EVENT ALERT: MN Broadband Task Force meetings: Jan 24 & Feb 18

The agendas aren’t up yet but the times, dates and locations for the first two meetings of the Minnesota Broadband Task Force are set:

  • January 24 from 10am to 2pm in the James J. Hill conference room at DEED
  • February 18 from 10am to 2pm at Land O’Lakes in Arden Hills.

Applications are open Blandin Broadband Communities Program!

I mentioned this last week – but the application is now available and the deadline is January 24, 2020..

Blandin Foundation is currently seeking four rural Minnesota communities to participate in a 2020-2021 cohort of the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) program –  an intensive, two-year partnership between rural Minnesota communities (cities, counties, tribes, or other self-identified communities of interest or place) and the foundation. Selected communities work through a proven process to define their technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use, and seek technical assistance and resources to meet their goals.

Each BBC has the opportunity apply to Blandin Foundation for matching grants (around $75,000) for locally developed projects that advance community identified technology goals over the two-year project period.

For more information, download the BBC Application Instructions.

MiBroadband launches fixed wireless service to Fountain, Peterson, Spring Valley (Fillmore County)

Bluff Country News reports…

MiBroadband has launched high-speed internet in the areas of Fountain, Peterson and Spring Valley, the culmination of a project that started about one year ago.

Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company, MiEnergy Cooperative and Spring Grove Communications revealed just over a year ago that they were in the early stages of making high-speed internet a reality for underserved rural areas via fixed wireless broadband.

Fixed wireless broadband service works in a similar fashion to cell phone communication with an antenna on a tower to carry the signal to the customer’s fixed location. A radio at the customer’s home, farm or business receives the signal from an antenna on a tower. Customers do need a line of sight to the antenna, which can send a signal approximately five to seven miles.

MiEnergy Cooperative has placed a monopole at each of its substations serving the Fountain, Peterson and Spring Valley areas. The monopoles are part of the electric co-op’s infrastructure to allow for a broadband connection that send data from the substation to MiEnergy’s office to allow for improved electric reliability.

Those monopoles with broadband connections are what allow MiBroadband to offer high-speed internet service to rural areas that are unserved or underserved.

The article talks a little bit about the technology…

“It is faster and more reliable than what cellular carriers can provide. When compared to DSL you don’t see internet speeds limited by distance from the provider’s main office,” Fishbaugher stated. “With cable-based service, a neighborhood shares a finite amount of capacity which can degrade service at peak times. Fixed wireless doesn’t have those limitations.”

And the business…

“While MiBroadband is not a cooperative, it is owned by cooperatives who have a history of providing excellent customer service.  Those same expectations on customer service carry over to this business to serve those who have had no options or who have had limited options for broadband,” explained Fishbaugher.

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)