Overview of rural broadband program for MN Agriculture and Rural Development and Housing Finance

Yesterday the Agriculture and Rural Development and Housing Finance learned about Minnesota’s rural broadband program from Danna Mackenzie at the Office of Broadband Development, Anna Boroff, Minnesota Cable Association, Brent Christensen, Minnesota Telcom Alliance and Nancy Hoffman with Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. The Agriculture and Rural Development and Housing Finance will be discussing broadband this year

You can listen to the meeting : http://mnsenate.granicus.com/player/clip/3122?view_id=2

Danna Mackenzie at the Office of Broadband Development

  • The state has been working on broadband since before 2008
  • The policies and programs have been iterative as we have learned
  • Four strong components:
    • Speed goals (set in 2010)
    • Mapping – to measure success
    • Office of Broadband Development – esp in DEED
    • State funding
  • The state is seeing success but some counties still need help. Four counties have less than 50 percent (Aitkin, Fillmore, Pine and Yellow Medicine) access to 25/3 access. We may need new strategies to fix this. There are feasibility studies and/or proposals for improvement in three of those counties)
  • Much talk about the maps

Question from Kari Dziedzic: When you talk about 100 percent of household have access – are you looking at affordability?
Right now we only talk about availability from at least one option. We do have resources to track affordability

Question: Do you know which schools don’t have access?
I can get the list. There’s an area in the West Central part of the state. The other school is northwest angle.

  • We now track gigabit access too

Question: What kind of investment do we need to make – wires or equipment?
The program is tech neutral so we don’t have a specific answer. But we seem to fund a range that includes equipment, tower, wires…

  • We launched a speed test for the state to track consumer experience. We have about 6,000 tests but that’s not enough to draw conclusions

Question: DO some people ask for less than 50 percent match?
Applications get extra points if they are able to match more than 50 percent

  • People often ask how state and federal funding works together. We do use maps of federal funding to make decisions. We don’t go into areas that are working on enhancements but we have partnered with new projects to increase speeds of federally funded projects

Question: IN regards to feds, do you have info on how much they have spent or houses reached or miles built?
I don’t have that info today. There are multiple streams of funding.

Question: How much does it cost to cover a township?
It depends on the type of technology.

Question: How much to cover the state?
The Broadband Task Force came up with a number to serve 25/3 – not 100/200 but the number $35 million annual until goal is met.

Question: In early days we had communities that were being undersserved? Have we tightened that up? (Have we called people on their challenges?)
We are aware of those concerns. The state policy prioritizes the unserved versus underserved.

Brent Christensen, Minnesota Telecom Alliance

  • Representing 44 providers
  • I wasn’t a fan of the grants when first introduced; but I was wrong. The Office has done a great job of helping providers – such as with MNDOT permitting. They were slow but we’re getting them expedited.
  • People recognize our success in other states. Many other states are using the MN model or looking at them. But of the success is focusing on unserved.
  • The grant have formed unusual partnerships. Such as – Big Stone County…

Question: Is fixed wireless a way to serve farms and rural areas?

  • Broadband is like a water pipe. Broadband is the pipe and internet is the water.
  • We use the cloud now – much like the mainframe environment back in the day.
  • Byte is 2-3 paragraphs of text…
  • Broadband is measured in the amount of data delivered per second
  • We want to get the internet to grow faster
  • 25 Mbps Download / 3 Mbps Upload
  • Defining broadband is a moving target; it has been redefined on a regular basis

Question: Why 25 down and 3 up? Why is it slower to upload?
The internet was original built on telephone network. Then there was more of a need to download than upload. SO they focused on download – because the telephone lines were only so big. As we transition to fixed wireless and fiber that is less of an issue.

  • What technologies are out there
    • Telephone companies – first put on telephone lines / started with dalipup to DSL to FTTH. The closer we can get people to fiber, the faster the connection. Many built fiber to the node and are now closing that gap.
    • Cable put it on cable lines / They have creted hybrid solutions and will do FTTH
    • IN the last 12 years – wireless has emerged – but really wireless connections are wired until it goes from tower to your phone.
    • Fixed wireless – will put up an antenna at your house and connect to that.
    • Satellite – uses a dish that pushes connection from home to satellite and back

Question: so the object is to get fiber as close to the house as possible? How fast is copper?
Copper will maintain 4060 Mbps down to 4500 feet

Question: Do you track how much goes to telecom vs cable vs wireless?
I can tell you who has recevedi what funding but not how many customers?

Questions: I see gaps in the maps. Are you worried about those gaps?
Yes. I belive broadband will get just about everywhere. But there are pocket, where you just can’t make a business care to make it happen and that’s where the grant program makes a real difference. It helps us get to the corners. We won’t need state support forever; how long we need it depends on how mcuh you invest per year. We only ever got to 98 percent phone coverage. We now have a way to maximize federal funding with state match.

Question: What is it like to work with the counties?
It’s all  over the map. You need to find a local unit of government to support broadband but it can happen at county or township level – such as Sunrise Township.

Question: What do you do when part of a community are not served? Does that make it more expensive?
It’s cheaper to extend an existing network than build an entirely new network.

Question: Can we get a workshop for potential grant applicants? Do they need a provider?
We do run workshops at the beginning of every cycle. There’s not requirement that a community have a provider in mind when they come into the workshops. Many do have a provider or the provider is taking the lead but the program is open to all. We offer assistance.

Anna Boroff, Minnesota Cable Assocaition

  • All major cable companies and serve almost 1 million households
  • We appreciate the Office of Broadband Development
  • We have invested $1 billion in broadband since 2011
  • Many cable companies have gig access – Mediacom serves many rural areas
  • There are areas where you can’t make a business case to serve broadband; grants have helped members serve these areas
  • Counterparts in other states are envious of the Minnesota model
  • We thinking spending money in unserved areas is important
  • CAF 2 – Midco received funds to expend fixed wireless service – they are getting 100/20 speeds
  • Adoption is an issue; members have programs to help make broadband affordable to low income customers

Question: More people choose to not get broadband than don’t have access?
Yes more choose not to get access – maybe due to affordability or other reasons

Nancy Hoffman, Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition

  • We have more than 70 members
  • Our priorities are
    • Base funding for the grants in DEED
    • Continue to support the Office of Broadband Development
    • Re-establish a MN Broadband Task Force
    • Funding grants at $70 million per biennium

Timberjay editorial asks legislators to make broadband a priority

Serving Northern St. Luois County, the Timberjay ran an editorial yesterday promoting legislative attention on broadband…

With the Legislature now in session, improving telecommunications in rural Minnesota should be near the top of the to-do list for lawmakers. As legislators continue to grapple with how to bring reliable, high-speed Internet access to less-populated parts of the state, they must recognize that the lack of investment by regulated providers, like Frontier Communications or CenturyLink, is currently the biggest hurdle to achieving widespread broadband access.

The Department of Commerce highlighted the challenge earlier this month when it released the results of a months-long investigation into the quality of Frontier’s service to the roughly 100,000 households it serves in the state, including many here in northeastern Minnesota.

They highlight first hand experience with Frontier to make the case that local providers may be better positioned to provide local service…

If the big corporate providers like Frontier and CenturyLink aren’t willing to do the job, both legislators and state regulators need to start clearing the way for alternatives. They need to develop financial incentives that make it possible for smaller local companies, or locally-based cooperatives, like Bemidji-based Paul Bunyan, to extend their services into communities that the big corporate providers would just as soon ignore. We’re already seeing interest from alternative providers, such as Jackson-based BackForty Wireless, which recently installed a wireless service in Orr. Brainerd-based Consolidated Telecommunications Company has also been exploring possibilities in Tower and Ely.

Unlike the big corporate providers, locally-based companies are generally far more responsive to outages and questions from users. The cooperative Paul Bunyan has an excellent reputation for customer service in the communities it serves. And when you have a problem, you can quickly get a live person on the phone who actually speaks Minnesotan.

The bottom line is this: the technology exists to bring high-speed communications to even the smallest of our area communities. The big corporate providers, however, appear unwilling to make the investments to bring these technologies to our area. If they won’t do it, the Legislature and state regulators should clear the way for others to serve rural parts of the state. We’ve waited long enough.

Red Wing Ignite Ag Tech Challenge Final Pitch: One word – robotics

Last night I attended a fun event at Red Wing Ignite. It featured a few experts in the ag tech (aka food tech) field and three presentations from entrepreneurs looking to get a start (of $10,000) to explore a future for their tech ideas.

I don’t have line-by-line notes as I often do but I walked away with some general impressions.

Brett Brohl, from Techstars Farm to Fork, pointed out that farmers generally have about 35 chances (seasons/years) to make money in their career. So while they are always interested in technology and how to farm better, they want to see solutions with a proven ROI. When Brohl looks at investing, he looks at the team and diversity in team (inventor, marketer, business versus 3 investors) more than any one project idea. Brian Carroll, from Emerging Prairie, talked about creating community assets to spur ag technology – including makerspaces, business accelerators and building 21st century skills.

The set the stage for learning about three projects that were finalists for the fabulous prize:

  • Drainage Monitoring and Control – The goal of the project is to significantly reduce sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural fields by implementing a monitoring and control system that can respond in real time to rain and soil conditions.
  • Robotic Sod Farm Weeder – Robotic weed pickers can be used to reduce/eliminate herbicide use on farms. Sod farms provide an easy landscape for robotic weed picker deployments.
  • Poultry Patrol – A semi-autonomous robotic system to assist in poultry farm tasks like detecting dead birds, training birds to lay eggs in the correct place, disinfecting feces, turning soil, retrieving eggs, and giving the grower an inside camera view wherever they are.

Robotics are certainly emerging. In the food industry, they are reducing the pain of labor shortages and safety concerns. As someone said, last night, robots don’t forget to wash their hands and of course you don’t have to worry about injury to a robot in the same way you do a human. Some of what we saw last night was the sweet spot for robots doing mindless chores – the kind that for me might cause inattention and accident. One of the issues right now is making the robots more affordable.

I could see in the beauty of a place like Red Wing Ignite – where techies can meet farmers and others on the frontlines. Farmers know the needs and potential for ROI; techies know what can robots do and what they can’t.

Ubiquitous, serious broadband is a long term game – but short term wins help

MinnPost has an article that does a nice job summarizing the broadband and broadband policy situation in Minnesota. MinnPost reports…

Now a group of DFL and Republican lawmakers are pushing to narrow that broadband gap by injecting $70 million over the next two years into a grant program for internet projects. But while the new money would keep Minnesota on track to meet one of its broadband access goals by 2022, the state has a long and expensive road ahead to reach a more ambitious pledge — to bring much faster universal internet to the state by 2026, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the state’s Office of Broadband Development.

“We absolutely will be celebrating that we’ve done something that I don’t think too many other states have done,” MacKenzie said about the prospect of reaching the state’s 2022 goal. “But at the same time, no, we aren’t necessarily done yet.”

It’s a realistic look at what it takes to keep up with broadband. It feels like a moving target because it is. And it can be expensive for the private sector to take it all on…

The biggest obstacle to high-speed internet outside of large cities has always been money. In remote areas, it’s expensive to build infrastructure, and there are fewer potential customers to offset the costs.

Justin Forde, the senior director of government relations for Midco, a Midwestern telecom company, said there can be a “tremendous” price tag for running wireline internet services, such as fiber-based broadband or digital subscriber lines (DSL), to rural houses and businesses.

“It’s tough to do that with only private capital because the return isn’t there for some of these last-reach spots,” he said.

Providers need help and the fund would help cover some of those costs…

MacKenzie said there isn’t an estimate for how much it will cost to reach the 2026 goal for now, partially because it’s difficult to forecast what will happen with federal and private dollars in the future. But she stressed that the state will not be finished working on broadband once it reaches the lower speeds of the 2022 goal.

“I want to be a little bit careful about not establishing the expectation that 2022 is a hard stop and we’re done,” MacKenzie said. “And I know that a lot of people are anxious to find that ‘when do we get to say we’re done’ and, and to be frank, we live in a world that’s constantly changing and it’s not clear when we’re going to be done. But we are making what I think is significant progress.”

But it looks like it’s a topic of interest to policymakers…

For now, Ecklund said the fight at the Legislature will likely be about how much money to give the broadband program. But he said the slow internet service hits close to home, affecting his neighbors, local businesses and even his own house: Rob and his wife, Joan, cannot each have a laptop on the internet at the same time “because neither one of us will get service. In a nutshell, that’s why I’m pushing it.

Growth & Justice unveils Policy Priorities: Broadband make top 11 list

On Monday, Growth & Justice and One Minnesota held press conferences in St Paul and St Cloud where we unveiled the One Minnesota Equity Blueprint Policy Priorities. In the last year, they met in large and small groups to talk about Minnesota’s top priorities shared by rural, urban and suburban Minnesota. They started with more than 600 ideas and have culled it, at this point to the following 11 top priorities:

  1. Democracy and Civic Health
  2. Economic Development
  3. Climate Action and Environment
  4. Infrastructure, Transportation and Transit
  5. Health Care
  6. Education, Early Childhood Through Post-Secondary
  7. Broadband & Digital Inclusion
  8. Housing
  9. Immigration
  10. Criminal Justice Reform
  11. Taxes, Budgets and Investments

Here’s what they recommendation for broadband…

Broadband & Digital Inclusion Problems: More than a half-million Minnesotans still lack access to a wired connection capable of very minimal upload and download speeds. They are located primarily in rural Minnesota but low income people in metro areas are underserved as well. The lack of optimum connectivity to the national and global economy is a major barrier to equal opportunity and economic development in an increasingly digital world.


  • Align public policies with the principle that internet connectivity has become essential to individual and economic competitiveness and should be considered a public necessity, regulated and provided in same manner as electricity, energy and transportation and health care.

  • Provide on-going biennial funding of the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program until the state achieves its broadband speed goals. Extend grant period to multi-year grants for improved planning and deployment.

  • Provide direct funding for broadband mapping. Add data collection and mapping related to home broadband affordability, the broadband adoption rates of low-income households, and the digital redlining of urban neighborhoods. Develop an inventory for best management practices (BMP) for broadband and deployment of broadband service in rural, sparsely populated areas, in high-cost regions, and in under-resourced urban neighborhoods.

Links: Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, Minnesota Governor’s Broadband Task Force,

I noted that one of the reporters at the St Paul meeting was quick to ask specifically about rural broadband. (That’s where the video below picks up.)

Opportunities for Bipartisan Tech Policy: Notes and Video

Earlier today the Blandin Foundation hosted a local viewing of Opportunities for Bipartisan Tech Policy, hosted by Next Century Cities in DC. You can watch the program yourself….

It was an interesting discussion. The spoke primarily on Rural broadband, privacy and security and spectrum and 5G. I took pretty loose notes and I’ll start with Rural Broadband. The general consensus is that it costs more money than you can make back to deploy broadband in high cost areas. That is compounded by misunderstanding that rural citizens can make do with lower speeds and higher costs than their urban counterparts when it comes to broadband. There also a divide in the provider community. Larger, national providers seem less interested in improvements in rural areas that local solutions.

There were some suggestions to help correct the problems:

  • Break down supply chain to consumer and figure out how to bring down cost
  • Make sure everyone in an area has access – there is no law saying a provider needs a service (universal service mandate)
  • We have done this with energy with smart grid – should we focus on interconnection rather than just a network?

Data and security seems like a cat’s out of the bag situation. Everyone agrees there’s a problem. There’s a problem that effects individuals and society as a whole. Some people seem reticent to work on solutions to technology that’s ever changing and there needs to be greater recognition that privacy isn’t free. Many websites and online tools are “free” but what we give up is personal data. If we can keep personal data safe, we may pay for more services. Also a good note on the blurring between sensitive and non-sensitive data. As big data goes granular information that seems non-sensitive becomes more sensitive.

There were some suggestion on how to move forward with low hanging fruit in privacy?

  • Lack of strong enforcement
  • Lack of enforcement with sharper teeth
  • Lack of technical expertise with enforcers

What does congress need to learn?

  • Need to know more about third party vendors who don’t need to get consent (when people give/sell your data)
  • Need to look into the cost of cutting off some streams of revenue (the price of a free website)

When it comes to technology we need to look at what technologies are converging and where the funding should go – both in terms of to which technologies but also whether the public or private sectors can better manage ubiquitous deployments and upgrades.

MN Broadband funding needs to be in base budget

KXRA’s Voice of Alexandria reports…

Advocates are asking state lawmakers for 35 million dollars a year to expand broadband Internet access in rural Minnesota.

Bills have already been introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate. Judy Erickson with the Rural Broadband Coalition says it needs to be in the base budget instead of one-time money like in the past. Erickson said, “It’s difficult to plan a large project if you don’t know if there’ll be money next year.” The 20 million dollars appropriated last year was in a budget bill vetoed by then-Governor Mark Dayton over disagreements with the Republican-controlled legislature.