A voice from the frontlines of Aitkin County MN: We need better broadband

I’m posting the following, portions of an email I received from Georgia Johnson in Aitkin Minnesota…

I am 80 years old I feel the school children need [broadband] it in the  rural areas to keep up with their peers.  I feel we need it for economic development,  realtors can’t sell property which would increase our tax base, those wanting to retire here have high speed Internet where they live now and want it here at their retirement homes they may want to build in the rural areas of Aitkin County.

We have the largest % of older folks living on fixed incomes of MN counties, we need tax relief, levies going up, new 65 million dollar school proposal trying to pass again, yet our water and sewer lines are about to crumble.

It’s an interesting take on the direct return on investment for broadband.

Broadband Divide & Federal Assistance Report: Big gap between rural and urban

A federal report on broadband is always great because it helps us compare how we’re doing in Minnesota and gives the lowdown on tools available from federal resources. The downside of a federal report, is that the data is usually a little dated. The report (Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs) released last week is based on broadband statistics from December 2015.

The report feels like the notes you leave behind when you leave a job – you try to give the new worker the low down on what’s happened, what’s happening and resources that are there to help. There are also some statistics to help benchmark where we are with broadband access. I’m going to paste the table of contents below (at the bottom of the post) – if you ever need the basics on topics listed, this is your resource.

Otherwise I thought the urban/rural divide detail in the report was most interesting. Spoiler alert – rural is still lagging behind and behind even more are tribal lands and US Territories – the table below shows who lacks access:


And here’s how Minnesota compares:

Total percentage without access:

  • US – 10
  • MN – 12

Total urban percentage without access:

  • US – 4
  • MN – 1

Total rural percentage without access:

  • US – 39
  • MN – 43

Interesting to see Minnesota’s urban areas are rocking it. Minnesota’s rural areas are behind (4 percentage points!) the national curve. No wonder the discussion in Minnesota can seem so fractious. The difference between the urban/rural market is even more extreme in Minnesota than on a national level. I know myself when I’m at home in St Paul, it’s hard for me to imagine there are people without access – until hear from communities living with 43 percent lack of coverage. Or I visit and try to fit in a little work between meetings. Not an option.

The report offers a little advice for policymakers…

To the extent that Congress may consider various options for further encouraging broadband deployment and adoption, a key issue is how to strike a balance between providing federal assistance for unserved and underserved areas where the private sector may not be providing acceptable levels of broadband service, while at the same time minimizing any deleterious effects that government intervention in the marketplace may have on competition and private sector investment.

I might extend that advice to remind policymakers that there is a difference between rural and urban. Affordability, adoption, higher use – those are issues in urban and rural areas. But with connectivity there is a difference. And as I noted, the numbers in the report are dated. But then they are looking at dated speeds too; the report looks at speeds of 25/3 – in Minnesota we are targeted 100/20 for 2026.

Here’s the report Table of Contents:

Introduction 1
Status of Broadband in the United States  1
Broadband Availability 2
Broadband Adoption  5
Broadband in Rural Areas 7
Broadband and the Federal Role  9
Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 9
The National Broadband Plan  10
Federal Broadband Programs 12
The Universal Service Concept and the FCC12
Universal Service and Broadband  13
Rural Utilities Service Programs  16
P.L. 111-5: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009  16
Other Federal Programs and Initiatives 17
Broadband Opportunity Council  17
BroadbandUSA  18
Appalachian Regional Commission 18
HUD ConnectHome  18
Digital Literacy Initiative 19
Legislation in the 114th Congress  19
Concluding Observations  23

Tables Table 1. Percentage of Broadband Technologies by Types of Connection  2
Table 2. Percentage of Americans Lacking Access to Fixed Broadband  3
Table 3. Americans Without Access to Fixed Broadband by State and U.S. Territory 3
Table 4. Estimated Percentage of Americans with Multiple Options for Fixed Broadband 5
Table 5. Broadband Adoption  6
Table 6. Broadband Availability, Rural vs. Urban Areas  7

Rural Minnesota needs broadband to diversify: Heard on MPR

Today I’m thankful for archived radio shows. Yesterday on MPR, Marianne Combs spoke about rural Minnesota and the economy. On the show she had Aaron Brown, author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,”  the website “Minnesota Brown: Modern Life in Northern Minnesota, ‘ and host of The Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. Larry Cuffe Jr., mayor of Virginia and Ben Winchester, research fellow in the Extension Center for Community Vitality at the University of Minnesota.

It was great to hear from three experts with deep seeded roots in rural areas. The show is definitely worth a listen if you missed it too. I’m going to pare my notes down to what was explicitly said about broadband.

Several people noted that broadband is necessary for economic diversification. Not everyone wants to work for the Mining or to farm, broadband opens the door to other opportunities. Entrepreneurs need broadband to work with people around the world or across the street. And you can’t attract new businesses without broadband.

Upload speed matters. Ben pointed out that download is the speed of consumption; upload is the speed of production. He moved from Hancock to St Cloud only to find his broadband worsened in the move. He compared his experience uploading documents to the old dialup days when you’d click to send, to go bed, wake up and hope nothing broke. People cannot do business that way.

Broadband isn’t just for hipsters, Aaron noted. He has attended broadband meetings on the Iron Range and attendees include a broadband cross section of the community. People need broadband for work, family and education. Three things that matter a lot in rural areas.

I believe all three speakers spoke about the power of the cooperative to meet the broadband need in rural areas, especially where the market has failed. The cooperative is in a unique position to invest in the community because the shareholders are in or of the community.

So close and yet so far away to broadband just outside St Cloud MN – could grants to the business in need help

I recently heard from Eric, who lives just outside of St Cloud. He lives and works in no-man’s-land where the kids go to Kimball school, the mail address is South Haven but he actually lives outside Fair Haven. He’s just a little beyond reach of the kind of broadband he needs.

He lives on a farm, has a home-based business (Sproutary.com – online software for daycare proviers to help manage their business) and can get about 15 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up from Arvig. As he says,  it’s  just good enough that expansion is not going to come for many years. He’s talked to Arvig – the local provider – and they can run fiber to our house for $18k – which would mean 1 Gig down and 25 Mbps up.

I’m not here to disparage Arvig – it’s a tough call to make that kind of investment for one customer. But to use the story to start some discussions.

  • Eric gets 15/1 coverage and it’s not enough for him. CAF 2 funding requires 10/1 coverage. Areas getting a 10/1 upgrade may be in Eric’s position soon – too slow to conduct business, too fast to get attention.
  • Maybe a solution is not to disperse upgrade funds only to providers. The UK had a voucher fund that supported businesses in their effort to get better broadband. The fund has expired (they had £40 million) but here’s what they found…

Key Facts about Connection Vouchers

  • Around 55,000 vouchers for superfast broadband connections were issued to SMEs during the lifetime of the scheme – 37,000 since April 2015
  • More than 770 suppliers won voucher business out of 864 registered suppliers

Early Impacts & Data Analysis
SME Survey Results

  • Over 550 SMEs with connections live for between 3 and 9 months replied to BDUK surveys on the initial impacts of using a connection voucher
  • The results show that firms are using the internet more and using it for functions they were not using before. The biggest changes are to uploading/downloading large files, remote access/Virtual Private Networks and Cloud Computing
  • As a result, firms reported a wide range of impacts with many seeing improvements in efficiency and effectiveness of employees, as well as improvements in the speed and reliability of delivering goods/services
  • The results suggest that soon after the connection has been made businesses profits increased by £1,300 per year per SME and the equivalent of 0.27 extra full time employees per firm, or one new job for every four connections
  • This equates to a return on investment of over £5 for every £1 that the Government is investing through this scheme
  • Firms reported that faster broadband makes a huge difference to their business:
    • 86% of firms reported that their broadband upgrade had increased their employees’ effectiveness;
    • 83% reported improved efficiency of business administration;
    • almost 70% reported increased speed and reliability of delivering goods or services;
    • 45% reported that their upgrade had improved their ability to develop new goods or services; and
    • over 35% reported that their upgrade has generated new sales and provided access to new markets.

BDUK Data Analysis

Based on the 50,700 vouchers that were reported by cities as having been issued up to the end of September 15

  • Up to 1 million people are estimated to work for businesses that have had broadband connection voucher grants approved
  • SMEs took broadband services that are on average 11 times faster than their previous service
  • Nearly 30% of firms took uncontended services (not shared with other customers) with guaranteed up and download speeds
  • Over a fifth opted for ultrafast broadband with download speeds of 100 Mbps or more

Commercial Suppliers

  • The 3 largest national suppliers registered on the scheme – BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk – accounted for 14% of the value of vouchers issued to the end of September.

  • Other suppliers, including smaller regional and local suppliers, took 86% of the total value of the vouchers.

  • Some suppliers have extended their existing networks and built in new areas, for instance Metronet extended its Birmingham and Leeds networks, and built new networks in Newcastle and Bradford.

Urban broadband is a cable game – rural broadband is DSL: how can that help us plan?

The FCC recently released the Industry Analysis and Technology Division Wireline Competition Bureau. It’s the culmination of FCC Form 477 filled out by providers.

I think there’s an interesting look at speeds by technology and location (metro vs rural) of technology. First location – the following graph tracks ratio of subscribership by household density, or who serves urban areas and who serves rural areas. The answer is DSL is a big player in rural areas; cable is the biggest player in towns and cities. Fixed wireless and satellite are players in rural areas and almost non-existent in urban areas. This graph does not track speed – just technology.


Now it’s helpful to look at what speeds. When we look at access by speeds or 10/1 we see representation of all technologies.


When we look at speeds of 25/3, DSL is no longer represented.


Here’s another way to look at it:


DSL has a larger share of slower connections. DSL has a larger share of rural connections. The Minnesota legislature has defined speed goals or 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026. They have dedicated funds to making it happen through the border to border grants. So there’s a recognized need for support, but the question is how to increase speeds in rural areas.

Do tools used in urban areas help rural connectivity? Do policy makers understand that there’s a significant difference in the two markets based on population density, distance to customers, limitations of transport technology and regulations and expectations of technologies based urban scenarios.

Right now Minnesota connectivity rates are well below the legislative goals (and the report only indicates download speeds):

  • 200 kbps – 99.5 percent connect
  • 3 Mbps – 93.0 percent connect
  • 10 Mbps – 75.2 percent connect
  • 25 Mbps – 54.2 percent connect
  • 100 Mbps – 13.4 percent connect

Paul Bunyan Communications CEO Gary Johnson Named Twin Cities Business 100 People to Know

Glad to see representation from the rural broadband world. Gary was the keynote speaker at the 2016 Minnesota Broadband conference; it’s a small look at what cinched him the recognition…

Paul Bunyan Communications CEO Gary Johnson Named  Twin Cities Business 100 People to Know


(Bemidji, MN) (December 8, 2016) –Paul Bunyan Communications CEO Gary Johnson has been named as one of the Twin Cities Business Magazine’s (TCB) 100 People to Know.


Twin Cities Business Magazine annually highlights 100 Minnesotans, leaders with insight, experience, and savvy that people in business need to observe, seek out, and learn from in the year ahead.  The goal is to identify the key individuals that are expected to make an impact on local business, regional economy, and quality of life in 2017.


Johnson was included in the Pioneers category in recognition of Paul Bunyan Communications’ innovation, growth, and continued deployment of the latest in communication technologies including construction of one of the largest rural all-fiber optic networks in the United States.


“On behalf of our entire amazing team at Paul Bunyan Communications, I am honored to be named one of TCB’s 100 People to Know.  It is their hard work, talent, and dedication that has empowered our cooperative to be a pioneer in the telecommunications industry.  We’re proof that when you combine a commitment to rural service, a laser-like focus on communications technologies, and the courage to imagine and pursue what’s next, there is very little that is not possible. As a cooperative we feel very strongly about investing in our communities so they have access to the most robust, advanced communication services available. It is critical for education, economic development, and quality of life.  This is a great honor and reinforces just how cutting edge and important our efforts are” said Johnson.


“As we learned more about Paul Bunyan Communications in the People to Know selection process, it was amazing to see the incredible amount of forward thinking the cooperative has shown over the past 20 years, time and again leading the way in providing the very latest in technology to its members.  To talk with Gary and see one of the largest rural all-fiber optic Gigabit networks being rolled out so rapidly in northern Minnesota is inspiring.  By highlighting his leadership and the GigaZone initiative hopefully it will lead to similar projects throughout rural Minnesota.” said Dale Kurschner, Twin Cities Business Magazine Editor in Chief.


“I congratulate Gary and the entire PBC team!” said Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji, “Gary’s leadership and Paul Bunyan Communication’s commitment to our region in many ways has encouraged the greater Bemidji region to think big, be bold and ask the question, ‘why not in Bemidji?  As I watch our community grow and develop into a vibrant regional center, I can see the fingerprints of Gary’s vision and leadership all over our community. It is only fitting for Gary to be named on of TCB’s 100 People to Know because of his leadership and what Paul Bunyan is doing for our region.”


Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,000 square miles throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties.  The Cooperative provides Broadband High Speed Internet Services, digital and high definition television services, Smart Home services, digital voice services, and more.

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Kanabec County is looking at broadband improvements but is it enough?

According to the Kanabec County Times

Rural communities in Minnesota fed up with cave-man-like internet speed will soon get a technological boost to improve their web experiences. Telecom provider Century Link has already started the process of bringing Kanabec County up to speed. Thanks to major funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Connect America Fund (CAF), it will use “$500 million a year for six years” to wire underserved communities in 33 states.

They are hoping the change comes quickly…

Century Link said, it “will bring high-speed internet services to more than 114,000 rural households and businesses in Minnesota over the next six years”.

Marc Johnson, Executive Director of the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Consortium, said of the anticipated high-speed internet, “We’ve been continuing to work with Century Link. Our hope is we influence them to build our area first because they are doing this in phases around the state. We happen to be one of the first areas getting service through this program.”

But there is also some concern at the rate of improvement…

That’s Century Link’s new fiber-optic installation, one of the main technological ingredients that will allow homes to experience a more reasonable connection. Then again, you have to define the words reasonable and fast. Century Link will offer speeds of “at least 10 Mbps (megabits per second) download and 1 Mbps upload to locations in FCC-designated, high-cost census blocks.”

While that bandwidth will be a huge improvement for those with no wired internet options, it’s still below the FCC’s definition of broadband which is 25Mbps download / 3Mbps upload.

It sounds like improvements will be felt most in the towns, not the outskirts…

Century Link explained that internet speed is dependent on the distance from your home to the fiber-optic equipment. So in general terms, your internet will be faster but not the fastest and where your home or business is positioned will determine the bliss or disappointment of your internet speed.

Midcontinent Communications advertises up to 200 Mbps down / 20 Mbps up, but not outside the city limits of Mora and Ogilvie right now. Midco says it will launch Gigabit service sometime in 2017. For the rest of Kanabec County, internet options are limited to the choice of one cable provider or satellite. On the outskirts of Ogilvie, for instance, some homes are nowhere near cable connections, leaving residents with expensive options. One satellite provider locally offers up to 12 Mbps download speed for $150/month. Plus there’s inherent latency (delay) with such a wireless signal because it is literally going up to space and back. Customers in these underserved areas may also spend $100-$200 a month on cell phone data to operate from a hot spot.