Blandin Foundation selects Mille Lacs Tribal Economy for broadband program

Brainerd Dispatch reports

The Blandin Foundation recently announced the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy was selected to participate in the Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate Program.

The program will provide a 15-week course of study and education about broadband for a community team. The program consists of three parts — leadership education, information gathering and analysis and next steps. The project will also include community surveys and interviews with internet service providers. It is anticipated a final report from the team will be available by July 2021.

The Mille Lacs Tribal Economy encompasses the three districts of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe territory. The populations served by this program will include areas within the counties of Mille Lacs, Pine, and Aitkin; as well as the cities of Onamia, Wahkon, Isle, McGregor, Hinckley, and Sandstone. According to Minnesota Compass, there are 20,171 people who live in the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy who will be supported by this initiative and subsequent development of robust broadband infrastructure.

Blandin Foundation reported the ultimate vision is for all residents of the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy to be able to use “convenient, affordable world-class broadband networks that enable them to thrive in our communities and across the globe.”

Blandin Broadband Communities Update: fun broadband project descriptions

Today members of the current Blandin Broadband (BBC) cohort met to catch up. Communities include Chisago Lakes Area, Le Sueur County, Otter Tail County, Red Lake Nation and White Earth Nation. This is a group that signed up with Blandin to do broadband planning and programming a little more than a year ago. They are the group that signed up for one thing and then COVID happened and they (and the Blandin team) did an impressive job recalibrating to Zoom meetings and stalled or modified projects.

Today they met to catch up a little and talk about projects that were working well for them and get help for ones that weren’t I thought it would be fun to share the conversation:


Some quick notes of projects that were discussed in my break out room:

Otter Tail County spent CARES money on upgrading video conference spaces in the libraries and creating two new spaces in newly formed libraries. These are places where area residents and visitors (Otter Tail gets a lot of visitors!) can use the broadband and the equipment. Picture a Zoom set up on steroids – or picture the Zoom set up you wish you had the last time you really wanted to impress people in the Zoom room. The spaces are free and open to the public – you just need to register.

Le Sueur County has been working a lot of access to support broadband use. They had projects planned to support wifi on publinc transportation but some have been on hold because of access issues and COVID. They have a LEAD for America consultant coming in to help with Digital Navigation through the schools. Good question was raised about getting Digital Navigators to people over 50.

Central MN Coalition on Aging stepped in with some of the work they are doing with older folks. They have been working with the AARP startup. They have started a survey and have learned that businesses in their area really need help. They want to find out what people want to learn and how can they best learn it. Another good question was about how we teach young people to use technology for the work world. Sometimes we assume younger people know how to use technology but they may not know tools like email, mapping or other workforce skills.

South Central MN looking to expand use of Telepresence during pandemic and beyond

I’m pleased to share South Central Minnesota’s report issued reflecting use of telepresence by the Human Services Departments of Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Freeborn, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Rice, Sibley, and Watonwan Counties. Like many communities, they are innovating to meet the challenges of the pandemic but they are looking beyond that too…

The DHS/MNIT owned-and-operated telepresence network provides secure, encrypted, HIPAA compliant connections to over 6,000 users – which include Minnesota tribal nations, counties, law enforcement, courts, schools, mental health providers, other human service agencies, and those they serve.

The South-Central Community Based Initiative (SCCBI), an Adult Mental Health Initiative for the counties listed above, has found DHS/MNIT’s easy-to-use, cost effective, and expandable telepresence network to be highly successful at improving access to services.  Maintaining this network is critical to our ability to serve people.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in the counties above [Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Freeborn, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Rice, Sibley, and Watonwan Counties] agreed to expand access to the existing project beyond mental health services, so we could safely serve the public in other program areas.  Using the DHS/MNIT network, we quickly added telepresence users to serve people easily through their home computer or smartphone.

Download the full report.

Le Sueur County selected for Blandin Community Broadband Program

New Prague Times reports…

Blandin Foundation announced Wednesday, March 11, it selected Le Sueur County for an intensive, twoyear partnership to advance local broadband initiatives.

Le Sueur County joins Chisago Lakes, Otter Tail County, Red Lake Nation, and White Earth Nation in their successful bids to become Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC).

“Le Sueur County has been partnering with the Blandin Foundation since the Region Nine Broadband Summit in early 2018,” said Barbara Droher Kline, BBC steering committee member. “The expertise and support through this partnership has brought us huge success with a State of Minnesota Border to Border grant. We are working hard to get more communities connected and being a Blandin Broadband Community will help us get there.”

Otter Tail County selected for Blandin Community Broadband Program

Perham Focus reports…

Blandin Foundation selected Otter Tail County for an intensive, two-year partnership to advance local broadband initiatives.

Otter Tail County joins Chisago Lakes, Le Sueur County, Red Lake Nation and White Earth Nation in becoming Blandin Broadband Communities, according to a Blandin Foundation news release. Foundation staff and consultants will work with the five communities to provide planning, technical and financial support as diverse, local leadership teams design and drive digital technology initiatives to bring greater success to their communities.

Communities were selected based on their demonstrated commitment to work together across sectors to set and meet information technology goals and bridge digital divides. Otter Tail County’s and White Earth Nation’s participation in the BBC program is supported with a $25,000 grant from West Central Initiative.

Otter Tail County joins 44 rural Minnesota communities that have gone through the BBC program.

Next steps for each community includes assessing the community’s current broadband access and use and holding a series of public planning meetings.

Mt. Iron-Buhl – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Mt. Iron-Buhl…

The IRBC group in Mountain Iron-Buhl (MIB) was led by the school district. During the first round, several of the team’s projects were school-based, including instillation of Wi-Fi on buses; procuring equipment for a new journalism class and Makerspace classroom; and bringing technology to outdoor classroom opportunities.

Other projects supported by the MIB BBC team included: • New web-presence for Great Scott Township12

• upgraded technology at the government buildings in Great Scott and Kinney;

• upgraded Wi-Fi at Mt. Iron City Hall, the Library, and other public spaces around town

• hosted technology breakfasts and technology training classes, and

• offered marketing audits for area businesses.

During the second round, the MIB BBC team continued with projects to support the use of enhanced technology in the school forest by acquiring twelve GPS units, geocaching container, a weather station, and a community greenhouse. The school aspires to attract even more users of the forest through enhanced environmental learning, and to open up the STEM Lab and technology offerings to the public. The school has sought and received additional funding that will allow instructors to develop curricula, programming and other opportunities for community members to interact with the technology. Participants will learn about graphic design, CAD, web design, video editing and publishing, and engineering. The school also is establishing a community journalism program and opening its journalism program to community members.

Other community-generated projects that received MIB’s BBC support include:

• An upgrade to the Open Y software program and upgraded technology at the Mesabi YMCA, including offering Wi-Fi throughout the building

• A new ap developed for the City of Mountain Iron to provide information to residents

• Improved Wi-Fi at Mountain Iron Community Center

One self-described “direct” result of the work of the MIB BBC team that required no funding, but did require leadership, was the decision by the Range Area Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) to create, host, and manage a website to serve as a central shared location for all of the documents related to broadband projects on the Iron Range, including feasibility studies, public presentations, fact sheets, and media reports.  Fulfilling this information management function is a key component of the civic infrastructure necessary to support collective impact, according to Kania and Kramer of FSK and Harvard’s Kennedy School. Claiming and executing ownership of this project undergirds the enhanced role RAMS has begun to play as an advocate for the broadband needs of its members since joining BCBP.

Grizzlies (Bois Forte, Cook, Orr) – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Grizzlies (Bois Forte, Cook, Orr)…

The Grizzlies is the mascot for North Woods School, which was opened in 2012 when the schools in Cook, Orr and Bois Forte were consolidated; and now the name for the IRBC effort within the school district’s boundaries.

Broadband access and use are both key concerns for this sparsely populated area. The region’s long-standing efforts to partner with existing providers began to pay off in 2020 when Bois Forte Tribal Government received Border-to-Border Broadband grant funding to connect ten unserved and 468 underserved locations throughout four sectors of the Bois Forte Reservation. (see page xx for details)

Other first round projects that address both access and use included adding public hotspots to the Cook Library and the Orr Center; upgrading computer labs in Nett Lake, the Orr Center, and at the Cook Library; purchasing five mobile hotspots for checkout at the Cook Library; and hosting a wide variety of technology trainings throughout the three communities.

For the second round, the Grizzlies are continuing with adult education classes and technology support at the Orr Center and the Cook Library. They’ll also expand on the QuickBooks training classes that were offered to small business owners during round one.

The Bois Forte Reservation acknowledges that its heritage, language, and culture are at risk. To help preserve and document for future generations existing cultural knowledge and practices the tribe will use second round project funds to establish a video creation, collection and archiving program of culturally relevant materials.

Finally, when looking at project ideas to unite the three communities that now share a school, the IRBC team agreed that creating a sports blog and website would fulfill that goal. Students and community members will contribute content to the site, which will include a journalism education component. Plans for the site include development of video and radio broadcasting capability through Bois Forte Reservation’s KBFT Radio.

Ely – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Ely…

Ely completed a variety of projects during the first round of IRBC work, including: a feasibility study of better connectivity throughout the school district; opening of a thriving coworking space, ”Ten Below”; creation of a showcase regional marketing website, the Elyite10; support to local businesses and entrepreneurs through technology and social media consulting, training, and meetups; and a broadband use and business development survey to support community efforts to recruit better broadband services.

The second round of projects developed by the Ely BBC team leverage the power of the internet as an engine of economic development and quality of life.  They include creating a complete Google Local Listings on behalf of all businesses in Ely, which will make those businesses more visible online. Ten Below coworking space will facilitate free professional development “skillshares” workshops for local business owners on leveraging the power of the internet and social media to drive engagement and sales year-round.

Hak Ely will utilize the event-marketing and scheduling platform to allow organizations to input their own events into a shared marketing platform. Proximity marketing is another fun way to engage park visitors and generate greater awareness about scheduled events and activities; Bluetooth enabled beacons will push notifications to visitors’ devices. A video series will further engage residents, visitors, and potential visitors by highlighting stories of the unique characters found within the community.

The arts is a major asset in Ely, and another project will create an internetbased directory that will link artists, art consumers, and materials providers in an easy to access and maintain website.

Chisholm – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Chisholm…

During its first round as a BBC, the Chisholm team supported projects to fund Wi-Fi on two school buses; develop a community website/portal9; create Wi-Fi hotspots at the Chisholm Public Library, Balkan Community Center, and the Lake Street Pocket Park;  make ten mobile hot spots available for check-out at the public library; offer  computer training programs, and provide device training to older adults. The team also helped the Minnesota Discovery Center upgrade the facility’s internet connection and improve Wi-Fi throughout the building and grounds.  The team continues to explore the idea of opening a coworking/business center in town.

The BBC team in Chisholm underwent a leadership change between the first and second rounds of BBC grant funding. ReGen, a nonprofit organization of young Iron Rangers, took over project leadership from Chisholm EDA. Planning continues, but at the time of this writing the following two projects were under implementation:

  • The first project will allow the schools to acquire 100 mobile internet hotspots to address the needs of the 100 (out of 535) school-age children in the Chisholm Public Schools who lack internet access at home. Students will be able to check out the hotspots for two-week intervals.

  • The second project seeks to enhance programming at Minnesota Discovery Center by helping fund the purchase of distance learning equipment and curriculum development staff can use to conduct online educational field trips. This will expand the outreach capacity of the center and increase the visibility of the region.

Aitkin County– Blandin Broadband Community Reflection

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Aitkin County…

Aitkin County invested most of its first round of IRBC grant funds on improving broadband access in this very poorly served county.  These investments included upgrading satellite internet service to Long Lake Conservation Center, acquiring library mobile hotspots for check out, installing Wi-Fi on buses, and equipping public meeting centers with internet, computers and other technology tools.

The public meeting centers established with round one funding have seen considerable use, so with the second grant round the Aitkin BBC team is investing in additional technology upgrades for those centers. They have continued their focus on public access by funding the establishment of a Wi-Fi hotspot at the Jacobson Community Center, the first public hotspot in the town. The team also has invested in a fiber connection build to Long Lake Conservation Center, finally bringing to the environmental learning center the future proof technology solution it needs to support program delivery across its large and wooded campus.

Lastly, the county is working with Riverwood Healthcare Center to increase MyChart usage amongst patients and caregivers to improve patient outcomes and give them a greater feeling of ownership over their health and treatment options.

Laurentian Chamber of Commerce – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Laurentian Chamber of Commerce …

The Laurentian Chamber promotes business through education and advocacy to advance the prosperity of the service area, which includes the Quad Cities of Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron, and Virginia. The Chamber has identified broadband as critical for economic vitality, civic engagement, and enhanced quality of life and place in the region.

The Laurentian Chamber’s service area struggles with some of the poorest internet in the state.  To address this challenge, they’ve joined with fellow Iron Range Broadband Communities of East Range and Tower to conduct a joint feasibility study of options for expanding affordable broadband services across their region.

While most projects implemented by the Laurentian Chamber have a business or workforce focus, some cross sectors.  Recognizing the paucity of free public Wi-Fi availability in the Quad Cities area, the Laurentian BBC team set out to create more safe places for residents and visitors to access the internet. Better Wi-Fi was installed at the Gilbert Campground, and in three downtown areas in Gilbert. Eveleth, Gilbert and Virginia school districts were funded to install Wi-Fi on school buses allowing students to do homework on long bus rides.

To address their goal of improved profitability for local businesses through enhanced tech literacy and sophistication of use, the Laurentian Chamber BBC team decided to implement a digital marketing and tech audit program modeled on efforts that have delivered great results in other BBCs. Ten area small businesses were selected to receive professional consulting services from Northeast Minnesota Small Business Development Center. These businesses received one-one-one advice on tech on topics that concerned them most, from websites, to POS systems, to social media use along with an actionable report, including recommendations for next steps, along with up to $1,500 of additional investment in technology or marketing to implement those recommendations.

Other projects developed and implemented by the Laurentian BBC Team include:

  • Equipment and technology upgrades to the chamber’s meeting space facilities, enabling the chamber to better serve their members’ training and professional development needs.

  • Creation of a virtual interview room at the CareerForce Center to help the region’s employers attract knowledge workers. The facility will allow job seekers to apply and interview for positions remotely, and can also be used for mock interviews, and other training purposes.

  • Installation of an ITV system in the workforce center conference room allowing the center to offer distance learning training content of all kinds. The facility will also be available for public use.

  • Creation and promotion of a “Small Business Saturday” mobile ap to promote local business. The app will encourage shopping local on Small Business Saturday and throughout the year by enabling push notifications, promoting specials, and giving customers a resource to find local shopping options.

Iron Range Tourism Bureau – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Iron Range Tourism Bureau…

The Iron Range Tourism Bureau (IRTB) BBC is the first  ”community of interest” to participate in the program as a Blandin Broadband Community.  IRTB is a tourism-support association that serves the communities of Hibbing, Chisholm, Buhl, Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, Fayal Township, Gilbert, Biwabik, Aurora, Embarrass, and Hoyt Lakes. The IRBC team‘s goal as a BBC is to help small tourism businesses better use the internet and technology to attract new visitors to the area.

Attracting and retaining workforce is a big concern for tourism businesses. To address this challenge the team is implementing two projects in 2020: a “local pride” campaign promoting activities and opportunities available on the Range, and a “talent attraction” microsite targeted at people considering moving to the area.

Another priority for the IRTB BBC was to improve the digital marketing and social media skills of the region’s tourism businesses through one-on-one trainings, professional design services, and equipment upgrades.

Arts is a great asset throughout the region, but not always very visible to the general public. IRTB is showcasing the work of area artists and cultural opportunities in the region by creating a digital map8. The map will help raise resident and visitor awareness of arts opportunities, increase the audience for cultural events and improve artists’ ability to market their work.

Finally, the IRTB team seeks to promote the region’s mining identity for tourism by creating a virtual reality mine tour. Mine tours used to be quite popular on the Iron Range, but for a number of reasons they aren’t offered any more. Both residents and visitors are interested in the mining process, and this will provide them with an entertaining and educational virtual experience.

Added story…

The small business marketing assistance allowed 15 nonprofits to purchase equipment and services vital to their success. Items such as scanners, website design, and software purchases allowed the Virginia Area Historical Society, Lyric Center for the Arts, the Tourist Center Seniors and others increase their visibility and meet their organization’s goals.

-Beth Pierce, Iron Range Tourism Bureau

East Range Joint Powers – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection (St Louis County)

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on East Range Joint Powers…

The East Range Joint Powers Board (ERJPB) is a collaboration and partnership between the Iron Range cities of Aurora, Biwabik, and Hoyt Lakes, and the Town of White. The four communities share a school district and pool their time and financial resources toward joint services, facilities, and programs and initiatives.

Large portions of the East Range area are un- or underserved or available broadband services are prohibitively expensive, particularly outside of denser population centers or towns. To address this need, the towns served by the ERJPB have joined with fellow IRBCs Laurentian Chamber of Commerce and Tower to conduct a feasibility study to determine what options exist to expand broadband services in the region.

Enhancing public Wi-Fi was a priority for these communities. The ERJPB team installed hotspots at the Biwabik City Center and at the libraries in Hoyt Lakes and Aurora.

The ERJPB BBC team increased their region’s capacity to work better together by significantly upgrading the partnership’s website7 to include a shared community calendar and repository for information on the region’s broadband enhancement efforts.

The ERJB team is working directly with local businesses to assess and address their technology training and planning needs, including with the help of a new portable training lab developed to increase the ability of local employers, educators, economic development organizations, clubs, associations and others to offer computer, technology, community and professional education and training to individuals and groups across the region.

ERJB team also has been active in statewide broadband advocacy efforts, including by engaging their local business community in making the case for the need to improve broadband access and adoption. The Mesabi East school district is large and spread out, meaning students spend a lot of time on buses. The BBC is equipping four longer-haul buses with Wi-Fi so students can do schoolwork while traveling. They are also helping the school district better communicate with its families and community by improving its communication infrastructure.

As part of an effort to improve the region’s tech literacy and inspire knowledge workers, the team supported a project to offer STEM education for all ages. They aim to have students teach older adults how to use mobile devices. They’ll also schedule classes at the library on coding and robotics, create kits to check out with preloaded apps for robotics and coding, and will acquire and manage a supply of devices to be checked out for those who don’t have cell phones or tablets of their own.
Lastly, the ERJB team implemented a few projects centered around modernizing the region’s emergency services, including updating laptops for use in squad cars and ambulances, and for EMS training.

Koochiching Technology Initiative – Blandin Broadband Community Reflection

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Koochiching Technology Initiative…

The Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI) coalesced in 2018 out of a longstanding and growing recognition of the importance of internet access and skills throughout the community, which includes both Koochiching County and neighboring Kabetogama region of St. Louis County.

Infrastructure is a major concern for the Koochiching County area. With a small and sparse population, affordable internet service in the region is scarce. The situation became more dire, when a major employer in International Falls decided to close their office and transition their employees to work remotely. Many of the employees did not have adequate broadband connections to work effectively at home. The community responded.

One idea that sparked enthusiasm right away was to open a co-working space for use by the town’s displaced employees, as well as by the many local tourists who increasingly want to stay connected while on vacation.

This conversation led to the creation of Ballan’s iSpace, a converted furniture store downtown. This family-run business, a long-time fixture on main street, had been up for sale for years. When the family heard about the BBC team’s interest in developing a co-working space in International Falls, they decided to convert the building themselves – without financial assistance from the BBC.  The tastefully appointed converted space today is available 24/7 to members. Amenities include Wi-Fi, printing services, dining and event space, and a variety of office space options. As a component of the BBC program, the town’s Borderland Young Professionals group is offering scholarships to income-qualifying Ballan’s iSpace patrons.

KTI funded a record total of seventeen projects during the two-year project period, many addressing public internet access, training, opportunities for education and networking around technology and marketing, and promoting the area as a technologically vibrant place to live, work and visit.

In fall of 2018 KTI was invited to participate in the Feasibility Charrette activity at the Border to Border Broadband Conference. They were paired with Paul Bunyan Communications, and together over the course of two days the community team and the telephone coop staff went through a mini-feasibility study process. Conversations continued through the fall and winter.  With Blandin support, the community surveyed potential internet subscribers in the region. Based on this work Paul Bunyan applied for, and was awarded, grant funding to expand services in the Kabetogama region of St. Louis County.

Added story:

“The Blandin Broadband Community program has been a powerful catalyst and inspiration for us to form a strong and diverse team. We have allocated our Blandin funds across a strong slate of local projects which have launched us on a path to becoming our own version of an “intelligent community.” Our engagement with local leaders and stakeholders is strong and we thank you for your partnership in getting it all started.”

~James Yount, Small Town Tech, Inc. & Koochiching Technology Initiative

Swift County– Blandin Broadband Community Reflection

The Blandin Foundation recently published an inclusive assessment of the last cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Including a segment on Swift County…

Swift is another fiber to the premise county, having received Border-to-Border Broadband grant funding in 2015. They currently rank third in the state based on the 2026 state speed goals. Swift County applied for the BBC program to make sure their residents, businesses, and schools have the tools and knowledge to utilize broadband effectively. How can they do things better, smarter, cheaper and faster?

Swift County’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture. Their largest employer manufactures sprayers and cotton pickers. When assessing local work force needs, the ability to offer vocational training locally, particularly welding, was identified as a major priority. The steering team investigated a variety of possible options and in the end partnered with Ridgewater College in Willmar to offer a four-week course utilizing online classes in addition to onsite training. Students were provided a computer if they needed one. There was a waiting list for the class, and 16 of the 20 participants completed the program. Welding jobs in the area start at $18-22/hour, which represents a significant improvement in wages for participants.

Youth was another focus for swift County.  The BBC team worked with Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg Community Ed to offer a summer STEM Camp for 80 students entering 2nd through 7th grade. Their goal was to provide a low-cost opportunity for kids to learn about robotics, computer coding, technology, engineering, and math. The camp was a success, in fact they exceeded their expectations when it came to registrations.

Another youth and family-focused project was creation of a Swift County 4-H Extension App. The goal of the app is to connect members and families across the county, provide quick and easy access to program updates and events, and generally promote community connectedness. Benefits of the app are wide-ranging, including easier clean-up at the fairgrounds, since fewer people will be misplacing their paper fair booklets! It will also allow for push notifications for events and schedule changes.

Swift County also helped four small cities without websites develop them, provided hands-on digital marketing consulting to seven small business owners, convened a digital marketing round-table group for community and economic development organizations, and developed a system for taking online campsite reservations.