.”

The Blandin on Broadband blog on the foundation’s website incorporates important updates on the availability of federal funds to support access projects in rural counties, such as the new federal ReConnect program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That program aims to distribute grants and loans for eligible rural communities that want to provide broadband service to local residents.

Long-term efforts like Blandin’s, collaboratives like ConnectedMN, nonprofits like PCs for People, and government investments such as the federal infrastructure act are all helping to accelerate change for low-income, rural, and tribal communities that have long needed such help.

Grand Marais broadband project nominated for national award

From The Ranger newsletter

Grand Marais broadband project nominated for national award
Arrowhead Intelligent Region (AIR) is a broadband partnership that was launched last year between Blandin Foundation, Northland Foundation and Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation. The trio made available a pool of grant funds for local organizations working to support a broadband-fueled economy in northeastern Minnesota.

Minnesota Children’s Press of Grand Marais was awarded a $35,000 grant from the funding pool to deliver broadband education services. Children’s Press launched Litter Lab, a program designed to teach elementary aged children how to use technology to help solve a community litter problem with the potential to pollute Lake Superior.

Approximately 65 children ages 5 to 13 collected litter last summer in the harbor area of downtown Grand Marias. The children sorted, categorized and inventoried the litter according to the GPS coordinates where it was found. Some of the categories included clothing, food packaging, plastic bottles and containers, general paper products, and hygiene products such as plastic dental picks. Their field data was then entered into ArcGIS, an advanced online GIS engineering platform made by Esri that uses interactive maps and data-driven analysis tools that rely on top-tier broadband service to manage  data. ArcGIS produced reports that considered the types of litter,  coordinates of the litter’s location and proximity of nearby trash and recycling receptacles. From the reports, the kids could develop hypotheses about why litter was more prevalent in certain areas of the harbor. They also theorized about alternate, less bulky and non-plastic packaging design and options for some of the more commonly found items such as drink cups and bottles.

“As the project progressed, the kids began to see themselves as problem-solvers,” said Anne Brataas, founder of Minnesota Children’s Press. “The report data spurred great group discussions about effective placement of community trash receptacles, size and shapes of receptacles to accommodate varying sizes of waste items, and potential solutions for reducing litter.”

Brataas believes the success of the Grand Marais project could prompt the concept spreading into other communities across northeastern Minnesota. Communities can use the data and reports to make decisions about community recycling and the placement, design and signage for public trash receptacles. It could also lead to a mass rethink of how people stay hydrated such as bottle-refilling stations to reduce the amount of single-use plastic water bottles.

Littler Lab will be recognized at the Esri Education Summit on July 10 in San Diego, California. Brataas was chosen to present preliminary findings of the Grand Marais project,  “Kids Thinking Spatially, Acting Sustainably” at the annual Esri conference during the session titled Building Environmental Literacy Through Experiential Learning.

“Litter Lab is an excellent example of how technology in northeastern Minnesota can be used to creatively solve community problems,” said Whitney Ridlon, Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation community development representative. “It engaged the youngest of our rural population in the broadband economy by showing them how technology and internet connectivity can be used for the betterment of their very own community.”

Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation supported the AIR broadband initiative with $150,000 in Development Partnership grants. For more information email Whitney Ridlon at Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation or call her at 218-735-3004.

OPPORTUNITY: Job opening Research Officer at the Blandin Foundation

From the Blandin Foundation

The Research Officer is responsible for designing & conducting research studies using qualitative and quantitative analysis to support and advance the foundation’s strategic work. This position presents research findings via written reports that include highly professional data visualizations for internal and external audiences. The Research Officer will monitor research developments and community trends related to specific issue areas and is responsible for maintaining an in-house library and library of digital research assets.

More information and application available here.

Deadline to apply: May 22, 2022 or until position is filled.

Introducing Blandin Foundation Rural Leadership Boost Grants

From the Blandin Foundation…

With decades of commitment to rural leaders, the Blandin Foundation is honored to extend that commitment by announcing the Rural Leadership Boost Grant Opportunity.

The last two years of complex crises have taken a toll on leaders across the United States. We seek to recognize the critical need for resources in small communities with limited resources and sparser populations who do more with less. We believe that Rural Leaders, the Dreamers & Doers, have the greatest ability to effect good community process and impact locally.

We encourage applicants to be brave, visionary and creative. You are best equipped to tell us what you need to bring people together and begin a new chapter that better positions your community to dream and meet this moment.

Rural Leadership Boost Grants

  • Range from $5,000 to $150,000
  • Communities of 20,000 or fewer
  • Projects that help communities regain balance and momentum as we all emerge from the pandemic
  • Work that aligns with Blandin Foundation’s vision, mission and values.
  • Nonprofit, government or tribal organizations can apply, or serve as fiscal agents for community efforts

Any rural leader can submit a Letter of Interest by May 18, 2022 to be considered for a grant. Select candidates will be invited to submit a full proposal and will be notified in June if project funding is awarded. If you have any questions, please send them to info@blandinfoundation.org.

Thank you for your perseverance. We look forward to hearing from you!

Malissa Bahr, Director of Leadership

Sonja Merrild, Director of Grants

Go to Letter of Interest Form

A great opportunity from an organization that understands rural communities.

eNews: MN Monthly Recap May 2022: Legislative updates & County ranking usages

Second looks at the Minnesota Broadband Ranking

In April we took a look at how local broadband proponents can use the Minnesota Broadband Rankings:

MN Broadband Task Force April 2022 notes: Funding Options

In April, the Minnesota Broadband Task Force learned about broadband funding opportunities coming up in the months ahead.

Many Minnesotans thankful for broadband – many still need it

State Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

Federal Policy

Vendor News

Local Broadband News

Cloquet
Cloquet Broadband Committee recommends partnership with CTC

Dakota County
Dakota County Broadband Survey – take it or learn from it

Duluth
Duluth hires EntryPoint to look at fiber open access models

Hennepin County
Hennepin County and Minnetrista partner for Midco Broadband Expansion

Hutchinson
Hutchinson Area Leaders meet with DEED to talk broadband (McLeod County)

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County spends almost $500,000 on ARPA on broadband in Hawick and around Long Lake

Greater Minnesota Partnership visits Kandiyohi County to talk about rural needs – such as broadband

Lakeville
Lakeville looks at $300,000 of ARP funding for broadband

Le Sueur
Le Sueur County Broadband Fair – well attended, good questions and tour of local wellness center

Lincoln
Lincoln County students learn about downsides of Internet and Social media

Mankato
Fiber coming to Mankato, North Mankato and Eagle Lake (Blue Earth, Nicollet, and Le Sueur counties)

Willmar
Willmar City Council looking at fiber to industrial park with VIBRANT

Upcoming Events, Opportunities and Resources

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

The opportunity for great broadband all across Minnesota – Border to Border – is upon us due to federal funding.  The question for us all is “Are we prepared to maximize the long-term value of these pending investments?”  Personally, I don’t think so.  Instead, I fear that the state will continue to fund seemingly random projects with little regard for a systematic approach to the goal.

When I work with communities – whether tribal governments, counties, economic regions or townships – time is invested in coming to consensus on community vision, and then developing strategies to achieve that vision. Vision and strategy elements might include symmetrical services, affordability, reliability and customer service.  Communities are also focused on having at least one provider that is ready to be a great community and economic development partner.  I have seen time after time where these compelling visions and smart strategies have resulted in countywide fiber to the home networks that provides a platform for long-term community vitality.  Or, at a minimum, a planned approach leading to significant progress towards the vision.

There are many states that are actually taking the lead in broadband planning and development.  Recent examples include a 38-county consortium in California that is partnering with Utopia to build a rural open-access fiber network.  Vermont is all-in on Communications Union Districts.  New Mexico is partnering with community-focused broadband providers on a statewide broadband network (MN already has this through the Aurora network assembled by community-oriented providers).  These are great examples of state leadership which we have not seen here in Minnesota.  The Governor’s Broadband Task Force Report focuses on almost exclusively on maps and grant details with no regard to vision.  Frankly, when I hear about the “Minnesota broadband model”, I am thinking that we have a Model T rather than a state-of-the-art Tesla.

Minnesota has created and relied on an inconsistently funded broadband grant program as its primary broadband development strategy.  The approved grants cover the gamut in terms of geographic size and amount, thus leaving pockets of adjacent, unserved residents with no promise of improved service in the future.  In the last funding round, projects with projected upload speeds of 20 Mbps were funded which are guaranteed to not meet tomorrow’s needs.

Minnesota’s application to the US Treasury for the Capital Funds has not been made public, but I assume it mirrors the current Border to Border Grant Program.  The upcoming BEAD application process represents the last, best chance for Minnesota to develop a broadband vision and strategy that helps Minnesota achieve the vision created through a collaborative process at the 2015 Minnesota Border to Border Conference: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.”  The BEAD application process is a great opportunity for Minnesota to use the BEAD process to update this vision AND develop smart strategies to achieve the vision.  Community broadband champions know what’s best for their communities and regions and have great ideas on how to achieve the vision often accumulated through years of effort.  Let’s not miss this opportunity!

What can we learn from 2020 MN Broadband County Rankings

Each year we take a look at Minnesota county rankings and create profiles to help understand which communities are having success and what aspects of that success might help set policy or be replicable in other communities. The Office of Broadband Development track percentage of each county with access to broadband as defined by three speeds 25 Mbps down and 3 up, 100 Mbps down and 20 up and symmetrical Gig. This report looks at access to 100/20, which is the state speed goal for 2026.

The latest round, we have the advantage of getting updated rankings just a few months after publishing the profiles so we are better able to ascribe cause and effect.

Lessons from Top Ranking Counties

County percent Ranking last year ranking
Rock 99.93 1 1
Lac qui Parle (LqP) 99.83 2 3
Ramsey 99.74 3 2
Clearwater 99.59 4 4
Beltrami 99.24 5 6
Lincoln 99.03 6 7
Hennepin 98.51 7 8
Pennington 98.19 8 10
Big Stone 98.05 9 9
Swift 97.45 10 5

There are lessons we learn from the top-ranking counties. But the lessons from the top have more to do with being dealt a good poker hand than how to play with a bad hand. (And in some ways, as we’ll see, the bottom ranking counties confirm that being dealt a good hand is an undeniable benefit.)

A provider who is engaged in providing top ranking services is a gift to a community. Of the top ten counties, at least six are served by cooperatives, two are metro-based counties and two are served by local providers. The metro counties have the advantage of being profitable to serve so it’s an easy call to invest in upgrades. Cooperatives and local providers tend to be invested in the local community as well as their profit margin; they know that if broadband helps local businesses those local businesses can remain loyal customers and perhaps upgrade their service tier. Cooperatives have the advantage of stated priority to serve their members and slower expectations for return on investment. Often we’ll hear a cooperative plan for a 10+ year return on investment cycle.

That doesn’t mean that these communities haven’t worked hard to get better broadband. Several counties (Rock, LqP, Big Stone and Swift) have worked with providers to get Minnesota Border to Border grants. That help has included making a financial investment as well as help with writing grants and making the case that broadband is a necessary investment to residents and decision makers. Lincoln County worked on a feasibility study and used it to work with their local cooperative. Being a engaged partner can make a county  more attractive but only if the provider is willing to partner.

Lessons from Top Ranking Counties

County percent Ranking last year ranking
Murray 54.37 78 77
Aitkin 52.77 79 78
Carlton 52.04 80 79
Traverse 50.97 81 80
Isanti 50.43 82 81
Todd 48.38 83 82
Yellow Medicine 48.07 84 83
Redwood 45.21 85 85
Pine 39.72 86 86
Kanabec 25.81 87 87

There are also lessons to be learned by looking at the bottom ranked counties. There are assumptions you might make – do they have lower population density, are these poorer counties or are they not interested in broadband. Two of the counties are listed in counties with lowest population density; but so is one of the best served counties. Many of these counties are listed as having lowest median income but again so are some of the best-served counties. Another assumption is that these counties have not been interested or engaged in getting better broadband in their communities but actually all but one of them have worked with the Blandin Foundation on expanding broadband access and/or use in their counties. Many have worked for years on getting better broadband.

Four of the counties at the bottom of the list are primarily served by a national provider who has received federal funding to build broadband but only to speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 up; although they can build to faster speeds. The difficulty is that this prevents other providers from wanting to go into the area. It especially make it difficult to pursue a Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grants; they are set up so that incumbent providers can challenge an application in their area if they serve the area or plan to serve it.

(Potential sidebar?)
Federal funding has the potential to open some doors although it also has the potential to make it worse. Unprecedented amounts of funding will be going into deploy better broadband in the next few years. How they dole out funding and speed requirements will impact the success.

Lessons from the Most Improved Counties

Twenty-nine counties improved their ranking in the last year. Most bumped up a spot or two but a few made significant changes.

County percent Ranking last year ranking delta
McLeod 77.65 49 74 25
Brown 83.27 34 50 16
Houston 83.16 36 51 15
Faribault 65.51 72 84 8
Meeker 70.73 64 72 8

Four of the five most improved counties were awarded grants in 2021; that includes McLeod County, Brown, Faribault and Meeker. Houston got a fairly sizable grant ($2.8 million) in 2019. It seems likely that improvement can be attributed to the grants. It seems simplistic to say that but it’s also nice to see an impact in State funding.

McLeod and Houston Counties have not been focused on improving broadband. They had providers that were invested in getting grants in their area. In fact, both counties were beneficiaries of grants were multi-county in scope. The hope is that this ignites an interest in more engagement but there is no guarantee.

The other three counties have seen local engagement in broadband:

Lessons from Last Year’s Most Improved

A frustrating theme has emerged looking at the counties and broadband – actions and engagement from the county does not ensure broadband success. Nothing beats an invested provider. But in the last couple of years, there have been counties that have taken steps that are worth consideration and none more so than Lincoln County, the most improved county at last ranking. They went from 40 percent access to 100/20 to 99 percent – boosting them from 83 to 7 in a year! They have been active in trying to get better broadband for years and there was a renewed interest going back to 2016.

With help from the Blandin Foundation, Lincoln released a feasibility study in 2018, which indicated Fiber to the Premise would cost $8.5 million in eastern Lincoln County. The community was able to go to the provider (ITC) with the budget and maps.

The plan included an overbuild of some Frontier areas but did not include Tyler and Ivanhoe. ITC said they were able to invest $2.5 million and looked at CAF reverse auction. That left the community with a $6 million bill to make up the difference. They applied for a Minnesota Border to Border grant; they found a way to include Tyler and Ivanhoe, which brought the project to $10 million. Unfortunately, they did not get the funding.

The county decided to move ahead on their own. They were able to bond for $5 million. The area is fortunate that they have seen expansion in wind industry, which has led to production tax, which could be used for a special project such as broadband.

A few actions worth highlighting feasibility study, partnerships and agile resilience. Having a feasibility study provides a roadmap and makes it easier to approach potential provider partners as well as funders and to help policy and decision makers understand their options.

County Broadband Profiles and County Rankings as tools for Preparing for broadband grants

Minnesota is looking at an unprecedented amount of money coming in (from State and Federal funds) to support deployment of better broadband. Today, policymakers and government agencies are processing how to spend that money but opportunity is around the corner. So what can your county do to prepare? Assess your current situation. We have the tools that can help:

There are a couple of questions to help guide your assessment:

  1. How does your county compare?
  2. What are your roadblocks?
  3. Do you have a potential provider partner?
  4. Do you have community support?

How do you compare?

Legislators look at two numbers to measure broadband goals – the total number of households that need access and the maps that show which counties are coverages and which aren’t. They are looking for best deal for the dollar – generally homes that are spread apart of in difficult to reach terrain are more expensive to serve. Right now policymakers are wrangling with which of these goals to prioritize but you can at least know where you stand.

Check out the latest ranking/coverage charts. The top 44 ranking counties have 80 percent or better coverage; the bottom 11 ranking counties have less than 55 percent coverage. Where do you rank? What is your percentage of coverage? Check out your county profile, which includes a map. Do you have a lot of houses that need broadband? Are they close together or far apart from each other? What solution will get your residents the broadband they need and help the State reach it’s goals.

It’s also worth looking at how your county ranking has changed since the county profiles and the latest ranking. Some counties have really gained ground (McLeod and Brown) and some are losing ground (Le Sueur and Kandiyohi). Know that’s part of your narrative.

What are your roadblocks?

Knowing your roadblocks will help you build your team and/or create a strategy that will get your funded and served. Start with your county profile. Many profiles, if not most, will outline what roadblocks you might be experiencing. (You may want to look at previous profiles too to see if there are issues you have overcome or that may remain (2018, 2019 or 2020). Here are some common roadblocks or scenarios that might indicate an issue:

  • You have a disinterested provider that covers much of your county. You may need to decide whether to work with that provider or find another.
  • You lack competition from multiple providers. This may overlap with a disinterested provider and the answer may again be finding providers who are interested in serving the area.
  • You invested years ago and are well served for 25 Mbps down and 3 up but not for 100/20. You may need to convince residents (or providers) that you need more for the future. This has become easier since the pandemic and more people stay at home for work and school.
  • You are in an area that may receive federal funding (such as RDOF) but so far funds have not been awarded. Indications point to the possibility of State Funding in 2022.

Do you have a potential provider partner? 

You may already know the providers in your area and county. If not, you can start with your county profile. See if there are providers that have received grants in the area; they are potential partners. See if there are other areas that serve the area. (If they profile doesn’t include providers, check the list of providers by county from the Office of Broadband Development. White you are there, you might check out list of providers in neighboring counties if you are looking for new partners. Also know that there are providers who are willing to go into new areas if you can persuade them that your area would be a good one to serve.

Do you have community support?

Once again, you can start with your county profile. Your profile will indicate if you’ve received any State broadband grants or worked with the Blandin Foundation and specific projects may be mentioned. You can also find your representatives; if you search their name on the Blandin on Broadband blog, you can see if they have been tracked talking about broadband. Community engagement isn’t important if you have a committed provider but if you don’t it can be an asset, especially when public funding may be required to deploy broadband. The community may need to commit financially or by communicating with policymakers.

Cloquet Broadband Committee recommends partnership with CTC

The Pine Journal reports

During a Cloquet City Council work session Tuesday, April 5, the Cloquet Broadband Committee provided an update to the council about the responses to its broadband survey and the next steps the committee will be taking.

Holly Hansen, the city’s community development director and a member of the broadband committee, said the county at large struggles with broadband issues.

After receiving survey responses and continuing to research solutions, the next steps for the committee include finding a partner to help plan and work with the city to develop a better broadband infrastructure.

After interviewing companies in the area, Hansen said the committee recommends moving forward with a possible partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company.

Lincoln County students learn about downsides of Internet and Social media

I’m thankful to the Tyler Tribute for letting me reprint their article on a recent meeting of students and lawyers about some tricky areas of internet and social media use by teens. I have done similar training in the past so I know how important it is. Often kids are given a very powerful tool with limited safety training, which can be dangerous. Lincoln County schools (with help from the Blandin Foundation) found a way to open dialogue…

Three schools gather at RTR for assembly on downside of the internet

Tuesday, March 22 the students in grades 5-8 from RTR Public school, along with Hendricks Middle School and Lake Benton Elementary, met in the RTR Performing Arts Center for an informative meeting about

the downside of the internet. The presentation was given by Joshua Heggem and Kristi Hastings of Pemberton Law Firm, located in Fergus Falls. The presentation was brought to the schools by the efforts of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.

Hastings has represented numerous school districts for many years and talked about social media, technology and mistakes that other kids have made on social media that in turn will hopefully be a good learning tool to

prevent kids making these mistakes themselves.

This presentation came about as a response to the amount of cases they were seeing coming in, “When we started this, it came about because we were seeing so many disciplinary things coming across our desks. Expulsions and other serious consequences; Three kids getting kicked out of sports they love playing because of mistakes they were making on social media,” Hastings told the group. They came up with this presentation with a desire to get ahead of the rise they were seeing in cases based around social media, bullying using social media, and technology use and the dangers it presents.

Statistically, 97% of all kids in grades 5-8 are using social media of some sort every day. “I’m a huge fan of social media myself, so you’re not going to hear that it’s bad or that you shouldn’t use it at all because there are so many positive things that come with social media—the ability to connect with people all over the world, communicate with family and friends—these are all positive things that prior generations didn’t have.”

Hastings went on, “We are just focusing on the downside of social media and unfortunately, as lawyers, we see a lot of it.” Joshua Heggem shared a story of how quickly things can happen when social media is involved. “An instance I had once; a group of seventh graders who had made a Snapchat group for their class—they made it with the intent of bullying one classmate.

During these hateful comments aimed at the student, someone said they were going to put a hit out on the classmate. Within hours there were sheriffs at the school interrogating kids for terroristic threats.” Heggem recanted to the kids, “Some kids were charged with crimes; kids were getting suspended. The kid who made the threat, I believe was expelled from school.” Heggem made it clear that expulsion comes with heavy consequences, “That means you can’t set foot on school grounds, you can’t play any sports, you can’t even go to a sporting event, you can’t go to the football field.” Along with all those who faced charges and school consequences, there were also kids that needed mental health services after the ordeal, including the child who had been the subject of the bullying. Even if the kid who said the threat never meant it, the words were still out there on social media and have to be taken seriously. Heggem made it clear to the kids that things can’t be taken back once said on social media no matter how safe or secure you think it is. Hastings touched on things that don’t happen on school grounds; for instance, a kid initiating a fight at the park across the street of the school as opposed to on school grounds. “These school rules follow you when you are at a school sponsored event, when you’re here on school grounds, but also when you do things that negatively impact other kids’ ability to come here and learn,” Hastings explained.

This brought them to the next topic, “We do have a state law here in Minnesota that prohibits bullying of your classmates; things that are intimidating, threatening, abusive or harmful,” Hastings touched on. “Any bullying

that you carry over online is treated the same way. So, for instance, if you push a kid into a locker, that is the equivalent of bullying online and will carry the same punishment.”

They brought up “group thought” which is the concept that someone comes up with an idea and the group just goes along with it. “It happens a lot in our school cultures and climates because kids have not fully developed. Often times, the ability to say no I’m not interested in that idea/activity,” Hastings explained. An example used was one of another small school in Oakes, North Dakota which gained national news recognition.

“They had a tradition there of making a straw man before the homecoming game every year. So they would make the straw man and then burn it in a bonfire and then play their game,” Hastings told the kids. “A couple of

years ago, someone in a group came up with an idea—let’s make a noose and hang the straw man. Then someone comes up with the idea to put a jersey on it. Well, they put the number of the only player that is a person of color for the other team on the jersey. Someone in the group took a video of it, probably shared it with their close friends and contacts and someone recognized it was quite racist and it made national headlines. What it does, is it makes the world look at your school and question who lives there, what are they teaching here,” Hastings further explained to the kids.

The presentation touched on many topics that kids today are coming in contact with more and more every day—things like sending/receiving nude photos being a technical form of child pornography which is punishable by law, sharing pictures of your friends as a joke from the locker room is a form of privacy invasion and punishable by law. All the topics were relevant and appropriate.

Another presentation was given for the high school grades 9-12, after the middle school was done as it is a topic of discussion worth having from middle school on.

eNews: MN Monthly Recap April 2022: Legislative updates

MN Broadband Task Force March Meeting
The Broadband Task Force heard about broadband in tribal areas from Jason Hollinday at Fond du Lac and about digital equity from Bernadine Joselyn at the Blandin Foundation.

How does your county rank for broadband access and use?
Using Census data, Minnesota counties have been ranked according to broadband adoption. It’s striking to see that while the top ranked counties for broadband availability are a mix of rural and urban counties; the  top counties for access/use are decidedly metro leaning.

Launch Minnesota Awards $1 million
MN DEED awards $1 million in Launch Minnesota Education Grants to nine organizations throughout Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, Red Wing, Bemidji, Itasca County, St Cloud and Mankato.

I’m thankful for broadband
We shared stories from the frontlines to help motivate and inspire decisionmakers as they do the important work of planning for a tech-connected future in rural Minnesota. Help spread the word by sharing or contributing a video.

State Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

Federal Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

COVID Topics

Vendor News

Local Broadband News

Alexandria
A cheer for libraries and access to broadband in Alexandria

Anoka
Update from Libraries without Borders: Mobile Home Community Libraries in Minnesota

Baxter
From no telehealth visits to 3,500 per day within weeks at Essentia

Chisago
Community Conversation in Chisago County with Ben Winchester

Cloquet
Talking Broadband event held in Cloquet

Duluth
Pres Biden visits Duluth and talks about infrastructure funding and broadband

East Central MN
East Central Minnesota’s road to Smart21

Goodhue County
Goodhue County gets $3.2 million in federal funding with help from Senators Klobuchar and Smith

Grand Rapids
MN Rural Broadband Coalition Day on the Hill notes

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County looking at several paths to better broadband

Lutsen
Lutsen Reader asks US Rep Stauber to focus on broadband

Minnetrista
Minnetrista City Council approves broadband build with Midco (Hennepin County)

Pine County
Senators Klobuchar and Smith as Rep Stauber support $5.8 Million in Pine County
Pine County receives Federal grant to construct fiber broadband east of the cities of Hinckley and Sandstone

Redwood, Otter Tail and Becker Counties
Arvig to Upgrade parts of Redwood, Otter Tail and Becker Counties (MN)

Todd & Wadena Counties
Todd Wadena Development Summit highlights broadband
Todd and Wadena counties host broadband summit

Winona County
HBC and Winona County Announce $2.6 Million Rural Broadband Expansion Project

Upcoming Events, Opportunities and Resources

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

Congratulations to both of Minnesota’s East Central Region and Alexandria Lakes Area for making this year’s Smart 21 Communities list.  This recognition means that these communities’ economic development teams are doing some great thinking and working on the future! I have been promoting the Intelligent Community concept through my work with Blandin Foundation for more than a decade – first, with the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Community initiative, and then followed by the Blandin Broadband Communities program.  Depending on how you count, we have worked with more than 50 “communities, “ including cities, counties, tribal governments and regional planning commissions, even a unique multi-community effort called the “Central Woodlands” in the northern section of east central Minnesota.

The Intelligent Community concept transforms the thinking around the pursuit of broadband infrastructure from the end in itself to the creation of a platform for community vitality.  Many of you have heard my analogy of broadband infrastructure as an exercise bike.  To achieve benefit, you need to actually get up off the couch and pedal.  ICF views broadband infrastructure as supporting workforce, innovation, digital inclusion, sustainability, and community engagement activities.   Blandin has funded hundreds of projects to get communities up and pedaling that has increased community tech vitality.

The real value in the ICF framework is where the various elements connect; it is there where there is great opportunity for cross-sector collaboration and systemic transformation.  Strategic thinking and partnerships among universities, businesses, and government partners are essential for big picture initiatives that can support long-term community competitiveness.  You also need to include the general citizenry!  The ICF model requires “adaptive community coalitions,” a phrase used by the New York Times Tom Friedman at last year’s Blandin broadband conference.  Or, in the ideal, what I would say is getting the right people together at the right time to do the right thing! Or in real life, “getting some of the right people together, not too late, to do the best you can!”

Communities that work together over a long time, like the Alexandria Lakes Area and the East Central Region, build the relationships and trust to be successful.  The Alexandria Economic Development Commission has worked in close partnership with the Alexandria Technical and Community College for 40 years through the Minnesota Star City Program and beyond that program’s life.  That work continues.  Similarly,  Pine Technical College has been building a regional economic development coalition for almost as long.  The positive results are evident.  Congratulations to their past, present and emerging leaders!

 

Todd and Wadena counties host broadband summit

The Wadena Pioneer Journal reports on the Broadband Summit hosted on March 17 in Todd and Wadena Counties…

Providers have worked to decrease rural connectivity gaps in Wadena County with recent projects in Wadena and Staples. Huntersville and Nimrod areas have also noted interest in fiber.

CTC director of business development Joe Buttweiler, West Central Telephone Association marketing director Geri Salmela, Arvig director of business development and sales Dave Schornack and Community Technology Advisors founder Bill Coleman shared during the Todd Wadena Development Summit in March.

A recently formed broadband coalition in Todd County expanded from the northwest portion to the whole county. Coleman said the project started with the Blandin Foundation Accelerate program , which includes a 14 week planning process with weekly meetings in the communities. The state has a 2026 speed goal of 100 megabits per second (mbps) for downloads and 20 mbps for uploads, which 14% of Todd County meets as of October 2021.

Residents are encouraged to complete a broadband survey and speed test on the Todd County coalition website. Surveys are also available at Bertha City Hall, Browerville School, local CentraCare locations, The Independent News Herald and John’s Computer Shop in Long Prairie. These surveys help show the demand and how communities are willing to help with projects, as providers said. If you decide to add services after the project, it is more expensive.