Case study of Cook County MN – building a case, building partnerships, building broadband

CoBank recently published a helpful (and inspiring!) report on Making the Move to Broadband: Rural Electric Co-ops Detail Their Experience. The whole report is worth a read if you’re looking at tackling rural broadband and even you’re not an electric cooperative. One of the communities they highlight is Cook County and old ARRA project deployed by Arrowhead Electric Cooperative.

A little bit of background on the project. IN 2009, Cook County was listed as least served counties in Minnesota; last I looked they had 94 percent coverage for speeds of 25/3 and 100/20. ARRA Funding is the impetus for the jump. (Although they were also part of Blandin’s MIRC program, which certainly helped boost use of the network.)

The case study is in the form of an interview – Jenny Kartes from Arrowhead talking to Mark Doyle from CoBank. I am just going to pull out the section (pg 43-44) that I think will have the most value for the greatest number of reader – so folks with and without a relationship to a cooperative – although I have to say the ethos for the cooperative certainly seems like a good fit for getting rural broadband done…

MD: Did you partner with anyone?

JK: We did. At the beginning of our project, we had a number of options as to how we were going to do this. Were we going to be the retail provider or the wholesale provider? We found quickly that there is a large learning curve especially related to phone and the assets you need for providing phone service. We wanted a partner with our same values and good industry knowledge. We found Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) out of Brainerd, Minnesota, which as a cooperative really had our same values and has been doing this for a very long time. They were a good fit for us, and they were very excited to work with us as well. It was a good partnership as a small entity. There was a lot more on the front end than we had originally realized. We did indeed need that partnership and rely heavily on it.

MD: How are you funding the project?

JK: We funded this project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the broadband initiative program. It was funded through a $16.1 million federal grant and loan: $11.3 million in grant and $4.8 million in federal loan. After our application, we realized that due to our terrain and the seasonality of our customers, it was going to cost a bit more than that. We then went to our county, and they

provided $4 million more in grant funds to us. It was a $20 million project in total, roughly 75 percent grant funded.

MD: Did you collect contributions in aid to construction from your subscribers?

JK: On the initial rollout of our project we did not. We had a window of a few years, as we were rolling out our construction, when we allowed people to essentially sign up for free construction to the home. It did not require them to take service. Once that window closed, and if you did not sign up within that window, then we do require 100 percent aid to construction from the subscriber. Since our subscribers are not necessarily members of our cooperative, we do require them to fund that construction.

MD: Was the project on time and on budget?

JK: Based on our original projections, it was not. As I mentioned earlier, our original budget was significantly short and we required an additional $4 million to complete the project. We then reworked our budget a few times, and we did stay very close to our second budget that included the additional $4 million.

 

However, that did create a timing issue as far as securing the additional funds to complete the project. The project was initially to be done at the end of 2013, and we finalized the project in 2015. Construction delays were mainly due to the terrain. We have a lot of rock, and construction is slow going in our service area. Additionally, the very short construction season in northern Minnesota

slowed us down.

MD: Did you encounter any surprises or challenges along the way?

JK: Yes. I could talk for quite a while on that. Having detailed maps and accurate plant records would have saved us a lot of frustration and a lot of time as the project began. We also did not realize the importance of on-site engineering, on-site contractor management and constant quality assurance throughout the project, at every point. We ended the project with those elements in place. We also ended up changing some of our contractors/vendors mid-project. Many of our contract crews were a bit surprised by our service territory and the time it took to complete work, never doing work up here before.

MD: What is your long-term measurement for the success of this project?

JK: The long-term measurement for success, being that our goal was to just get our community connected, is that the broadband project and division can be financially self-sustaining. We do not want the project to have any risk for our electric members. We’re not looking to make large profits off of it. If it can stand on its own financially, and provide good customer service and good broadband service to our community, we will call it a success.

Blandin Broadband eNews Oct 2017: Broadband conference coming up

2017 Border to Border Broadband Conference – just weeks away!
Register today for the annual broadband conference October 25-26 at beautiful Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd. Visit the conference webpage for more information, including a detailed event agenda and registration information. Get a sneak peek from a keynote speaker Roberto Gallardo http://wp.me/p3if7-4c0 and learn about his recent research that found that broadband can mean $1850 increase to a household annually. http://wp.me/p3if7-4d2 You won’t want to miss it!

Got a broadband tool to share?
Blandin Foundation is looking to collect tools, templates, instructions that would be useful to other communities as they try to get/use better broadband. If you have a tool to share please contact Ann Treacy atreacy@treacyinfo.com.

September MN Broadband Task Force Meeting: Recommendations
The MN Broadband Task Force has decided to do an abridged broadband report this year, focusing on legislative recommendations. Before the meeting began, the Task Force heard from rural representative with their suggestions for recommendations. They also learned about wireless connectivity. http://wp.me/p3if7-4hq (They didn’t discuss Verizon’s plan to cut many rural areas. http://wp.me/p3if7-4gf) They did discuss the $50.3 million in broadband grant requests. http://wp.me/p3if7-4g8

Funding for Broadband
How expensive is broadband? It depends on your bell shaped curve. http://wp.me/p3if7-4gj The White House is planning to devote $200M per year to STEM grants. http://wp.me/p3if7-4gY

Political views from candidates, elected officials and others…

  • Franken Convinces FCC to give American families and businesses more time to make voices heard about High-Speed Internet needs http://wp.me/p3if7-4fr
  • Senator Klobuchar points out rural areas need broadband and everyone needs rural areas http://wp.me/p3if7-4gr
  • Easiest way to declare ubiquitous broadband? Lower the goalpost. Quickest way to hurt rural areas? Lower the goalpost http://wp.me/p3if7-4g2
  • Rep Johnson reminds citizens that Minnesota State’s cybersecurity http://wp.me/p3if7-4fv
  • First Congressional District candidate Vicki Jensen promotes better broadband http://wp.me/p3if7-4gQ
  • Greater Minnesota Partnership applauds broadband investment http://wp.me/p3if7-4gw

Local Broadband News

Bemidji
GO Next of Duluth wins the GigaZone Gaming Championship and more than $10,000 in cash and prizes over the 2 days through various tournaments and door prizes http://wp.me/p3if7-4hy

Cannon Falls
HBC Services are now available in Cannon Falls http://wp.me/p3if7-4gS

Ellington Township
Resident of Ellington Township redesigns her life based on when she can get online http://wp.me/p3if7-4gD

Ely
Ely prepares for a feasibility study http://wp.me/p3if7-4gU

Fond du Lac
Fond du Lac get $600,000 from HUD for Broadband http://wp.me/p3if7-4gO

Fond du Lac Break ground on $8.2 million FTTH Project http://wp.me/p3if7-4c9

Hanska
NU-Telecom launches Hanska broadband project partly funded by a MN State grant http://wp.me/p3if7-4gb

Kandiyohi County
Problems facing MN Broadband Grantees: What we can Learn from Kandiyohi County http://wp.me/p3if7-4gh

Lanesboro
Lanesboro celebrates Border to Border grant in Lanesboro with a Golden Shovel Party http://wp.me/p3if7-4hI

Makinen
A new resident explains that he wanted his kids to grow up in the country – but not without broadband. Without broadband in Makinen, he is looking to move. http://wp.me/p3if7-4gW

Pipestone County
Feasibility study in Pipestone County finds wireless more affordable broadband option http://wp.me/p3if7-4ho

Resilient Region (Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena Counties) http://wp.me/p3if7-4ek
Resilient Region looks back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community

Renville and Sibley Counties
RS Fiber looks back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community http://wp.me/p3if7-4ei

Sherburne County
Sherburne County, MN State and Palmer Wireless partner on project to extend broadband to businesses in St. Cloud area http://wp.me/p3if7-4h8

Sherburne County, a look back at impact of being a Blandin Broadband Community http://wp.me/p3if7-4en

Upper Minnesota River Valley
Upper MN River Valley Counties talk about why they need broadband http://wp.me/p3if7-4gp

Yellow Medicine County
Yellow Medicine County Board met to discuss their broadband plan – investment, grant applications and partners in a plan to being providing fiber service to the county. http://wp.me/p3if7-4fW

Upcoming Events & Opportunities

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

Stirring the Pot

My first thought as I write this column is to offer best wishes to the Office of Broadband Development staff as they review, rank and select projects for Border-to-Border grant funding.  Clearly the staff will be living in very interesting times over the next 90 days!  From the outside looking in, I am happy to be on the outside.

Over the past weeks, I have done a number of presentations to rural groups and individuals thinking about broadband.  The broadband grant eligibility map, with the large patches of unserved red areas, is always a great discussion starter.  The scope of the challenge seems overwhelming.  In contrast, most of the coverage maps supplied by the 2017 grant applicants document projects that cover very small areas – neighborhoods to townships.   The small coverage area exceptions are the wireless proposals.

Border-to-border is an ambitious goal.  One township at a time with wired services will take a long time.  The wired solution at least brings clarity as to which addresses receive service.  The wireless maps show seamless coverage, but I have heard from far too many rural residents that the wireless services “available” in their area cannot be used due to topography or tree cover.  The fiber projects promise Gigabit capabilities (some only on the download side) while the wireless projects commit to symmetrical 100 Mb services.

No matter how wise the choices of the Office of Broadband Development and the DEED leaders, we know that more than half the projects will not receive funding this year leaving communities and providers hoping for future funding.

Ely prepares for a feasibility study

The Ely Echo reports on a recent Rotary Club meeting where they seemed to discuss broadband in great details. (What a smart place to spread the word!) The article is informative; I’ll try to pull out some of the highlights.

They Ely Area Broadband Coalition met recently…

The group has hired a consultant to complete a feasibility study in the Ely area to develop options for improved internet speed.
Jack Maytum, Senior Broadband Analyst with Design Nine, was at the meeting taking input and discussing opportunities.
Only a few minutes into the meeting stories of poor internet service surfaced.

The future of Lake Connections has had an impact on the area…

Lake Connections has provided high speed connections to a number of people south of Ely, including to residents in Babbitt and Embarrass. However the company managing the project scaled back when funds dried up.
Lake County hired CTC to manage Lake Connections and is now trying to sell the business.
“We’re connecting customers with the resources we have. With Lake County selling Lake Connections it will be another six months before there’s any real movement on selling the network. At that time whoever purchases Lake Connections is who you need to talk to,” said Joseph Buttweiler of Connect CTC out of Brainerd.
He added that of the 13,500 homes listed on the original federal funding application, Lake Connections has just 2,600 subscribers.

The project is assessing needs and assets…

Maytum said the first step will be an inventory of assets in the area, including towers, fiber, and other elements of a network. There will be a survey sent out to residential and business owners in the Ely area.
Surveys can be filled out on paper and mailed in or filled out online.
Maytum said he could see Ely with a fiber “core” (rather than copper or wireless) that could be built around the city limits.
He said the core could be used to connect to towers that would provide wireless broadband in the townships.
The 180-foot towers could serve clusters of homes and could be built in as little as six months. Maytum said that cost could be as low as $135,000 for construction.

The will look at financing…

A detailed financial analysis will be performed, including where to get the funding. The study will recommend who should run the network. The city will be the owner, but a non-profit should probably manage it.

And a glimpse at expectations from incumbent providers…

“We’ve seen a change in the cable and telephone industries,” said Maytum. Their business model focuses more on content than infrastructure.
“Here, in Ely, we’ll be looking at Frontier poles and pole access closely,” said Maytum.

Webinar Archive: Digital Inclusion: Assessments, Training and Certifications

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Digital Inclusion Training webinar today. Here’s the video archive…

The PPTs

And the description…

Overcoming fears and improving digital skills allows the digitally excluded to make full of broadband-based technologies to improve their school and work readiness as well as their overall quality of life.  Learn how groups in Minneapolis, Cass Lake and Worthington are using digital literacy tools, including assessments, training, workplace partnerships and other strategies to help learners of all ages and abilities.

When: 3-4:00 CST Thursday Sep 14

Participants:

  • Ann Treacy, Treacy Information Services
  • Hannah Buckland, Leech Lake Tribal College
  • Angie Willardson, Project for Pride in Living
  • Julie Foote, MVTV Wireless
  • Sharon Johnson, Worthington Community Education
  • Kayla Westra, MN West Community & Technical College

Sneak preview of today’s webinar on Digital Inclusion: Assessments, Training and Certifications

Today I will be presenting as part of the Free Blandin Webinar on Digital Inclusion. I thought I’d share a sneak preview of what I’ll be saying as a reminder to folks that it’s happening.

Here’s the info on the session – it’s not too late to join:
When: 3-4:00 CST Thursday Sep 14
Register now!

List of presenters:

  • Ann Treacy, Treacy Information Services
  • Hannah Buckland, Leech Lake Tribal College
  • Angie Willardson, Project for Pride in Living
  • Julie Foote, MVTV Wireless
  • Sharon Johnson, Worthington Community Education
  • Kayla Westra, MN West Community & Technical College

And my presentation:

Webinar Sep 14: Assessments, Training and Certifications: A path forward for the Digitally Excluded

Assessments, Training and Certifications: A path forward for the Digitally Excluded

Join us for the third of our webinar series on digital inclusion.  Overcoming fears and improving digital skills allows the digitally excluded to make full of broadband-based technologies to improve their school and work readiness as well as their overall quality of life.  Learn how groups in Minneapolis, Cass Lake and Worthington are using digital literacy tools, including assessments, training, workplace partnerships and other strategies to help learners of all ages and abilities.

When: 3-4:00 CST Thursday Sep 14
Register now!

Participants:

  • Ann Treacy, Treacy Information Services
  • Hannah Buckland, Leech Lake Tribal College
  • Angie Willardson, Project for Pride in Living
  • Julie Foote, MVTV Wireless
  • Sharon Johnson, Worthington Community Education
  • Kayla Westra, MN West Community & Technical College

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.