How does Northern MN get broadband? Cooperatives, community and government support

Business North recently ran an article outlining some of the reasons Northern Minnesota needs broadband and some parts of do not have it.

Broadband is good for the economy…

In a recent opinion piece penned by Jordan Feyerherm of the Center for Rural Affairs, the author notes that rural regions with one to three broadband providers experience employment growth that’s more than 6 percent higher than areas that lack broadband access.

Rural broadband is expensive…

The primary driver behind the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural areas is simple economics – it costs more per customer to deliver. Broadband companies can see a rapid return on hardwire investment on a high-density street in Duluth. In a rural township, that same company might not see a profit for their efforts for decades – if ever.

Cooperatives make a difference…

“Where there are co-ops there’s broadband. Where there are incumbent providers, there’s not,” said Bernadine Joselyn, the Blandin Foundation’s director of public policy and engagement.

The Foundation has been a strong advocate for high-speed Internet expansion to rural areas through its Blandin Community Broadband Program. Now, however, Joselyn said the work has become more difficult. “What was easy to do has been done,” she said.

One of the most aggressive co-ops when it comes to broadband expansion has been Paul Bunyan. Based in Bemidji, the co-op has expanded broadband availability to a number of townships in northeastern Minnesota. Just last year, 1,200 residents of Balsam Township, a rural township in Itasca County, had broadband access for the first time.

The community needs to be ready…

Proximity to a co-op or company planning expansion is certainly key, but some communities have been more prepared to jump on board.

In a column analyzing the recently unveiled list of Border-to-Border projects, Brown noted a lack of funded projects in rural St. Louis County.

“The only project in St. Louis County is a small Mediacom expansion in Fayal Township south of Eveleth. Why was there only one small project in St. Louis County? In short, there were few projects to fund… Localities in rural St. Louis County haven’t organized the way they have in Itasca County and other places in Minnesota,” wrote Brown.

[I might step in and say that actually the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative has been active in St Louis County.)

Government support…

Programs like the state’s Border-to-Border grant initiative, for now at least, seem to be the best shot rural residents have for broadband connection. …

In late January, northern Minnesota legislators joined forces to promote an expansion of the Border-to-Border program. They’re proposing a $100 million appropriation for the broadband program. The bill’s chief authors are Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL – Hibbing, in the House and Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL – Duluth, in the Senate.

Is the hotspot check out at the St Paul Public Library in jeopardy?

A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune outlines the trials and tribulations of the mobile hotspot checkout at the St Paul Public Library…highland

The metro area so far appears slow to embrace a trend described as “huge” by the president of the American Library Association (ALA) [lending portable hot spots to library patrons ]. The firm recommended by the ALA as a source of steeply discounted portable hot spots to libraries reports that about 360 systems across the country have taken up its offer, but only one in Minnesota.

And that one, the St. Paul Public Library, is warning it may have to withdraw its units unless it can find a sustainable funding source.

The difficult debate is how to handle a resource that’s so popular…

At a time when some library systems are seeing a decline in conventional services, libraries that do offer hot spots say they are the hottest item they lend. Those libraries still on the sidelines, however, say they are leery for a number of reasons.

First, library patrons commonly endure long waits for the units. With 130 units available through the St. Paul libraries, holds can last months even though most units can be retained for only a week.

And then there’s the issue of finding a reliable funding source to buy them. Many systems offering hot spots get grants to do so, but librarians worry about being forced to yank the popular option for lack of funding after users get accustomed to it.

It’s a difficult situation. Free wifi is a good way to get broadband into low income homes – to level the playing field in the same way computers in the library does. Maybe there’s an opportunity to send the hotspot home with a brochure on local options for low cost broadband subscriptions and Lifeline support. There may be some patrons who are able and willing to pay for a connection with support. Otherwise I hope they find ways to make it work. It’s sad to have to abandon or not try a program that is so popular. Good news for St Paul Public…

The prospect of St. Paul residents continuing to borrow hot spots has improved just in the past few weeks. Funds have been found to allow the library to offer hot spots for the rest of the school year for sure, and perhaps through the end of 2017.

Hibbing is making a broadband plan – they want community input on Feb 7

Partially I share this to get folks in Hibbing informed and excited about an upcoming community meeting on broadband; partially I think it’s a great model for other communities. Hibbing is part of the IRBC cohort (described below) but that doesn’t mean communities outside the cohort can’t emulate what they are doing to get citizens engaged and moving on broadband.

The Hibbing Daily Tribune outlines the story…

Hibbing is among six communities in Blandin Foundation’s current cohort of Iron Range Broadband Communities. The intensive, two-year partnership with the foundation is based on advancing local broadband initiatives.

The communities’ efforts are also being backed by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) and St. Louis County, both of which have committed additional resources and funding.

With this designation, the communities will have the opportunity to access up to $75,000 for training, planning and programs, as well as access up to $20,000 for broadband infrastructure planning.

The opportunity…

The Hibbing cohort will do that at a Broadband Community Vision Session from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the Hibbing Community College (HCC) dining room. The session is open to the public, but an RSVP is required. …

The vision session will include a short presentation on the overall project and its current state. After gathering feedback, attendees will be broken down into smaller groups based on areas of interest.

“We have about 50 people planning to attend so far,” said Fedo, while highly encouraging RSVPing. “We really want the various sectors of the community to be represented.”

Once priorities and potential projects are identified, the cohort will have a handful of opportunities over an 18-month time period to apply for grants that help meet those priorities.

Digital Inclusion is more than access – it’s about use, especially with youth

The World Economic Forum reports..

[A] new research from the OECD, which found that richer teenagers were more likely to use the internet to search for information or to read news rather than to chat or play video games.

The report, based on data from more than 40 countries, concludes that even when all teenagers, rich and poor, have equal access to the internet, a “digital divide” remains in how they use technology.

There’s a misgiving that “digital natives” know how to use technology to do homework, to get jobs, succeed on the job, to do anything. Unfortunately, knowing the technology doesn’t mean you know strategy.

I do training with all ages on how to use social media. Training with non-youth (certainly 40+) is often about the logistics of using tools (Twitter, Instagram…) such as tagging or when to post. Training with youth is much more about strategy – how to define a purpose and then use the tools to meet that need.

A very simple example: my kids can use Instagram but they are terrible with Google Maps because they don’t drive. They don’t read maps. They have limited experience being responsible for directions. That is something they must learn – as they must learn how to do homework, get a job or keep a job. The OECD report makes a similar conclusion…

While the report acknowledges efforts to close gaps in internet access, it argues that developing all young people’s literacy skills would help to reduce digital inequality.

“Ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than will expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services,” it says.

Kids need to learn. Unfortunately technology without the power to use it runs the risk of deepening the digital divide. Unfocused technology can be distracting – while focused technology pushes the user farther header, faster.

NDIA webinar set for Feb. 7: “Digital Inclusion Data 101”

I am very excited about this webinar – it will help practitioners better use data to advocate for digital inclusion…

NDIA Webinar Set For Feb. 7: “Digital Inclusion Data 101”

On Tuesday, February 7, NDIA will hold a webinar to introduce digital inclusion practitioners and advocates to available Federal data that can be used to analyze the state of digital inclusion at the local community level.

The hour-long webinar, scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern time, is called “Digital Inclusion Data 101: Using available Census and FCC data to document digital divides in your community.”

It will be led by Bill Callahan of Cleveland’s Connect Your Community (who also serves as NDIA’s Policy and Research Coordinator) and Dr. Roberto Gallardo, who leads the Intelligent Community Institute of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Save the date!

Digital Inclusion Data 101: Using available Census and FCC data to document digital divides in your community
Tuesday, February 7     3 to 4 pm Eastern (No RSVP required)

Lifeline Broadband Update Webinar Feb 21

Promises to be a good discussion from NDIA (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)…

The addition of broadband service to Lifeline occurred in December.  NDIA affiliates spend a lot of time and energy  searching for and keeping track of low-cost broadband offers for their community members.  We are at the very early stages of implementation of the new Lifeline program and this webinar is a check-in for where we are now and the current trajectory for the modernization changes.

Save the date now for a conversation about Lifeline broadband featuring Olivia Wein, attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

This special NDIA webinar  will take place…

February 21, 2017
1:00-2:00 Eastern

No RSVP is required.

I’ll set the stage with an update on low-cost broadband offers available, how the different offers were mandated, and how you can find information on the offers.  Olivia will discuss:

  • Which ISPs must offer a Lifeline broadband service? How does one determine if an ISP has a Lifeline obligation and in what geographic regions must they provide service?
  • Who else can be a Lifeline Broadband Provider?
  • What are the minimum service standards for wireless and wireline providers?
  • How does one apply for Lifeline? What is the current process for signing up and how will that change when the verification platform is live? What are the timelines for the new enrollment process?

Please join us for this important discussion!

New Pew Report: tracking the rise of technology use from 2000 to 2016

It’s interesting to see the trajectories of use of technologies in the last 15 years in Pew’s latest report on technology use. The graph below really spells most of it out…


The report also highlights four observations…

  1. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone
  2. After a modest decline between 2013 and 2015, the share of Americans with broadband service at home increased by 6 percentage points in 2016.
  3. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans now use social media.
  4. Half the public now owns a tablet computer.

One caveat to the broadband statistics is that they don’t use a speed to define broadband. When asked about the speed of broadband, this was their response…

1. And our definition of broadband users is not based on connection speed—we’ve tried to ask that question in the past, but found that the vast majority of our respondents were not able to even guess what the speed of their internet service is.
Instead, we define broadband users by simply asking them for the type of connection they have. That question has changed somewhat over time, but our most recent version is phrased as follows: “Do you subscribe to dial-up internet service at home… OR do you subscribe to a higher-speed broadband service such as DSL, cable, or fiber optic service?”