Innovate 218 gets more recognition for lifting up Northeast Minnesota

Tech.MN reports on Innovate 218…

From Grand Rapids to Duluth, Northeast Minnesota is well known as including a region called the Iron Range, where historically mining and other natural resources championed the local industries.

“They have many of  the elements there — thriving higher education, broadband, local champions, and strong corporate innovators,” Neela Mollgaard, Executive Director of Launch Minnesota, said. The last region to join Launch MN’s 8 hub and 80 program partner initiatives across the state, the area holds a lot of promise for innovation.

“It’s been great to see these organizations across Minnesota come together. They’ve all been serving entrepreneurs for years, and now are purposefully working together to start and scale new ventures ” Mollgaard said. “They are building on their local strengths while leveraging statewide resources and best practices.”

The main innovative areas remain in the natural resources sphere, according to Tim White, Business Development and Intellectual Property Manager at University of Minnesota Duluth / Natural Resources Research Institute.

“Northeast Minnesota has amazing natural resources available. We are charged with considering responsible use of those resources,” White said, mentioning the minerals, forests, and freshwater that are in abundance.

FCC commits $603 million to close homework gap – MN to get $57+ million

The FCC reports

—The Federal Communications Commission today announced that it is committing $602,985,895.13 in its latest wave of Emergency Connectivity Fund program support, which will connect over 1.4 million students in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. These additional commitments bring the current total commitments to over $3.8 billion, supporting students, school staff, and library patrons in all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. The funding can be used to support off-campus learning, such as nightly homework and virtual learning, as schools and libraries continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. …

Today’s announcement marks the sixth wave of commitments and includes over $367 million in commitments from Window 1 applications and nearly $236 million in commitments from Window 2 applications. This round of commitments will support 1,651 schools, 85 libraries, and 14 consortia, which are approved to receive nearly 1.2 million connected devices and over 790,000 broadband connections. Total commitments to date are supporting over 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections. More details about which schools and libraries have received funding commitments can be found at

Minnesota will get $57,412,673.35 in total doled out in waves of:

  • $19,830,464.06
  • $10,347,442.23
  • $6,601,893.82
  • $3,854,319.44
  • $10,865,203.54
  • $1,468,881.00
  • $4,444,469.26

A closer look at telework recruitment efforts such as Bemidji’s 218 Relocate

The Register Citizen takes a closer look at Bemidji’s 218 Relocate program, a program to recruit teleworkers to the area…

Earlier this year, they [potential new residents, the Fahrenbruchs] saw a job possibility for his wife with the city of Bemidji. But he didn’t see anything for himself. Then, he read about Bemidji’s 218 Relocate program, which offers $2,500 to help cover moving or telecommuting expenses for people who move to Bemidji from more than 60 miles away and bring a job with them, Minnesota Public Radio news reported.

So he pitched the idea to his boss. He could telecommute for his job — with the Kansas Legislature — from Bemidji, Minnesota.

But they are just one story..

The Fahrenbruchs are one of 22 families who have qualified so far for the relocation program since it began in February. It’s run by the economic development organization Greater Bemidji, with funding from a local foundation and Paul Bunyan Communications.

Greater Bemidji hatched the idea for an incentive to help lure people to town before the pandemic, but assistant director Erin Echternach said they launched it after hearing stories of people teleworking from cabins in the area last year after COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect.

Better broadband is a seller…

A key part of Bemidji’s sales pitch is its high-speed internet. Paul Bunyan has built one of the largest rural, all-fiber broadband networks in the country in north-central Minnesota.

“For them to move up to their cabin, and then connect with us and say, ‘I get better internet service at my little cabin in Bemidji than I do down in Maple Grove, Minnnesota,’ that was pretty special,” said Echternach. “And that’s when 218 Relocate was born.”

218 Relocate is one of several resident recruitment programs that have sprouted up around the state in recent years, with names like the “Get Rural” initiative in western Minnesota, “The Good Life” campaign in the north-central part of the state, and “Live Like a Local,” in Grand Rapids.


Most affordable towns to work remotely from in Minnesota

Minneapolis St Paul Business Journal reports on most affordable places to work from home in Minnesota…

The ranking comes from New York-based financial and technology company SmartAsset.

To compile a list of the most affordable places to live in Minnesota, the tech company used a variety of factors, including taxes, homeowner insurance and home costs relative to local median income. (You can see the full list here.)

The list of Minnesota’s most affordable places is below:

  1. Montevideo
  2. Redwoods Falls
  3. International Falls
  4. Ostego
  5. Hibbing
  6. Austin
  7. St. Michael
  8. Virginia
  9. Albert Lea
  10. Litchfield

These affordable towns are in a good position to recruit residents and businesses to their location, especially since COVID has moved many people to remote work options and opened the door to living anywhere. So I wanted to take a look at these cities and their broadband ranking – or at least the ranking of their county. Turns out they are all over the place from 31 to 85. Some of the towns listed would definitely rank higher than their county. Monticello, for example,  has a municipal fiber network; Austin has been talking about broadband for years; Redwood Falls was focused on broadband 10 years ago. I’d say, however, that having good broadband and being affordable might boost a community to the top of a “potential new home” list.

City County Affordability Rank Broadband Rank (100/20)
Montevideo Chippewa 1 37
Redwood Falls Redwood 2 85
International Falls Koochiching 3 60
Ostego Wright 4 31
Hibbing St Louis 5 44
Austin Mower 6 35
St Michael Wright 7 31
Virginia St Louis 8 44
Albert Lea Freeborn 9 32
Litchfield Meeker 10 72





OPPORTUNITY: I’m thankful for broadband because… #MNthanks2broadband campaign

In a meeting yesterday we talked about how the holidays are a great time to recruit expats. After life in quarantine, folks are looking forward to a traditional holiday season with family and old friends. After life in quarantine, many folks are still working online, which means they might be ripe for permanent return to their hometown. So it’s time to put our best foot forward. You bake the best pumpkin pie and maybe get the Vikings to win a few games. Collectively maybe we can talk up broadband around the state with quick videos or pictures.

The idea is to create, collect and share content throughout the holidays season making the point that with great broadband, you can live anywhere – so why not here? I got the ball rolling below. It took exactly 2 minutes to do. I recorded myself on a Zoom and uploaded to YouTube. But you could also do a selfie video or have a friend record you. You could post it on YouTube and send me the link OR send me the video and I’ll post on the BlandinonBroadband channel. (Just email me and we’ll figure it out

Or join us for the Special Lunch Bunch on Tuesday November 23 at noon and we can record some then. Or contact me and we can set up a time to do a Zoom video. We can share as we build!

Innovate 218 supports Innovation in Northeast Minnesota is writing a series on innovation in Minnesota. In Northeast MN, they have focused on  Innovate 218, an organization that focused on promoting and facilitating entrepreneurialism in the area. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names or folks who are involved…

Finding these startups and providing them with a one-stop shop for resources is what Innovate 218 is all about.

“These organizations in the region already existed — small business development, universities — but it’s bringing us together so we’re a more holistic, cohesive resource for entrepreneurs,” White said. “Together we’re stronger.”

An entrepreneur himself having started six companies, White admitted that it previously was confusing to access resources. Now, with funding from Launch Minnesota to create Innovate 218, it’s much more approachable and gives access to services in one place, he said. 

“It’s been a great catalyst for bringing these groups together,” White added. “It’s not necessarily that we’re creating much ‘new,’ but organizing it in a way that makes it more accessible.”

“We’re full-on in the launch phase,” Tamara Lowney, President of the Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), said of the region’s efforts to build a platform for entrepreneurs where they can get the resources they need.  

And more…

Betsy Olivanti of NSBDC had similar sentiments. “There are a lot of creative folks and a lot of interesting things going on, [but] they don’t know how to get from idea to creation,” she said. 

In her work — which she comes to with an engineering background, ISO certification, and lean certification — she’s noticed that folks tend to think of themselves as “inventors” instead of “entrepreneurs.”

“My work at Innovate 218 is to marry those two things. You are an entrepreneur as well — [it’s] bringing the two sides together,” Olivanti said.

Olivanti and Lowney are both working to bring entrepreneurs out through multiple initiatives: entrepreneur meetups, pop-up coworking spaces at a local coffee shop in Virginia, MN called “jellies,” and events like the Itasca Summit. Innovation was one of the key tracks at this economic development summit, which was held in Grand Rapids October 19 and 20. It brought together state and regional leaders working to inspire and support more innovation and startup entrepreneurship in the region.

One of the organizations participating in the Itasca Summit was the Blandin Foundation, which is a highly influential organization in the region on many fronts, and is a major contributor and supporter of the Itasca Business Development Corporation.

EVENT Nov 17: Tekne Awards Online

The Tekne Awards celebrate Minnesota companies – emerging and established – that have made innovative technology work. On Nov 17, they will announce the winners of the 2021 awards. Here’s the line up for the afternoon:

Wed, Nov 17 Virtual Celebration

3:45 p.m. Arrivals and Pre-show. Meet this year’s Finalists and greet your colleagues and friends online. Get set for a great celebration!

4:00 p.m. Awards program begins:

Award Grouping: Business Enablement thru Technology

  • AI/Machine Learning
  • Data Analytics
  • Data Security
  • Digital Marketing
  • Digital Transformation
  • Edge Computing & IoT

Lifetime Achievement – Joy Lindsay, StarTec Investments

2021 Scholarship Recipients

Award Grouping: Innovation in Minnesota’s Leading Industries

  • Financial Services Technology
  • Healthcare Information Systems
  • Medical Technology & Devices
  • Sustainable Resources

Rising Star Awards

Public Service Honorees

Lifetime Achievement Award – Mike McNamara, Target Corporation

Award Grouping:  Vibrant Tech Ecosystem

  • Technology Partnership
  • Tech Talent
  • Tech for Good

5:30 p.m. Celebration concludes

Even food needs better broadband – well farmers need to growing food efficiently and sustainably

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society has just released an important look at The Future of American Farming Demands Broadband. They start by making the case that farmers need broadband is to be more efficient and the environment needs it to support sustainability. I suspect most readers here understand (or live) that, so I’ll cut to some of the answers they provide based on various facets of farming…

The Farm Office
How do we ensure that farmers get reliable, symmetrical broadband service?

● Establish future-proof performance standards: To meet the growing demand among farmers for both upstream and downstream speeds, networks must be capable of 100/100 Mbps service.

● Clarify rules around easements and rights of way: State governments can address legal uncertainty around easements and rights of way, which can slow deployment and increase costs, particularly for electric cooperatives.

Incentivize build-out to the operations center: Broadband funding programs can reward applicants that deploy broadband to the operations center of the farm and other critical farm buildings.

● Support open-access, middle-mile networks: Middle-mile deployment can pack a powerful punch by bringing scalable, fiber-based connections deep into rural communities while also lowering the cost of last-mile deployment for private providers.

The Field
How can we address the special connectivity demands of farms?
● Adopt high-performance standards: Performance standards for upload speeds and latency should reflect the changing needs of farmers for precision agriculture.
● Encourage deep fiber build-out: Fiber build-out in rural America, even if not directly to the farm, will be needed to support capable wireless connections for higher-bandwidth applications in the field.
● Address gaps in mapping on farmland: Broadband maps should include mobile coverage on agricultural lands. The underlying data that informs these maps must be available to the public.
● Advocate for interoperability and privacy standards: Without better coordination about interoperability and privacy standards, farmers may be less willing to adopt precision agriculture technologies.
● Adjust spectrum award mechanisms to reward farmland coverage: Spectrum auctions can adopt geographic coverage requirements in some rural agricultural areas to encourage deployment on farmland.

The Community
How do we connect the communities that farms rely upon?
● Adopt comprehensive state broadband plans: State plans that encompass all aspects of a broadband strategy—including deployment, competition, and digital equity—are best suited to meeting states’ regional economic development and other goals.
● Support digital equity programs at the state and local levels: Digital equity programs led by state and local governments and backed by federal funding can work with communities to help people make full use of broadband connections.
● Encourage local planning and capacity building: Federal and state funding can encourage local planning and capacity building, which may include developing local or regional broadband strategies and applying for federal broadband grants.
● Implement accountability measures: Federal funding programs for broadband deployment that include strong accountability measures ensure that providers hit their deployment goals.
● Encourage local, community-oriented providers: Federal programs that support broadband can encourage entry from more broadband providers, including cooperative and community[1]based solutions.
● Facilitate federal, tribal, state, and local coordination: All levels of government should work together as partners to create opportunities for collaboration.
● Coordinate efforts of federal agencies: A coordinated effort between federal agencies will allow those agencies to synergize their respective expertise and meet the distinct needs of farmers.

I appreciate the collection of statistics and the frontline stories that give a clear picture of what life is like for farmers in rural America. Each town, farm and person’s perspective may be different based on where they are, what they are doing and even season or time of day but it’s very likely that whatever they are experiencing is different that what folks in urban areas experience. Through examples, theygive some quick lessons on fixed-wireless (pg 9), middle mile (pg 11), cooperatives (pg 12), Starlink (pg 14) and more.

They even give a nice nod to what’s happening in Minnesota and Blandin’s role in the success…

Public and private leadership working in tandem in Minnesota
One of the earliest state grant programs, Minnesota’s Border-to[1]Border Broadband Development Grant Program, was created in 2014 to assist localities, private providers, nonprofits, and cooperatives in building out broadband infrastructure in Greater Minnesota. The program funds up to 50 percent of the cost of a last-mile or middle[1]mile broadband project, including planning, permitting, construction, and installation costs. Since its inception, Border-to-Border has connected more than 56,000 homes, businesses, and anchor institutions to broadband. The eventual goal of the program is universal, “border-to[1]border” broadband coverage across Minnesota. The state plans to achieve universal 25/3 Mbps coverage by the end of 2022 and universal 100/20 Mbps coverage by the end of 2026.

Working in tandem with state broadband efforts, the Blandin Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to building healthy, inclusive rural communities in Minnesota, has partnered with dozens of rural communities to help them get and use better broadband. Participating communities work through a proven process to define their technology goals and measure current levels of broadband access and use. They receive technical assistance and grant funding to implement projects that help close the digital divide and take advantage of the extraordinary benefits of a broadband-enabled economy.

Communities that have participated in the Blandin Broadband Communities program have earned themselves a seat at the table of broadband planning. Having done the work of assessing what they have, what they want, and what they are willing to contribute to a possible project, they have a voice in what broadband solution is “good enough” for their communities.

Nearly half of the network feasibility studies commissioned by Blandin community partners and funded by the foundation have been either fully or partially built. Participating communities have dramatically increased the presence of free, publicly available internet access in libraries, public parks, downtown areas, and township halls, and have distributed more than 2,300 refurbished computers to income[1]qualifying residents in participating rural communities across Minnesota. Communities also have implemented a variety of digital literacy programs for local residents and businesses. They have spurred more sophisticated use of technology through education, training, community events, learning circles, and innovative partnerships—a total of 292 projects that address community technology goals.
Local governments and other entities across the state have endorsed and adopted Minnesota’s Broadband Vision, first articulated at a 2015 Blandin Broadband conference: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.” This vision inspired the creation of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, which unites dozens of broadband champions from across the state to sustain broad, bipartisan support for Minnesota’s broadband grant program.
Blandin’s work in Minnesota illustrates the benefits of public and private leadership working in tandem. Investing in the capacity of communities to name and claim their own broadband vision helps to maximize public benefit from public investments such as state grant programs.

Rural communities attract teleworkers with good broadband and programs – like in Bemidji

The Daily Yonder reports on a growing migration to well wired rural communities…

Priscilla Bergstrom and her husband decided to leave Denver, Colorado, after 30 years and move to a rural community with a slower pace of life, a lot of outdoor activities, and a fast internet connection. They settled on Bemidji, Minnesota, one of many smaller towns and rural communities that are beginning to employ incentives designed to lure remote workers just like the Bergstrom family to make them their new home.

The found Bemidji through 218 Relocate…

While perusing the local newspaper, Bergstrom came across information about 218 Relocate, a recently launched program to attract remote workers to Bemidji, Minnesota, population 15,000. The program attracts remote workers through various incentives, including up to $2,500 in reimbursed expenses for moving; free co-working space; and access to a program connecting newcomers to established residents. …

In the case of 218 Relocate, it wasn’t an attempt to replicate another community’s success, but instead capitalize on the connectivity that Bemidji has, Erin Echternach, assistant director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development, which runs the program, told The Daily Yonder.

“We were trying to come up with a program that really capitalizes on that fiber-optic Internet,” she said.

Since its launch at the beginning of February of 2021, 18 people have taken advantage of the program so far, with three more scheduled to receive the relocation grant by the end of October, Echternach said.

“We’re really a regional hub for Northern Minnesota and people are just finding out about us,” she said. “And when they get here, they’re surprised at what’s here. But there are some that literally have thrown a dart at the map and they’re like, oh, Bemidji, let’s try it. They love it.”

For Bergstrom and her husband, who was able to relocate his job to Minnesota because he works for a global company, the opportunity for outdoor activities attracted them to the area. They also considered an incentive program in Northwest Arkansas, she said.

Greater Bemidji is piloting the program for two years, Echternach said. And so far they have been pleased. Program participants must physically move to Bemidji, she noted, but they are able to live within a 60-mile radius of Bemidji proper.

Land O’Lakes say farming is going digital – but need broadband

Venture Beat reports on a presentation that CTO Land O’Lakes Teddy Bekele gave at a conference this week…

“The life of the farmer is very complicated,” Bekele said in his conference presentation. The modern farmer operates in a business ecosystem that includes equipment manufacturers, chemical companies, food distributors, banks and insurance companies, employees, and government regulations.

The success of a farming business, he said, revolves around 40 “mega decisions” about what and when to plant, when and how to fertilize, feed, and harvest, and how to market and sell. These are all problems data and technology can help solve, Bekele said.

The costs of technology and technology upgrades can be an issue, but so is broadband…

One fundamental challenge is that even where solutions exist and farmers are eager to take advantage of them, the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas gets in the way of tapping into the cloud. Bandwidth is often mediocre in the farmhouse and poor-to-nonexistent at the farm or out in the field, Bekele said. One promising solution Land O’Lakes has been pursuing in cooperation with internet providers is working with the cooperative’s network of agricultural retailers in farming communities to erect more towers for cellular bandwidth.

Minnesota can fund broadband AND electric vehicles

Twin Cities Business reports…

With the recent Senate passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, states are looking for what level of federal funding they might expect for their own projects. The Biden Administration released preliminary numbers last week, giving Minnesota a glimpse at projects it might be able to complete after final passage of the infrastructure package. Some big-ticket items were $4.5 billion for highways, $302 million for bridge repairs and $802 million to improve public transportation across the state.

In addition to those funds, the White House said Minnesota can expect to receive $68 million over the span of five years to “support the expansion of an [electric vehicle] charging network in the state.”

This is a relatively small investment compared to the rest of the cash Minnesota could receive, but experts say this would be a huge opportunity to get more Minnesotans to drive EVs and reduce their carbon footprint.

An interesting note from the article was Senator Dahms suggesting that broadband funding might be used to fund EVs…

[State Sen. Gary] Dahms pointed to broadband — another big infrastructure bill spending area — as an example of a state priority taking years to achieve and lagging behind in rural areas.

“We put a lot of money into broadband, I’ve been working on broadband for 11 years,” Dahms said. “In Minnesota, we still have areas that do not have broadband. But we spent a lot of money, we have spent a lot of money in the metro area and we have a lot of good reception of broadband there. Shift that to electric cars.”

Access to broadband is credited for drawing in new residents to help boost population

Duluth News Tribune reports on the impact of broadband on population shifts in Northern Minnesota…

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday released data showing population changes over the last decade.

As a whole, the 11-county Northland region of Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin only decreased slightly, with a combined population of 431,134 on April 1, 2020 — down 171 people from the last Census conducted a decade ago.

As a state, Minnesota saw a population increase of 402,000 residents — up 7.6% — since 2010 while Wisconsin saw nearly 207,000 more residents — a 3.6% increase.

The Northland county with the largest growth as a percentage of population over the last decade came from Cook County, which grew by 8.2%, or 424 people, to 5,600. Bayfield County grew by 8% — from 15,014 to 16,220 over the last decade.

They credit broadband for being a draw…

Mary Somnis, executive director of the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority, said area real estate agents have been incredibly busy lately and credited the county’s access to “excellent” broadband for drawing people in.

“We have really good broadband and it’s really beautiful here,” Somnis said.

Meanwhile, the largest drop in population came from Koochiching County, which saw its population fall 9.4% — from 13,311 in 2010 to 12,062 in 2020.

It’s worth noting that as of last measure in 2020, Cook County ranking 14th (out of 87) and  Koochinching ranks 59th for broadband access.

Paul Bunyan Communications Opens Apple Service Center in Grand Rapids

It’s fun to see what the community can do with fiber …

Paul Bunyan Communications has opened a certified Apple Service Center in their new office at 510 SE 21st Street in Grand Rapids. The cooperative has been northern Minnesota’s certified Apple Service Center for several years out of the Bemidji location.

The Apple Service Center provides both in-warranty and out of warranty service on Apple products and computer repair including hardware or software problems, spill damage, screen replacement, virus removal, upgrades, and accessories. It is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. -5:30 p.m.

“It’s exciting to open up another Apple Service Center. People rely on a lot of devices and when they don’t work properly it isn’t fun.  When that happens, we’re here to help.” said Leo Anderson, Paul Bunyan Communications Technology Experience Manager.

“We’ve built one of the largest all-fiber optic rural gigabit networks in the country that offers the fastest internet speeds available.  It will provide optimum performance for the devices our customers use but not if they aren’t working right.  Now they can bring them to our Grand Rapids Apple Service Center to get checked out,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager

Word from Farmfest: “Broadband is crucial”

KEYC News reports on the first day of Farmfest…

Panelists also expressed the importance of broadband infrastructure, something Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D – Minnesota), who is participating in Farmfest virtually this year, is working for in the federal infrastructure package.

“It’s $65 billion and the money is to be used to get higher speed Internet and then to areas that have no Internet at all,” she said.

Broadband infrastructure is something farmers, like Perry Oftedahl, say is crucial.

“We need it out there in rural Minnesota. Farming has gotten to be so much precision agriculture, so there’s a lot of need for the iPads and cellphones the guidance systems are on. We need better connections out here,” he said.

OPPORTUNITY: Statewide Telecommuting Survey from UMN Extension

University of Minnesota is working on research related to telecommuting. Their work is important in helping us understand what we need and want in Minnesota to make best use of broadband. Help them help all of us by taking their survey…

“Have you wondered about Minnesota employers’ and workers’ experience of telecommuting before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic? The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is wondering the same, which is why MnDOT is partnering with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center on a research project to find out! And now, the project needs your help.

Make your and your organization’s experience count by completing the worker survey and the employer survey. Forward the survey links to your colleagues and friends, so their voices can be heard, too! All these contributions are vital to the project and much appreciated.