Blandin Broadband Communities: Strut Your Stuff Gathering Notes

November 14, 2019
South Central Service Cooperative

Recently Bill Coleman and I had the pleasure of meeting up folks from three of our current Blandin Broadband Communities – Swift County, Rock County, and Cannon Falls –  to talk about their broadband projects.  To compare notes we used the Intelligent Community Framework: Broadband Infrastructure; Workforce; Innovation; Digital Equity; Marketing & Advertising; and Sustainability.

The Cannon Fall’s team told us, “We had projects that touched our whole community – all different points across our community.”  Swift and Rock County also reported on projects across multiple ICF pillars.

Here below is a summary of some of the broadband work currently underway in these communities. These efforts inspire me.

INFRASTRUCTURE/ACCESS

Cannon Falls

Water tower and water storage facility is now 20 years old and needs attention.  The city needs help understanding what’s up there. The city does have the money to hire someone to do this.

Families are paying too much for Internet in our area.  We have online learning days now – that saved our school district last year.  Some providers responded that “it’s too cold” for the Internet to work.

Rock County 

Hot spots 

The library has five portable hot-spots for check-out. Each hotspot can support 15 devices. “Incredibly popular.”  They check out for two weeks. We have had some problem with people who repeatedly want to use the equipment.  Folks paid the late fee instead of returning the equipment.  Late fee raised from $1/day to $25/day.

More hotspots?  We want to keep the hotspots after the grant runs out.  It’s $200/mo for the five of them.  We have demand for ten, but couldn’t support the subscription cost for that many. Also – now wifi available in many county parks and camp sites – could impact demand for the library’s hot spot?

Wifi on school buses 

Two transferable units are now installed and working well. They are used on activity buses as appropriate.  School will pay for these hotspots going forward.  $900/for two hotspots/yr.  These devices can support 50/60 students.

Wifi at Campgrounds 

In partnership with Alliance Communications, free public wifi has been installed at four campgrounds, including a state park and a ball field.  Delivering 100 MG symmetrical. Included 12 months of subscriptions – after that, each city has agreed to pay for ongoing costs.  Parks are allowed to suspend over the winter.  Also installed cameras for the City of Hills to help monitor their unstaffed camp ground.  Cities were very receptive to this project.  They will add a bit to their camping fees to cover ongoing costs.  There is a campground in Jasper, MN, county line goes through the town.  The campground is privately owned by the quarry.  Paperwork for the donation has never been recorded. Goal was to put one in publicly-held property – Jasper is a hold-up, because of the ownership question.

Swift County

We don’t have a champion for hotspot check-outs in our libraries.  Swift County is looking to bring wifi public access to city parks and county parks. Hearing these examples will help me.

Co working space had been a topic.  Looking at new options for an empty building in Benson for some departments – allowing the court house to be a “justice center.”

WORKFORCE

Swift County

Case IH; biggest employer in the county, worked with Ridgewater College to design and deliver a welding course, “Tooling U.”  Students got computers if they needed them.  Full practicum welding training.  16 fully passed the test in 5 weeks, now qualified to get a job as a welder. They had a waiting list. Pay $18-22 hour.  Case provided all the equipment, materials.  People had to agree to come to the classes and wear steel toe shoes.  ~$1000/person cost.  Students kept gloves/helmet.  Innovative program….. first we thought we’d train high school students. Next steps?   Would we do it again? Yes.  But it’s expensive.  We need grant funds for this.  Can DEED fund this for $20,000?  They tend to offer training for folks who already are employed.  Great instructor. That made a difference.  A lot of the success is thanks to great people involved.

Rock County

Community Ed led a project to host an Ag event in mid-August.  70 attendees; fewer than hoped. Good age range. Three speakers: Chip Florry, Ag marketer; a Luverne native who is an Ag precision lecturer; and speaker on security on the farms.  Local Ag groups were very involved.  Lots of vendors.  Alliance. SDSU; Extension. Hyper local presenters was an element of success.  Targeted to farmer/producer.  Banks helped to market.  Folks who attended said they found it very valuable.  No fee to attend.  Instead of 9 – noon, 7 to 10 with beer.  Beer instead of coffee.   Community Ed (Karen) would like to do this again and could take the lead on doing it next time.  Could add vendors – that would help the event be self-sufficient.  As an alternative format, disaggregate the content and offer it once/wk over coffee in a coffee shop?

INNOVATION

Cannon Falls

Business Education

Grow Cannon Falls has hosted chamber breakfasts on using social media and has created a “Discovery application.”  Helps companies do self-assessments of their tech needs/opportunities and then connect with marketing resources to create/improve on-line presence.  Chamber is a one-man show. Looking at how to help modernize the chamber’s connectivity.  Have the chamber be the hub for the community.

Online HS newspaper “The Lantern”

Interested teachers want to help students publish an on-line newspaper are now partnering with Anna Braataas, whom they met at the broadband conference.  About 30-40 students are contributing content.  Also exploring the idea of “relighting” the middle school’s “Candle” newspaper in an online version.

VR Head-sets for memory care residents 

Inspired by a presentation at the broadband conference, four VR head-sets have been purchased for two memory care facilities in Cannon Falls.  Facilities staff received three-hours of training on using the equipment; they are excited.  Headsets are fully loaded with content, plus they get a year of subscription use. $16/mo going forward (per set).  $1,000 per head set fully loaded plus subscription for a year.

Swift County

STEM Camp

KMS schools organized a full-day summer STEM day camp curriculum for 80 elementary grade students. Based on positive feed-back from students and families, Community Ed hopes to continue this next year, but funding is a challenge; the curriculum is expensive.  Maybe expand to Benson, if funding allows.  $5,000 of Blandin investment.

Digital Marketing/Consulting

Ten businesses have received digital marketing assessments and marketing consulting in two rounds of the program. Examples: general hardware store/grocery store dealing with a Dollar General coming to town; a local newspaper that doesn’t have a website; a realtor.  People love her services.  Used a competition format to identify served businesses. Marketing: mailed personalized letters with brochures to business owners.

County Fair App

Our goal: get more youth involved in 4H in our county.  Found someone in Extension in Iowa to help us create and set up an app to server our 4-Hers and their families. It cost us $500/for two years’ subscription.  The app has a spot to sign up, registration forms, calendar of (local) events, registering your fair projects, link to fair campground reservations, links to University site; to training opportunities; options to do push notifications.  Uploaded show books onto the app. First in the state to have an app like this. Helpful during the fair.   Served as a pilot for 4H for the university; U trying to develop something like this for 4H across the state. Was tried out during the fair.  The internet in Appleton is not great. It took four months to build the app.  Marketing through word of mouth, newsletter.  100 out of 300 youth have downloaded it after three months.

There is a need to improve connectivity at the fair: Possible action: county could reach out to Verizon, copy state representative.

DIGITAL INCLUSION

Rock County

Library programming

We’ve had lots of fun programming at the library, including scary story reading at a Haunted Halloween patch, and very successful Monthly Trivia nights at the local brewery. It was so much fun.  Monthly Trivia night at the brewery.  Last month: 96 attendees!  29 teams! 16 – 80 years old.  PBS came to film the event.  It’s very easy to do.  Winners get a gift card.  Trophy.  Use FB and Instagram to promote the event.  1200 followers on Instagram.

Blue Mound Towers

Two computers with internet access were installed in the Blue Mound Towers low-income housing complex in Luverne.  Many residents have mobility issues.  The building’s manager is on the broadband steering committee. When looking for PCs for People recipients, they got involved.  There is public wifi downtown… but it doesn’t reach this housing complex.    Some individual residents also got PCs from PCfP.

Generations Senior Center

The Center lost its partner at ACE (the new version of RSVP)…. and is now beginning a building project that is to include a computer lab with six computers.  So far, three have been set up in a temporary configuration.

Computer Education Videos 

Alliance Communications is producing educational videos to help with wifi problem-solving and posting them on their website and YouTube.  Five have been completed so far: two on equipment trouble-shooting; two on email – trouble testing email issues; one on top ten issues why your wifi isn’t working.  4700 views on one of the first videos.  Customers like the local content/local origin.  16 topics developed so far.  Purchased some equipment and editing software.  Otherwise, not a high cost activity.

Adobe primer editing software. SDN provided advice on camera equipment purchase.

PCs for People

Worked successfully with schools, including a school in Nobles county that serves families that live in Rock county.  Preschool families were solicited.  Distributed a total of 60 PCs in response to demand.

We staffed a presence at the Rock County Fair.  We learned that you need free stuff to get folks to come to your table.

Computer classes at Community Ed 

Classes offered: Tech for Seniors. Some of them were one-on-one classes, including in the library. Google and Google Sheets.  Cyber Security.  E-book. Marketed through community ed.  Community ed charges.  Library does not.  Library does not charge for classes offered at the library.

 

Cannon Falls 

PC for People

We worked with social workers in the schools to identify recipients, and also with retirement homes.  30 families received computers in a distribution event on Sept 22.  Possible partnership with Three Rivers, an affordable housing developer nonprofit.  Hope to give one to local food shelf, but she won’t take them.

 

Swift County

PC for People

The process of working with the schools was really hard.  One school didn’t care – they have laptops for their kids.  Other schools wouldn’t share data.  We managed to give away 30 of 50 computers.  We will work with HRA to continue to distribute the rest.  Want to add an instructional piece on community engagement (census, library access).

 

MARKETING/ADVOCACY

Cannon Falls

Branding:  Local foods has been identified as an economic development opportunity for Cannon Falls and the Use of Cannon Roots is gaining some momentum.

Swift County

Six out of eight communities in Swift County have created community websites.  Some Mayors have told their clerks not to be involved.  Half of communities had no website at all. Golden Shovel is the gateway/host. The committee has tried to promote the regional brand: “Enterprising by Nature.”  People don’t search by counties, they search by cities.  ADA compliance issues have required attention.

Rock County/Luverne 

We are working on social and media marketing optimization. Using a local business for this training.  Meeting with businesses one-on-one for up to six hours/org.  each organization had to pay $100.  Blandin paying for the rest. E-commerce is a big need.  Goal of serving 20 businesses.

Southwest MN Broadband Services looks at closed meetings in the future

The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) Board of Directors will meet Thursday, Nov. 21, 6:15 pm at the SMBS Office to decide whether to close future meetings. The Lakefield Standard reports…

Future meetings of the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Board of Directors may be closed to the public, and financial reports of the multiple municipality-owned communications utility may be kept confidential.

Board members — in many cases, elected officials from member cities — may vote on the changes as early as next Thursday.

It sounds like a matter of business process…

“Over the course of the last 10 years, we’ve struggled with how to make decisions based on the type of entity we are,” said Travis Thies, SMBS general manager. “That led to us getting a legal opinion as to how we are supposed to be operating to help us make decisions at the board level.”

Formed through a joint powers agreement between a number of area municipalities, including the city of Jackson, SMBS was organized as a 317A nonprofit organization. Laws governing that type of organization allow board meetings to be closed to the public and financials to be kept confidential, Thies said.

Doing both would potentially benefit SMBS — and, by extension, member cities, local taxpayers and customers — in several different ways, Thies added. Closed meetings would allow SMBS to more effectively negotiate rates with vendors, he said, and keep competitors at arm’s length.

It also sounds as if they would be flexible about hearing from folks in the future, just want to keep business financials more closed…

“I totally expect the board to want as much transparency as possible and to always be open to answer questions,” Thies said. “Member cities would continue to have full access to all minutes and financials and, if someone wanted to address the board about something — even though meetings would not be completely open to them — I would think they could be put on the agenda.”

EVENT: Startup Pitch Night & Roundtable coming Nov 19 in Willmar MN

If you live near Willmar and have entrepreneurial or innovator tendencies, this might be an event for you. If you don’t live in the area, yet you have entrepreneurial or innovator tendencies or work with people who do, this might give you some good ideas. It comes from WorkUP, a coworking space in WIllmar…

All Startup Alumni, supporters and entrepreneurial fans are invited! This is your chance to hear and learn from a few of our Startup Bootcamp Alumni – two of them graduated recently and one of them went through a couple of years ago and is coming back to share an update. They’ll practice pitching their companies using concepts discovered in the workshop, and we’ll offer support, input and any assistance we can provide to help them be successful. Happy hour beverages and snacks will be provided. Don’t miss it!
Learn more

EVENT: MN Rural Broadband Coalition Meeting December 5, 2019

From the MN Broadband Coalition

Minnesota Broadband Coalition Meeting

Thursday, December 5, 2019
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
League of MN Cities – Boardroom
145 University Avenue West – St. Paul, MN 55103
Conference Call Option: 1-866-755-7677
Participant code: 591645

Agenda Coming Soon!

Please RSVP by replying to this email or Emily Murray to indicate attendance or absence.

EVENT: NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Practical Broadband Conversations Webinar Nov 20

An invitation from BroadbandUSA…

You are invited to join NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Practical Broadband Conversations Webinar

Topic: Building Digital Workforce Skills at the Local Level

Date:   Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Time:  2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET

Overview: A digitally skilled workforce is essential for the economic development of our nation’s communities. Companies of all sizes need employees that understand technology, whether it’s on the business or operational side of the organization. Join BroadbandUSA to hear how local leaders are building partnerships between governments, businesses, nonprofits and education to help residents attain the skills needed to thrive in a digital economy.

Speakers:

  • David Keyes, Digital Equity Program Manager, City of Seattle Information Technology
  • Stacey Wedlake, Research Coordinator and Analyst, Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at University of Washington Information School
  • Shonna Dorsey, Senior Business Systems Consultant, Mutual of Omaha
  • Kagan Coughlin, Co-Founder, Trustee Base Camp Coding Academy

Please pre-register for the webinar using this registration link.   After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Want to access past Practical Broadband Conversations webinars? Visit our webinar archives for past presentations, transcripts and audio recordings.

EVENT: Libraries in…Laundromats? Webinar December 4

From MN Library Services…

Join us for an upcoming webinar on Libraries in Laundromats – Bringing Learning Spaces to Ordinary Places.

When: Wednesday, December 4, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Presenters: Adam Echelman and Lily Ross from Libraries Without Borders

The Wash and Learn Initiative, coordinated by Libraries Without Borders in partnership with local public libraries, brings technology and library programming to people where they are – in laundromats!

During this webinar, you will learn about the mission of the Wash and Learn Initiative; what makes literacy programs in laundromats unique; and how librarians in Minnesota are engaging laundromat patrons through programming. Webinar attendees will walk away with a newfound understanding of how to bring learning spaces to ordinary places.

Register now for Libraries in Laundromats. Please contact Hannah Buckland (651-582-8792) if you have questions.

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!