Moose Lake: All broadband is not created equal

Moose Lake was one of Blandin Foundation’s 29 Minnesota Get Broadband communities, which means they received financial support and expertise from the Blandin Foundation to help promote broadband locally. Each Get Broadband project had a unique vision and goal to address local strengths and challenges.

Moose Lake’s goals were twofold. They wanted to bring broadband to local businesses, residents and government. (The local school, library, hospital and state facilities already had it.) The also had a strong focus on public safety – in part I’m sure because of MCF-Willow River/Moose Lake, the Level 3 Correctional Facility in town. In 2009, local broadband leader, Bill Carlson provided Blandin on Broadband with a thorough update on broadband progress in Moose Lake. In short the local utilities provider took on the job of providing broadband. They set up wireless access to area businesss and began providing access to community residents. Here’s a snippet of Bill’s report

The current demand on the capacity and speed of the community network has prompted the Water & Light Commission to build a fiber optic backbone which extends the length of the city. Public Safety has always been a priority of the community and this added bandwidth will allow the monitoring of the electrical distribution system, the back-up electrical generators, the community surveillance cameras and emergency management and notification communications system. Community server/software and GIS mapping projects are also in the development stages. The fiber optic cable also passes by an area that is slated for economic development.

I had an opportunity to speak with Bill about the latest news in Moose Lake last week. Bill is frustrated because while they have broadband, it seems that as soon as they get close to achieving or goals, the emerging technologies forces them to redirect our focus. There are plans to move their network forward. Apparently the service to residents and local businesses is thriving – but upgrades aren’t necessarily improving public safety. They are looking at Video over IP Community Access/Public Safety (CAPS) Network utilizing digital security cameras to connect key community critical facilities and for local broadcast of community events. (You can get more details on the plans in the PPT below or the script from a recent City Council meeting.)

Recently it seems like I’ve been able to post so many positive stories of groundbreaking and construction on ARRA funded projects. And the ARRA funds (and maps) have stimulated discussion in other towns. But I think it’s instructive to look at what’s happening in Moose Lake.

They are a community that has been paying attention to broadband for years. They have a local broadband champion – although I suspect after 30 years he may be thinking about retiring at some point. So they are a town in a precarious position. And I think it’s one concrete example where the tiered definition of broadband raised by the National Broadband Plan (At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second. And 4 Mbps download speed for the rest.) will be a serious disadvantage to rural communities.

The major employers in town are tax exempt institutions. It means unemployment is generally low – but Bill mentioned that it has been difficult to recruit qualified employees who have spouses would also want to work. Improved broadband might help rectify that problem. One possible solution is to develop a program that would make broadband available for telework and home type businesses. It would also allow spouses to maintain cultural and family connections with their hometowns. Also the presence of many commuters working in the community might draw more interest in terms of improving local public safety. The question is whether the town’s slow progress will be enough to support their future. And are there other towns in similar positions.

MN Broadband Story of Success: Brouwer Berries

Often I am asked for local broadband adoption stories. I thought I’d start to track some here with (hopefully) weekly articles or videos. Today, I start with Brouwer Berries in Raymond, Minnesota. I heard about them through Jean Spaulding with the Kandiyohi County & Willmar Economic Development Commission. I feel like I should add a disclaimer like ‘results may vary’. Today’s example is of someone (Sarah Brouwer) who used technology to tell her story – but she has a great story, and as you’ll see below, a great voice. I’ve pieced together parts of our e-mail conversation for you.

Brouwer Berries: You-pick and pre-picked strawberries

How have you used technology?

I’ve had a web-site for our little hobby farm for 3 years, and people can sign up for my e-mail alerts. I actually had the web-site created after attending web-site workshops in Willmar sponsored by the Blandin Foundation, and half the site was paid for by a Blandin grant. The web-site is great as a way for people to get directions or info about our farm. People prefer looking the information up to telephoning us. The e-mail alerts are great. People really appreciate hearing about the field conditions, and optimum picking times. I tend to be hesitant about sending out too many e-mails, though, because I don’t want to overwhelm people. This year, however, we started a Facebook Fan page.

How is Facebook working for you?

Unbelievable-that’s all I can say about Facebook! I detest Facebook personally, and am leery of posting anything on my own status since I don’t like the way a comment can be read by so many people, but at an MFVGA (Minnesota Fruits and Vegetable Grower’s Ass’n) convention last January every single marketing workshop I went to said “Your business has to have a Facebook page”. So, I did.

The results were incredible. I’d post that I’d be in a certain town at the side of the road at 3:00 later that day, and the first TEN of my customers would tell me they read it on Facebook. One lady even took me to the side and said “I flew in from Chicago today, and noticed on my laptop that you’d be here, so I haven’t even gone home yet but I’m stopping for your berries, and thank-you for letting me know!”

Other people told me “Sure, post pictures of us on your Page — anything to help your business”.

The crazy part was all the people thanking me. I kid you not– they were thanking me for what I considered advertisement! They had signed up to be notified, and they were happy to have my posts! These are people of all ages — in fact, every week Facebook sends me an “insights” page that breaks down my fans by age and gender. It is so simple, and I haven’t bothered posting anything since the end of the strawberry harvest, but you can bet that next spring I’ll start raving about the coming crop in order to gain more “likes” to my site.

How has having broadband helped?

I access the internet at home on a traditional (but new) computer — I’m a home schooling mom. We got broadband less than a year ago, which really facilitated the Facebook and website management. Before we had it, I didn’t change my strawberry website home page more than once or twice a strawberry season, and I only checked my personal Facebook page once a month because it took so long for pictures to download.

This past strawberry season, with broadband, I was able to update my strawberry website and Facebook nearly daily without a huge time commitment. This was extremely helpful, because it was a very wet spring, which adversely affected our crop. Many people were checking our website and Facebook status to see how wet the field was, and if there were berries available to pick when they had time to come. With all the standing water in our fields, I’m certain that an even larger portion of our crop would have spoiled without the use of technology to draw pickers and purchasers to our field in between rainstorms.

If you have or know if a broadband story of success to share, please send it my way. I will also archive the stories on the Blandin Applications in Action site.

Foley school promotes broadband

benton_schoolThanks to Nancy Hoffman, the Benton County Economic Development Director for the heads up on a great program in the local school. The Benton Broadband committee felt in order to get broadband to areas that do not have it, they should create demand. The Foley Superintendent and the Benton Telephone Cooperative decided to offer families a rebate if they would use their services. Below is a excerpt from the letter that went out to students’ families:

Learning has never stopped at the schoolhouse door at 3 pm and that is truer now than ever before with the on-line resources for your children and family available at your fingertips through Foley’s web page at http://www.foley.k12.mn.us.

But with dial up, you can be drumming your fingers waiting for these resources to appear on your computer screen. That is why Benton Cooperative Telephone has teamed up with Foley Schools to help your family enter the on-line world of broadband access. Benton Cooperative Telephone will rebate you up to $25 if you sign up for broadband access and your student(s) participate in an activity at Foley Public Schools including our Food Service Program. To claim the rebate, submit the coupon on page 8 with your receipt from Foley Public Schools which indicates you have paid an activity or food service fee.

I love this idea. It will be interesting to see how successful the plan is – but I know in our house a good way to effect change is with a letter from the school. Also, it’s a plan that would be easy to replicate in other areas – in case there are readers out there who are interested in boosting broadband demand in their areas.

Minnesota Broadband Videos

Long before Blandin Foundation had a blog, we had a video contest for Get Broadband communities. To make a medium story short – several rural communities in Minnesota got digital video cameras; Blandin got great videos that highlighted how each community was promoting or using broadband.

Some were pretty specific to the project; some are more general broadband stories. I thought I’d share a few:

Sleepy Eye
Tells the story of a high school student who is able to attend classes online and take care of her brother with muscular dystrophy and the owner of a small business

Continue reading

Cambridge looking at Wifi

According to Isanti County News, Cambridge City Council recently heard from Genesis Wireless about a city-wide wireless broadband network and municipal WiFi Hotspots. Genesis would provide broadband for the city and remote locations and three hotspots in strategic areas in exchange for antenna space.

The council will hear more at a later meeting.

Red Wing approves HBC plan

Hiawatha Broadband Communication (HBC) has been talking to various communtiies about their plan to pursue stilumus funding to expand fiber to those communities with help from federal funds. Last night they spoke with the Red Wing city council who approved a resolution (7-0) to support HBC when it applies to the federal agencies that will distribute stimulus dollars allocated for fiber-optic projects.

Red Wing is excited at the prospect of having fiber – especially as a tool to encourage businesses to move to the area.

Lake City also approved the plan. HBC also plans to talk to Cannon Falls.

Moose Lake Community Broadband Network

I asked some of the graduated Broadband Get Broadband communities for broadband success stories. Bill Carlson was good enough to send me an update and history of broadband in Moose Lake

In the year 2000, Moose Lake was experiencing a local digital divide. There was high-speed broadband connectivity in the public library, the school, the hospital and in the Minnesota state facilities, but only dial-up was available to the local government and the local residents. The community made a concerted effort to explore the option of building a locally owned Community Broadband Network, which would allow the flexibility of providing Internet services tailored to the changing needs of Moose Lake. A resolution was passed by the Moose Lake City Council to allow the Moose Lake Water & Light Commission to enter into the broadband business. They were directed to use the same model that was so successful with the electrical utility – provide the City of Moose Lake with an affordable and reliable service.

A T1 line with Internet service was brought into the City Hall and a fiber optic line was installed by the linemen to connect the city hall with the water& light building. The city administration and utilities business office now had high-speed broadband services. A small fiber loop was constructed at the same time to bring high-speed broadband services to the downtown business. The local businesses that required large data transfer joined the network but the high installation costs prohibited the small business to join. The partnership between the public and private sectors made the monthly T1 charges affordable.

The city realized that a fixed wireless system was the best option to meet the needs of the rest of the community. The completion of this portion of the network allowed all the local government buildings, including the Emergency Response Center to have broadband Internet connections. The rates and the installs costs were affordable to small businesses. Before a marketing plan and customer services could be implemented, Mediacom begin offering Internet services to their customers and Quest was offering DSL services to the community.

The only hope for the community broadband network was to find a niche service that only they could provide. The one possibility was to add Wi-Fi radios to the city campground and the highway corridor which transverse the community. The network was part of a “Linking-Up North” project that was to promote Moose Lake as a place for travelers to stop and check their e-mails and hopefully do some shopping. The Wi-Fi portion was designed to allow for 15 minutes of free use and username/password for extended use. Many of the users felt they were entitled to extended free service, so it became somewhat of a public relations nightmare. Free extended service is currently offered to .patrons of the public library, a local coffee shop and guests at the motels. No plans are in the works to expand the Wi-Fi system at this time.

The areas surrounding the City of Moose Lake begin showing the most interest in signing up for broadband services. Tower and install agreements have been made with Moose Lake Township, Minnesota State Park and the Mercy Hospital and Health Care Center to bring public broadband services to their locations.

The current demand on the capacity and speed of the community network has prompted the Water & Light Commission to build a fiber optic backbone which extends the length of the city. Public Safety has always been a priority of the community and this added bandwidth will allow the monitoring of the electrical distribution system, the back-up electrical generators, the community surveillance cameras and emergency management and notification communications system. Community server/software and GIS mapping projects are also in the development stages. The fiber optic cable also passes by an area that is slated for economic development.

The neighboring communities of Barnum, Kettle River, Sturgeon Lake and Willow River have contracted on a trial basis with the Water & Light Commission to receive wireless broadband services. The links are currently being made and customers are being hook-up.

The major problem from the beginning continues today, the communities inability to hire a person to provide technical and customer services. The community network has to rely on individual’s willingness to help out with the everyday problems and to outsource contract with companies for technical support. The effort today is focused on seeking funds from the Recovery Act Broadband Initiatives to make the Community Broadband Network sustainable and continue to grow in unserved and underserved areas without becoming a financial burden on the local taxpayers and Water & Light Customers.