Aug 11: Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable on MN Broadband Coalition and speed test

A message from the Blandin Foundation…

Join Blandin Foundation on Zoom Tuesday morning at 9:00 am for our Broadband Roundtable conversation. This week, Nathan Zacharias of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition will discuss how communities and counties can best make use of the statewide broadband speed test opportunity.

You can register for this and future Roundtables here.

 

Lake Shore City to seek bids from providers to extend broadband (Cass County)

Pine and Lakes Echo Journal reports…

Continuing work started three years ago to provide better internet service in underserved areas, the Lake Shore City Council agreed Monday, July 27, to seek bids from providers for improved broadband in the city.

Council member John Terwilliger cast the only “no” vote. After hearing from Pequot Lakes School Board member Susan Mathison-Young during the meeting, which everyone attended online via Zoom, Terwilliger said the city should table any action for a month to wait for more information to be gathered regarding programs available to help improve broadband access.

Other council members agreed the city could seek proposals from broadband providers while exploring other programs at the same time.

City Administrator Teri Hastings said COVID-19 funds the city receives could be used toward broadband services. The first step, she said, is to get an idea of what it would take to build out areas of Lake Shore that are currently underserved. The city planned to seek bids from CTC, TDS and Charter Communications, internet providers in the Lake Shore area.

Hastings also said Sylvan Township is receiving additional money from Cass County for broadband.

“So there are some options out there to help improve broadband for the community,” Hastings said.

Mathison-Young said areas underserved by broadband is a problem throughout the state, not just in Lake Shore. She said 28% of all Minnesota students have internet issues, and businesses and groups are working with state government to bring broadband to those rural students who are underserved.

She advised the council to wait to seek bids from providers until more information is gathered about programs designed to help with this issue. Also, she said Thursday, July 30, the state will have a better idea of what schooling will look like this fall with an announcement by Gov. Tim Walz.

“If some is digital curriculum, which is a strong possibility, this has to be ready to go,” she said.

 

Dakota County plans for CARES and Broadband (Meeting Aug 4)

If you have an interest in what’s happening in Dakota County or you just want to hear/see what another county is doing, you might consider attending the discussion (online and in person) in Dakota County

WHEREAS, Dakota County is committed to be a high-performing organization for the citizens of the County; and

WHEREAS, the Workshop will be an opportunity for the County Board to discuss Broadband; and

WHEREAS, staff recommends holding a workshop to allow staff to receive direction from the County Board on Broadband.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Dakota County Board of Commissioners hereby schedules a County Board Workshop for Tuesday, August 4, 2020, following the General Government and Policy Committee, in the Boardroom, Administration Center, 1590 Highway 55, Hastings, MN, or via telephone or other electronic means if necessary due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to receive comments on staff direction for Broadband.

You can learn a little more about their plan (easier to read on their site)

Update On Process And Timeline For Potential COVID-19 Related Broadband Expansion Using CARES Act Funding

PURPOSE/ACTION REQUESTED
Provide an update on the process and timeline in developing COVID-19 related Broadband Expansion in Dakota County.
SUMMARY
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic. Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County (Attachment A). These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
The County will mail letters of interest (Attachment B) to all service providers (Attachment C) in the County asking them to respond with project areas that can be built out to better serve the residents of the County. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. The Information Technology (IT) Department will review and recommend the best potential projects and setup meetings to fully develop project plans.
Proposed Time Line:
July 28, 2020 – send Letters of Interest to all service providers
August 12, 2020 – deadline for receipt of responses
Week ending August 21, 2020 reviewing responses
Request Board approval in September
Contracts for approved projects executed September
October/November buildout
Payment before December 1st
County IT will update the board with specific project locations, cost and project schedules.
RECOMMENDATION
Information only; no action requested.
EXPLANATION OF FISCAL/FTE IMPACTS
Funding for any projects, if approved, would be expected to use CARES Act funds with an amount to be
determined.

And a look at the letter that is going out…

DATE: July 28, 2020
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Dan Cater, Chief Information Officer
SUBJECT: Broadband Connectivity within Dakota County borders
Dakota County Government has an interest in expanding high speed internet throughout Dakota County as the COVID-19 situation has illustrated the need for faster more reliable connectivity for our citizens, business, and other agencies.
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic.
Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County. These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
Attached is the most recent service inventory map produced by the State of Minnesota Deed Office of Broadband. CARES Act requires an aggressive timeline. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. Work and payment need to be completed before
December 1st of this year. A high-level timeline is below:
– July 28th – letter soliciting proposals/plans
– August 12
th – deadline for receipt of responses
– Week ending August 21st review responses, setting up zoom meetings
– Request Board approval in September
– Contracts executed in September
– October/November buildout
– Payment before December 1st
Please let us know if you have an interest in discussing in providing a solution by contacting
Dan.Ferber@co.dakota.mn.us or Dan.Cater@co.dakota.mn.us.

Dakota County is always generous with public access to documents, which I think can be a gift to counties with fewer staff working on broadband.

Crow Wing County puts $1.5M of CARES funds into broadband & CTC

The Brainerd Dispatch reports…

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, July 28, approved a plan to distribute dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. After $1.5 million expected to be applied toward reimbursing the county’s expenses, the program includes $3 million toward grants for businesses, $1.5 million for broadband expansion and $1 million for nonprofits grants. An additional $1 million could be shifted to any of those categories, depending on need.

Sounds like folks were OK with broadband but some discussion on the details…

CARES Act fund will also support three broadband expansion projects in the county: for Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who asked for the latter project to be included, said Tuesday officials with the township were willing to commit their own CARES Act funds to the broadband expansion.

County Administrator Tim Houle said last week applying these funds toward broadband expansion would not only better equip residents for the new realities of virtual communication, it would be an investment outlasting the pandemic. With social distancing playing a major role in the response, the demand to connect virtually for distance learning or telework has increased dramatically.

The funding will go to CTC telecommunications company, which will also receive funds to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi access points throughout the community to aid in distance learning efforts and COVID-related broadband installations completed from March to May. CTC CEO Kristi Westbrock said Monday they were in the process of surveying customers to determine how many of those new installations were directly related to needs associated with telework, distance learning or telemedicine.

The measure passed 4-1 with Commissioner Doug Houge opposed. Houge voted against the package because he said he didn’t think it was fair to offer CARES Act dollars only to CTC, when he thought other providers would be interested in pursuing broadband projects in the county.

“We’ve got, how many, four or five providers up there that I know would have projects if this is a definite allowable use of these dollars,” Houge said. “I think it’s only fair that we give them the opportunity to utilize those if they’re comfortable that it’s an allowable use. It just seems like we’re pushing this through without all of the information.”

There was some question as to whether applying CARES Act funding to broadband expansion would be an allowed use of those dollars. Westbrock previously said she’d done the legwork to help ensure it would pass an audit and committed to paying the money back if it became necessary, although there was no official word giving it the OK.

Houle said the contingency dollars could potentially be used for other companies’ broadband projects.

“There is still the potential to do some additional project work and … consistent with what the board’s action, or discussion I should say, was yesterday, I am reaching out to the other telecommunications companies,” he said. “ … What I’m suggesting is, that door’s not closed yet. It’s a pretty tight timeframe. It has to be in the ground by Dec. 1st.”

Houge said with $1.5 million set aside for CTC alone and $1 million in the contingency fund, the other companies would receive much smaller amounts if it was determined to be an allowable use. He said he agreed with all the other aspects of the CARES Act funding program, but was concerned the board was making a decision too quickly on the broadband piece.

Franzen said she thought Houle was doing a good job contacting providers and noted CTC was the only company stating it would pay back funds if the use was not allowed. Houge reiterated he thought that point should be nailed down.

“Well, I think this is a great opportunity,” Franzen said.

“I’m not saying it isn’t a great opportunity, I’m saying let’s make it fair to all the providers,” Houge replied.

“It is,” Franzen said.

“I don’t believe it is,” Houge replied.

Chairman Paul Koering suggested he’d postpone the matter until the next county board meeting. Houge said he still wanted to move forward on the other items. Franzen made a motion to approve the plan, which was seconded by Commissioner Steve Barrows.

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable on Data and Broadband Investment Archive

Thanks to Michael Curri of Strategic Networks Group (www.sngroup.com) for a very interesting and informative presentation on the uses of data to justify broadband investments.  Every stakeholder group – community members, business owners, elected officials, broadband providers, funders – has a unique set of Return on Investment measures by which they will consider participation and measure success.  Michael’s presentation provides an overview of those measures.

Participants raised many questions about broadband investment, including discussion of a changed mindset that would treat broadband infrastructure more like roads, a part of the public investment strategy to supports economic development.  We also talked about the economic and business benefits to increased broadband and technology sophistication.  An interesting point was made about that jobs created by a rural-based company may now be filled by people who are working online from another location.  We often think about remote rural workers teleworking to jobs in the metro area; the Internet is a two-way street which reinforces the need to build a local knowledge workforce.

Congratulations to Becky Lourey and her company Nemadji.  After years of seeking better broadband, they are about to get it through a new fiber extension by SCI, a regional broadband provider in east central Minnesota.  As a result, Nemadji will now have a redundant Internet connection and all residents of Bruno, population 102 in northern Pine County, will have fiber to the home Internet services!

Next week, August 4th, Bernadine Joselyn will lead a presentation and discussion about the new Connected MN program and how that will benefit Minnesota students in the months ahead.  Register at broadband.blandinfoundation.org under the webinar heading.

EVENT JUl28: Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable on Data and Broadband Investment

Join us Tuesday, June 28th at 9 am for the next Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable where Michael Curri of Strategic Networks Group will participate in a discussion of broadband data necessary to justify a broadband investment.  Strategic Networks Groups has worked with many states and cities gathering and analyzing broadband related data.

SNG has recently been studying how various stakeholder groups can effectively measure their own Return on Investment for broadband investment.  Learn what what data are needed to make the case for broadband and to build local buy-in or to get projects funded and financed?

Everyone that invests their time, money, and/or effort needs to see returns based on their terms – which vary depending on the stakeholder group and what they are bringing to the table. Elected officials, local champions and organizations, service providers, investors, government funding will be discussed and what each need to move forward in terms of data, commitments, or opportunity.

Bring your data questions for Michael. Register now.

Broadband Life in Little Falls – when the maps say you’re served and you know you aren’t! (Morrison County)

Broadband Communities recently featured Little Falls Minnesota and their broadband story…

Despite being unable to handle bandwidth-intensive activities for city offices and local businesses, the speeds the incumbents do offer, which met the FCC broadband definition of “served,” mean Little Falls is ineligible for federal funds.

“The city didn’t qualify for FCC funding because the maps said the city was served,” said Jon Radermacher, city administrator of Little Falls, during the Broadband Communities webinar, “Fiber Networks – Critical Municipal Infrastructure to Support the ‘New Normal.’” “However, the networks in our city weren’t robust or reliable for the needs of our business, the industrial districts and our schools.”

When a software company set up a location in one of the city’s business parks in 2013, it provided a catalyst to build out a fiber network for businesses. The company strongly demanded a fiber-based network. That prompted Little Falls to strike a network agreement with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC), a Minnesota telephone cooperative that works with utilities, municipalities and government entities to build fiber networks outside its traditional service area.

With support from various partners, the network was built to provide high-speed broadband to local businesses and city services. The hope is that soon it will provide broadband for local residents.

Driving Economic Development

Little Falls partnered with area economic development agencies (EDAs) to fund the build, which cost $530,000. “We came to a construction and lease agreement with CTC to build out a fiber ring that would serve all of that business park, connect another industrial park, build a fiber network throughout our downtown area, and connect over to our school district,” Radermacher said.

The city also is served by a private nonprofit called Morrison County Community Development and local EDAs. “We split up the financing for this network between the partners,” Radermacher said. “We then leased it back with the buyout clause similar to the agreement CTC had with Long Prairie, Minnesota.” After the fiber network went live in 2014, CTC executed the buyout agreement and now owns the fiber network.

The story goes on to point out what’s frustrating (maps), what helps (public-private partnerships) , the benefits and the difference is made in ability to respond to COVID19.

Toolkit from Institute for Local Self Reliance for communities wanting to support community broadband

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has a new toolkit to “States and Cities Can Beat Back Corporate Control and Build Thriving Communities“…

Across the country, local and state officials and citizens are struggling to overcome a set of deep and challenging problems, which have been further revealed, and exacerbated, by Covid. These include stark inequality, persistent poverty, disappearing small businesses, racial oppression, failing family farms, fraying community institutions, and entire cities and towns that have been marginalized and left behind.

There are many drivers of these trends. But there is one phenomenon in particular that has profoundly shaped all of these dynamics, and every single sector of our economy — the consolidation of corporate power.

They look at a number of facets:

  • Banking
  • Broadband
  • Electricity
  • Food and Farming
  • Pharmacy
  • Small Business
  • State Attorneys General
  • Waste

Clearly the ILSR (Muninetworks) is all about community self-reliance. They look at the infrastructure and adoption and offer the following policy recommendations:

  • Give Local Governments the Freedom to Connect
  • Allow Cities to Issue Bonds for Broadband Infrastructure
  • Support and Guide Smaller Communities
  • Collect ISP Data
  • Build Municipal Networks and Partnerships
  • Procurement Policies
  • Establish a Broadband Grant Program
  • Create “One-Touch Make-Ready” Rules
  • Organize a Listening Tour

Aitkin County is moving forward with broadband in some areas – get the low down

Thank you to Ross Wagner and Aitken Age for making my job so easy today with a editorial from Ross…

The one thing I get the most questions, comments and complaints on is the broadband situation in Aitkin County. And understandably so, we are nearly at the point where the internet affects every aspect of our lives. Folks in rural communities sometimes wonder if the world will pass them by if they are not connected to the internet with broadband. Broadband is actually more of a concept with no set measures. The State of Minnesota defines broadband as minimum download speeds of at least 25 megabits/second and minimum upload speeds of at least 3 megabits/ second. Broadband is delivered through fiber optic lines. Aitkin County is not in the business of being an Internet Provider. However, we have initiated the Aitkin County Broadband Grant Program, with $450,000 from the economic development fund. We feel the most effective long-term solution is to work with existing internet providers by providing the financial assistance needed to bring broadband to Aitkin County.

Here’s what they are working on…

Aitkin County is very fortunate to have local providers who are willing to invest in Aitkin County, they operate here and are willing to look long term. They are Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC), SCI Broadband (SCI) and Emily Cooperative Telephone Company (ECTC). All received State Border to Border grants in 2019 and $5,000 from Aitkin County as a local contributing partner to the grants. In 2020 the State of Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Grant will again be offered. Aitkin County is currently soliciting proposals for two $75,000 grants from the Aitkin County Grant fund and will be offering $15,000 for local contributing partner matches for local providers applying for the State Grant. Both MLEC and SCI have previously received Aitkin County grants.

And here’s what they hope to see soon, thanks what they were working on last year…

So just which areas of Aitkin County have been awarded grants to internet providers for 2020? Esquagamah and Round Lake areas will see broadband brought to approximately 242 unserved and 103 underserved locations by ECTC. The MLEC has a grant that will serve 282 unserved and 225 underserved households in areas of Farm Island and Nordland Townships. MLEC was awarded a Community Connect Grant from the USDA, for a project in Rice River and Spaulding Townships and areas of the East Lake Community. The project will pass 235 homes and businesses. SCI has a project that will serve 269 unserved homes, in areas of Glen Township. In addition to the Glen Township area, SCI will be finishing up previous project areas around Big Sandy Lake and Clear Lake.

Broadband maps no good? Maybe try something new!

Multichannel News reports…

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said that a lot of ISPs, “for whatever reason,” claim they have service where they don’t, something he said everyone knows “has been going on for years.”
He said that since Democrats and Republicans agree the maps aren’t good, the FCC would just be throwing $20 million out the window by starting to give out most of the Rural Development Opportunities Fund (RDOF) subsidy money.

I have recently hit that stage of COVID crisis where I just roll my eyes and say “just fix it” about everything. Lightbulbs that have been burned out for weeks are now fixed; I have pictures on several walls. I threw out unmatched socks. Maps been wrong for decades? Fix ‘em.

We don’t need to know why those maps are wrong – just like I don’t how the lightbulb blew out. We just need to find a new way to measure actual availability. Throw out those unmatched socks and start again. And guess what – in Minnesota we are working on a new way to do that.

In May (2020), GEO Partners presented their mapping solution to the MN Broadband Task Force. (See their presentation below.) They have a way to track speeds through speed tests from folks in the field. Are speed tests perfect? No – a poor local network or old computer can impact a test. Yes – customer may not choose highest tier service. So the answer is you have to get as many people as possible taking the tests. Everyone in my zip code getting 50/50 and I’m at 10/1? Maybe I need to look at my home equipment. The provider in the area sells 50/50 and everyone in my zip code gets 10/1? We need to consider actual speeds delivered and/or cost.

We could even balance this info with the maps created from 477 forms, which means provider input. A check and balance system!

So what would it take?  In Minnesota, GEO Partners are currently working with a few communities (St Louis, Koochiching and Itasca Counties). They have been talking with the Blandin Foundation and others about offering a statewide solution if communities are interested and interested in paying. (Let Association of Minnesota Counties know if you are a county that wants to know more.)

The technology solution is just one piece; the maps, as indicted above, are most valuable when a critical mass of community members participate. So there needs to be a push (local or statewide) to get people to take the test. And then you need people to analyze, assess and share the info once the maps and data are available.

I don’t want to offer this as the only solution – but it certainly seems to one a possible solution for an issue that has been discussed often:

EVENT June 23: Broadband Roundtable on telehealth response to the Covid-19

An invitation from the Blandin Foundation…

Join Blandin Foundation on Zoom Tuesday morning at 9:00 am for our weekly Broadband Roundtable conversation. This week, we will talk about the rapid emergence of telehealth in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To contribute to the conversation, find out what is now available from your own health care network or even bring your own tele-health care experience!

You can register for this and future Roundtables here. (July dates added!)

For more information, or to share ideas for future Roundtable starter topics, contact Mary Magnuson at memagnuson@blandinfoundation.org.

Little Falls MN bypasses maps that exaggerate broadband coverage to form partnership with CTC

Broadband Breakfast reports…

In a Thursday webinar sponsored by Broadband Communities, Jon Radermacher, city administrator of Little Falls, Minnesota, detailed how incumbent providers inflating the speeds they offered in Little Falls resulted in the city being ineligible to compete for federal funds. …

The issue facing Little Falls is a problem facing cities all over the country, as the Federal Communications Commission is set to allocate more than three-quarters of the $20.4 billion fund based on inaccurate information.

“The city didn’t qualify for FCC funding because the maps said the city was served,” said Radermacher. “However, the service available was not adequate or high speed, [and] the networks weren’t robust or reliable.”

So they came up with a Plan B…

Forced to seek alternative funding solutions, city leaders turned to a private partnership with CTC, or Consolidated Telecommunications Company, a Minnesota-based advising company that works with utilities, municipalities and government entities to assist in building fiber networks.

“More cities are saying we need to do this now more than ever” said Joe Buttweiler, partnership development manager at CTC. “You have no time to lose.” …

Today, Little Falls’ fiber backbone has expanded from the town’s business quarter, through its downtown region, to its school district. Radermacher said he was “excited to find ways to connect residential customers next.”

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable:Social Media for Community Broadband

The June 16 Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable discussion centered on social media practices in Community Broadband Initiatives.  I did a brief history overview beginning with Google Fiber and their community competition and went up through today’s collaborative environment with friendly providers’ use of fiberhood survey practices.    From there, the conversation went to a more general overview of successful social media strategies.  We talked Facebook. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Next-door and TikTok.  Multiple folks chimed in with both successes and challenges of the use of social media in communicating with customers and community members.  We talked extensively about magnifying your social media strategies by re-tweeting, liking posts, tagging and hash tagging.  We also had a good conversation about the need to ensure accuracy of your own posts and to work to fight disinformation.  Thanks to all who chimed in!  It made it a very interesting conversation.

On Tuesday June 23, we will talk about the rapid emergence of telehealth in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  To contribute to the conversation, find out what is now available from your own health care network or even bring your own tele-health care experience!

MN Broadband Speed Test – a good idea in the making? Join the conversation

I get email from people pretty regularly asking me about the State Broadband Maps. Most often it’s because they live in an area that shows up on the map as being better served than their experience would confirm. It’s the nature of broadband maps everywhere.

The answer to making maps better is using the provider data and getting feedback from users on the ground. The Office of Broadband Development is always open to getting calls to improve the maps but that’s a very onsie-twosie approach. From the communities, we’ve seen some awesome work trying to get more info from/on the ground. St. Louis County has been leading the way to create a different set of broadband maps based to date on approximately 7,000 broadband speed tests submitted by area residents and businesses. Now Koochiching and Itasca and getting into it too.

GEO (formerly NEO) Partners has been responsible for several of the speed tests happening in Minnesota. Blandin and a number of other organizations have been toying with the idea of working on a statewide speed test and mapping. GEO Partners is interested. And today there was a call of broadband-thinkers talking about how/if/why/when to make that happen.

There is definitely interest – they are just working on funding and a organization to spearhead the effort. It sounds like there will be follow up call next week. Stay tuned for more info – or let me know if you want to be invited (comment below).

Here are the slides from today:

EVENT June 15: Organizing Statewide Broadband Speed Test

An invitation from the Blandin Foundation

There is no doubt that the lack of broadband is severely hampering working from home, distance learning and tele-health. There is also ongoing discussion over how well the FCC and state broadband maps document actual broadband coverage across Minnesota. These maps are used by funders to determine grant program eligibility so that overstatement of available services is highly consequential and negatively impacts rural places.

St. Louis County has been leading the way to create a different set of broadband maps based to date on approximately 7,000 broadband speed tests submitted by area residents and businesses. These speed tests, mapped by GEO Partners, clearly show the speeds available in cities and townships across the county. Koochiching and Itasca Counties are preparing to launch their own initiative and other counties are considering their participation.

There would be significant economies of scale to do this project across larger geographies – statewide, statewide rural, development regions, etc.

There are two key components to successfully implement this project.  First is the technology.  GEO Partners has a proven process for that task. The more difficult task must be borne by local entities – local units of government, school districts and community organizations – to spread the word to local residents so that they understand the importance of this initiative. The validity of the results increases with the number of people taking the speed test. This is critical for those communities working to qualify for state and federal broadband. For those places with great broadband, this is a way to showcase the speeds available in your area and can be used for community economic development marketing.

Blandin Foundation sees the benefits of this prospective initiative. We are seeking a proposal from GEO Partners so that we can discuss the opportunity with prospective partners across the state. We will be holding an information discussion via Zoom on Monday, June 15 from 1-2pm. Click here to register for the meeting.