Rural Opportunity Maps include broadband layer

The Center on Rural Innovation has released some cool, interactive maps. They overlay a number of datasets to help create snapshots of rural communities – by county, town and census tract. One of the datasets is access to broadband, which they get from FCC – Form 477 via Broadband Now.

It’s been a while since I checked out Broadband Now. They do provide access to broadband info (by county, city, zip) including:

  • Providers in the area including speeds (and types of broadband available) and coverage by percentage
  • Mapping areas with access to 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 5+ providers
  • General info on broadband in given area
  • Publicly funded internet access

The information is useful from community to community. I think the local maps of overlapping provider coverage are particularly interesting.

There are also a number of info layers that might be of interest: investment opportunities, trends in healthcare, hospital closures, local breweries. Being honest, I didn’t find an easy way to combine layers. But I feel like if I were looking for a specific community (smaller than statewide) that I could figure out what I was doing and/or use the raw info and local knowledge to help build a pictures of the local assets and needs.

Blue Earth County’s broadband feasibility study outlines some tough costs

Mankato Free Press reports…

If Blue Earth County wants to have rural broadband internet, it’s going to have to pay a potentially unworkable amount of money.

That’s what consultants recently found in a broadband feasibility study, which they presented to the Blue Earth County Board Tuesday.

According to the study, it could cost more than $35 million to install 1,067 miles of fiber to connect all rural areas of Blue Earth County, excluding the Mankato area and larger cities such as Lake Crystal and Madison Lake. A combination of wireless networks and fiber, about 161 miles in total, would cost about $11 million to install.

Consultants at Finley Engineering and CCG Consulting say internet service providers are far more likely to favor the hybrid wi-fi/fiber approach just based on cost alone. An all-fiber network that could offer internet speeds of at least 100 mbps downloading and 25 mbps uploading likely wouldn’t break even after customers are hooked up and paying for services.

“This is hard to make back when you charge somebody $60 a month for broadband,” said Doug Dawson, president of CCG.

Yet a hybrid project would not only break even but make money after a few years, according to consultant projections.

The article goes on to talk about the potential role of the MN border to border broadband grants and the strong desire from the community to have better broadband…

To solve that issue in Blue Earth County, local officials plan to partner with providers to encourage expanding broadband access. Consultants recommend the county pay for a resident survey gauging how much interest Blue Earth County homeowners and businesses have to get better internet.

Such a study could be used as part of a state grant, which Chris Konechne of Finley Engineering said is what Bevcomm is doing with a potential project in Le Sueur County.

It could be difficult to find providers to start a project within the next few years, as consultants say several companies working in the area are waiting to see whether Midco (Midcontinent Communications) expands its services within Blue Earth County.

Yet commissioners say securing better broadband is important to Blue Earth County’s growth.

Grants do help offset the costs to the provider. And a hybrid network can be a step toward ubiquitous fiber; build fiber to more profitable areas first and upgrade to other areas as you can. We’ve seen with communities across Minnesota that it is expensive – but we’ve also see that the community reaps the benefits when they have better broadband and as more and more communities get fiber, there will be a cost of not upgrading.

Kandiyohi County doing feasibility study to investigate broadband grant options

Lakeland Broadcsting reports…

The Willmar and Kandiyohi County Economic Development Commission says a contract with Compass Consultants Inc. for an engineering study will determine fiber broadband feasibility in rural Kandiyohi County townships, including Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. Pending the study outcomes and a positive response from the township constituents, the EDC will submit a Border-to-Border application to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) by August 2020.

They also provide a little history…

Kandiyohi County was granted a 4.9 million dollar Border-to-Border grant in 2017 to improve broadband in an area north of Willmar but the project fell through when the contractor, Consolidated Telephone, decided not to do the work out of fears there wasn’t enough interest.

More details on the previous grant – CTC was looking for 50 percent of potential customers to sign up for service. And competitor TDS announced plans to expand (using A-CAM funding) to parts of Kandiyohi County.

ILSR Muninetworks – fourth video in the rural broadband saga

Happy to share Muninetwork’s latest video…

The setting in this episode is a bustling town council meeting, in which locals are gathered to discuss what to do about poor Internet access in Villageville. The special speaker tonight is an attorney from the incumbent Internet access company. Citizens are ready to ask him why, for corn’s sake, his employer still hasn’t updated the services they provide.

Feasibility study is first step to better broadband in Greenwood MN (St Louis County)

The Timber Jay does a nice job detailing a recent (Oct 29) meeting in Greenwood Township to discuss bringing better broadband to the community. I wasn’t there but it sounds like meetings I have attended in the past. If you live in an area with good broadband and you have any interest in knowing how the other half lives and/or if you’re a policymaker, this article strikes me as a good example of what people deal with in some rural areas….

[From Frontier] Bohler was one of over a half dozen local elected officials and representatives of telecommunications companies and state agencies who came to speak at a roundtable-style meeting here on Tuesday to discuss telephone and internet issues in the township. About 50 area residents filled the town hall at the Oct. 29 meeting.
Frontier currently supplies DSL level service in many areas of the township. “Most homes can get 10 mbps service,” said Bohler, “or a little higher if they are near a terminal node.”
For rural telecommunications providers, it comes down to numbers.
“Folks here are spread out,” said Bohler, noting that raises the cost per household for providing upgraded service. “State funding is vital in making the projects economically viable,” he said.
Fiber optic cable has already been installed in several of the more populated areas of the township, but at present, only the town hall has been connected to the broadband-level service. This fiber, installed by the Northeast Service Coop, stretches down Echo Point as far as the Bois Forte Reservation, down Birch Point, Moccasin Point, and toward Frazer Bay. But whether that fiber could be used to connect to individual homes and businesses in those areas is still an open question.
Audience members stressed the need for reliable service at speeds that would allow residents to work from home, having the township apply for state or federal grant funding to get a project started, and making sure the quality of internet service is sufficient for the needs of area businesses.

So much to unpack here – and I do this for readers who don’t live in these areas. First, he says “most homes can get 10 Mbps service” – I assume this means 10 Mbps down and likely 1 Mbps up. For federal funding that 10/1 speed is a benchmark. For comparison, the MN state speed goal for 2026 is 100/20.

Second, “State funding is vital in making the projects economically viable” – no explanation required but worth highlighting.

Third, “Fiber optic cable has already been installed in several of the more populated areas of the township, but at present, only the town hall has been connected to the broadband-level service.” How can a community thrive when they are looking at 10/1 access and their neighbors have fiber? Where do you buy a house, start a business or plan your vacation? Rural broadband may be expensive but the cost of not getting it may be higher in the long run.

In Greenwood, the commitment to move forward has been made…

Speakers all agreed that conducting a feasibility study was the most important first step. That study helps to determine how many residences and businesses desire high-speed service, how much they can afford to pay, and exactly where they are all located in the township. The study is also a prerequisite for any request for any kind of funding application.
Such a study is about to begin, thanks to the efforts of the local Blandin Broadband Committee, which is being led in large part by Greenwood residents Joanne, John, and Kate Bassing. The township has committed to help fund the feasibility study, which ensures that data on Greenwood’s needs and residents will be part of the study. The Blandin Foundation is providing matching funds for this study and will host a kickoff event for the feasibility study on Nov. 8 in Aurora.

The article goes on to detail potential pricing or at least factors that might impact pricing and talks about what broadband leaders are doing in communities in the area to make this happen. The costs are staggering (“$20,000 – $25,000 per mile to bury fiber optic cable, but that cost could double if the ground has bedrock”) and the volunteer hours are long. But the plan moves forward!

New Broadband Availability Map Pilot for Policymakers includes MN

NTIA announces…

Last year, Congress asked NTIA to develop a National Broadband Availability Map to address this problem. Working with an initial group of eight states, we’ve released a pilot version of the map, a geographic information system platform that allows for the visualization of federal, state, and commercially available data sets. The map will be made available exclusively to state and federal partners, as it includes non-public data that may be business sensitive or have licensing restrictions.

The eight partner states include California, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Utah. These states participate in NTIA’s State Broadband Leaders Network, and have active broadband plans or programs. As the pilot moves forward, NTIA will test the map’s functionality and expand it to other states, and add data from additional partners, federal agencies, industry and accessible commercial datasets.

I’m glad this resource is available. BUT I wish it were open to more people.  We’re to a point where public private partnerships are needed to make deployment possible in unserved areas. That partnership often includes a provider, the possibility of state (or federal) funding and community support through some form of local tax. I’ve seen successful efforts start from the providers but also from community leaders – it might be helpful for them to see the maps too.

How can your community help/attract a broadband provider?

I am updating the MN County broadband profiles this week – to be released soon. I’m doing something a little different by giving each a code – red, yellow or green – based on progress toward the MN speed goals of 25/3 (by 2022) and 100/20 (by 2026). Green counties are often metro counties where a market case for broadband helps them or they have a provider or two that are engaging. Yellow counties may be moderately close (in population covered) to the goals, they may have an engaged provider or they may be building momentum. Red counties are often way behind in number and/or are lacking an engaged provider. So this recent article in Broadband Communities caught my eye – Six Ways Communities Can Help Providers Build Networks.

I’ve read these tips before, I’ve heard providers and community partners talk about them in conferences – but still good info:

  1. Information:
  2. Permitting and rights of way:
  3. Provider-friendly comprehensive plans:
  4. Forecasting growth:
  5. Marketing assistance and take rate:
  6. Matching investment:

You can check out the article for more details. Each community will be different in what they can/will offer and each provider will want/need different things – but as a community these are some of the tools you have in your toolbox.