May 26 Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable Discussion Summary:

I was happy that on the Tuesday morning after the Memorial Day holiday we had a dozen folks discussing community efforts to spur broadband adoption and user sophistication.  Using the Intelligent Community framework as a guide, I showcased some of the projects that our Blandin Broadband Communities have implemented over the past several years.

For the broadband pillar, I highlighted public wi-fi offered at the Chisholm Pocket Park, Rock County campgrounds, wi-fi on school buses and improved wi-fi at libraries.  For knowledge workforce, I talked about Leech Lake’s computer training tied to their workforce program, Swift County’s online welding program, and Red Wing’s Coder Dojo after-school program and Fond du Lac’s summer app camp for kids.  Digital Equality efforts highlighted PCs for People, Hibbing HRA’s broadband project in housing that they operate and Winona’s longstanding to connect new Americans with college students for computer training.  Innovation projects included multiple efforts at one-to-one business technology audits and counselling, Access North’s installation of Smart Home technology for older adults and those with disabilities and Hibbing’s use of iPads in health care.  Finally, in advocacy/marketing, I talked about Red Wing’s community calendar and web portal and Cannon Falls “Cannon Roots” branding campaign.

There was active discussion among participants about the implementation strategies for these projects as well as talk about the challenging task about how to make them sustainable once grant funds expire.  Participants also spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied the benefits of these projects and accelerated adoption.

Great thanks to Robin Weiss of Southwest MN RDC for discussion about the new funds available through the federal Department of Commerce EDA program which can support new infrastructure and adoption and use.  The Blandin blog has a nice post on this program with all of the links.

Join us June 2nd at  9 am for our next roundtable discussion when we will focus on this EDA program and generate some ideas and strategies for applications.

RAMS, Koochiching and Itasca Counties ask residents to take the broadband speed test and spread the word!

An announcement and invitation from the partners…

TAKE THE TEST and SHARE THE LINK https://expressoptimizer.net/public/

Koochiching and Itasca County in partnership with the Range Association of Municipalities & Schools (RAMS) is pleased to announce the formal public kickoff of a crowdsourcing project covering the entire areas of both counties. This broadband speed testing initiative is being conducted by GEO Partners, LLC during a time when more people are at home per the Governor’s “Stay at Home” directive. This includes over 10,000 students (K-12) as well as parents required to work from home and thus should provide the most comprehensive, accurate accumulation of actual broadband speeds ever conducted in these counties while demand on the system is highest.

The data collected via a one minute speed test can be conducted from any device connected to your broadband signal including cell phones and will result in statistically valid data and mapping. This data will then enable any locale in Koochiching or Itasca County to utilize the validated information for a broadband expansion project and seek grant funding from the FCC, USDA or Border to Border state program. We anticipate a higher than normal volume of participation, partially because of all the students who are struggling to stay connected to their E Learning while living in rural areas in the county.  Collecting data from cabin owners across our lake enhanced counties will also be vitally important data.

Representative Rob Ecklund a Koochiching County resident and the chief author of a bill for broadband funding praised both Itasca and Koochiching County boards for their support of this project as he knows all too well how living without quality high speed broadband makes life more challenging.  Representative Sandy Layman from Itasca County took the speed test this morning and expressed how simple and quick the test was.  “My results were interesting as my download speed was almost half as much as the upload speed, so I will take the test again”, she stated.

School districts in both counties have already been contacted and asked to send a message to their students to “Take the Test” and help jumpstart these projects.  Both counties will ask county employees to participate; local businesses and social media will play an important role in getting the message out throughout both counties.  Koochiching Technology Initiative and Blandin Broadband will both play important roles in keeping the momentum going as the speed tests will likely run for 8 to 12 weeks.

RAMS, as an organization has been a strong advocate for broadband expansion across Northeastern Minnesota.  RAMS’ and the Commissioners of your counties, recognize that high speed quality broadband is a critical utility to economic development, education, business and virtual healthcare.  RAMS is grateful for the partnership with Koochiching & Itasca County on this project and encourages everyone to TAKE THE TEST and SHARE THE LINK https://expressoptimizer.net/public/   TAKE IT NOW! Your participation is important and no personal information will be collected.

Maps of the County speed tests will be accessible on the RAMS website: https://expressoptimizer.net/projects/Koochiching/speedtestmap.php

https://expressoptimizer.net/projects/Itasca/speedtestmap.php

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects with the GRIZZLIES (Cook, Orr and Bois Forte)

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks from the GRIZZLIES today. (Grizzlies is the mascot for North Woods School, which was opened in 2012 when the schools in Cook, Orr and Bois Forte were consolidated.)

It’s great to see how well the three communities work together. Really great.

And they provides a handy list of all of their projects:

  1. QuickBooks Online (Lisa Hyppa)
    The Grizzly’s continue to work with Lisa Hyppa to provide QuickBooks online education and program development to local business throughout our region. The intake of this program has given multiple local businesses the opportunity to manage their business online and educate themselves in basic accounting practices provided through Lisa.
  2. Cook Library WIFI Hotspots (Crystal Phillips)
    The Cook Library continues to Provide WIFI access points and computer access to Members of the Cook Library. During the Covid-19 crisis, the WIFI hotspots are in high demand. The success of this program has led to the procurement and disbursement of WIFI hotspots to all elementary students of the Nett Lake Elementary school in order to provide a means of communication between school children and teachers in areas where broadband is limited.
  3. Orr Center Wireless Buildout (Wendy Purdy)
    The Orr Center (Old Orr High School) was in need of new wireless equipment. Since the closing of the school, the original Cisco access points were in dire need of replacing. Local Tech guys Lou Pliml, and Evertt Huismann completed a wireless implementation of the school providing coverage to all areas of the building. Lou and Evertt donated a considerable amount of time chasing old cut out wiring and replacement of cabling to make this project a success.
  4. Wireless to Ball Fields Grizzly’s school (John Vukemanich, Lou Pliml, Evertt Huismann)
    The Grizzly’s school had a request to enhance its WIFI access to the ball fields surrounding the school. The school teachers and athletic programs utilize this WIFI to provide program access to the school children and athletic game broadcasting via you tube. This project got highly technical as it required fiber optic cabling to be installed within the school to the roof of the school. One directional Wireless bridge was installed on top of the school and the other on top of the Football field broadcasting house to make the wireless connection. An outdoor access point was then installed at the football broadcasting house connecting the teachers, students and media broadcasters to the school network. Local Tech guys Lou Pliml and Evertt Huismann installed and setup the equipment. Bois Forte Purchased and donated the fiber optic cabling and bridging equipment needed to provide the equipment between the school and Football field clubhouse.
  1. Art Unlimited- Website Design training
    Our original intention of this program was to develop a specific website tailored to all sports activities of the Grizzly’s school and have it built solely by Art Unlimited out of Cook. Throughout this website would be various content on games and activities with links for community members to watch local games being broadcasted via broadband through computer, iPads, iPhones etc.  Once we progressed, we revisited our intention and realized it was not in the best intention of the school nor the students. We then retailored the program such that Art Unlimited would train and teach various students on how to build and develop websites, gather information and how to manage sites properly. This project did not go unnoticed from the school district. In due diligence we notified the school district of our intention on providing school activity content via this newly created website and after a few short meetings they were ok with the project. This project has been indivertibly affected by the Covid-19 epidemic, but will still manage to go Live in June prior to the start of the upcoming years athletic programs.
  1. Zup’s Online Ordering Process
    Due to Covid-19, various community members reached out to us for assistance on how best to provide social distancing when forced to enter small community-based grocery stores. We decided that a web-based ordering system for food from the local Zup’s IGA would best satisfy the community’s needs and provide the protection necessary to safeguard a lot of the elderly and at-risk community members within our area. The website has been up and running and handling several requests per day. We are anticipating early June for completion as each item throughout the store must be accounted for and maintained throughout the website in a specific database. Local Web Designer Art Unlimited and Local tech guy Lou Pliml were influential on integration and implementation of this project. Zup’s IGA expressed their appreciation recently on the project and how it has aided their business throughout this epidemic.
  1. Nett Lake Fiber to the Home Project
    Due to the implementation of various broadband activities and projects throughout our region provided through the Blandin Foundation, the Bois Forte Reservation was successful in applying for DEED Fiber to the home funding to build out a complete fiber optic to the premise buildout. Other contributing sources of funding came through the IRRRB and Shakopee Reservation. No funding through the Blandin Foundation was used to acquire this grant funding, but was considered one of the primary sources of community-based involvement needed to prove that such a buildout is necessary and financially stable to implement within this region. Bois Forte is now researching funding opportunities to provide engineering costs and estimates to the communities that have close ties to the reservation. These community include the City of Orr, Cook, Tower, Soudan and the Greenwood Township area.

Broadband maps are unreliable – even in Minnesota

Broadband Breakfast reports…

Broadband Breakfast Live Online panelists on Wednesday said that current broadband maps are insufficient and that they are harming the people they are meant to serve.

The forum was an opportunity for participants to describe the state of broadband in their respective areas as well as the applications of various services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speakers included Glenn Fishbine, chief technology officer at NEO Partners, LLC, Eric Frederick, vice president for community affairs at Connected Nation, Brian Webster, CEO of Wireless Mapping Inc. and Russ Elliot, director of the Washington State Broadband Office.

The article include a map “showcasing areas in which Connected Nation had low confidence in broadband connectivity reports — which included almost all supposedly connected regions.” I’ve included it here and you can see what Minnesota looks like.

They used an example from Minnesota…

For example, a Minnesota broadband company called Radio Link Internet offers 300-megabyte symmetric wireless, which disqualifies areas under its service for grants. But a NEO Partners study found that Radio Link had not undergone an LTD speed test in the previous 12 months.

“We are seeing the impact of bad reporting by individual ISPs either because they’re clumsy or they don’t know what they’re doing or because the process is broken,” Fishbine said. “But this is taking a large number of communities out of the pool of potential grant applications.”

Webster said that for broadband maps to transition away from clunky inaccuracy, they have to move to the household level.

It’s hard to get good mapping. Broadband coverage changes almost daily. The ISP tends to report in broadband swaths, which can overstate coverage. Speed tests rely on so many moving pieces including broadband speed between the connection to the node, to the home and then the quality of the device. But these maps are important because eligibility for funding – for billions of dollars – is often based on mapping.

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in MN East Range

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks in East Range (Iron Range) today. Here’s the video – in progress…

The community is working on making devices and broadband available to a wider group – like Wi-Fi on buses and ambulances, computers in schools. It was really fun to hear some of the robotics-related devices (STEM kits) they are getting at the library. Super fun! And those items should be available for checkout (or maybe in library use!) this summer.

They are also doing training and consulting with local businesses, starting with tech audits. Especially given the time we’re in, it was interesting to hear about upgrades of technology with EMT. What a difference that can make!

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Hibbing MN

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks in Hibbing today.

They have been doing a lot of great work getting iPads to seniors, doing training, WiFi in public housing but there was one application that really struck me. Lots of communities are putting projects on hold during the pandemic or changing them – it’s what we’re doing.

Hibbing got iPads for the ambulances. It was a good way to get a visual connection between the ambulance and the hospital. Well those iPads have been repurposed. Patients use them in the hospital for pre-screening. That saves on PPE for healthcare workers. And patients with (or suspected to have) COVID-19. That reduces the contact (but not care) with healthcare professionals. Also, and this is the part I love, it allows patients to connect with loved ones outside. Technology makes life better.

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable Summary: Speed Testing

I led off the conversation on Speed Testing with a brief PowerPoint presentation Speed Tests: The What, Why and How (attached), covering what data most speed tests generate: Download Speed; Upload Speed; Ping/Latency; Jitter; and Packet Loss.  I talked about the uses of speed tests for individuals and communities.  I also discussed standard objections of providers to the use of speed tests to illustrate the quality of broadband services and some counterpoints to those sometimes-valid objections.  Finally, I promoted a set off broadband speed test best practices for communities to use.

There was strong participation from the attendees including community leaders, broadband providers and GIS mapping specialists.  At the core, communities are seeking to challenge maps that overstate broadband coverage which makes places ineligible for broadband funding like the FCC RDOF program and the Minnesota Border to Border program.  There was frustration that while providers can simply claim that they provide service to an area, community activists have to provide highly documented data to refute provider claims.  Adding to the injustice is the protocol that allows providers to claim service in an entire census block by providing service to a single location within that block.

We also heard brief updates from Colin Peterson’s congressional staff about new broadband legislation.

Join us next Tuesday at 9 am for our next discussion.