eNews: MN Monthly Recap Sep 2022: Federal funding planning and rejection

Blandin Foundation’s New Strategic Direction
After speaking with leaders across rural Minnesota, the Blandin Foundation is moving forward with excitement to focus on three areas of priority:

  • Rural Placemaking for arts, culture and systems people use to create the unique destinations and social fabric rural folks love about their home places and their identity;
  • Community Wealth Building so communities can build their bases of knowledge, money and more, and keep it close to home; and
  • Small Communities to get those places, especially in our home giving area, grants to fund work that changes systems to work better for everyone.

MN Broadband Task Force Aug 2022
The Task Force got a tour of the Office of Broadband Development interactive mapping tool. They also heard from Scott Marquardt from the Southwest Initiative Foundation. He noted that the top concerns in his area are: housing, childcare and broadband.

LTD Broadband RDOF application rejected
The FCC rejects RDOF applications of LTD Broadband and Starlink. In Minnesota, LTD Broadband had been awarded the opportunity to apply for $311 million to expand broadband in rural MN. However, many potential customers and industry leaders were afraid that that lacked the capacity to be successful. So the rejection is met with mixed responses.
Before the FCC rejection, the Minnesota PUC starting to look at LTD Broadband’s qualifications. Post-rejection, they continue to investigate revoking their ETC designation. The next prehearing call happens September 10.

State News    

Federal News

Vendor News   

Local Broadband News

Bois Forte Band
Broadband update from with Bois Forte Band of Chippewa

Cook
City of Cook is looking at having fiber before winter
Cook might benefit from FCC rejection of LTD RDOF application
Paul Bunyan may have Gig access to Cook MN before the end of the year (St Louis County)

Douglas County
Gardonville applies for Border to Border grants for Carlos and Nelson MN (Douglas County)

Duluth
Duluth New Tribune opinion piece says government involvement is needed to get broadband to some communities
Duluth is looking at Open Access Fiber Options with the help of State funding
Duluth gets $24.9 million through USDOT’s RAISE program in part for broadband
UMD is bringing back telehealth counseling by popular demand
Duluth pursues Border to Border grant for Lincoln Park

Harmony
Harmony Telephone to build FTTH in Harmony (Fillmore County)

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County Commissioners support three Border ro Border grant applications

Le Sueur County
Le Sueur County and Bevcomm are applying for Border to Border funds

Martin County
Martin County Commissioners support Frontier’s Border to Border application for Fairmont, Northrop and Ceylon

Mille Lacs County
Mille Lacs County support SCI’s Border to Border grant application

Minneapolis
Lumen (aka CenturyLink) to offer 8-gig broadband in Minneapolis

Morrison County
Morrison County Commissioner support Border to Border grant from Charter Communications

Northeast Minnesota
A fiber cut takes down internet and phone service in Northeast Minnesota (Cook & Lake Counties)
Top tips for the housing crisis in NE Minnesota –include get better broadband

Redwood County
Update on Redwood County’s Blandin supported Lead Fellowship

Rodgers, Dayton & Wayzata
Comcast expands broadband to Rogers, Dayton and Wayzata MN (Hennepin & Wright Counties)
Rogers City Council approves Border to Border grant application (Hennepin County)

Scandia
Scandia moving forward with broadband plans with MidCo and Frontier (Washington County)

Sherburne County
Sherburne County Board approved $600k for 3 broadband grants to Midco
Sherburne County to invest $1.5 million from ARPA in better broadband

Upcoming Events, Opportunities and Resources

Federal Funding Tools


Update from Blandin Foundation

Dear Rural Broadband Champions,

It’s been a significant year for investments in rural broadband access and use. I hope you, and your network of changemakers, are celebrating this moment of triumph and reflecting on all the work you’ve done to bring this abundance of opportunity to rural places.

When C.K. Blandin laid out his vision for Blandin Foundation, he directed its investments to strengthen rural communities without supplanting public responsibility. Our broadband programming built rural Minnesotans’ capacity to imagine their community’s broadband future and create the partnerships necessary to get the access and skills to realize that vision. It’s powerful to look at the map of folks we’ve worked with over the years, and see the impact made by rural people inspired to forge a tech-driven future for their community and its people.

The landscape has shifted since we began this work in 2003. With historic public funding on its way, coupled with recruitment challenges in our Blandin Broadband Communities Program, we now turn to the public responsibility of connecting the last miles.

Blandin Foundation is also shifting to meet today’s moment. After talking to leaders across rural Minnesota, and doing deep research, we’re focusing on three areas of work to move rural places forward:

  • Rural Placemaking for arts, culture and systems people use to create the unique destinations and social fabric rural folks love about their home places and their identity;
  • Community Wealth Building so communities can build their bases of knowledge, money and more, and keep it close to home; and
  • Small Communities to get those places, especially in our home giving area, grants to fund work that changes systems to work better for everyone.

Technology will continue to be a thread woven through many of our program investments. While we do not have any specific work planned in the areas of broadband access or digital equity, we will continue to watch the space and assess our role.

As we set out on a new strategic direction, I’m thankful for the years of partnership and network building that made the broadband program so successful. Please stay in touch as we develop and communicate emerging opportunities from Blandin Foundation. We look forward to learning from you and with you as we step forward together towards strong rural communities.

Tuleah Palmer, Blandin Foundation President & CEO

Blandin Foundation’s new strategic direction

I wanted to share the following note from the Blandin Foundation…

Rural communities have been dealing with challenges that just keep snowballing. Years of tensions that split
communities further apart are making it more challenging for people to work together. State and federal fiscal policies
have not kept up with public funding needs in counties, cities and small towns. Folks often serve in a half-dozen or more
community roles at the same time and are expected to do more with less. Recession looms in many of our memories
and worries.
On top of that, two-plus years of constant stress, grief and loss from COVID, increasing political tensions, racial unrest,
and the quickly changing environment.
These realities have called Blandin Foundation to find new ways to help rural people build bridges toward strong futures.
After talking to leaders across rural Minnesota, and doing deep research, we came to a few conclusions about what’s
needed to make change happen:
• People need to feel connected to each other and to the future of their community. Connected individuals stay
healthier, are happier, achieve higher education, improve their job outlook and are more likely to have longterm economic upward mobility. Connected communities thrive amidst change, both unintended (disaster,
economic uncertainty) and proactive (future-forward community initiatives).
• They need access to resources, like money and new ideas and opportunities. Rural America receives only about
5 percent of the nation’s available funds (like grants) from philanthropy, even though 20 percent of the
population lives in rural areas. In addition, rural and Native Nations in Minnesota, like rural regions across the
country, have faced disinvestment and resulting decline for decades.
Energy generated by our new vision, mission and values invigorates our work.
Two fresh frames bring rural Minnesota’s needs into crisper focus: equity – of place, race and class, and the imperative
to change outdated policies that don’t serve rural well.
These lenses led us to focus on 3 areas of priority:
• Rural Placemaking for arts, culture and systems people use to create the unique destinations and social fabric
rural folks love about their home places and their identity;
• Community Wealth Building so communities can build their bases of knowledge, money and more, and keep it
close to home; and
• Small Communities to get those places, especially in our home giving area, grants to fund work that changes
systems to work better for everyone.
We’ve retooled our grantmaking to focus on our 3 priority areas, and will develop programs focused on advocacy and
rural capacity that will build on our experience in community leadership and broadband.
We remain steadfast in our donor’s intent – to focus on the quality of life for the worker – especially in our Home Giving
Area. Moving rural places forward, to equitable and sustainable futures will take us all. We look forward to learning
from you and with you as we step forward together towards strong rural communities.
Tuleah Palmer
President and CEO

 

Update on Redwood County’s Blandin supported Lead Fellowship

Thanks to Redwood County Economic Development Coordinator Briana Mumme for the update on their experience working with a Lead for America Fellow to improve broadband access across the County. It’s amazing to see what can get done in a year and it’s a great list for any county looking to further their broadband plans…

Redwood County EDA contracted for a two-year fellowship with Lead for America; American Connection Corps.  The Fellow was hired to serve as the County Broadband Coordinator effective August 2021 through August 2023.

The Fellow fulfilled the entire project scope within the first year!

The following goals were set and achieved:

  • Develop a broadband needs assessment for the county, which captures quantitative and qualitative data demonstrating the importance of broadband connection for the County;
  • Establish a map outlining the existing fiber connections, provider areas, expansion opportunities, and gaps;
  • Build comprehensive public awareness and excitement among county residents to advocate for broadband investment to the county;
  • Ensure that Redwood County is well positioned to successfully compete for state and federal investment into broadband by the end of the 2-year fellowship.

To fulfill those goals, the following strategies were implemented:

  • Participate in technical assistance programming through the Blandin Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! Program;
  • Manage all communication regarding broadband with public, providers, county commissioners, EDA Board;
  • Develop and foster relationships with existing internet providers across the county;
  • Connect and establish relationships with businesses in the county to assess their broadband experiences, past/current/future needs;
  • Research other county case studies to learn best practices and common pitfalls for rural broadband development;
  • Identify potential funding opportunities, including the leveraging of existing resources in Minnesota’s Border to Border grants and other state and federal programs;
  • Conduct public educational workshops;
  • Serve as a coordinator and facilitator to community broadband meetings, ensuring comprehensive follow-up to action items and that proposed collaborative opportunities are implemented;
  • Establish key messages and creative opportunities of interest to funders/donors in order to garner expanded support for broadband.

As a result of these activities the following was accomplished:

  • Collaborated and established relationships with elected officials, ISP’s, business leaders, and community members.
  • Completed the Blandin Community Broadband Resources (CBR): Accelerate! Program.
  • Utilized the community members of the CBR team to provide ongoing input and support to the direction of the work.
  • Developed a vision statement, and received endorsements from the CBR group, County EDA Board, and County Commissioners
  • Facilitated monthly meetings with the EDA Broadband sub-committee
  • Hosted multiple meetings with internet service providers to include: Woodstock, Starlink, Arvig, Nuvera, MN Valley Telephone Company, MVTV Wireless
  • Participated in many media platforms to include: MPR, local Radio and Newspaper, Farmside Chat, Land O Lakes, Office of Broadband, and Governor’s Broadband Task Force.
  • Hosted two work sessions with the County Commissioners
  • Developed a webpage dedicated to broadband to provide an overview of what broadband is, why it’s important, current and future projects, and an opportunity for constituents to voice their broadband story. https://redwoodcountyeda.com/broadband/
  • Created Facebook Posts and utilized the County email notification system to communicate the county broadband status, EBB program, encourage engagement – collect pledges and letters of support.
  • Meetings were held with Townships and Cities to describe the value of broadband in their municipality and secure funding.
  • Secured $1.9M in County funds to support a Border-to-Border project to deploy fiber to 8 cities within the County. A total of 52 letters of support and 37 pledges were received to demonstrate community support.
  • There are multiple other broadband projects in development, pending funding programs which align with the project.

eNews: MN Monthly Recap Aug 2022: Opportunities and Resources

Blandin Broadband Conference Canceled
Better with Broadband: Reflect. Recharge. Inspire., Blandin Foundation’s annual broadband conference, has been canceled.
While we won’t be gathering in person, you can expect to continue receiving emerging broadband news and funding updates on the Blandin on Broadband blog in the coming months. Thank you for your continued commitment to expanding access and use of broadband in rural Minnesota.

Telehealth is in the news and growing
Two recent reports have been released one indicating that telehealth visits are a boon to vets with opioid addiction and the other showing that telehealth helps with prenatal and maternal care. Brookings has developed a The Roadmap to Telehealth Efficacy supporting the idea that broadband is essential to good health. And there’s a new app that connects patients and pharmacists in Minnesota.

MN County digital equity related rankings
Microsoft has created searchable tool that tracks education attainment, computer ownership, broadband subscriber and speed and more to help gauge digital equity in a geographic area. A tool like this will be valuable as communities work on digital equity plans.

MN PUC will looking into LTD’s ETC designation
LTD Broadband was awarded the sole opportunity apply for federal (RDOF) funding to expand fiber in much of Minnesota. The opportunity has been controversial. In July, the PUC decided to investigate LTD Broadband’s ETC designation, which may disqualify them for RDOF awards in Minnesota.

MN Broadband Task Force July 2022
The Task Force heard about the Affordable Connectivity Program and American Connection Corps. They also got an update from the Office of Broadband Development. They are in the middle of receiving Border to Border applications with hopes of doing a second round of funding later in the fall.

State News                         

Federal News

Vendor News           

Local Broadband News

Duluth
Duluth News Tribune looks at library funds to address digital equity and older Minnesotans
Duluth approved digital access master plan and State broadband grant application
Duluth is looking at community broadband network options to lower costs

Fillmore County
MiBroadband start building FTTH in Fillmore County state Border to Border grant

Hennepin County
Need help getting online in Hennepin County? Go to the library and ask about Digital Navigators

Kandiyohi County

Kandiyohi County taking more steps toward the Border to Border grant application
Kandiyohi is pursuing a Border to Border grant for areas north and west of Willmar
Charter breaks ground on broadband expansion in Kandiyohi County

Mower County
Mower County looking at using RODF, ARPA and Border to Border funds to improve broadband access

Otter Tail
Otter Tail County invests $2.8 million of ARPA funds on broadband

Pike Township
How is Pike Township MN going to get better broadband? Through a letter writing campaign

Redwood County
Redwood County residents are asked to take a survey and leave a message about broadband
Arvig and Redwood County seek a Border to Border grant for better broadband

Sherburne County
Sherburne County and Arvig partner on Border to Border grant applications for Haven Twp., Clear Lake Twp. and Elk River.

St Louis County
Mediacom Communications unveils public-private partnership to expand broadband in St. Louis County

Thomson Township
Thomson Township pledge ARPA funds for Border to Border applications in Carlton County

Upcoming Events, Opportunities and Resources

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.