Senator Smith checks out broadband in Madelia (Watonwan County)

The Madelia Times Messenger reports on a recent visit from Senator Tina Smith…

Brent Christensen from Christensen Communications Company and Karla Angus, Madelia Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, were Smith’s hosts for the afternoon and brought the senator through Madelia’s downtown. They filled her in on the town’s history, talked about the many thriving businesses in Madelia’s downtown – as well as throughout the community – and explained what is being done here to expand broadband high-speed internet access and to bring people and businesses to town.

Smith met with Krystal Hernandez and toured her two businesses: F!esta Market and La Plaza F!esta. The group stopped by Hope & Faith Floral & Gifts, and Smith spoke with owner Ryan Visher about his downtown store as well as his online business. Smith toured Christensen Communications Company and learned about the efforts to get broadband to everyone, not just in Madelia, but all the surrounding communities and to those who live in the outlying areas. Then, Smith spent some time at the Madelia Theater, learning about the fascinating history of the theater. Smith loved that people here have an historic theater where they can watch a first rate movie at a more-than-affordable price. The tour ended at the Chamber of Commerce office, where the group sat down and talked about the day, Smith’s mission and Madelia.

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Bemidji to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

OK sixth community visit in two days on my stint following Senator Klobuchar’s staff as they talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing – mission accomplished. Again there were about two dozen people in the room. Lots of County/ City staff, some elected officials and providers (broadband, infrastructure and housing).

I have archived the whole meeting but only took notes on broadband…

Cell coverage is not great for 4G. Often we hit areas where we actually are making international calls.

Most of the following comments come from (or in regard to) Red Lake reservation. We’re in Beltrami, which is well served with broadband but the issue here is cell coverage as you’ll see from the various comments:

We have one carrier and two towers to serve the whole reservation. Two weeks ago a fiber cut knocked out our service. I had to drive 35 miles to use my phone.

When the state awarded FirstNet, I was surprised to see the AT&T got the contract. They have no coverage here. We laughed at the maps here. 20 miles away from Bemidji – you will not get AT&T so there are several people who use 2 phones. It really impacts public safety. So you can imagine police called to rural areas are left off the grid for long portions of that drive.

We need more towers.

You need fiber to feed the towers. Paul Bunyan provides services to Red Lake band and we can get on the Gigazone. That’s great but cell coverage is terrible.

A lot of Red Lake relies on cell phones, not landlines and when those don’t work they’re in trouble. Especially for 911.

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Walker to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

Stop two, day two on a road trip with Senator Klobuchar’s staff talking about broadband, infrastructure and housing. As with other stops, there are about 25 people in the room. There was representation from Leech Lake reservation. There are interested residents, someone from Paul Bunyan and lots of county/government workers.

I have archived the whole meeting in video (lots of affordable housing talk) but I kept the notes to broadband…

Steve Howard from Paul Bunyan jumped in:

We have used state grants and they have been a help.

USDA has Reconnect; we elected to not reapply because the regulatory barriers were too high. We don’t have lawyers on staff we’d need to go through it all. Rumor has it more money will be made available on that soon. But it will still be hard to apply give the regulatory details.

We could look at cable franchising rules at state/local level. The problem is that cable rules are from 1980s. Being able to offer cable TV service helps us when we go into a community. But some communities make offering with local cable too expensive. The FCC just made it a little easier for us – but it could be easier.

We looked at working in Hibbing. There is a municipal network. Mediacom is in the area. To get permission to offer cable in the area we’d have to serve the entire city – we only want to serve rural areas. It’s a roadblock that hurts us and the rural folks who aren’t served.

Dig Once – might need to be cautious. It sounds great. BUT in rural areas we don’t typically use it. For us – blasting fiber through existing conduit is about the same cost for us as laying the fiber ourselves. Mandatory dig once would be rough. We don’t’ always want to use it and we don’t necessarily want to build for our competitors.

From the folks from Leech Lake:

We have clinics on the reservation that require telehealth services – 10 years ago we entered an agreement with AT&T to get access to our towers to serve areas. (They paid for tower; we leased the land.) It was innovative but not sure it’s a long terms solution. We’d like to see homegrown wireline services.

Telehealth services on the reservation means – from one clinic to another. But it would be nice to see more telehealth services ta home. It is a draw for real estate from people looking to move into the area or even for people who want to stay in the area.

We hear of people who want to stay in the area, in their homes but a family member needs access to remote healthcare.

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Wadena to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

Day Two, visit one of following Senator Klobuchar’s crew. There were about 25 people in Wadena to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing.

One thing I’ve heard in a few places – more related to roads – is that it’s hard for smaller towns and rural areas to get funding  with competitive granter.  Smaller towns simply don’t have numbers to compete with larger towns, like St Cloud. Highway 10 can’t compete with 94. I mention that because I could see the same happen with broadband. Of course there’s a push to get the most people served for the lowest price but that will leave some people behind – perpetually

Otherwise I have the entire meeting archive but only took notes on broadband…

When the roads are fixed the City will have to move infrastructure at the City’s expense. (Not sure if they are alluding to fiber or other broadband infrastructure but wanted to add it. That disconnect of fiber laying and road improvement has come up before.)

Otherwise there are comments from the frontline:

I cannot get a hotspot that will work at my house. I have no broadband and no cell services. We have satellite at my house – you couldn’t stream a show if you tried.

Two of the coops have taken the lead – CTC and West Central have been great. They serve primarily the rural communities. The incumbents have not been as helpful.

The city will soon (Sep 26) have greater flexibility when the need for franchise agreements changes. That will open up the market to other providers who might be interested in serving the city and other un/underserved areas.

If we’re going to ever going to get into telemedicine, we’re going to need better service.

Wadena County – second highest tax in the state. Yet income is one of the lowest. We don’t have enough housing for low income or even for not that low. We don’t have infrastructure to support an employer that might raise wages.

Is speed a problem?
Not really – most people who have access have 100/20 so the people who don’t have access really have nothing.

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Aitkin to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

Stop three on day one of following Senator Klobuchar’s staff around Minnesota as they hear from folks about their situation and needs for broadband, infrastructure and housing.

I’ll post the whole meeting but only take notes on broadband issues.

While previous meeting seemed to have one spokesperson for broadband, Aitkin had a couple including Stacy Cluff from Mille Lacs Energy.

Here are some of the comments interspersed through the conversation, which bounced quite a bit from transportation to broadband:

If the state hadn’t supported broadband, we wouldn’t have the level of access we have. We need that for transportation too.

Broadband is being built through subsidies. The federal subsidies (CAF II) do not meet the speeds we need. Resident areas are upgraded and the residents don’t notice the difference.

The federal standards of 10/1 are too low. We’ve seen some cooperatives build to a much higher standard – it’s made a big difference.

Also one problems we have are the areas that are underserved. The Unserved areas qualify for upgrades the underserved areas don’t. But people aren’t able to run their businesses with lower broadband. Sometimes the connections go down and then they can’t take credit cards.

Reliability is a problem. We have a restaurant in the area that experiences outages. They can take the credit card but they can’t process until they get back online, which means bad credit cards slip through the cracks.

And the problem isn’t necessary in the school – it’s the student’s home 2 miles away.

We need the state grants. As a provider, we’ve applied and we’ve received it and it’s made a big difference. It’s expensive to reach these homes in remote areas.

There’s a tax law for cooperatives saying if you get 80% of your incomes comes from nonmembers, it will impact the tax status. That can make it hard for nonmembers.

Senator Klobuchar has been big on dig once. Has that been a problem?

We use it all of the time. Broadband investment outpaces highway construction. We get applications to put fiber into roads that frankly, we’d like to replace.

When local companies get the broadband grants – there is frustration when a new line goes where another already exists.

Maybe we need to pass a phone bill – that enforces am open access model.
Although sometimes those are trunk lines with no real branches leading out.

We’re worried about duplication.

We chuckled about the idea of a kid having to hold their phones near the window to get a broadband connection. We would have loved for it to be that simple back in the day. We had to use broadband during off-peak hours, which meant we suggested kids set an alarm and do homework at 2am.

Broadband should be treated as a utility. It took me a while to accept that – but I’m there now. It can’t be a political football. It can’t be just for the rich or urban. Everybody needs it.

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Brainerd to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

This afternoon I followed Senator Klobuchar’s staff to Brainerd to hear local folks talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing. The mentioned her work with mapping and the recent establishment of the Precision Ag Task Force.

I have archived the entire meeting [well meeting until 1pm, when I had to take a call] but will only share notes related to broadband…

The Klobuchar folks talked to a farmer who can’t milk the cows when broadband is down. Cows are chipped, which helps track data related to the cows. SO when the line is down – it skews everything.

Kristi Westbrock, CEO of CTC, talked about broadband in the area:

There’s an area of Baxter (micropolitan) with two streets with 100+ homes with no coverage. They appear covered when you look at the broadband maps because they are in a census block that is served. We can’t get help to cover that area because they look covered and without help it’s hard to make a business case to do it. We need accuracy and granularity. Without we’re going to miss homes that will never get covered.

We take advantage of many of your services. Please don’t slow down the funding. When you slow down it means we can’t build out to the potential customers we’d like to serve. And they remain unserved.

We have applied for 5 MN grants this year. Three with partners; two on our own.

Federal funding does require a lot of red tape – but that’s not all bad. It does help filter out folks who might not perform. It’s worth it if you’re funded.

Questions/Comments from others

How can CTC serve little areas and yet a street on Baxter is left unserved? [Rhetorical or not, this went unanswered.]

We were working on a project for roads – everyone we ran into asked us if we could bring in fiber too.

Broadband is a big issues for us – especially in terms of haves/have-nots. It’s an economic development issue. Surely we can make the case that broadband needs to reach all homes.

Broadband is essential is you want to sell a home.

Broadband helps boost tourism.

Retired folks are moving to the area. And those folks will need broadband to support telehealth.

Chemical dependency (meth now surpasses alcohol for treatment in Crow Wing County) and mental health issues are our biggest problems right now. We need prevention. There are telehealth programs that could help – but people need access to broadband .

Sen Klobuchar staff visits Mora to talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing

This morning I joined about two dozen people in the Kanabec County Jail to talk with Senator Klobuchar’s staff about broadband, infrastructure and housing. It’s always enlightening to hear from folks on the frontlines about this issues. I archived all of the meeting. I’ve kept my notes to broadband.

What’s happening in federal level?
Precision Ag Task Force – put into place.
Measuring economic impact of broadband – especially in rural Minnesota

Marc Johnsonof ECMECC outlined local issues:

Our incumbent benefited from CAF II. There have been improvements for some people but it’s spotty. The real problem is that spotty coverage has made us an unattractive business case.

The USDA has programs in place but we don’t qualify because a provider used the CAF II funding to lift us to a place where the service is still not adequate community-wide but in the eyes for the federal government, we’re too well served to qualify for more help.

Because the mapping goes my census block – it means if one person is served, the whole tract is considered served. It leaves us with a false positive – because on a practical basis we aren’t served.

This is a regional issue. We have one-to-one (computer in schools) programs here but not all of them have access to broadband at home. The library is busy all of the time because people can’t access broadband at home. It proves the need. Sometimes kids can’t even take these classes with online homework.

We use USF in schools and libraries. That is used heavily. We have looked at ways the school could support community use but the rules are prohibitive. The network at the school is unused between 3pm and 7 am. It seems like an opportunity to meet community need but policy prevents it.

Healthcare is moving online. That means if you are unserved at home and need healthcare – you can’t get remote care. You lose your liberty and it costs more to serve those people in healthcare facilities.

I spoke to a woman after the session who remarked that broadband is really at the hear of everything. She pointed out that with broadband people can stay in their homes longer, which saves money (and improves lives) and less need for transportation (to and from healthcare facilities). With broadband, students can do homework, prepare for the future and take a wider range of classes. She’s right!