Broadband Struggles in Greater Minnesota featured on Almanac

Last Friday TPT’s Almanac did a nice feature on rural broadband. It’s a nice piece on a range of issues. And it’s only a 5-minute video.

The spoke to some folks who have trouble running credit card, and therefore a business, because of slow connections. The spoke to folks at Frontier, Brent Christensen at MN Telecom Alliance and Gary Johnson at Paul Bunyan Telephone (Cooperative). So they really got a wide range of views from providers.

New study correlates lack of broadband to lack of health insurance

A Communicating for America press release reports…

Communicating for America (CA), a rural advocacy organization, has released a new study that correlates the lack of high-speed internet to the lack of health insurance coverage and access to health care. The survey, conducted in September 2019, asked nearly 500 individuals whether having the ability to connect to broadband internet in their local area affected the way they engage with the health care system.

Of those surveyed, 39% in urban and semi-urban areas said they had high-speed internet. The number dropped to 21% in rural areas. The study’s findings went on to show people without high-speed internet were significantly less likely to have health insurance (61% had coverage) compared to individuals that have broadband internet (88%). A similar disparity was shown in health care systems. Of those without broadband internet, only 5% have used low-cost telemedicine for medical treatment, whereas 22% of individuals with high-speed internet have used telemedicine in the past. In addition:

  • People without access to broadband internet are significantly less likely to use online medical records (29%) than people who have broadband internet (59%).
  • People without access to broadband internet are significantly less likely to schedule appointments online (17%) than people who do have broadband internet (36%).

I don’t know much about Communicating for America. They are based in Fergus Falls. Their mission is to promote health, well-being and the advancement of all self-employed Americans and small business owners by utilizing our acquired experience in serving rural Americans. You can find the full report online.

The report doesn’t specify what “broadband” is but 39 percent sub/urban access versus 21 percent indicate a high bar definition. (24 percent of MN has access to a Gig.)  And 500 participants isn’t a huge portion – but the results are interesting.

Who are bottom 10 MN Counties for Broadband Ranking? And why?

Last week I posted MN Broadband Profiles for each county. Today I want to dig into the those reports to see if we can find some trends in the top counties.

Here we’ll look at the top ranked MN Counties for speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up (100/20), the MN broadband speed goal for 2026:

100/20 speeds 2019 Rank 2019 Change in Rank Blandin*
Tie
MN grant 2019 apps HH Density
Yellow Medicine 38.86 78 -9 y 2 2 5.6
Todd 38.68 79 2 y 2 1 10
Aitkin 37.74 80 2 y 2 3 4
Pine 37.26 81 -13 y 1 0 7.9
Otter Tail 35.34 82 5 10 3 10.8
Redwood 33.56 83 -11 y 3 2 7.5
Kanabec 26.93 84 -17 y 1 0 12
Norman 20.62 85 -5 0 0 3.3
Mahnomen 17.31 86 -2 1 1 3.5
Becker 6.22 87 -2 1 0 9.2

There are factors that can hinder broadband progress in a county, such as household density and lack of provider competition. There are factors that can help broadband progress such as public funding and community support. But for each county the barrier is different, as is the support. For community leaders and policymakers, it can be valuable to recognize both the barriers and potential support because unlike the top county list which saw little change this year, the bottoms list includes four new entries (Yellow Medicine, Pine, Redwood and Kanabec).

Also I might caution counties that rank well for access to 25/3 (the 2022 speed goal) to pay attention to what’s going on in their community. Do they have potential barriers they might work on now?

Fast Facts about the Bottom Ten Counties for 100/20 broadband access

  • 2 are in lowest 10 rank for household density ranking (Norman and Mahnomen)
  • 9 have ten or fewer households per square mile (Otter Tail has 10.8)
  • 9 have received MN broadband grants (Norman hasn’t)
  • 6 have applied for MN broadband grants in 2019
  • 6 have worked with the Blandin Foundation

Household Density

As noted in the report of the top counties, household density matters. You pay per mile for the wire (or fiber as the case is for future-looking networks) and you pay to dig the trench, to pull the wire; so the longer the distance, the more you pay. Then once the network is built, there aren’t as many customers to serve. And providing technical support can be more difficult when there are greater distances between customers. So, it’s difficult to recoup cost and make a profit.

All of the counties at the bottom have low population density. But the counties with the lowest household density are not on the list. Lower population density is a hindrance but not an absolute determiner in access to broadband.

Public Funding

Nine of the ten counties at the bottom have received MN broadband grants. It is difficult to measure the impact with ranking, because it’s a race where everyone is running and for the slowest runners that means beating their previous time, not the faster runners.

2019 2018 2107
Yellow Medicine 38.86 37.72 19.28
Todd 38.68 17.58 2.86
Aitkin 37.74 17.55 11.51
Pine 37.26 38.18 37.37
Otter Tail 35.34 2.36 1.75
Redwood 33.56 33.56 34.37
Kanabec 26.93 38.54 26.07
Norman 20.62 20.55 20.52
Mahnomen 17.31 13.53 13.03
Becker 6.22 12.95 6.58

 

Bottom 10 counties that have improved their ranking from last year (some improved but not enough to rank higher than lower 10):

  • Yellow Medicine (received grants in 2015 and 2016)
  • Todd (received grants in 2014 and 2017)
  • Aitkin (received grants in 2016 and 2017)
  • Otter Tail (received numerous grants from 2014-2017)
  • Mahnomen (received grant in 2017)

Bottom 10 counties that have not improved their rank from last year:

  • Pine (received grant in 2017)
  • Redwood (received grant in 2015, 2016 and 2017)
  • Kanabec (received grant in 2016)
  • Norman
  • Becker (received grant in 2016)

All of the counties that got funding saw improvement. The counties that saw the great improvement (Todd, Aitkin and Otter Tail) were awarded grants. Noman County is the only one that are not received a grant and their access has not improved at all. (An increase of .07 is more a margin of error.)

Other reasons there may be no change in the counties that have received funding are improvements may not have been competed before data was collected, the grant may have been for multiple counties and/or little money and in some grants only required an immediate upgrade to 25/3.

With these results it’s difficult to ascertain the impact of funding but I think it’s fair to say that without it most of these would see no improvement.

Community Support

We gauged community support by tracking counties that have worked with Blandin Foundation. There are other ways to boost a county but this was an easy measure to track.

Blandin has provided guidance to these counties either in the form of broadband coaching and grants for broadband adoption projects or in supporting a feasibility study. The programming and support is valuable but at the end of each cohort or project I have heard people say that the most valuable outcome was stronger communities relationships. Six of the ten counties had worked with Blandin. Blandin worked with two of the three counties that saw the most improvement.

With these results it’s difficult to ascertain the impact of community support but I think it’s fair to say less would happen without it.

Competition

Another factor in broadband access is competition. Roberto Gallardo and Brain Whitacre wrote about the impact of competition and type of provider (A Look at Broadband Access, Providers and Technology) at the census tract level. They created a map (top right) that show areas by number of providers and type, which is either “Top 6” national provider or other. Top 6 includes AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier.

One caveat is that the map defines broadband as 25/3 because that it is the federal definition. But for our purposes that doesn’t matter here; there are no providers that offer access to 25/3 and not 100/20.

Again, the Top 6 map uses census tracts not county boundaries, which makes it even more useful but it means we need to approximate the impact on the county.

The map on the left shows the bottom counties. The counties in east central MN (Aitkin, Pine and Kanabec) are in blue areas, which means there is only one provider serving those areas and that provider is a Top 6. Three of the counties in West Central MN (Norman, Mahnomen and Becker) are in green areas, which again means only one provider. Otter Tail, Todd, Yellow Medicine and Redwood are in areas that primarily seem to have a greater mix of providers.

Aitkin County: rank is 80 (out of 87) for access to 100/20 Code: red

Aitkin County is not on track to make the MN State broadband goals for either  2022 or 2026. While the percentage of population covered at speed goals has increased, their ranking dipped this year and last, which indicates that they aren’t improving at the rate of other counties. And they were already in bottom 10 ranking.

Percentage of Served Population by Speed and Date
Aitkin 2019 2018 2017
100/20 (2026 goal) 37.74 17.55 11.52
25/3 (2022 goal) 60.17 45.68 27.48

Green=served Purple=underesrved Red=unserved

Aitkin County government and residents have  long been organized to promote broadband access and adoption. The county partnered with rural sections of three neighboring counties to participate as the  Central Woodlands in the 2015-2016 Blandin Broadband Community cohort , and then as part of the IRBC (Iron Range Broadband Communities) cohort. Over the past four years the county has made considerable investment in both dollars and staff time in pursuing better broadband.

They have benefited from two MN state grants in their area:

  • 2017 – SCI – Shamrock Township Broadband Expansion – GRANT $148,503
    Project planned to serve 374 unserved households near and around the Big Sandy Lake area in Aitkin County to improve broadband service levels to 250 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.
  • 2016 – MILLE LACS ENERGY COOPERATIVE FTTP PROJECT – GRANT: $1,757,640
    Project planned to serve 763 unserved households, 2 unserved businesses, 2 unserved community anchor institutions and 31 underserved households and 2 underserved businesses in Aitkin County with fiber-to-the-premise access.

Blue covers area with 1 Top 6 provider

While countywide there are 11 providers, you can see from the map below that much of Aitkin County is served by only one provider – and that is a large national provider. It can be a challenge to get a national provider to work in an area with such low population density. But Aitkin has been persistent.  In April 2019, the county economic development agency hosted a “Connecting the Dots event to talk about broadband. Both a County Commissioner and Local Representative (Lueck) have asked the community to make broadband a priority.

In September 2019, Senator Klobuchar’s staff held a listening session in Aitkin County. They spoke about the need for government subsidies to build broadband in area with lower population density and CAF II funding was not sufficient because it only required 25/3 service.

Aitkin County could benefit from future grants from the state broadband fund. In 2019, three proposals  were submitted that would benefit Aitkin. Emily Coop, Mille Lacs Energy and SCI are hoping to upgrade different parts of Aitkin County. (That doesn’t mean they will get the grant; they have only applied.)

Checklist:

Details:


I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year. I’m looking at progress toward the 2022 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) and 2026 (100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up) and will code each:

  • Red (yikes)
  • Yellow (warning)
  • Green (good shape)

Impact of competition on broadband speeds may come down to type of provider

Roberto Gallardo and Brain Whitacre have a new report out – A Look at Broadband Access, Providers and Technology. They used FCC Form 477 to figure out who are the biggest providers in the country, the state of competition and access to speeds of 25/3 (FCC definition of broadband) in rural vs urban areas and more.

Here are the six largest providers in the US:

I was surprised to see Charter with 22 percent rural housing units since I think of Charter as cable and I don’t think of cable as a primary rural provider. But that wasn’t what I found most interesting in the report.

I was a little surprised to see the discrepancy between urban and rural household access to 25/3:

I don’t know why I was surprised but the stark difference between 1 percent and 26 is jarring. But even that isn’t what really caught my eye. What caught my eye was the map of broadband providers by group:

Here’s an explanation of the key:

Figure 5 shows four layers: the orange layer indicates where top 6 and non-top 6 providers overlap; the blue layer indicates where Top 6 providers were the only providers (darker blue indicates a higher number of top 6 only providers); the green layer indicates where other (nontop 6) were the only providers (darker green indicates a higher number of other providers only).

Remember “top 6” are the providers shown above.

What struck me was the blueness of East Central Minnesota – trailing up north.

Roberto was kind enough to below of the Minnesota portion of the map for me. I’d like to compare it to two other maps. In each map you can see the color pattern in East Central MN – just north of the Twin Cities.e

  • The first map blue indicates only one of the “Top 6” providers serves that area.
  • The second map shows access to 25/3 broadband; orange means 50-60% have access, beige is 60-70% and light blue is 70-80%
  • The third maps shows access to 100/20; it is more diverse but yellow indicates less than 50 percent have access.
  • The first maps also shows where there is only one “other provider” which may be a cooperative, an independent or really anyone outside of the top 6.

I think it’s a powerful image of the impact of limited competition – and impact of the type of provider. Comparing East Central MN to West Central – each has areas served by one provider but the type of provider seems to make a difference in the speed of connection.

Roberto was also kind enough to send a spreadsheet with provider numbers and types by county – but with the county-level into we lose the granularity of the map. There are areas where the county may have numerous providers but a section of that county has just one – that is better demonstrated by map.

[Updated Sep 8: I’m delighted to share a new map from Roberto that includes county boundaries and provider number/types.]

What is served? Are we serving to survive or thrive?

The Observer recently published a letter to the editor from an investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation. He doesn’t agree with Senator Warren’s broadband proposal, which he describes…

“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” she wrote.

That plan entails creating an Office of Broadband Access within her planned Department of Economic Development, which would manage an $85 billion federal grant program. Warren’s plan calls for cooperatives, non-profit groups, tribes and state and local governments to get that money. The plan would bar private providers from having access to any funding.

The grants, which would cover 90 percent of each project’s cost, would go toward fiber infrastructure in unserved or underserved areas, though the state-to-state definition of the term makes that a tricky proposition.

The article caught my eye because he compares Warren’s proposal to the Minnesota model…

A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts recently found large discrepancies in how states define those terms. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation (TPAF) previously reported on how Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Fund deems an area receiving download speeds of less than 100 megabits per second (mbps) as underserved and an area receiving less than 25 mbps as unserved. A state broadband task force member chided those metrics, telling TPAF they inflated the numbers for poor internet accessibility. (For reference: in 2015, the FCC increased its broadband standard from 10 mbps to 25 mbps. Internet speeds between six and 10 mbps are generally fast enough to stream a high-def  video.)

Warren calls for grant recipients to connect every home in their application areas, with at least one plan offering symmetrical 100 mbps speeds and a discount plan for low-income customers.

The TPAF article on the MN model is two years old. One unnamed naysayer from within the Task Force doesn’t represent the general feel for the approach. The MN model has been lauded and replicated (sometimes modified) by several other states. It is worth nothing that MN does and has given grants to larger providers.

One of the key parts of the MN model is that broadband is seen as an economic development tool. As such, the plan is to invest to see a return on that investment (and we have seen one) not just to see broadband for broadband’s sake. That approach of looking at broadband as an investment, not just a cost has worked in Minnesota. We track several stories of how broadband improved businesses and communities in our report on ROI – but one very recent example is Red Wing Ignite, a community we looked at for the report. They just got $750,000 in federal grants to support further innovation.

It’s a weird analogy but barely adequate broadband is like giving someone fish. Yes, they can access email and maybe even watch Netflix. But real broadband is like a fishing pole. Now you can innovate!

Blandin on Broadband News: Aug 2019: Broadband grant applications are open

Oct 8-10 – MN Fall BB Conference – Innovation: Putting Broadband to Work
This three-day conference at the beautiful Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, MN will offer learning and engagement on many aspects of the challenges and benefits of broadband access and use, from “Pursuing Broadband 101,” to digital inclusion tools and strategies for diverse audiences. https://wp.me/p3if7-52i  Check out the agenda. https://wp.me/p3if7-5bn Exhibitor and sponsorship opportunities are available https://wp.me/p3if7-599. 

Minnesota Broadband Grant Application are Open
The Office of Broadband Development is soliciting applications for the Border to Border Broadband grants. Deadline is September 13. But before you apply you must alert providers in the area by Aug 2. https://wp.me/p3if7-58L

Minnesota broadband: more ubiquitous, not fastest
PC Mag looked at broadband speeds by region and state. For fastest statewide access Minnesota ranks 8 out of 12 of North Central States with a speed of 67.2 Mbps (down). https://wp.me/p3if7-59P However, Roberto Gallardo also released a study that shows that looking at statewide access to gig broadband, Minnesota is in better shape that our neighbors. https://wp.me/p3if7-58m

Blandin Foundation is there is help with ICF Application
The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) measures six inter-related indicators of a community’s competitiveness in the digital economy. It is a tool and an international competition. Blandin is holding a series of regional meeting to talk about the ICF process and offer assistance to communities interested in applying. https://wp.me/p3if7-59n

  • Red Wing Monday, August 12 9:00-10:30 am
  • Brainerd Tuesday, August 13 9:00-10:30 am
  • Bemidji Wednesday, August 14 9:30-11:00 am
  • Appleton Monday, August 19 1:00-2:30 pm

The Time is Now for Courageous Action
Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation reminds people that “The time is now.  To recognize racism and discrimination, to name and stop it when we see it.  To stand with those working to make our communities more welcoming….” https://wp.me/p3if7-5aO

Minnesota policy front…

And national policy front…

Vendor News

  • CenturyLink under state investigation after hundreds of complaints of not responding to “call before digging” requests https://wp.me/p3if7-59N

Local Broadband News

Statewide
CVS Health Rolls Out Telehealth to MN (and other states)  https://wp.me/p3if7-59r

Aitkin County
Rural Minnesota Cooperatives partner to connect Aitkin County https://wp.me/p3if7-58Z

Anoka County
Libraries without Boundaries, Dep of Education and local librarians meet with residents in a manufactured home cooperative community to discuss creating 21st century library services to suit their needs. https://wp.me/p3if7-5ao

Beltrami County
Beltrami County in number one in Minnesota for access to Gigabit Internet Speeds https://wp.me/p3if7-5bg

Fredenberg
Fredenberg MN celebrates broadband – and looks at how it might happen in other areas https://wp.me/p3if7-59Y

Lake County
Lake County Broadband is sold to Zito Media https://wp.me/p3if7-58H

Red Wing
Red Wing Ignite wins $750K Federal Grant https://wp.me/p3if7-5ad

Poultry Patrol (think Roomba for chicken coops) is a great broadband application for farmers with broadband https://wp.me/p3if7-58J

Region Nine
Congrats to Nicole Griensewic Mickelson for ‘Friend of the CGMC’ award https://wp.me/p3if7-5bj

St Paul
Verizon upgrades parts of St Paul to 5G https://wp.me/p3if7-59S 

Two Harbors
Two Harbors business comes for fiber also gets tech support https://wp.me/p3if7-5aS

Upcoming Events and Opportunities

We are looking to add MN broadband-related events to the Blandin on Broadband blog calendar. https://wp.me/P3if7-4yG If you have an event you’d like to add please send it to atreacy@treacyinfo.com

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

As I prepare to go on a nice vacation, I am looking at the calendar of upcoming meetings and presentations for which I need to prepare before getting on the airplane.  Right when I return, I need to do a Broadband 101 for a county board in south central Minnesota.  The first place I look to prepare is the Office of Broadband Development maps.  This is a rich source of information with various ways to display the data.  The question “How well are we connected?” is not as simple as it once was.  The maps, in their various forms, should be used as conversation starters, not as a place to find definitive answers.

I first look at the maps, then go to provider websites to get more detailed information.  The DEED provider database shows 13 wired and fixed wireless providers.  Speeds vary from symmetrical gigabit over fiber to 500 Mb symmetrical via fixed wireless to 100 Mb/40 Mb over DSL.  Three different fixed wireless providers show complete to partial coverage of the county.  Seems like this county is well served, yet when I look at the Border to Border Broadband grant eligibility map, the vast majority of the county is shown as unserved and grant eligible.  According to provider information, 82% of households have wired connections of 25 Mb/3 Mb while 78% have wired 100 Mb/20 Mb.  Ten percent have symmetrical gigabit coverage.

As I talk with county commissioners, I will be asking them the following:

  • *Do you believe that the maps and provider data are accurate?
  • *What are you hearing from constituents?
  • *What is “good enough” for your county?

These questions always stimulate interesting conversations.