MInnesota is looking for Minnesota E-health Advisory Committee members

The Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State today released notice of vacancies for various state boards, councils and committees that are accepting applications. Minnesotans are encouraged to apply and serve in demonstration of public service. Here are the positions that I thought might be of interest to readers…

Minnesota E-health Advisory Committee
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Academics and Research
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Community Clinics/Fed Qual. Health Centers
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Experts in Quality Improvement and Clinical Guideline Development
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Health Care Administrator
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Health Plans Representatives
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Health System Chief Information Officer
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Hospital Representatives
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Licensed Health Professionals (Physician/Nurse)
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Local Public Health
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Rotating Professionals – Additional Health Settings (Dentists, Pharmacists, Behavior Health Laboratory, Home Health, Social Services, etc)

Learn more and apply online.

Broadband as a utility. What does that mean for rural areas?

I had a few emails last week asking me about what it means to define broadband as a utility. So I thought I’d try to tackle the question, which came up after the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) meeting on broadband.

At the meeting, someone compared the drive for border to border broadband to the Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for installation of electricity to rural areas, often through cooperative electric power companies. Someone else asked if that was really what the country needed.

Here’s the catch 22 – metro areas are often angling for competition while rural and remote places are hoping for one, good solution. When visiting Minnesota last year, FCC Chairman Wheeler talked about competition being ingrained in the American psyche.

But in very rural areas, where it’s difficult to make a business case to serve so few homes in such large geographic areas, competition can be detrimental. For example, someone at the conference mentioned FirstNet as way to bring better broadband to anchor institutions in rural areas. On the one hand, it’s a great way to serve those institutions and maybe save money by allowing government entities to share connectivity. On the other hand, you risk taking away a “big” customer from a potential broadband provider who might also serve local homes and businesses. The amount they can charge the big guy offsets the cost they charge home users.

It might be easier in such a case to think of broadband as a utility. Share the connection not only with anchor institutions but local residents and businesses as well. (And there is a growing interest in using a cooperative model to provide services.)

Looking at that conundrum, there aren’t many rules or regulations that lead to an answer. Universal Service Funding (Connect American Fund) strives to fund only one provider in any given area. But recent open internet regulation promotes competition in several ways – for example striving to regulate broadband similarly regardless of platform (wired, wireless). And in practice it certainly seems that while there is often not enough business for one provider to upgrade connectivity, there’s business for two! (One example is Monticello. They have had issues but the local provider was not interested in providing fiber until the local government expressed an interest.)

In February, the FCC declared that broadband is a utility. So how does that fit in with the discussion of rural deployment? It doesn’t much. Weeks before the decision Chairman Wheeler lined out his plan

“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.”

The decision provides protections to customers. It treats wired and wireless similarly to wired broadband. One goal was to promote competition. But it really focuses on making sure that the providers offer and maintain unfettered access through broadband more than to broadband. It ensures that once online, each user shall have equal access to materials, services and each other. BUT it doesn’t as directly address the folks who can’t get online. To build on the analogy of the superhighway, it prohibits providers from creating tolls roads or privileged pay-lanes but it doesn’t push roads everywhere and it expressly does not address price. It does safeguard against the idea of an “Internet Junior” for some areas but it doesn’t promote more infrastructure.

To add more fodder for thought…

Doug Dawson makes the point today that the competition is shrinking. I don’t know if that will help promote better service in markets that are served or better access to unserved areas. I can remember discussions with the original Minnesota Task Force on broadband as a natural monopoly. They refer to one provider more than unfettered access…

Need to think of the future – we’re setting a goal to be reached in the future, not immediately. In you look out 10 years, there’s going to be 1 pipe into houses and that’s going to be fiber. The notion of building 2 mediocre networks for the sake competition is short sighted. The pipe is a natural monopoly. We need to set the goals for the future – not next year. We need to be aggressive – we need to protect consumers. Consumers have been screwed by provides for so long that we need to protect them.

No we don’t have a monopoly; it’s just not true. We have more than one pipe in the house now. There are implications in the statement that will have an impact on policy.

From the rural perspective I think communities and policymakers need to think about who and how promote access. It seems like funding helps – again at the MSBA both providers and policymakers alluded to the collaboration occurring because of the State Broadband Funds maybe a hybrid solution is best – a little bit utility, a little bit free market. BUT these issues are different than the issues addressed by the FCC in their Open Internet policy.

Update on Northeast Service Coop Middle Mile Fiber Project

The Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) recently posted a presentation that they have been giving to the project with area community leaders. It’s an nice update on what’s has happened with the project and what is planned or 2012.

A quick reminder for folks, I will borrow from NESC’s description of their project- adding that they received ARRA funding…

The Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project will make broadband services viable for a vast geographic region, creating an initial backbone that will serve hundreds of sites along 915 miles of fiber within eight counties including St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Carlton, Pine, Itasca, and Aitkin. A number of anchor institutions will participate in the Project including state and municipal agencies, the Arrowhead Library System, SISU Medical System, Minnesota Association of Mental Health Programs, and twenty-eight public school districts. Overall, the project will impact 613,092 residents, 244,574 households, thousands of businesses and governmental agencies and 35,855 public school students from across Northeast Minnesota.

And now a couple of highlights from the presentation

  • 415 miles constructed in 2011 – including the following areas – Built into communities within Carlton, Lake & St. Louis County including: Aurora, Carlton, Cloquet, Cromwell, Duluth, Ely, Thomson, Floodwood, Hermantown, Hibbing, Moose Lake, Mountain Iron, Proctor, Silver Bay, Soudan, Two Harbors, Virginia, Willow River, Wrenshall, Gilbert, Eveleth Eveleth Tower Barnum , To we r, Barnum.
  • Areas slated for constructed in 2012 – McGregor, Orr, International Falls, Cotton, Chisholm, Buhl, Keewatin, Cook, New Duluth, Gary, Biwabik, Nett Lake, Fond du Lac, North Shore Communities (Grand Marais, Grand Portage, Portage, Lutsen, Schroeder Tofte).

They also look at what is means to be connected – from a community perspective. I think the presentation is very good – even if you’re not in Northeast MN – although the possible solution they elaborate upon may not be available in other areas.

Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum Notes & Presentations

Today I attended the Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum in Duluth. The interest in broadband in the business community in Duluth is clearly high – as demonstrated by the standing room only situation in the room.

It was a nice look at all aspects of broadband of the community and a nice eye opener for folks who may not be using broadband, cloud computing or social media as often (or maybe as well) as the speakers. I think it will spur folks to go home and look at how they can implement broadband tools in work, home and community.

Below are the presentations. [Added 10/5/2011 – you can access materials from the event online too. http://www.northlandconnection.com/uploads/BroadbandNetworkForumPacket2.pdf]

(Danna used a great tool called Prezi – fun to see, great for the presentation but tougher to embed in the blog. Please click to view her presentation.)

And here are the questions, which I think are always valuable. (As fun to see what folks ask as to hear the answers.)

Continue reading

Open Internet discussion at NATOA

As a reminder – this week I am at the NATOA (National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors) Conference in San Francisco.

Interesting panel at NATOA discussion the open internet and net neutrality.  Google thinks that Net Neutrality is essential because it means that the user is in control.  Richard Bennett of ITIF says that this is easy to say, hard to regulate.  The discussion is now moving towards the new FCC rules announced yesterday.

Eagan is thinking Fiber

Well, they’re more than thinking. According to a recently posted RFP for fiber optic cabling

It is City of Eagan’s intent to obtain and own a fiber cable plant to be used for city purposes, wholesale access to telecommunications providers, or open access to telecommunications providers within the corporate limits of the City of Eagan.

They are looking for proposals by September 13, 2011. The contract will be awarded September 20 and the project should be completed by November 18. You can get all of the details on the RFP. Good luck to those who will propose!

Senators Klobuchar & Franken attend Carver County Groundbreaking

One of the best thing about being back in Minnesota is that I’m able to attend some of the fun groundbreaking events to celebrate new broadband deployment (much of it sponsored by ARRA funding). Yesterday I was able to attend the groundbreaking in Cologne, Minnesota. They were celebrating the beginning of their new fiber optic ring, which will be over 122 miles long and will connect 86 entities at 56 sites throughout Carver County, including city, county and township governments, schools, fire departments, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies.

Both Senators Franken and Klobuchar attended. I caught some video of the event…

Construction begins on the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project

It really is construction season in Minnesota – especially now that some of the ARRA-funded projects are coming to fruition. Monday we reported on construction in southern Minnesota, today it’s northern Minnesota. CivSource reports

Work begins today [July 26] on a new broadband network in Minnesota designed to connect anchor institutions like public offices, schools and libraries. The Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project is a $24 million broadband network that will provide greater access throughout the state. Enventis, a subsidiary of HickoryTech, will be managing the build out. The project will extend a middle-mile network to anchor institutions and provide public offices and agencies with a high capacity network.

Eventis started the working on the network in July in Superior, Wisconsin and will extend fiber over nearly 430 miles throughout northern Minnesota. Along with anchor institutions and public offices residents of the area will have the opportunity to subscribe to broadband access.

We wrote a little more about the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project when they received funding

Enventis Telecom – This approximately $16.8 million award, with more than $7.2 million in matching contributions, will allow Enventis Telecom to offer affordable middle-mile broadband service in Minnesota. The project plans to directly connect 70 community institutions to broadband. As many as 350,400 people stand to benefit as do 28,000 businesses. Enventis estimates that the project will create more than 250 jobs.

I’ve been paying more attention to that jobs factor lately. I’ll be eager to see how many jobs are created.

Carver County Fiber Construction RFB

Last fall, Carver County got the good news on their ARRA application – they received almost $6 million to build a fiber optic ring. According to their web site

The fiber ring will be nearly 89 miles long, run directly through all 11 cities in the county, and have an additional 32 miles of lateral connections connecting over 80 public partners. These partners represent city, county and township governments, fire departments, schools, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies as well as a regional healthcare center.

The ring is an open network, which will enable private service providers to offer broadband services on this network to homes and businesses.

The project seems to be rolling along. Last week, they issued a request for bid for the construction portion of the project. For folks who might be interested they are offering a few training/demonstration events in the next few weeks that will help. The bids are due April 5, 2011.

The Carver County Fiber web site is a wealth of information! There was one paragraph that caught my eye…

Carver County currently spends about $290,000 a year to lease T1 copper lines and will result in a 5 year payback relative to the $1.5 million in county match funds. Once the ring is complete, Carver County will realize a reduction in annual expenses and contain future costs.

Last week at the TISP meeting we heard from three counties who are working on countywide broadband. Hard numbers, like the cost of T1 lines, help me put in perspective the definition of profitable. Sometime it’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save!

Lake County Reshuffles the deck

Last night the Lake County Board of Commissioners met to discuss the Lake County Fiber project. (As you may recall Lake County received almost $70 million for a FTTH project. More recently, the have run into issues with some of the project partners.) According to the Lake County News Chronicle the Board made some big decisions last night…

Lake County could not reach agreement on a permanent contract with National Public Broadband, its consultant firm for nearly two years. The two sides battled for nearly two months and couldn’t resolve differences on bonus payments and the county’s option to fire NPB without cause and without penalty. The negotiations had bogged down work on the actual project, Commissioner Paul Bergman said, and the board wanted a fresh start.

The project is being funded by federal money approved in September and handled by the Rural Utilities Service branch of the Department of Agriculture.

Board members said it was the Rural Utilities Service that forced its hand in making changes in the approach to the fiber project, including the third surprise resolution passed by the County Board on Tuesday — authorization to use $3.5 million in public money for the project.

The decision to use public funding had to have been difficult, given they had been saying that the project would not require public financing. But it sounds as if the RUS required it. I think the public funding will help the project – there’s nothing like a little skin in the game to increase interest and motivation. Christopher Mitchell from Institute for Local Self Reliance seems to agree…

The County had long maintained that no public money would be used. However, most people will likely not care as long as the project keeps its promise to deliver fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to the community. This is the need — and people need to stay focused on achieving this goal.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The ARRA funding went to the county. So the project is still on, they are just looking to reshuffle the deck a little. Perhaps they will get a hand that better suits them in the next few weeks. This project along with fiber being in stalled in the area by Arrowhead Electric, as well as Duluth’s bid for the Google Gig and Cook County’s ongoing use of technology could really be a game changer for NE Minnesota. So I hope that Lake County will find a solution that works.

Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group Update

The Jackson County Pilot recently ran an update from the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group. As you may recall the SWMBG received an ARRA award to serve eight communities in SW Minnesota. Their project appears to be progressing nicely. According to the Jackson County Pilot…

With staking of the fiber network completed and plans and specifications currently being drawn up, the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Board turned its attention to marketing during a meeting last Thursday.

John Schultz, who is working with the SWMBG, provided me with a few more details on the latest meeting

  1. There was a long discussion on what community events and groups we should be targeting
  2. We spoke about both traditional media and on-line media to reach our perspective customer base; SMBS will be utilizing a combination of both
  3. We are on the time to go directly to the customer base-we need to alert them that the incumbents will be starting (and are already) starting to run the typical multiple year contract campaigns to lock customers into their service.
  4. Everything is on target, looking at beginning of spring construction build.

Have plan, will deploy in Australia

Thanks to Mike Horwath for the heads up – while we were eating turkey leftovers, the Australian Senate passed a bill that split Telstra’s Australia’s largest ISP separating their retail and wholesale arms.

The Age echoed many other news sources when they said…

THE national broadband network has cleared another key hurdle, after Parliament signed off on major changes designed to help consumers by splitting Telstra’s retail and wholesale arms.

The same article goes on to say that plans are in the works to block the path, while other promising to block the blocks – but a step has been taken. Ars Technica gives a brief summary of the route to deploying the national broadband plan…

The government let go of Telstra in the late 1990s. But, over the coming eight years, Australia’s taxpayers will fork over AUS$43 billion (US$38 billion) to build a “world-class broadband infrastructure.” The project will deliver fiber-to-the-home to 93 percent of all households. We’re talking open access and wholesale only. Every ISP will be able to tap into the system.

I hear people claim that the US can’t commit to ubiquitous broadband because we’re so big with so many areas of low population density. I know that size and population density matter – but I think Australia is showing that where there’s a will, there’s a way. As you may recall, access to broadband was a big issue in the elections this year. The people wanted broadband and now the government is stepping in to make it happen. Unfortunately surveys are showing the opposite in the US. Pew recently reported that more than half of Americans polled say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority. Even Blandin Foundation’s own Rural Pulse survey indicated that…

Fifty three percent of rural residents strongly agreed and 33 percent somewhat agreed that their community has adequate access to technology, with 13 percent disagreeing with that belief.

And numerous surveys have indicated that one of the top reasons people don’t have home broadband is because they don’t see a value. It’s an indicator that we need to convince people of the value of broadband – because as Australia has demonstrated – it can be (or at least is being) done.

Sibley County broadband for farms: fair or foul?

Dave Peters has a great article today about Sibley County and their conundrum about providing fiber. His article is definitely worth reading in its entirety but I’m going to borrow his succinct description of the issue…

Here are the questions: Should the county of 15,000 (18,000 if you add the neighboring town of Fairfax) create a project to serve eight small towns with Internet speed far greater than what is available now through phone and cable companies? Assume it would borrow about $34 million and have an expected breakeven in five years. Or should it build a project offering the same service to the same towns plus all the farms in the county, borrowing $61 million, finding another $2 million in equity and breaking even in seven years?

And — here’s the really interesting part for residents to tussle with — if they lay fiber to all the farms, should farmers pay more?

Chris Mitchell gave a heads up on this issue earlier this fall when he spoke about the Sibley community meetings to talk about broadband. And it is an issue that will be familiar to anyone who thinks a lot about broadband in rural areas – but just because we’ve been thinking about it doesn’t mean there’s a good answer.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of providers at the Minnesota Broadband Advisory Task Force meeting. As Dave points out – the providers in Sibley County are part of the landscape as well. In his article, Dave alludes to the Sibley project needed 70 percent of the residents to use the service. Funny enough yesterday we were talking about take rates (not in Sibley County) and we noted that a 70 percent take rate was very desirable, but perhaps not realistic, especially when there’s competition.

An Open Access model might be worth considering – where the cost of building the network could be shared. I don’t know that all providers are interested in the open access model, but some are. I know that both the State Report and National Broadband Plan encourage public-private partnerships. A definite step in the right direction is the community meetings that Sibley County is hosting in the area.

Lake County’s search for funds

The Heartland Institute recently featured Lake County’s efforts to deploy fiber in an article that ironically seems to promote letting the market lead broadband deployment. The Heartland Institute’s tagline is free market solutions, so I understand their position. It just seems as if Lake County is an interesting choice for an example community.

As the Heartland reports…

Lake County, Minnesota, is hoping for a federal grant to fund its proposed $70 million municipal broadband service—and, lacking that, will hope Google or municipal bonds will get the long-delayed project underway.

Gary Fields, CFO of Minneapolis-based National Public Broadband, a firm that facilitates municipal broadband services across the country, said in May the chances Lake County will see its project come together without local funding are uncertain.

Heartland warns of the dangers of municipalities getting involved with telecommunications projects…

Scott Testa, professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, says municipalities like Lake County, Minnesota, should rethink the idea of using taxpayers’ money to get into the broadband business.

“The idea is that these projects are supposed to promote economic growth, but municipalities have not done a very good job from a profitability standpoint,” Testa said. “When it comes to a bond issue, maybe the money could be better spent in other areas.

“If history tells us anything, it tells us that municipalities don’t do these things as well as the for-profit sector,” he added. “Cities have to hire engineers and others for these projects, whereas companies like Verizon work on them day in, day out.”

But there are a couple of reasons that I think Lake County was an interesting choice here. First, according to the Lake County Fiber web site, the county will not be building or running the network…

The County Board issued a Request for Proposals for qualified companies to build and operate the network. They selected National Public Broadband, Inc., a non-profit company comprised of a team of people who have already built and operated publicly-owned networks.

And that network will use the open access model…

Private voice, video, data and other service providers will be able to purchase wholesale access and use the networks to offer competitive services.

Also pursuing financing from taxpayers does not appear to be Plan A for Lake County…

National Public Broadband is developing financing applications for federal stimulus funding as well as other sources. No taxpayer funds will be pledged to fund the network.

Finally Lake County is pursuing public funds for the network because they are underserved, which would indicate to me that the market is not serving their needs…

This stimulus money is to help underserved areas to be able to compete with areas that already have the fiber in place. Because we are a county with a small population we decided instead of waiting Lake County would take advantage of the stimulus money and build a fiber network and have a first class informational highway.

Also the Connect Minnesota broadband coverage maps indicate that there are unserved areas in Lake County…

NESC update in Northeastern Minnesota

The Lake County New Chronicle posted an update on the Northeast Service Cooperative’s plan to bring fiber that would pass through St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Carlton, Pine, Itasca and Aitkin counties.

NSC received $43.5 million in ARRA broadband funding to expand broadband in 8 counties and more than 221 key sites, with the potential to stimulate public-private partnerships long-term across the region. They are currently in the engineering phase. As the Chronicle reports…

Representatives of the Northeast Service Cooperative told local officials on Thursday that the group is in the engineering phase of the project to bring broadband to agencies such as medical facilities, counties and schools throughout Northeastern Minnesota.

They also report that they anticipate getting started with building about a year from now. They plan is to build the network for those key sites but then to open the infrastructure up to other providers to service residents and local businesses.