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.

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.

Solutions:

  • 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.

Hagedorn, Emmer, Stauber voted yes for broadband in motion that didn’t pass

Mankato Free Press recently tracked how Minnesota’s members of Congress voted during the legislative week ending Jan. 11. One of the topics that came up was broadband…

Funding boost for rural broadband

Voting 197 for and 229 against, the House on Jan. 10 defeated a Republican motion that sought to increase funding in HR 265 (above) for rural-broadband programs by $125 million, to a total of $565 million. The Department of Agriculture program provides communities and individuals in rural areas with grants and low-cost loans for obtaining high-speed Internet connectivity.

A yes vote was to increase the bill’s rural-broadband budget by nearly 30 percent.

Minnesota

Voting yes: Hagedorn, Emmer, Stauber

Voting no: Craig, Phillips, McCollum, Omar, Peterson

Rep Ecklund introduces broadband bill in MN

Mesabi Daily News reports…

Broadband connectivity has plagued rural areas and the Iron Range for a number of legislative sessions, even as technology use has increased tenfold in education, business and health care, to name a few industries.

State Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, hopes to change that. He unveiled a bill Wednesday to expand high-speed broadband in Minnesota through a two-year $70 million investment. The bill was part of the “Minnesota Values” agenda released by House Democrats pm Wednesday and based on a plan developed by the caucus in September.

“Broadband is more important today than ever before and will play an increasingly important role in the lives of Minnesotans for decades to come,” Ecklund said in a news conference. “While significant progress has been made, we still have work to do to make sure all Minnesotans have access to high-speed connections.”

His House 3A district, which includes International Falls and Ely, are among the most remote in northeastern Minnesota and lagging behind in connectivity. As a whole, rural areas are vastly underserved by high-speed broadband, according to a 2018 report by the Minnesota Broadband Taskforce.

In that report, the taskforce said just 79 percent of people have access to speeds of 25Mbps down and 2 Mbps up in rural Minnesota, compared to 91 percent statewide. The state’s goal of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up reaches just 49 percent of rural Minnesotans.

Ecklund is proposing to fund the connectivity upgrade through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which is a competitive program providing matching grants for internet providers to expand access across the state.

“Expanding broadband expands educational opportunities through programs like distance learning, enables our great Minnesota businesses to compete in today’s global economy, and helps people stay in touch with health care providers to receive care and monitor their health conditions,” Ecklund added. “Future technologies will rely on high-speed connections as well.”

Since 2014, according to the House DFl, the state has funded $85.2 million and used $110.6 million in investments to better broadband across more than 34,000 homes, 5,000 business and 300 community institutions.

The bill was part of 10 unveiled Wednesday by House DFL leaders, including a proposal to let all residents buy into the MinnnesotaCare health program, which is currently reserved for the working poor.