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.

36 rural Minnesota communities with concerted broadband adoption efforts – thanks to Blandin Foundation

I realized there wasn’t a good list of Blandin Broadband Communities; communities that have received support from Blandin to increase broadband adoption. Support means funding but it also means help getting a group of community leaders together to create and deploy plans that strategically address broadband adoption, broadband access and digital inclusion. Below is an alphabetical list of communities with links to more info – generally blog posts on their progress:

  1. Aitkin County
  2. Benton County
  3. Carlton County
  4. Central Woodlands
  5. Chisago County
  6. Chisholm
  7. Cook County
  8. Ely
  9. Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
  10. Grizzlies
  11. Hibbing
  12. Itasca County
  13. Itasca County
  14. Kanabec Broadband Initiative
  15. Kandiyohi County
  16. Lac qui Parle Valley Schools
  17. Lake County
  18. Lake of the Woods County
  19. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
  20. Martin County
  21. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
  22. Mille Lacs County
  23. Mt. Iron-Buhl
  24. Nobles County
  25. Red Wing
  26. Redwood County
  27. Resilient Region
  28. RS Fiber
  29. Sherburne County
  30. Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services
  31. Stevens County
  32. Thief River Falls
  33. Upper Minnesota Valley RDC
  34. Windom
  35. Winona
  36. Worthington

You can also check out a matrix of specific broadband adoption projects from the 2013-2014 cohort and 2015-2016 cohort.

Capturing an Online Market: A Small Business Success Story from Winona

I am happy to share this story from Project FINE. They have received funding from the Blandin Foundation to support their ecommerce training…

Ten years ago, a Hmong gentleman moved from the St. Paul area to Winona, MN. For years, he and his family had dreamed of owning their own business. They had worked hard and saved money to be able to fulfill their dream of entrepreneurship. When they learned that a gas station in our area was for sale, they used their savings for a down payment on a business loan.

Moving to a new community can be difficult, but they quickly got connected with Project FINE and were active participants in many of our programs. Through their participation, they were able to network with others and grow their customer base. Over the years, their business grew, as their customers appreciated their friendly service. They also continued to learn and grow, looking for ways to improve their business and increase sales. They added a deli counter and liquor store to bring in more customers.

Despite this success, their business did not have an online presence. Because he did not have any technical or business training, he was unable to develop his own website. While he wanted to reach more people, he just didn’t know how. When Project FINE started the .COM project, we reached out to him to participate. He was very excited and said “I have been waiting for a chance like this for a long time. I will make sure to attend.”

Through the project, he attended training sessions and received one-on-one assistance. He also worked with a Winona State University student to develop a website. The student met with him at the gas station to discuss plans and create a vision for the website. They also took pictures of the man and his wife and the store. The student worked to discover what specific information would be included on the website and after several meetings, the website went live.

The man and his family have been extremely happy with their website. They thanked us for helping them and have since commented that many of his customers had seen the site and given positive feedback.

He is also very excited at the prospect of reaching out to town visitors, especially hunters and
fishermen in the area. He said, “this has been so wonderful and will continue to help my business move to another level. Thank you for your support.”

Nobles County Broadband 2014 Update: 60 percent broadband coverage

noblesI’m working on a County-by-County look at the State of Broadband in MN. My hope is to feature a county a day (in alphabetical order). In November, Connect Minnesota released their final report on broadband availability. Here is how Nobles County stacked up:

  • Household Density: 11
  • Number of Households: 7,946
  • Percentage serviced (without mobile): 59.15%
  • Percentage serviced (with mobile): 59.15

Nobles County was recently named a Blandin Broadband Community, which shodul help them promote and build a business case for better broadband. They are interested in improved economic development…

Leading the Blandin Broadband Community work is the Nobles Economic Opportunity Network (NEON). Together, with educational, nonprofit and business partners throughout the county, NEON will rally local leaders to develop a sustainable model for broadband access and use in Nobles County.

“We are excited to bring together ideas and options to open up faster, stable broadband to encourage economic growth over the whole county and give rural residents better connectivity,” said Cheryl Janssen, NEON committee member.

There has been movement for better broadband. In 2013, CenturyLink opted for Connect American Funds (CAF) to serve Nobles County. And Mediacom announced upgrades in Worthington about the same time. You can see from the map that there are more options around Worthington than the surrounding areas. (Worthington was an original MIRC – Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities – participant.

My hope is that these county-specific posts will help policy makers and county residents understand where they stand in terms of broadband access. Assuming it might get forwarded to folks who don’t eat and sleep broadband I wanted to provide a little background on broadband to help set the stage… Continue reading

PCs for People provides low cost Internet access in the Twin Cities

I’ve written about PCs for People before. They refurbish computers and distribute them to folks who need computers. They were partners in the Blandin Foundation MIRC program. They do good work.

Recently they were featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The article highlights their partnership with Mobile Citizen, which allows them to provide low cost wireless Internet access to recipients of their computers. The service is only available in the Twin Cities because Mobile Citizen does not have coverage in rural areas – but it’s working well in the metro area. For the coldest day of the year, I thought I’d share some of the heartwarming stories as told by PCs for People patrons…

“I struggled with trying to help my kids with their homework, and that was very depressing to me,” wrote a 37-year-old mother of three. “They now can get the homework help they need online.”

Another client waited regularly for a computer at her local library, feeling pressured to hurry as she hunted for work and filled out job applications. Using the home computer gifted to her by PCs for People, she learned about and enrolled in a program to get a commercial driver’s license.

A 41-year-old with disabilities wrote that not having a computer with Internet access “held me back from making friends or working. It kept me separate from the world.”

Arrowhead Electrical Cooperative becomes Ad Hoc Community Center for Broadband Hungry

Build it and they will come. I think that’s half true with broadband today. Build it and the interested and motivated will come. That’s what they’re seeing in Cook County. Dave Peters reports for MPR’s Ground Level

Arrowhead [Electrical Cooperative] is running optical fiber throughout the county to provide high-speed access to anyone who wants it. Most of the construction is done. Now they need to do “a lot, a lot, a lot” of cable splicing to connect the fiber to people’s homes. First service is set for January or February, he [Joe Buttweiler] said.

But until that splicing happens, it sounds as if people are setting up shop in and around Arrowhead Electric to get the bandwidth they need…

Since then it’s not uncommon to see people sitting in the parking lot at odd hours just to use the high-speed service on their laptops or tablets, he added.

One musician Buttweiler knows had been using a coffee shop in Grand Marais to do a weekly upload of large files, typically taking an hour and a half to accomplish what he needed. Now he comes to the Arrowhead building and does the same thing in five or 10 minutes.

So there is demand! Some of that has always been there – but a huge piece of the equation has been building demand even before the fiber was deployed through Cook County’s MIRC effort and other initiatives that I know go back at least 15 years – because I remember doing Internet introductions North of Duluth more than 15 years ago.



Minnesota Local Government Innovation Awards that Highlight Technology

Last week, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs announced the winners of its seventh annual Local Government Innovation Awards. The awards—organized in partnership with the Bush Foundation and co-sponsored by the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties, and the Minnesota School Board Association—recognize government entities for their creativity and effectiveness in redesigning how they do business.

I was pleased a see a couple of technology-centered projects get mentioned…

County Category: Carlton County: TXT4Life Suicide Prevention
The TXT4LIFE program reaches youth in ways they communicate most: Through text messaging, the Minnesota affiliate of the National Suicide Prevention Network Lifeline has experienced a tremendous increase in clients. The TXT4LIFE program covers northeast Minnesota including seven counties and four tribal nations—a geographic area that represents six percent of the state’s population but consistently reports the highest suicide rates. Marketing and outreach are key components; prior to the text program, the suicide line received 25 calls each month from youth and it now receives more than 300.

Also a MIRC community project was in the line up: City of Morris: Morris Rental Housing Commission. I wrote about their project in April 2012…

The folks at the University of Minnesota Morris have found a solution to student housing issues – that is an open and informed market for students and landlords. The Morris Rental Housing Commission received funds through the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative to develop a website that helps keep everyone informed – of their rights, the responsibilities and the local rental market. They maintain a database of licensed and available rental properties.

Executive Director of the Commission was kind enough to tell me a little bit about how the website has been received. It sounds as if both the students and landlords have appreciated the site. It sounds as if the site is helping both parties make better informed decisions. She had one story that helps put into perspective what a difference a little knowledge can make…

The one story that I think epitomizes the success of the site concerned a parent and their college student child. They were looking at several different rental properties. Most parents are a bit nervous about the fact that college students in Morris sign leases for the Fall of 2012 in January or February. They had looked at some of the properties and then found the web site which provided the inspection reports on the properties. After reviewing the inspection reports, the parent called my office and wanted to talk about them. We discussed the things that are covered in an inspection and those that are not. One of the properties had failed the inspection and had not made the corrections for many months. It was a property the college student wanted to rent but the information from the website provided the information needed to avoid a problem rental.

The fact remains that most college students (as well as other new renters) are unaware of the pitfalls that can make their lives very stressful. If we can play a small role in helping them avoid just one struggle we have accomplished something worthwhile.

Blandin Foundation named a FTTH Top 100

Bernadine_InCommonsWe are honored to be named one of Broadband Communities Magazine’s Fiber to the Home Top 100. We are so pleased to be listed with many esteemed colleagues who also strive for “Building a Fiber-Connected World.”

Here is what they said about the Blandin Foundation…

Blandin Foundation www.blandinfoundation.org 877-882-2257

Key Products: Grant making, community leadership development and public policy programs

Summary: A private foundation based in Grand Rapids, Minn., the Blandin Foundation has been dedicated since 1941 to strengthening rural Minnesota communities. Its Broadband Initiative, launched in 2003, helps communities educate citizens about the need for ultra-high-speed broadband and plan and execute broadband projects. The foundation has published informational guides, sponsored conferences and educational events and supported many feasibility studies for the development of robust, high-speed broadband networks. It has supported implementation of broadband applications in schools, health care facilities and other institutions and for home-based users and has promoted broadband adoption in rural communities. In 2012, the foundation selected nine rural Minnesota communities for intensive, two-year partnerships to advance local broadband initiatives. It also led the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) coalition – a group of educational, job training and economic development organizations – in a BTOP-funded program to enhance broadband adoption and use by small businesses, unemployed residents and local governments. Completed in 2012, the MIRC program introduced more than 250,000 rural Minnesotans to online resources to find jobs, continue their educations and strengthen their businesses.

I’ll take this opportunity to add some of the most significant outcomes of the work that we’ve been able to track so far:

  • Data examining broadband subscription levels during the three years of MIRC’s implementation suggest that broadband adoption growth in participating communities grew close to 15% faster than in the rest of rural Minnesota.
  • Those communities that reported the highest rates of participation [in MIRC activities] also experienced the highest rates of broadband subscription growth.
  • Such evidence allows us to conclude that community-based broadband literacy and market development efforts can and do make a difference.
  • According to the University of Minnesota/Crookston’s MIRC project evaluator, “it is not hard to connect the MIRC project as a major contributor to Minnesota’s leading position [nationally] in rural broadband adoption.”
  • And, in the words of a MIRC partner in Thief River Falls, “MIRC is a life changing project for many individuals in the nine communities.”

Thief River Falls (MIRC community) talks technology in Mayors and Cities Magazine

It was nice to see Thief River Falls Mayor Jim Dagg mention their involvement in the MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities) project and impact technology has had in the area in his recent interview with Mayors and Cities Magazine

How did you become involved with the Intelligent Community Forum?

We became involved through our Community Development Director and his application for grant funds for the C.K. Blandin Foundation which received federal funds to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas. The city has used these grant funds to implement three specific projects:

A) Creation of a Business/Technology Center at our local Chamber of Commerce building. The center is used by the local area business community for various computer classes.

B) Technology Fairs for the Novice and Advanced Users were held in 2011 and 2012 which offered various training and workshops that focused on computers and high-speed internet. The technology fairs were open to the general public and were very well received.

C) Computers for the Community project allows for disadvantaged families that complete the mandatory computer classes to receive a refurbished computer along with one year of high speed internet service at a reduced rate.

What do you think of their organization?

It’s a great thing for rural Minnesota

And have they helped Thief River Falls?

Yes, I believe they have …

How can technology improve the quality of life in TRF?  And has it?

Yes, Digi key is a prime example of this.  The Company is the fifth largest electronic distributor in the world. They have many web-sites in multiple languages all headquartered out of TRF. Just think you can work here and sell something to someone in China, India or Europe and within 48 to 72 hours it is on their door steps. That is just one example of making a living selling to the world while enjoying living in TRF. The Thief River Falls School District is implementing a new program during the 2013-2014 school year to provide every student from kindergarten to Grade 12 with a computer.

MIRC partner in Winona get award

I was thrilled to see one of the MIRC partners receive the 2013 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service and $10,000 for her efforts. The award recognizes Minnesotans who, with  “little thought of public recognition or financial reward,” serve, empower and unite the poor and disadvantaged to help themselves.

According to MinnPost, Fatima Said from Project Fine  was one of six recipients. Here is a reminder from a post written earlier by Bill Coleman on the technology side of Project Fine…

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to meet with Project FINE in Winona. They are a nonprofit organization that helps newcomers integrate into the community. They provide foreign language interpreters and translators as well as opportunities for education, information, referral, and empowerment for immigrants and refugees. With funding through MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities), they have also started with broadband adoption and computer literacy programs.

They have received donated computers and money from community partners. They have computer science majors who are tutoring FINE clients. Currently they offer training in the classes, but they have plans to expand training to people’s homes. The response has been terrific; people come early to the classes and want more.

MIRC community results show higher than average rural broadband adoption

Bernadine JoselynThis week the Daily Yonder’s series on broadband focuses on adoption in rural areas. They point out the rural adoption rates are not catching up with urban cohorts…

Rates of residential broadband adoption have grown considerably between 2003 and 2010.  Overall adoption rates have more than tripled from around 20% in 2003 to over 65% in 2010.  Interestingly, the overall “digital divide” between rural and urban households (technically designated as metro vs. nonmetro below) has remained consistent over this period at around 13 percentage points.

This is disheartening and diving into their statistics paints and even gloomier picture because the numbers confirm that households that could possibly benefit the most from broadband are least likely to have it. Older folks, folks with lower incomes and folks with less education are the least likely to have adopted broadband.

The good news is that the Blandin Foundation has had success working with communities in rural area to increase broadband adoption with the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. Over 18 months, the we worked with 11 Demonstration Communities (DCs) to increase broadband adoption. The MIRC final report outlines the adoption improvements…

Over the 18 months under comparison, all of the DCs grew their rate of broadband adoption at an average rate of 12%, compared with a rural Minnesota statewide average of 10.3% for the same period. In both 2010 and 2012, all of the DCs scored well in broadband compared with national rates of adoption in comparable rural areas. Average penetration in the DCs in 2012 was 67.1%, however, which was still 5% below the rural statewide average of 70.6%.

A more recent report by Robert Bell notes that broadband adoption is just one area where MIRC communities saw improvement…

Over the 18‐month period, the Demonstration Communities posted a 9.4% average improvement in their scores, ranging from a high of 16% to a low of 4% positive change.

Robert Bell worked with the communities to measure their “Intelligence” based on the Intelligent Community Forum criteria. The scores refer to above and are based on rating in the following categories. It takes adoption a step further and move communities up a later to greater vitality overall.

average change

Regular readers will recognize the MIRC story but I thought it might be helpful to borrow from the final report to outline some of the lessons the MIRC communities learned in the process in the hope that it might help close the rural-urban gap…

Communities know best.

Involve citizens directly in articulating their community’s broadband adoption and utilization goals to catalyze the long-term engagement needed to increase adoption.

Local leadership matters.

Help local broadband champions get and use skills to frame issues, build and sustain relationships, and mobilize people to build a community’s capacity to achieve its broadband goals. Train community leaders to use participatory facilitation skills. Effective meeting facilitation can make a big difference in keeping folks coming back to the planning and implementation table.

Broadband is not an end in itself.

Broadband is a means to the bigger picture of increased economic vitality and improved quality of life.

Outreach works.

Change follows relationship lines. Effective recruitment strategies for technologically-challenged small businesses and for historically marginalized populations are intra-community, hyper-local, high-touch, and personalized.

Peers make great teachers.

Peer-based learning formats that encourage local businesses to share practices, questions, and experiments are a popular, low-cost, and easily sustainable tool to build a community’s technological savvy.

Cross-community communication is key.

Signage, local media support, and online social media are effective, low-cost ways to spur and sustain energy and excitement for community projects.

Engage tomorrow’s leaders today.

Recognize and authentically engage the talents of young people. This next generation of leaders brings energy and sustainability to any community initiative. Youth can serve as co-trainers, technology mentors, and partners in computer refurbishment projects. They can also use their video and other social media skills to promote their communities.

Connect the economic dots.

Framing broadband use as a necessary ingredient in the whole-picture approach to community vitality can help communities see and leverage the connection between technology and benefits to community life. This framework can also help community leaders see how workforce, infrastructure, inclusivity, innovation, and marketing/advocacy are mutually interdependent aspects of community vitality.

Have patience.

The work takes time. Look for and celebrate early and easy wins along the way, but think about the long term and build capacity and energy for the long haul. Money and other resources follow vision and commitment.

Video of Measuring Broadband’s Impact on Economic Development

Just following up on the web radio program announced earlier today

Bernadine Joselyn,  director of public policy and engagement at the Blandin Foundation and Intelligent Community Forum co-founder Robert Bell were interviewed on BlogTalk Radio’s Gigabit Nation. The subject was the significant research project in Minnesota where the Blandin Foundation was the lead agency. It was all about better understanding the impact of broadband in the world’s rural communities. Access the archive below…


Measuring Broadband’s Impact on Economic Development: Web Radio Program on today

This afternoon Blandin Foundation’s Bernadine Joselyn and Intelligent Community Forum’s Robert Bell will be on Gigabit Nation with Craig Settles web radio program at 1:00 CDT today. They will be talking about the MIRC program and measuring the impact of broadband on economic development. Learn more…

The elusive Holy Grail for broadband is proof. Specifically, useful and accurate data that proves to some extent how broadband impacts local economies. But this could be changing as data-gathering efforts started several years ago in various communities are starting to bear fruit.

The Minnesota Rural Intelligent Communities (MIRC) was one such project that provides valuable lessons. MIRC involved extensive research to determine if and how broadband impacted personal economic advancement, continuing education and business performance in 11 communities.

Bernadine Joselyn, Dir. of Public Policy and Engagement for the Blandin Foundation, and Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Communities Forum (ICF) present the MIRC report’s key findings, and discuss what these mean for rural communities in Minnesota and throughout the U.S. The Foundation administered the project on behalf of the initiative’s partners, including ICF which established measurement criteria. Listeners also get tips on effective techniques for assessing broadband’s economic impact.

MPR write up on MIRC project

It was great to see Dave Peters’ article on the Blandin Foundation’s MIRC project (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities). I’m going to cheat and pull out the main parts – and suggest that you check out the article yourself. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve read lots of articles on MIRC through the last couple of years, but it’s nice to get a perspective with a little distance.

But a lot of people have access to broadband yet don’t use it. So about $5 million also went to the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids to encourage residents and businesses to get on board the 21st Century’s transformational means of communication. That money has now been spent and the project known as Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities has wrapped up. What did it buy?

Blandin picked 11 places to focus its efforts and enlisted the help of non-profits, regional development commissions, University of Minnesota  Extension, state agencies, the Intelligent Community Forum and others. As a result, in those communities schools got better computer equipment, local governments enhanced services available online, hundreds of business operators received training in how to put their stores and services on the digital map.

A big question, though, is whether the money moved the needle on adoption.  An analysis of the project by the Economic Development Administration Center at the University of Minnesota Crookston says it did, at least to some extent.

The number of broadband subscriptions in all of rural Minnesota rose by a little more than 10 percent during the time the project was in effect. In almost all of the 11 communities Blandin focused on, the increase was greater — almost 16 percent in Cook County and almost 13 percent in Thief River Falls, for example. Leech Lake band adoption grew more slowly than rural Minnesota overall, by less than 10 percent.