NTIA Creates First Interactive Map to Help Public See the Digital Divide across the Country

The NTIA unveils a cool new tool. I’ve showing a screenshot of MN, focusing in on Itasca County…

Today, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a new publicly available digital map that displays key indicators of broadband needs across the country. This is the first interactive, public map that allows users to explore different datasets about where people do not have quality Internet access.

The public “Indicators of Broadband Need” tool released today puts on one map, for the first time, data from both public and private sources. It contains data aggregated at the county, census tract, and census block level from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), M-Lab, Ookla and Microsoft. Speed-test data provided by M-Lab and Ookla help to illustrate the reality that communities experience when going online, with many parts of the country reporting speeds that fall below the FCC’s current benchmark for fixed broadband service of 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. This is the first map that allows users to graphically compare and contrast these different data sources.

 

“As we release this important data to the public, it paints a sobering view of the challenges facing far too many Americans as they try to connect to high-speed broadband and participate in our modern economy,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo. “In his American Jobs Plan, President Biden has proposed a once-in-a-lifetime investment that would finally connect one hundred percent of the country to reliable and affordable high-speed broadband.”

The map also puts poverty and lack of broadband access on the same page. The dataset allows you to see where high-poverty communities are located and how that relates to internet usage patterns, as well as to a lack of computers and related equipment.  The map also shows usage patterns in tribal communities, which have historically suffered from lack of internet access. Users can toggle the separate data sets on and off to compare information, and search for specific locations, including Tribal lands and minority-serving institutions, to gain a better understanding of where broadband needs are greatest.

“Any effort to close the digital divide starts with solid data, and NTIA continues to help policymakers make more informed decisions on expanding broadband access,” said Acting NTIA Administrator Evelyn Remaley. “Now, the public can benefit from our platform to see which areas of the country still don’t have broadband at speeds needed to participate in the modern economy.”

“Broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s need to have. To ensure that every household has the internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “The latest mapping effort by NTIA is a welcome new tool that provides valuable insight into the state of broadband across the country. Kudos to Secretary Raimondo and Acting Assistant Secretary Remaley for their leadership. The FCC looks forward to continuing our close collaboration with the Commerce Department and other federal partners to fulfill the goal of connecting 100 percent of Americans.”

NTIA also offers to state governments and federal partners a geographic information system (GIS) platform called the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) that provides more complex tools for analyzing broadband access, such as the ability to upload GIS files to compare proposed projects. Earlier this month, NTIA announced that Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Dakota have joined the growing roster of state participants in the NBAM, bringing the total number of participating states to 36. The mapping platform allows these states and others to better inform broadband projects and funding decisions.

IEDC report on how economic developers are expanding broadband access

The IEDC has written a guidebook of sort to help economic developers promote better broadband. As they say…

In response to the market’s failure to provide universal, affordable, reliable access, public networks and publicly facilitated solutions continue to grow. Economic developers play important roles in planning and  implementing these solutions, which this paper shows in three main sections:

  • A broadband “crash course” – key things to know about how broadband works
  • An overview of different communities’ strategic approaches and technical solutions
  • Actions economic development organizations are taking to expand access

And…

Five in‐epth case studies are included showing how economic development organizations have played a  central role in improving broadband access in their communities. Those roles include:

  • Convening stakeholders,
  • Gathering data,
  • Engaging in strategic planning,
  • Helping evaluate solutions, and
  • Helping secure financing for solutions.

This is a great tool if you’re in a position where you have to sell the idea of broadband. If you’ve been doing this for a while, the story won’t be new but the stats are. Here are just a few:

  • In 2021, major corporations, including Ford in Michigan and Target in Minnesota, have said they are giving up significant office space because of their changing workplace practices.
  • 51% of respondents said their corporate clients are now considering moving their business operations
  • A joint study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon found that in Virginia alone, universal broadband would mean at least $2.24 billion increased annual sales, $1.29 billion annual value added, 9,415 added jobs, and $452.4 million in annual wages.

The report also, as indicated goes into the nuts and bolt of broadband, such as…

  • Why satellite access doesn’t substitute for fixed access
  • Why 5g isn’t the answer to better community access
  • The digital divide: Who doesn’t have internet and why?

They even draw a few examples from Minnesota, especially Chisago County…

Chisago County, Minn. Case highlights:

  • Solution involved collaboration with incumbent ISP
  • Public funding layered on private investment got higher-quality service
  • Help from a rural community foundation
  • Role of survey data and citizen involvement

Minnesota has a couple of advantages when it comes to expanding broadband service. One of those is a longstanding commitment by the state to the goal of universal broadband access for residents (at speeds of 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026). The other is the Blandin Foundation, which, as part of its vision to create healthy, inclusive rural communities in the state, has focused for years on helping expand broadband access.

In 2015, Chisago County, located roughly an hour north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, began its broadband efforts in earnest. The work was spearheaded by the Chisago County Housing & Redevelopment Authority – Economic Development Authority (HRA-EDA) and its executive director, Nancy Hoffman. (Hoffman previously worked on broadband access in another rural Minnesota county and also has served as chair of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition.)

Chisago County was accepted into the Blandin Broadband Communities program, an intensive, two-year process in which rural communities define their technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use, and access technical assistance and resources to meet their goals. Each community also has the opportunity to apply to the foundation for a $75,000 matching grant for locally developed projects.

Led by a local steering committee, in 2016, one of the first actions was to survey county residents about their current broadband access, whether they would subscribe to better service and for what they would use it (such surveys are useful both to determine demand and to use in grant applications). The results found that 94 percent of residents would subscribe to better broadband service for uses that included improved quality of life, education, telecommuting and starting a business. Seventy-six percent of Chisago County working residents commute out of the county, so part of the goal from the HRA-EDA’s perspective was to give people the opportunity to work, shop and stay closer to home by telecommuting or starting their own business. The study also showed that numerous homebased businesses paid too much for poor service or had to find other locations to upload or download files.

Once the county had data on unserved/underserved areas and potential demand for improved service, the technical solution became the question. The steering committee began by talking to incumbent providers (of which there were seven in the county, including telephone and cable providers CenturyLink and Frontier).

They found a willing partner in CenturyLink, which had received federal Connect America Funds (CAF II) that it planned to use to upgrade service in half of Sunrise Township using DSL technology; CAF II speed requirements are just 10/1 Mbp. (Frontier served the other half of the town and declined to participate). To secure faster, more reliable service, the township proposed to invest local funding, combined with a grant from the state’s Border to Border Broadband grant program, to prompt CenturyLink to build a fiber-to-the-home network that met (at minimum) the state speed goals of 100/20 Mbps.

A petition signed by 50 percent of the residents in favor of the project helped spur Sunrise Township to action. The township raised the funds by bonding through a subordinated service district, assessed by parcel, rather than property value. After seeing Sunrise Township’s success, other communities began pursuing similar strategies to improve service. Fish Lake Township, also in Chisago County, has since completed a project in which it raised funds for the local share by issuing tax abatement bonds (property owners are assessed by value). Nessel Township followed suit the next year with the same financing model. The cost savings by having high-speed Internet much outweighed the additional cost the residents pay, which is about $100 a year or $10 a month.

Takeaways:

  • Get the right people together. Don’t worry about titles. Bring in people who get things done.
  • Cultivate personal passions. Harness the energy of where the group wants to go. Don’t fight it.
  • Show people they’re not alone. Work on building relationships of mutual trust. Relationships will carry the work forward.
  • Show successes early and often. Break down the project into bite-size pieces that the community can grab hold of and achieve. Celebrate the successes to re-energize before starting on the next piece. Sources: Interview with Nancy Hoffman; Blandin Broadband Communities Program, Blandin Foundation

And a few other mentions…

  • [Federal covid-19 relief funds] Many states and communities used CARES Act funds for infrastructure projects (which had to be used by the end of 2020, limiting flexibility). Itasca County, Minnesota, committed $293,000 in CARES funds to complete four projects in the county. The city of Chesapeake, Va., used it to fast-track the engineering design for a 170-mile fiber backbone that will connect over 200 sites and lay a foundation for gigabit broadband.
  • The Cargill Foundation, Blandin Foundation, Bush Foundation, and numerous other foundations and businesses based in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region donated $2.35 million in grants to the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity (MBCRE) and Partnership for a ConnectedMN to address digital inequities that affect many Minnesota students. Grants fund the distribution of laptops, fiber internet installation, training for digital literacy, and more

 

NTIA Launches Updated Federal Broadband Funding Guide

From BroadbandUSA…

Access the updated BroadbandUSA Federal Funding Guide here!

…NTIA released an updated database with information on more than 80 federal programs across 14 federal agencies whose funding can be used for broadband-related purposes. This comprehensive “one-stop shop” for broadband resources, created with the help of participating federal agencies, supports the Biden Administration’s push for universal high-speed internet access and focus on closing the digital divide. This site also fulfills an obligation in the ACCESS BROADBAND Act to provide a central website for potential applicants seeking federal broadband funding.

Funding opportunities include direct grants, loans, indirect support, and discounts for industry, state and local governments, schools, libraries, small businesses, and other community institutions that are interested in expanding and improving broadband access. Visitors to the website can search for programs by agency, program purpose, and eligible recipients. As agencies release new funding opportunities, NTIA will update the site. The information is also available as a downloadable spreadsheet to allow users to sort the material by selected criteria.

Notably, the current database features many new programs, including the Department of Commerce’s Connecting Minority Communities program, Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and Broadband Infrastructure Program. Other new programs include the Department of Treasury’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, of which broadband is an eligible activity; the Department of Agriculture’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants; and the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit programEmergency Connectivity FundCOVID-19 Telehealth program, and Connected Care Pilot program.

The launch of this latest round of federal broadband funding updates will help ensure that the public has easy access to the most up-to-date information possible to best facilitate broadband buildout and economic development. Feedback on the site is welcomed; please contact BroadbandUSA@ntia.doc.gov to provide input.

EVENT June 23: Lunch Bunch – MN speed tests and mapping

Each month the Blandin Foundation hosts two conversation or lunch bunch sessions. The first Lunch Bunch in June happens next week on June 23 noon to 1pm. Here’s the topic:

Speed tests connect users, providers and policymakers.

Speed tests are tools that households can use to let broadband providers and policymakers know what they are experiencing. They are used to create maps that help providers decide who needs better broadband, help policymakers decide who needs attention and people decide where to relocate homes or businesses. But what do we do when different tests show different results? What do different tests consider? And what are contributing factors?

We have a few folks on the frontlines willing to come to talk to us about the tests and we want to hear from you. What are you experiencing? Do you have questions?

Pleased to have folks from Geo Partners (Glenn Fishbine and Paul Demming) and a few providers (Travis Carter from USI) and hopefully Steve Howard from Paul Bunyan (based on availability) join us for the conversation.

Register now!

States go through stages to fund broadband: MN lifted as early adopter

The Benton Institute posts an article from CTC Energy and Technology on the steps that state take to fund local broadband efforts. They outline three stages…

  1. In the first stage, states must develop an overall broadband plan that identifies where improved connectivity is most needed and how those needs should be met.
  2. In the second stage, states design the structure and rules of their broadband funding programs to meet these goals.
  3. In the third stage, states execute their grant strategies and then revise and adjust them for further rounds of funding to incorporate lessons learned in earlier rounds.

And they pull out Minnesota as an early adopter…

States do not progress through these stages uniformly. For example, whereas Minnesota’s grant program was initially developed from nearly a decade of prior state-level strategy development, Illinois moved from planning to grant program execution quickly and efficiently, in part because it benefited from Minnesota’s lessons learned and best practices. Multiple iterations of the Minnesota broadband task force met from 2008 until the state created an administrative entity to execute broadband strategy in 2013, with initial infrastructure grant funding in 2015. The grant program has evolved by using feedback from prior grant cycles to fine-tune its approach and cultivate a pipeline of potential projects. In contrast, states such as Illinois and Virginia learned from Minnesota’s example and demonstrate how the time between planning and program execution can be dramatically reduced. Illinois’s $420 million grants program was launched in 2019, following simultaneous development of the program and availability information-gathering, stakeholder outreach, and strategy development.

While it’s always nice to be an early adopter, the article points out that a good idea will be replicated. Minnesota needs to go through these stages routinely to make sure to stay on top of the game.

Finley Guide: Best Practices for Public-Private Partnerships

Finley Engineering helps communities with broadband and energy engineering. Telecompetitor recently posted their Guide: Best Practices for Public-Private Partnerships. Boiled down they have a straightforward 7-step approach to developing public private partnerships with communities, especially in light of federal, state and local funding being made available through various COVID recovery programs:

  1. Start with a strong feasibility study
  2. Engage the broad discussion around structure of potential partnership
  3. Make your company an attractive partner
  4. Develop an effective communication plan
  5. Be prepared to respond to an RFI/RFP process
  6. Find good vendor partners
  7. Prepare for things that can go wrong

Wright County – time to take a broadband speed test

Truth is everyone is welcome to take the Minnesota speed test and I encourage everyone to do it – but I like to amplify a local push to get folks on board. Patch shares a letter from Wright County Government

As part of the American Rescue Plan, Wright County is looking to lay fiber in the ground to get internet service providers to offer new or upgraded service to the areas in the county (primarily in the western portion) that have the slowest broadband speeds. As part of this effort, Wright County is asking residents to take an internet speed through the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. The MRBC doesn’t use tracking cookies or store personal data or addresses. It saves locations to identify where upgrades are most needed. The speed test takes just a couple of minutes and will help county planners identify areas that have the greatest need. To take the speed test, click here: https://mnruralbroadbandcoalition.com/speedtest

CTC works with Ely and Little Falls to bring fiber to local businesses

Earlier this month, the Institute for Local Self Reliance wrote about CTC working with Long Prairie. CTC is a cooperative, they work with several Minnesota communities. Last week ILSR wrote about their work in Ely and Little Falls

Two other cities, specifically, Ely and Little Falls, have also partnered with CTC to bring fiber loops to their business districts. Both communities have faced challenges when it came to building and connecting their residents and businesses to a fiber network.

They give a great history of both locations, I’ll just grab from the CTC chapters, starting in Ely…

“[The] Little Falls [effort] was really spurred based on business retention,” Buttweiler said. “Thankfully, these businesses went to the city with this problem in advance of it being [so] critical that they had to leave, and the city recognized the urgency.”

As a result, the city of Little Falls and CTC started their partnership around 2013. The city partnered with the Initiative Foundation, Region Five Development Commission and the Morrison County Economic Development Corporation to pool together around $550,000 to lend CTC for the construction of a fiber network. CTC was already serving areas on the edge of Little Falls, and the co-op is based just 30 miles away in the Brainerd-Baxter area.

The network, which took the shape of a fiber ring, would run through downtown Little Falls and into the two main industrial parks where the majority of the city’s requests were coming from.

“It was good foresight from the people that came before me to develop this partnership because it really served a need that we had at the time and knew that we would need in the future,” Jon Radermacher, Little Falls City Administrator told us in an interview.

CTC ended up paying off the loan in seven years and now owns the network. Radermacher said the partnership just made sense.

And in Little Falls…

One of the big reasons communities take on these projects is because it can help stimulate the local economy through jobs and the taxes these businesses pay that help support new projects.

Airborn ended up being one of the businesses that Little Falls and CTC connected to the network. Though it cost $60,000 to connect Airborn, once it was that day-long upload speed turned into a minute.

“The value of that $60,000 was paid back pretty quickly and that firm that we connected said ‘We feel that we need to support this,’ so they ended up contributing $10,000 to the project,” Radermacher said.

Once they were successfully connected, not only did the original businesses stay, but new ones came.

“It’s enabled the city of Little Falls to attract new businesses and we continue to expand that network as the city recruits new businesses into the community,” Buttweiler said.

Broadband coverage in Mendota Heights varies drastically by zip code – how about your area?

Patch reports

Microsoft estimates that about 157.3 million people in the United States cannot or do not connect to the internet at broadband speeds, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as download speeds of 25 megabits per second and three megabits per second upload speeds.

The company gathered data by ZIP code on the connection speed of devices when they used a Microsoft service in October 2020.

In the Mendota Heights area, Microsoft provided the following information on the percent of residents who use the internet at broadband speeds at each ZIP Code.

  • ZIP code 55118: 94.9 percent

  • ZIP code 55120: 60.2 percent

Not in Mendota Heights, you can still track your coverage…

Didn’t see your ZIP code above? Search by ZIP code and distance here.

Harmony Telephone to apply for broadband grant with City of Harmony

The Fillmore County Journal reports

A public hearing to discuss the application of a grant from the Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program was held at the beginning of the May 11 Harmony City Council meeting. Harmony Telephone would like to apply for it in conjunction with the City of Harmony so that the every home in town would have access to broadband internet. The grant would pay for the buried fiber and Harmony Telephone would cover the cost of the electronics necessary for the project. No questions or comments were received from the public and the hearing was closed. The council approved a participation plan and Resolution 21-08 regarding the application for the grant.

New FirstNet Cell Site Launches in Lewiston to Support First Responders

Here’s the latest from AT&T on FirstNet in Lewiston…

What’s the news? Lewiston’s first responders are getting a major boost in their wireless communications thanks to the FirstNet network expansion currently underway by AT&T. We’ve added a new, purpose-built cell site located in Lewiston near the area of Whistle Pass Drive and Rolling Hills Road. This site will provide coverage when traveling along Highway 14 and County Roads 20 and 25 in the Lewiston area. It will also give first responders on FirstNet – America’s public safety network – access to always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice and data.
Why is this important? We look at FirstNet as the most important wireless network in the country because it’s serving our first responders. And unlike commercial networks, FirstNet provides real, dedicated mobile broadband. To ensure AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) are putting coverage and capacity where first responders need it
most, the FirstNet build is being done with direct feedback from state and public safety officials. This helps ensure Minnesota first responders connect to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency. New FirstNet cell sites in Cloquet and Hovland in
northern Minnesota were also announced today. Other FirstNet sites already launched in Minnesota communities include Bagley, Blackduck, Graceville, Grygla, Isabella, Finlayson, and Williams.
What are the benefits to first responders? Building upon AT&T’s current and planned investments in Minnesota, we’re actively extending the reach of FirstNet to give agencies large and small the reliable, unthrottled connectivity and modern communications tools they need.
These sites were constructed using Band 14 spectrum, as well as AT&T commercial spectrum.
Band 14 is nationwide, high quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. We look at Band 14 as public safety’s VIP lane. In an emergency, this band – or lane –can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers. That means only those on the FirstNet
network will be able to access Band 14 spectrum, further elevating their connected experience and emergency response. Band 14 has been added on more than 450 existing sites across Minnesota, including markets such as the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, the Iron Range, St.
Cloud and the Brainerd/Baxter area.

How does this help Lewiston residents? This new infrastructure will also help improve the overall coverage experience for AT&T wireless customers in the Lewiston area. Residents, visitors and businesses can take advantage of the AT&T spectrum bands, as well as Band 14 when additional capacity is available.

New FirstNet Cell Sites Launch in Northeastern Minnesota to Support First Responders

Here’s the latest from AT&T on FirstNet in Northeastern MN (near Cloquet and Hovland)…

What’s the news? First responders in northeastern Minnesota are getting a major boost in their wireless communications thanks to the FirstNet® network expansion currently underway by AT&T*. We’ve added new, purpose-built cell sites located near Cloquet on County Road 3 and in Hovland along the North Shore between Grand Marais and Grand Portage. These sites will
give first responders on FirstNet – America’s public safety network – access to always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice and data.
Why is this important? We look at FirstNet as the most important wireless network in the country because it’s serving our first responders. And unlike commercial networks, FirstNet provides real, dedicated mobile broadband. To ensure AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) are putting coverage and capacity where first responders need it
most, the FirstNet build is being done with direct feedback from state and public safety officials. This helps ensure Minnesota first responders connect to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency. A new FirstNet cell site near Lewiston in southeastern Minnesota was also announced today. Other FirstNet sites already launched in Minnesota communities include Bagley, Blackduck, Graceville, Grygla, Isabella, Finlayson, and Williams.
What are the benefits to first responders? Building upon AT&T’s current and planned investments in Minnesota, we’re actively extending the reach of FirstNet to give agencies large and small the reliable, unthrottled connectivity and modern communications tools they need.
These sites were constructed using Band 14 spectrum, as well as AT&T commercial spectrum.
Band 14 is nationwide, high quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. We look at Band 14 as public safety’s VIP lane. In an emergency, this band – or lane –can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers. That means only those on the FirstNet
network will be able to access Band 14 spectrum, further elevating their connected experience
and emergency response. Band 14 has been added on more than 450 existing sites across Minnesota, including markets such as the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, the Iron Range, St. Cloud and the Brainerd/Baxter area.

How does this help northeastern Minnesota residents? This new infrastructure will also help
improve the overall coverage experience for AT&T wireless customers in northeastern Minnesota near Cloquet and near Hovland along the North Shore. Residents, visitors and businesses can take advantage of the AT&T spectrum bands, as well as Band 14 when capacity is available.

EVENT May 20: Orientation to OBD Mapping & Data Resources

From the MN Office of Broadband Development…

Join us for this free webinar on Thursday, May 20, at 10:00 a.m.

The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is hosting a free webinar that will cover resources available on OBD’s website, highlighting mapping information and tools to assist communities and providers in planning broadband expansion projects. The session will also include a tutorial/overview of OBD’s interactive broadband map.

Who Should Attend:

Local government officials and staff, economic developers and other broadband stakeholders interested in learning more about mapping and other resources available on the Office of Broadband Development website or considering the use of Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for broadband infrastructure projects.

Topics covered will include:

  • How to search for broadband service/area providers
  • How to view service availability – today and tomorrow – and who is building it
  • How a County or City GIS or Economic Development professional might use the data in planning
  • How communities are using local funding resources for broadband projects
  • Overview of a typical grant round
  • Grant template for local units of government

Webinar information:

Date and time: Thursday, May 20, 10 a.m.

Platform: This webinar will be held in Microsoft Teams. You can use the browser version if you don’t have the application.

Link to join: This is the webinar link

Questions: For more information, email deed.broadband@state.mn.us

This webinar will be recorded and posted afterwards in the Maps and Data section of the OBD website.

Yellow Medicine County is getting more FTTH this Fall from Arvig

Always happy to share an update on more Minnesotans getting broadband. Here’s the latest map showing where Arvig will install fiber to customers – specifically the area that is red and inside the yellow boundary lines.  The two towns will not be built with fiber, as they can receive 50-60Mb and can be bonded to deliver around 100Mb.

This will serve 170 locations in the Wood Lake exchange and 162 in Echo exchange.  They are shooting for a late fall / early winter turnup time.