Who are top 10 MN Counties for Broadband Ranking? And why?

Last week I posted MN Broadband Profiles for each county. Today I want to dig into the those reports to see if we can find some trends in the top counties.

Here we’ll look at the top ranked MN Counties for speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up (100/20), the MN broadband speed goal for 2026:

100/20 speeds 2019 Rank 2019 Change in Rank Blandin* MN grant 2019 apps HH Density
Rock 99.93 1 0 y 2 0 8.1
Ramsey 99.84 2 0 na 0 0 1191.3
Swift 99.60 3 38 y 2 1 5.6
Hennepin 98.94 4 -1 na 1 2 784.3
Big Stone 98.91 5 -1 y 1 0 4.3
Beltrami 98.79 6 2 N 0 0 5.5
Dakota 97.56 7 33 N 0 1 258.9
Anoka 97.45 8 -3 N 1 0 271.7
Lac qui Parle 97.35 9 -3 Y 2 0 4.1
Stevens 96.74 10 -3 y 2 0 6.5

*Blandin Foundation only works with rural communities, which eliminates Ramsey and Hennepin (and probably other portions of the 7-county metro area but I’ve only eliminated these two).

Drawing from the top-ranking MN counties, household density helps get a county served. But lower population density isn’t a requirement. All of the counties with lower population densities that are well positioned to meet the 2026 goals have a provider that is a cooperative or publicly owned. Government funding and community support was also an essential ingredient for many of these top ranking counties.

Here are some fast facts about the top counties:

  • 4 are in top household density ranking (Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Dakota)
  • 4 are in the bottom 24 household density ranking (Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Beltrami, Swift)
  • 7 have benefitted from MN broadband grants
  • 2 counties have moved ranking 30 spaces in the last year (the rest have been battling for top rank)
  • 5 (out of possible 8) have worked with the Blandin Foundation

Household Density

Household density is a big factor when deploying wireline broadband. You pay per mile for the wire (or fiber as the case is for future-looking networks) and you pay to dig the trench, to pull the wire; so the longer the distance, the more you pay. Then once the network is built, there aren’t as many customers to serve. And providing technical support can be more difficult when there are greater distances between customers. So, it’s difficult to recoup cost and make a profit.

In the counties with the highest household density (Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Dakota) it is easier to make a profit and develop a business case to build the best broadband you can sell.

But if household density were the only issue, then there would be an inverse correlation between ranking and density. Yet, the remaining six counties have a household density below 10 houses per square mile.

So how did they overcome lower population densities? There are some commonalities:

  • All have cooperative broadband providers in their area
  • Five have received government support to upgrade their services
    • Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Rock, and Swift received MN broadband grants
    • Lac qui Parle received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding
  • Five of the Six communities have worked with the Blandin Foundation in a formal way.

Cooperatives work in these areas because they are created to support their members (the communities) and they expect and are comfortable with a slower return on investment than commercial entities. Generally, there are other providers there too, but each has a coop covering at least part of the county.

Public Funding

Seven of the counties have received public funding, as outlined to some degree above. The counties that haven’t received funding are: Ramsey, Dakota and Beltrami. Ramsey, as already noted has the highest household density. Beltrami is home to Paul Bunyan Communications; they have invested in their community. Dakota County is one of the most populated counties and the county itself has been investing in middle mile infrastructure for years. So for two of these communities, investment has been made, it just hasn’t come from state grants or large federal financing.

Looking at Swift County may be illustrative. Their ranking increased from 41 to 3 in the last year. Their coverage when from 31 percent in 2017 to 64 percent in 2018 and 99.6 percent today. In 2015, Federated (ACRIA) received almost $5 million from the state to build a network in Swift County. It seems likely that we are seeing the impact of that network completion.

In 2017, Blandin released a report on the community return on public investment in broadband. One statistic indicated that a home with broadband reaped an added $1850 economic benefit annually. Looking at the Top 10 MN Counties, it seems that public investment also gets these networks built.

Community Support

We gauged community support by tracking counties that have worked with Blandin Foundation. There are other ways to boost a county but this was an easy measure to track. Five of the possible eight counties had worked with Blandin.

Blandin has provided guidance to these counties either in the form of broadband coaching and grants for broadband adoption projects or in supporting a feasibility study. The programming and support is valuable but at the end of each cohort or project I have heard people say that the most valuable outcome was stronger communities relationships.

Community support is important because providers want to work with communities that can help provide information or share some of the work. And in Minnesota, the Office of Broadband Development wants to award grants to area where there is community support. For the community, it helps them work together to meet a goal.

Yellow Medicine ranks 78 (out of 87) for broadband speeds of 100/20: code red

Yellow Medicine is not poised to meet the broadband speed goals for either 2022 or 2026 but they created a project for a grant application in the last round. It wasn’t funded, but that sets the stage for engagement later.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 38.86 37.72 19.28
25/3 (2022 goal) 68.31 46.91 20.42

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Yellow Medicine County has benefited from broadband grants:

  • 2016 – MIDCO CANBY TO MARSHALL MIDDLE MILE AND LAST MILE – GRANT AMOUNT: $623,000
    Serving 1029 unserved households, 29 unserved businesses, and 11 unserved community institutions in and around the towns of Porter, Taunton, Minneota, Ghent, and Canby, between Canby and Marshall in Yellow Medicine and Lyon with service levels in the project area to 200 Mbps down by 20 Mbps up..
  • 2015 – MVTV Wireless Middle Mile
    Grant award: $808,080
    This project is a Middle Mile broadband infrastructure buildout to upgrade backhaul capacity between site locations within 20 southwestern Minnesota counties: Blue Earth, Chippewa, Cottonwood, Jackson, Kandiyohi, Lac Qui Parle, Lincoln, Lyon, Meeker, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Rock, Redwood, Renville, Sibley Swift, Watonwan, and Yellow Medicine.

Yellow Medicine is getting almost $2 million in FCC funding but that is over the next 10 years.

In 2018, Yellow Medicine released a Blandin Foundation-supported feasibility study

It does not look to be economically feasible to immediately build fiber everywhere without significant grant funding. … The scenarios that mix fiber and wireless technology look feasible. The scenarios can work even without grant funding, but some level of grant funding make the scenarios safer for an investor.

There was game changing possibility:

We note that as this report was being written that the county announced a tentative agreement with Farmers Mutual Cooperative to bring fiber to a significant portion of the county. The county has agreed to provide $4 million in funding subject to the Cooperative being able to find grants and other funding needed to build the project. If completed this project would cover a little less than half of the parts of the county that don’t have broadband today.

In December 2019, the Yellow Medicine County Board talked about the need to step “up effort to expand broadband Internet service to rural counties.”

They did not get that funding but having a feasibility study in place and a relationship with providers that will help them get to the speed goals, despite current numbers.

Yellow Medicine County could benefit from future grants. In 2019, Woodstock and Midco applied to upgrade service in Yellow Medicine. (That doesn’t mean they will get the grant; they have only applied.)

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 78 (down from 69)
  • 25/3 ranking: 77
  • Has worked with Blandin
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant
  • Household density: 5.6
  • Number of providers: 7

Details:

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Wright County ranks 33 (out of 87) for broadband speeds of 100/20: code red

Wright County is not poised to meet the MN broadband goals for either 2022 or 2026. They need to renew interest in broadband to meet those goals.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 81.02 80.61 29.26
25/3 (2022 goal) 91.07 87.89 81.17

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Wright County has benefited from a broadband grant:

  • 2017 – Midco (Midcontinent Communications) – Annandale East – GRANT $537,050
    Serving 40 unserved households, and 531 underserved households and 7 underserved businesses, in the area northeast of Annandale near Bass Lake and Clearwater Lake in Wright County with service levels to up to 1 Gbps.

Wright County is home to Monticello, one of the famous   municipal broadband networks. Monticello built their own fiber network – but in process the incumbent also built a fiber network and even sued the city. It looks like Monticello is continuing to bring in competition and looking at the numbers the providers are reaching outside the city limits.

To reach the MN broadband speed goals, Wright County will need to build a momentum, work with providers to expand and upgrade service.

Wright County could benefit from future grants. In 2019, Bridgewater and Winsted applied to upgrade service in Wright. (That doesn’t mean they will get the grant; they have only applied.)

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 33 (down from 21)
  • 25/3 ranking: 33
  • Has worked with Blandin: yes
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant: yes
  • Household density: 62.2
  • Number of providers: 13

Details:

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Winona County ranks 24 (out of 87) for broadband speeds of 100/20: code red

Winona County is not poised to meet the broadband speed goals for either 2022 or 2026 unless they build a momentum comparable to the momentum they had 20 years ago.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
Winona 2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 86.43 86.31 81.17
25/3 (2022 goal) 86.56 86.48 92.13

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Winona has benefited from several broadband grants:

  • 2016 – WINONA COUNTY PICKWICK AREA – GRANT: $416,640
    Serving 88 unserved households, 89 unserved businesses, 2 unserved community anchor institutions, and 23 underserved households and 23 underserved businesses within Wilson, Homer, Richmond, Pleasant Hill, and Wiscoy Townships in Winona County with service levels to 1 Gigabit speed.
  • 2015 – Hiawatha Broadband Communications – Winona County Whitewater Area
    Grant Award: $247,000
    Serving 418 passings including 135 households, 70 businesses and 5 community anchor institutions in in Elba and Norton Townships including Whitewater State Park.
  • 2015 – Winona County Hiawatha Broadband Communications – Cedar Valley Area
    Grant award: $314,450
    Serving 256 households, 117 businesses and 3 community anchor institutions in area lies south and west of Winona from Hwy 61 along the Mississippi River to I-90.

Winona County was part of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) starting in 2010, a Blandin-led and federal (ARRA) funded digital inclusion project. So there has been a focus on broadband for a decade. In fact, Winona is the home of Luminet, a early broadband provider that eventually because Hiawatha Broadband and then Schurz Communications.

Unfortunately, Winona has not kept pace. They need to build a momentum to get them on track to meet the speed goals.

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 24 (down from 15)
  • 25/3 ranking: 41
  • Has worked with Blandin: yes
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant: yes
  • Household density: 30.4
  • Number of providers: 14

Details:

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Wilkin County ranks 34 (out of 87) for broadband access speeds of 100/20: code red

Wilkin County is not poised to meet the speed goals for either 2022 or 2026. Their numbers looked OK a few years ago, but they have not improved; they need to build a momentum.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
Wilkin 2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 80.84 82.08 80.84
25/3 (2022 goal) 88.01 86.53 80.84

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Wilkin has benefited from a state broadband grant:

  • 2017 – Advantenon – Rural Grant, Stevens and Wilkin Counties – Grant $316,554
    Serving 528 unserved households, 132 unserved businesses, and 8 unserved community anchor institutions in Rural Grant, Stevens and Wilkin Counties with service levels to 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload.

Wilkin County needs to jumpstart a focus on broadband; it seems like that might happen. Sen. Torrey Westrom and Rep. Jeff Backer  held a town hall meeting in February 2019 to talk about broadband. In summer of 2019, the Wilkin County Commissioner Dennis Larson advocated for legislative funding for broadband.

Now they need to extend that enthusiasm into action working with providers to extend better broadband throughout the county.

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 34 (down from 20)
  • 25/3 ranking: 38
  • Has worked with Blandin: no
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant: yes
  • Household density: 3.6
  • Number of providers: 8

Details:

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Watonwan County ranks 58 (out of 87) for broadband speeds of 100/20: code red

Watonwan County is not primed to meet MN broadband speed goals for 2022 or 2026.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
Watonwan 2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 67.75 68.42 64.58
25/3 (2022 goal) 79.21 70.70 65.26

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Watonwan County has benefited from several state grants:

  • 2017 – New Ulm Telecom, Inc. – Hanska A&D FTTP – GRANT $324,894
    Serving 9 unserved households and 38 unserved businesses in the Hanska area south of New Ulm near the border of Brown and Watonwan Counties with service levels to 1 Gbps.
  • 2016 – NEW ULM TELECOM, INC. HANSKA – GRANT: $ 200,397
    Serving 14 unserved households and 32 unserved businesses in Lake Hanska Township in Brown County and Riverdale Township in Watonwan County.
  • 2015 – MVTV Wireless Middle Mile
    Grant award: $808,080
    This project is a Middle Mile broadband infrastructure buildout to upgrade backhaul capacity between site locations within 20 southwestern Minnesota counties: Blue Earth, Chippewa, Cottonwood, Jackson, Kandiyohi, Lac Qui Parle, Lincoln, Lyon, Meeker, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Rock, Redwood, Renville, Sibley Swift, Watonwan, and Yellow Medicine.

Watonwan needs help to reach the speed goals. In November 2018, SDN announced two broadband partners to its Minnesota network, which will improve business broadband reach into two counties of that state – Nobles and Watonwan. That should help it.

In September 2019, Senator Smith visited Watonwan County to learn about the state of rural broadband.

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 58 (down from 34)
  • 25/3 ranking: 60
  • Has worked with Blandin: yes
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant: yes
  • Household density: 10.3
  • Number of providers: 8

Details:

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Washington County ranks 12 (out of 87) for broadband speeds of 100/20: code green

Washington County is poised to meet the state speed goals for 2022 and 2026; but they will need to make a concerted effort to get there.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
Washington 2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 95.80 96.10 94.97
25/3 (2022 goal) 98.44 97.21 96.52

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Washington County has some metro areas and some rural areas. Unlike some of the more rural counties there is a business case for providers to come into the Washington County market. They are also fortunate in that they have been part of multi-county government networks led by Dakota County that provides a middle mile base from which other providers can build.

Washington County could benefit from future grants. In 2019, Midco applied to upgrade service in Washington. (That doesn’t mean they will get the grant; they have only applied.)

Checklist:

  • 100/20 ranking: 12 (down from 9)
  • 25/3 ranking: 13
  • Has worked with Blandin: yes
  • Has received a MN Broadband grant: no
  • Household density: 207.8
  • Number of providers: 12

Details:

  • Find more articles on broadband in Washington County (http://tinyurl.com/z4dwzyy)
  • Districts: CD 2, 4, 6
    Senate: 38, 39, 43, 53, 54
    House: 38A, 38B, 39A, 39B, 43A, 43B, 53A, 53B, 54A, 54B
  • Find your reps

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)