Aitkin County gets Blandin grants for wifi, community website and high tech conference center

The Aitkin Age reports on Aitkin County’s community broadband partnership with the Blandin Foundation, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) and St. Louis County. They have been working on plans and have recently received funding for a few specific projects…

Residents came together last winter for a visioning session to name their technology priorities and create project ideas to help meet those priorities. Grant funding from this round will drive those projects forward. They include the following:

Wi-Fi for Palisade and Hill City: wireless Internet hubs will be launched in each community to attract commercial growth, promote connectivity, enhance educational opportunities and allow caregivers and their families to expand their availability to resources/support.

Aitkin County landing page: this webpage will combine information from a number of different sources to be a one-stop destination for area events.

Conference centers in Aitkin, McGregor and Hill City: a conference suite will be created complete with a mobile computer bank, smart boards, technology information centers and Wi-Fi hotspots.

“It is exciting to see so many Aitkin County residents and organizations working together to get these projects funded,” said Ross Wagner, Aitkin County Economic Development and Forest Industry coordinator. “Creating more access to broadband and educational opportunities will benefit the entire county.”

Bemidji MN innovates and reinvents with focus on future and a little fiber

Yesterday I went with the Blandin team and the Iron Range Broadband Communities to Bemidji to talk about innovation and reinvention. The meeting wasn’t all about broadband – but I wanted to share notes – because it was a great opportunity for attending communities to learn from a community that very intentionally set goals and met them. Part of that was getting and using broadband but to a larger degree it was about getting the community to take continued and renewing responsibility for the community future.

The day started with a presentation from Jim Benson (former Bemidji State University president) on how Greater Bemidji planned from their future. The created a vision of what they wanted to be and then worked toward it. They began with a meeting to figure out their expertise, passion and hopes. Leaders stepped up at the meeting and they have been meeting monthly for 15 years.

One lesson was the importance of language and intentionality. One quick example is that they wanted to work on a 4-land highway from the Twin Cities to Bemidji – not a highway to the Cities. Also and at least as important is the continued effort. They meet goals and set new ones – which keeps the motion forward.

We heard from a few folks who have worked on efforts in the community to spur innovation, invention and entrepreneurship:

Bemidji TEDx
They held first event in April (2017). Limited to 100 attendees but livestream viewers were up to 650. Learned that the most curious people are often the more involved in a community so TEDx has been a way to gather and cultivate curious people. They will be releasing videos in June. (There’s apparently one on broadband in rural communities and I’m looking forward to that!!)

Gig Gamers
Gaming has been a way to really pound the heck out the gig access. They held an event (sponsored by Paul Bunyan) where 28 teams participated. It got the attention of very techie people. Builds local techie skills. This year 23 people applied for internships at Paul Bunyan this year – based on recognition from the gaming event. Previously they had not been such a hot spot for interns.

The idea of a gaming event seemed crazy but the folks in charge approved whole heartedly and now it’s made an impact.

Launch Pad – Coworking space

There are 35 coworkers in the space. Rural coworking is rare – but internationally it’s big. Transplants to Bemidji made the transition easily. It’s a place for meetings. It saves people from isolation. It provides resources and motivation.

Used Million cups as a model to create a weekly meeting for entrepreneur that suits Bemidji. They have 35-50 people come each week.

Hackfest

Bemidji hosted a hackfest to bring techies together with a problem to solve. They had 9 teams. At night there was a game design challenge. Kids loved that! The next day was a more traditional hackfest.

PCs for People

They distribute refurbished computers. Working with Blandin, they have been able to bring computers to rural communities. Sometimes those computers go to households, maybe a public computer center, key nonprofits or used a rewards to get people to participation in digital inclusion training or other efforts.

GigaZone – Steve Howard from Paul Bunyan
Steve talked about the power of gig economy from the provider perspective. It has been an investment for the company (and a big one at that) but they are happy with their decision to invest.

They have found some ways to be the economy of fiber optic infrastructure work?

  • Economies of scale
  • Reduced transit costs
  • Reduced backhaul costs (DWDM)

He had some advice for how to attract a rural broadband provider?

  • Get data and do a survey – map the results!
  • Economic development staff and community champions
  • Identify needs
  • Identify how much money people are willing to pay
  • Map the results and get them in front of the providers.
  • Be responsive when communicating with providers
  • Consider grant funding – offer to help get letters of support and assist with applications
  • Be polite but professionally persistent

We ended the tour with a stop at Bemidji Brewing to hear about how the story of how those owners decided to move to Bemidji to start their brewery. They actively looked at communities all over Minnesota. Part of the decision was based on the “up north” feel of the area but support from the community was important as well.

Now available – Model Broadband Feasibility Study Request for Proposal

Good information is required for good decision-making, especially when the consequences of those decisions are important and expensive. For community leaders working to improve local broadband services, good information is usually acquired by hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study.

Study elements generally include the following: a review of existing networks and services; a market study; technology options; legal structures and/or partnership agreements; operations; and financial projections. The study process should drive decision-making so that on completion, the community has a strategy with committed leadership that leads to the desired goal – better broadband services.

Selecting the right consultant is critical. They need the right mix of technical and financial expertise, plus know how to work with community clients. While private sector providers have a well-defined decision criteria and decision makers, these things are more fluid and complex in a community broadband initiative.

Over the years, Blandin Foundation has funded many broadband feasibility studies. In fact, the demand for grant funds for this purpose has never been higher. We have created a model RFP for communities to use as a base document that should be customized to meet specific community objectives. A focused study scope will yield detailed analysis critical to good decision-making.

You can find the sample RFP and a list of possible consultants on the Blandin Foundation site. 

Blandin on Broadband eNews May 2017: Broadband issues at the legislature

A recap of news from April…

The role of broadband feasibility studies
The Blandin Foundation has granted $718,321 to 24 rural Minnesota communities to support the cost of a broadband feasibility studies. It has proved to be an important step toward broadband expansion for many communities, especially those who have had access to funding. http://wp.me/p3if7-45M

Surveys show Minnesotans think broadband is essential
Minnesota Farmers Union unveiled distillation of 14 conversations in 14 rural communities held spring 2017. Broadband makes the short list priorities. http://wp.me/p3if7-45X

Minnesota Communities Need Better Broadband
Blandin Foundation President talks about the role of broadband in rural life, “Given Minnesota’s many opportunities and challenges — in economy, healthcare, education, and public life – it is easy to see how access and use of high-speed Internet is essential for progress. Yet absent adequate broadband, existing opportunity gaps across our state will continue to widen.” http://wp.me/p3if7-44g

Tool calculates cost of broadband
The Minnesota Broadband Coalition creates a tool to help figure out cost of broadband by speed (bit) and usage (byte) to compare providers, technologies and packages. http://wp.me/p3if7-44y

MN Broadband Task Force Meeting: Business case for broadband
The Task Force heard from practitioners in the field who communities and providers  understand what it will take to deploy broadband in rural areas. They also heard about the economic impact of the rural broadband industry both in rural and urban areas. http://wp.me/p3if7-452

Notes from MN legislative session
Currently legislators are discussing funding for the Border to Border grants in Conference Committee as part of the Omnibus Bill for the Job Growth and Energy Finance (SF1937). The Omnibus passed in the House on April 8. http://wp.me/p3if7-44d After their spring break, the MN Conference Committee compared the House and Senate versions. The House recommends $7 million for broadband grants; the Senates says $20 million. http://wp.me/p3if7-45E A week later, they decided on loose ends related to Senate/House comparisons http://wp.me/p3if7-45V They meet again May 1 http://wp.me/p3if7-463;  those notes may or may not be ready for this newsletter but will be posted on the blog. https://blandinonbroadband.org

Reactions to legislation:

Federal Legislations/Policy Items

Local Broadband News

Iron Range
“Entrepreneurs on Tap” series to connect small Iron Range businesses http://wp.me/p3if7-44L

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County works on bond sale for Border to Border broadband network http://wp.me/p3if7-449

Minnesota
Frontier Communications expands broadband to 8,000 Minnesota Households http://wp.me/p3if7-44G

Renville & Sibley Counties
Mark Erickson, of RS Fiber, talks to NPR Rural Life on how fiber retains youth or calls them back http://wp.me/p3if7-44n

One farmer talks about how he uses a synchronous wireless connection in the fields http://wp.me/p3if7-44b

Rochester
Rochester looks at municipal network options http://wp.me/p3if7-44N but holds off on any decisions http://wp.me/p3if7-465

Southwest Minnesota
Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group is building “Gigabit Communities” http://wp.me/p3if7-45p

Twin Cities
MinnPost offers a three-pronged approach to making the Twin Cities smarter through technology use http://wp.me/p3if7-44I

Upcoming Events & Opportunities

Looking for more events? Check out TechDotMN’s calendar http://tech.mn/events/. Many events are based in the Twin Cities but it is a comprehensive list. (If you have an upcoming event, consider submitting it.)

Stirring the Pot

According to company press releases, this summer will see the launch of Gigabit (1,024 Mb) services by both Mediacom and Midco in many regional centers and smaller communities in Greater Minnesota.  As a cheerleader for better broadband, I believe that this is great news for the businesses and residents in those communities.  These upgrades rely on a robust middle mile network that can supply multi-gigabit capacity, plus upgrades of electronics to support DOCSIS 3.1 technology.  While some broadband purists will lament the lack of symmetrical upload speeds, the vast majority of home broadband and small business customers will not suffer appreciably with a 25 Mb upload service.

What does this mean for community broadband leaders?  Is the battle won so that everyone can relax?  Hmmm, not yet.  First, ensure that all of the community’s business districts have access to this new service, whether downtown, in a strip mall or in the industrial park.  If not, supporting these new connections through encouragement, market development, or partnership would be a great step.  More broadly, increasing the use of technology by all businesses is necessary – with a focus on business technology assessments, e-commerce classes, shared online marketing strategies, cloud applications and online security. Communities can promote the availability and use of qualified local IT vendors and increase IT training for residents of all ages.  Those who have heard my broadband presentations have heard me use the analogy of an unused exercise machine.  Don’t let your local network be used for hanging laundry!

The other implication of emerging urban and rural gigabit networks is that un- and underserved rural areas are now even further behind in the bandwidth race.  Increasingly in small towns to metro areas, those served with cable modem Internet service have starter Internet at 25 Mb or 50 Mb.  For those served with new CAF2 funded networks, those are likely to be the top available speeds.  Depending on location relative to fiber-fed electronics, many consumers will have something closer to 10 Mb/1 Mb service and many people will still be unserved.  Much of the economic production in greater Minnesota happens outside of city limits – agriculture, forestry, tourism-oriented businesses, home businesses and tele-workers.

So it seems that rural broadband advocates still have plenty of work to do.  To energize your efforts, consider using Blandin Foundation’s Community Broadband Resources program to support your community or regional efforts on infrastructure or adoption strategies.

Blandin Webinar Archive: Broadband Finance Strategies

Webinar April 2017 Broadband Finance Strategies
April 27, 2017 03:00 PM

Financing public sector investment in broadband projects can be complex, requiring both financial and political accountability. Learn from finance and local economic experts about how these deals are put together.

Speakers include:

  • Shannon Sweeney, David Drown Associates
  • Paul Donna, Robert W. Baird & Co.
  • Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County HRA-EDA
  • Mark Erickson, City of Winthrop

Broadband feasibility studies are a step toward grant applications, RFPs, getting networks built!

Last week, the MN Broadband Task Force heard from practitioners on the utility of feasibility studies. I’m on the Task Force and found the topic interesting and worth a deeper dive, especially given Blandin Foundation’s experience with and commitment to the feasibility study as a key step in moving a broadband project closer to reality.

Since 2007, Blandin Foundation had provided matching grants totaling $718,321 to 24 rural Minnesota communities to support the cost of a broadband feasibility study through its Robust Network Feasibility Fund. This grant program requires communities to produce a one-to-one cash match for awarded grants.

In 2013, Blandin Foundation published Lessons from Rural Minnesota Broadband Feasibility Studies: What can rural communities learn about broadband expansion, based on feasibility studies completed to date?” It looks at grants made between 2007 and 2012 to 11 communities to fund broadband feasibility studies, and identifies some best practices and recommendations for maximizing the effectiveness of such studies.

Five of these funded communities have gone on to deploy broadband networks; six have not.

The difference: access to capital.

Four of the five communities were able to build networks based on their completed studies due to ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding. (Actually four networks were deployed, as two communities with feasibility studies became one ARRA project.) Having feasibility study results in hand played a key role in positioning the awarded communities to be competitive for federal funding.  The studies provided the communities with the data required in the application process and demonstrated that they were shovel-ready projects, which was a major requirement of projects seeking ARRA funding.

One community, Red Wing, successfully deployed a fiber optic network without ARRA funding, through partnership with Hiawatha Broadband Communications. HBC applied for ARRA funding, but was not awarded funds. Despite this setback, HBC moved ahead with the Red Wing project using their own source of funds.

State broadband funds were not available at this time, so that was not an option for communities.

In 2013, Blandin Foundation made three more broadband feasibility study grants:

As communities and counties increasingly feel the pain of being left behind, Blandin Foundation is experiencing increased demand for feasibility study grants.

In 2015-16, Blandin Foundation funded broadband feasibility studies in 10 communities.

The grant applications for this round of feasibility studies all emerged from an inclusive community engagement process.  Community members identified the need to conduct a study in order to move ahead on their technology goals and then shaped the study’s purpose, goals, and scope, and selected a consultant.

Broadband networks are now being built in six of the 10 communities that conducted feasibility studies in 2015-2016; four with state grant dollars, and two without.

Some conclusions I draw from this experience:  

  • Feasibility studies can be an effective tool in helping communities advance their broadband goals.
  • Feasibility studies inform both sides of prospective partnerships: public sector leadership and private sector providers.
  • Feasibility studies should be designed to drive decision-making throughout an interactive and iterative process defining public sector role, technology choices and partnership options.

NE Minnesota Communities Need Better Broadband

The Grand Rapids Herald Review recently posted a letter to the editor from Dr. Kathy Annette, President of the Blandin Foundation…

To reach fullest potential, NE Minnesota communities need better broadband | Opinion | grandrapidsmn.com

 

The author William Gibson writes, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” So true when it comes to broadband, especially.

Given Minnesota’s many opportunities and challenges — in economy, healthcare, education, and public life – it is easy to see how access and use of high-speed Internet is essential for progress. Yet absent adequate broadband, existing opportunity gaps across our state will continue to widen.

High-speed Internet availability maps show that nearly all of the state’s un- and underserved areas are in rural communities. In Northeast Minnesota, nearly 30 percent of residents still do not have Internet access that meets state standards.

The 2016 Border-to-Border state broadband grant awards are proof that Minnesota’s communities and community-minded providers are ready and able to put partnerships and investments to work to build world-class broadband networks, generating huge returns on public investment in both access and use. There is no shortage of vision and passion in rural Minnesota.

For example, the most recent round of state broadband grant awards will improve speeds for residents in Fayal Township, south of Eveleth, to the 2026 state speed goal of 100 megabits per second download by 20 megabits per second upload.

Future business development, health care and educational opportunities in Harris Township will be supported with an improved fiber and coaxial hybrid network.

After a county-wide, resident-driven broadband campaign, rural Itasca County residents will benefit from a gigabit fiber buildout.

These projects illustrate how Northeast Minnesotans have blended community leadership, public investment and responsive providers to bring broadband-fueled opportunities to their region. It is a similar story statewide, where in three funding rounds to date, the state’s broadband grants program has supported more than 73 projects serving more than 25,000 households.

Blandin Foundation has had the great privilege, since 2003, to stand with dozens of rural Minnesota communities as they imagine and claim futures that are healthy, resilient and connected. After many years of partnership building, it is thrilling to see the impact of the state’s grants program in communities that have done the hard work to prepare to put the public funds to good use.

Congratulations to leaders both at the local and state levels who stood up and took the risks so that all Minnesotans could have a more connected, vibrant future.

Of course, we still have work to do. Communities need high-speed Internet access to reach their fullest potential and we must not stop until border-to-border broadband is a reality for all rural Minnesotans.

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