Assessment of Blandin Community Broadband Program using the Mountain of Accountability Framework (2015-2016)

I’m pleased to share the assessment of Blandin’s broadband work looking at the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities – the Assessment of Blandin Community Broadband Program using the Mountain of Accountability Framework (2015-2016).

This assessment of the 2015-2016 cohort of ten Blandin Broadband Communities and associated broadband-related activities was written by staff as part of the foundation’s overall efforts to build an assessment system that answers the basic question: “What do we need to know to do better?”

The report looks at the work of Blandin (related to broadband), including the following program components include:

  • Community Broadband Resources (technical assistance)
  • Blandin Broadband Community (BBC) partnerships
  • Annual Border to Border Broadband conferences
  • Webinar series
  • Convenings
  • Broadband grants
  • Minnesota Broadband Coalition policy work
  • Blandin on Broadband blog

And goes on to look at the impacts of these efforts at the following levels:

  • Individual persons
  • Individual grants/projects/events
  • Individual businesses/organizations/institutions (schools, health care facilities, local governments, etc.)
  • Communities
  • Regions
  • Statewide
  • National

Sherburne County – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from Sherburne County…

In 2014, 92 percent of Sherburne County had access to broadband as it was then defined (lower speeds back then). In 2016, when the definition of broadband was updated to take into account technological advances, only 75 percent of the county had access to broadband speeds of 25/3 (Mbps down/up), and 28 percent had access to Minnesota’s 2026 speed goals of 100/20.

Sherburne County is going the wrong direction; they have gone from well served to underserved as the definition of broadband changes. It’s therefore not surprising that as a Blandin Broadband Community, Sherburne County focused on improving broadband access and infrastructure. The strategy they adopted was to focus on educating the public, improving technology use in schools, and on smaller public access projects.

Jolene Foss, Community Development Director at the City of Princeton describes their journey to better broadband:

The City of Princeton is unique in that it sits on the line Between Mille Lacs County and Sherburne County. As I became more informed of the status of high speed, reliable and affordable internet in our community, I was shocked to find out how many residents are underserved, or completely unserved! Businesses were suffering economically due to high rates and lost opportunities. The students in our counties were struggling to complete assignments and do research from home, especially those who reside in rural locations. People couldn’t bank or take care of their online medical needs with poor internet service. Quality of life was being affected and some of the leaders of our community recognized a need for change. The Blandin Foundation has graciously awarded these communities the resources needed to take necessary steps in the right direction. As a member of the Broadband Steering Committee for Sherburne County, our group decided to start a Community Outreach Subcommittee to educate and inform residents and elected officials on the importance of affordable reliable high speed internet service. We would like to see people reach out to the elected officials and express the need for more funding to enhance partnerships between providers and other stakeholders. These partnerships will pave the way for economic viability and secure our place in this fast paced world. Our people deserve every advantage that anyone else gets. We need to stay competitive if we want to see future success.

The Steering Committee used grant dollars to hire a marketing firm to create a brand for their group – “SherBand.” They created a webpage, education materials, and promotional items, and wrote bi-weekly blog posts. The community team contacted their elected officials, created a Facebook page, produced an educational video, and participated at various community events and meetings.

Infrastructure improvement and access projects included installing Wi-Fi at Rivers Edge Park, Lake Side Park, and the Becker Athletic Complex; extending fiber to the Sherburne History Center, and installing fiber to connect Elk River City Hall to Zimmerman City Hall and fire department. Additionally, while not part of the BBC project, internet at the industrial park in Princeton was upgraded during the project period.

For a more recent look at Sherburne County – check out the county profiles I did earlier this year.

Resilient Region – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from Resilient Region (Region 5 in north central Minnesota)…

The Resilient Region is a five county collaborative (Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena) working to create a sustainable and inclusive region through the disciplines of housing, transportation, natural environment, and economic development to improve the quality of life of all residents. Broadband connectivity is an critical component of the Resilient Region Plan; in fact, they found that broadband touched every edge of the other projects they were working on – positioning them well to begin their work as a Blandin Broadband Community.

The Region’s connectivity priorities include: improved and expanded broadband access across the region with a focus on fiber, using technology to retain businesses and encourage entrepreneurism, ensuring Internet access for all children, and identifying additional funding and service partners.

During the project period, the Resilient Region made significant progress towards improving the Internet access available to residents. A Feasibility Study commissioned by the region as part of its participation in BCBP was used to help secure a nearly $3 million DEED Border-to-Border project grant that will bring world class fiber-based Internet to Fairview Township, Fort Ripley, and a portion of northern Wadena County. Resilient Region and its Internet provider partner, Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC), maximized learning from the Fort Ripley project by utilizing Blandin Foundation grant dollars to conduct a study on the Economic Impact of Broadband Infrastructure Expansion & Subscription. Key findings of the survey include:

  • Customer service and reliability of connection are more important than cost.

  • Less than 2% of older adults surveyed do not use the internet.

  • The internet plays a critical role in enabling customers to work where they live with more than half of households using their home internet for work; and 14% reporting that they “telework.”

  • Over 20% of customers have a home-based business or farm with 36% reporting that the internet reduced their overall operating costs; and nearly 9% of customers have plans to start a home-based business in the next 1-3 years.

  • Two-thirds of customers stated that the internet is very important for their family with almost 40% saying that they could not live in home without a reliable high-speed internet connection.

These study findings were shared with the Governor’s Broadband Task Force and elected officials.

Using technology to improve learning was another priority for the Steering Committee. One of the Blandin grants was used to purchase SMART boards which are enhancing educational opportunities for the youngest learners in ISD 181 Brainerd Public Schools. Eight teachers were trained on the use of the four SMART boards and projectors that were installed for the Early Childhood Family Education program.

ECFE coordinator, Tahnee Flowers relayed a story: One preschool room spent time learning the “3 little pigs” story. … They developed the props and practiced acting out the play. The teachers were able to record the students acting out the play using the iPad from the Blandin grant and email it to the parents. They also had a “movie showing” on their classroom SMART board so that the class could watch themselves acting out the play. The children and parents loved it!

Other Resilient Region BBC projects focused on healthcare, teaching young people to refurbish and redistribute computers, introducing state-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities to the community, and using technology to attract and retain businesses.

For a more recent look at Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena Counties – check out the county profiles I did earlier this year.

RS Fiber – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from RS Fiber…

RS Fiber is the name of the new, home-grown broadband cooperative serving ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley Counties in southwestern Minnesota. They are in the process of building their fiber-to-the-home network, and offer plans of up to 50 Mbsp, 100 Mbsp, and 1 Gbps symmetrical. Therefore, happily, broadband isn’t an issue for folks in the RS Fiber service area. The challenge is getting people to use it to its fullest potential, and stimulating economic growth.

The Steering Committee determined that many of the area residents were not tech savvy. They saw their challenge as not just teaching people how to use computers, but helping them see the almost limitless ways technology can improve their lives. To address the former, they offered well attended computer basics and more specialized classes and distributed 50 computers through BCBP’s partnership with PCs for People. To address the latter, they are creating a number of innovation centers with Internet hotspots in towns throughout the region. The Innovation Centers will house things like 3D printers, and one will have a drone obstacle course.

Engaging youth is another area of focus. They offered 4-H programming at the Innovation Centers being established throughout the county, established public hotspots at schools, and implemented Wi-Fi on busses. They made available low-cost devices to student riders who didn’t have their own to use and targeted bus routes that were experiencing a high number of behavioral incidences. Schools reported that the number of incidences of adverse behavior went down dramatically, and there was no longer a need for an extra adult supervisor on these routes.

For a more recent look at Renville and Sibley Counties – check out the county profiles I did earlier this year.

Red Wing – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from Red Wing…

The City of Red Wing is in a unique position, as they are a rural community with Gigabit broadband and home to Redwing Ignite, an organization dedicated to encouraging broadband utilization. The focus of the Steering Committee was to inspire, encourage and enable residents to maximize the benefits available to them from the town’s world class broadband service.

Engaging Youth is one strategy they focused on – preparing young people for careers in technology – and demonstrating that tech careers are possible right in Redwing. The committee designed and implemented a “STEAM in our Schools” project that included:

  • A tech assessment of area K12 schools

  • Coding classes for 6-7 grades

  • Establishing a “Coder Dojo” club for youth, taught by volunteers, that was enthusiastically received by students, parents and the community at large

  • Bringing TechnovationMN to Redwing; a 3-month, 50-hour curriculum for young women. Participating students created an app called “College Bound,” designed to help young people make more informed college choices. The Red Wing group included both boys and girls and thus was not eligible to compete in the state competition, but they did earn an honorable mention at the Ignite Cup.

  • Piloting in the United States a program developed in Europe called “Apps for Good.” “Apps for Good” seeks to “equip students to research, design and make digital products and take them to market.” It was a huge success, and the community has found a way to continue the program beyond the grant period.

The establishment of three “tech internships” was another very successful youth-oriented initiative undertaken by the Blandin Broadband Community Steering Committee. They recruited college students to come to Redwing to help three enterprises – a local business, a non-profit and the county government – make better use of technology. The students all said they learned a lot; they were given challenging opportunities to really make a difference. The intern hosts all want more interns! One of the interns created a new e-commerce website for a local business, boosting sales significantly. Another helped prepare a local business for a large CRM migration, and a third worked with the county to create a web application to manage the county’s fleet of cars. Now employees can use the app to check out cars, track mileage, and a whole host of other features. The County fleet manager reported it has solved many headaches for all county workers who need to use county vehicles.

Marketing their town area as an area with world class broadband and a sophisticated “culture of use” tech-savvy was another important priority for the Red Wing Broadband Steering Committee. The committee worked with local partners to create, a “one-stop shop” web portal for everything you need to know to live and work in Red Wing, 17 including a comprehensive community calendar and resources for new residents. As the “About Us” section on the site explains:

“Red Wing Ignite was awarded a Blandin Broadband Grant in 2015. A community wide vision meeting generated a lot of interest in the branding and marketing of Red Wing. This Community Landing Page demonstrates the connections within our community and provides a wide range of resources and information in one integrated place.”

For a more recent look at Red Wing – check out the Goodhue County profile I did earlier this year.

Redwood County – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from Redwood County…

Redwood County struggles with broadband access issues, ranking 81 of 87 Minnesota counties when it comes to reaching the state broadband speed goal of 25 megabits download / 3 megabits upload. As a Blandin Broadband Community, Redwood County undertook a feasibility study and market survey and have used the study to inform conversations with local internet providers about what might be done to improve broadband access across the county. In the meantime, the committee is working on providing new technology training, equipment and access, as well as on projects to connect the Lower Sioux Clinic and Community Center, and to launch a new telehealth initiative at Redwood Area Hospital.

One learning from the Steering Committee was the idea that you need to give people a good experience with broadband and technology; people won’t use broadband if the experience is negative. That’s why the focus on training, equipment and access to quality programs/applications is so important. When people have good experiences and learn how broadband can positively impact their lives, they will demand it – which will make it easier to make the business case to build it.

One project was to increase the library’s ability to serve residents who lack access to computers or the internet at home. The committee purchased 20 computers and two tablets for use by patrons at the Redwood Falls Public Library. The users have been pleased, and staff has reported a reduction in noise on the part of students who now can use the computers when they come to the library. According to library director Teri Smith, “In order to have a healthy rural community, all citizens must have access to needed resources, feel connected, and have a safe place to work or play. The computers and technology provided through this grant will help the library provide the services that help our community be and stay strong and connected.”

Coordinated marketing of the new training opportunities via print and social media proved extremely effective in increasing participation in the trainings. The committee created a Redwood Connect Facebook page, promoted Google Mapping for cities and businesses, and conducted internet usage and training surveys.

The committee also hosted social media events through a Lunch ‘n Learn technology series and community education classes, which culminated in a well-attended Social Media Rockstar event, a day-long, digital and social media marketing conference in rural Minnesota.

For a more recent look at Redwood County – check out the Redwood County profile I did earlier this year.

Nobles County – look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

From Blandin Foundation’s recent assessment of the Blandin Community Broadband Program – the highlights from Nobles County…

According to Nobles County Administrator and Blandin Broadband Community Steering Committee Chair Tom Johnson, the Worthington School District is the most diverse in the state. Thus, one of the goals of the Nobles County BBC Steering Committee was to use technology to implement programming for new Americans. One way they did this was through the myON Digital Library project. The myON program and tablet devices were purchased for use by Worthington schools, and utilized primarily by ECFE and ESL instructors at all grade levels. According to project implementers, the students and families who use the literacy resource are reaping great benefit. Project administrators report that both children and their parents have increased their English language skills through their participation.

Nobles County has also focused on digital literacy for other county residents, including through the creation of college credit technology classes for high school students and digital literacy programming in alternate languages including Spanish, Tigrinya, Amharic and Karen. Participating immigrant families have learned how to use the computer for connecting with relatives back home, saving a lot of money on long distance telephone charges.

Nobles County also conducted a feasibility study. Using the results of the study, the county’s provider-partner, Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co., was awarded a $2.94 million Border-toBorder Broadband grant to create a hybrid fiber and wireless network to bring high-speed internet to the entire county. During testimony before the House committee charged with broadband policy, Johnson told state legislators: “If not for our participation in the Blandin Community Broadband Program we would not have been in a position to apply for and receive this much-needed state funding.”

Other projects in Nobles County increased public access to broadband, including through the installation of new public hotspots and upgrading to world-class symmetrical fiber the broadband connection available at the county’s flagship Biotechnology Advancement Center.

For a more recent look at Nobles County – check out the Redwood County profile I did earlier this year.