High School senior in Aitkin’s winning essay on better rural broadband

The Minnesota Association of Townships had an essay contest. One of the winners wrote about broadband policy and the need to improve broadband in rural places. Logan Cluff’s winning easy was posted in the Aitkin Age. I’ll only excerpt a portion of it – but as you can see he has some clear ideas…

Fiber to the home would be the best option to get broadband out to people. This technology would be able to meet the needs of people now and be expendable to what future needs may require. However, the cost of this technology is extremely high. Building a fiber network is a big gamble for any communications company, because there is no guarantee that people will take the service. Also the distance between people’s homes can be anywhere from one to 10 miles. Adding a fixed wireless technology to the mix would be a great option to reach more people and give some internet options to those without.

All governments need to modernize their telecommunications policies. The federal governments, Connect America Fund (CAF) that is used to help fund telephone services offered by corporate telcos, should also be available to other providers of internet access. Broadband is replacing phone lines and this money could get access to many more users. At the state level, Minnesota is moving in the right direction with the development of the Office of Broadband and the Border to Border grants. These grants are helping communities expand services to underserved areas but the extreme rural areas of Minnesota are still being left behind. The grant process is not easy and can be costly for lower income counties and companies to find a way to start. To help alleviate those issues, there should be different levels of funding based on the economies and current availability in a predefined area. Economic development will depend on the local government’s involvement and bringing attention to where broadband is needed. Not all communities will need the fastest internet service available, but they need it to be reliable and affordable.

Logan is a senior at Aiktin High School. I think it’s telling that community members are so well informed on the topic – access to better broadband is clearly important to the community.

Park Rapids celebrates recent broadband grant – recognizes the need for more

Park Rapids Enterprise recently posted an article on broadband. They detailed the recent grant award in their area…

Paul Bunyan Communications last month was awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant by the state of Minnesota to expand its fiber optic services to portions of southwest Hubbard County and a small portion of west central Becker County. The expansion area is located to the south and west of Park Rapids.

As a result, the company stated in a news release, the cooperative will begin expansion construction this spring that will pass a minimum of 359 locations in portions of Straight River Township in Hubbard County and portions of Osage Township and Green Valley Township in Becker County. The project, along with the cooperative’s project in central Itasca County which was also a part of the Border to Border Broadband Grant, is estimated to cost $3.9 million, with Paul Bunyan Communications contributing $2.16 million, $1.74 million from the State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant, and Itasca County contributing up to $75,000 towards the Itasca County portion of the project.

Paul Bunyan Communications expects to develop the specific expansion construction plans by early spring and will contact locations included in the project shortly thereafter. Construction will start in the early summer and will be completed by June 30, 2019.

And recognized that there’s still work to be done and that work needs to be funded…

Lawmakers last week announced a bill calling for another $100 million in spending for rural broadband projects statewide. Gov. Mark Dayton, in his state budget, released last week, proposed $60 million over two years for rural broadband.

While both proposals may prove a bit ambitious, the Legislature can continue to chip away this session at the worthwhile funding goal, following $20 million approved in 2014, $10 million in 2015, and $35 million allocated last year.

Rep. Julie Sandstede calls broadband a $10 to $1 investment

The Hibbing Daily Tribune recently ran an article from Rep. Julie Sandstede on broadband…

Down in St. Paul, I’m the chief author of an initiative to expand the Border-to-Border Broadband program by $100 million. Matching grants made available under this program are able to leverage private capital to improve infrastructure throughout the state.

Since the program launched in 2014, $65 million has been invested to expand access to 10,000 new homes and more than 1,000 businesses.

As learning has moved toward electronic resources, students and teachers increasingly rely on access to fast internet service. The use of telemedicine is expanding, and our aging populations in rural Minnesota need 21st century broadband — this isn’t a luxury.

It’s no secret that our regional economy needs to diversify, and I’m working hard to make this happen.

For every $1 invested in broadband infrastructure, communities have seen up to a $10 return. If we want to be a destination location for businesses of all types, we can’t put these investments off.

If we don’t build it, they won’t come.

Senator Simonson calls broadband an economic development and an economic diversity tool

The Duluth Budgeteer News recently ran an article from Senator Simonson on the importance of broadband…

Many of America’s urban areas enjoyed the basic comforts associated with electricity. But in most rural areas, including vast areas of Minnesota, electricity was simply not available. Providers could not justify the expense of extending the electrical grid to a sparsely populated area, meaning farmers and families in rural America could not enjoy the benefits of electricity. Most cities were being powered by a relatively low voltage system, and if lines were extended just a few miles out of town, the voltage dropped off quickly.

The REA changed the landscape for rural America and for Greater Minnesota. By having access to electricity, many small communities, farms, schools and other institutions were able to survive and to prosper in a better life. Electricity was a necessity of the time and changed rural America forever.

Fast forward to current times. Many will suggest that access to quality broadband service in today’s world is much like the need that spurred FDR’s REA  80 years ago. And since 2013, I and others in the Minnesota Legislature have worked collectively with Gov. Mark Dayton to try and extend quality and dependable broadband access to rural areas of Minnesota. In 2014, we created the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program, designed to provide a 50/50 matching grant program that would in turn leverage private investments and create opportunities of expansion. To date, we have appropriated more than $60 million to this program, leveraging many more private dollars and bringing dependable services to many homes, business and community anchor institutions.

What we in larger cities take for granted is a much-needed service all across Minnesota. For many of the same reasons the REA was successful in saving rural America so long ago, broadband access will allow Minnesotans to remain in their homes, grow and attract businesses, improve delivery of education, health care and many other important services across Minnesota, regardless of where you might be.

This program is far more than a convenience program. It is an economic development and an economic diversity tool. If we want our smaller rural communities to survive and retain populations, we have to invest in their infrastructures to promote their stability. This is why I again chief authored a bill to appropriate $100 million from our current budget surplus into the border-to-border grant program. This request aligns with the recommendations of the Governor’s task force on broadband deployment and is supported by Democrats all across Greater Minnesota. I believe strongly that if our rural communities can retain viable economies, then Minnesota as a whole will be strong. Just like when we electrified all of America, we can and must work together to accomplish great things.

State Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin calling for a $100 million for broadband

I wrote about the proposal last week but it’s nice to see the local news picking it up and mentioning the supporting Senators. The Albert Lea Tribune reports…

State Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is one of Minnesota’s Democratic legislators calling for a $100 million investment in broadband…

“If we want to support our small towns, and truly make a commitment to greater Minnesota, this is one way we can get there,” Sparks said in a press release. “In order for our students and businesses to compete, all of our residents need access to high-speed broadband. This level of investment can really push us to the next level.”

Rep Hamilton applauds MN broadband grants and challenge process

AgWeek features a Letter to the Editor from Representative Rod Hamilton. He applauds the grant challenge process…

Thanks to GOP-led efforts, $32 million of the $35 million in grants were targeted toward unserved areas of the state. Additionally, because of policy reforms to the program, the Minnesota State Broadband fund leveraged Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) federal broadband funding to amplify connectivity into rural areas of the state. In total, Minnesota is expected to see half a billion dollars in combined state and federal broadband funding between 2015 and 2021.The legislature approved a total of $45 million in broadband grants during the 2015 and 2016 legislative session. When combined with federal CAF II funds, Minnesota will see more than $100 million in broadband expansion this year alone.

It’s great to see that investment happening in rural areas – although I think it’s helpful to remind folks that the CAF money only requires providers to upgrade to 10 Mbps down and 1 up (10/1) access, which is much slower that short term (25/3 by 2022) and long term (100/20 by 2026) Minnesota broadband speed goals.

He also mentions projects funded in his area…

A total of $2.94 million will be used by Lismore Cooperative Telephone Company for Nobles County broadband. This project will serve 469 unserved households, 1,060 unserved businesses and six unserved community anchor institutions in Nobles County. Lismore Cooperative and other partners will provide services that improve opportunities for health care, education and telecommuting.

Westbrook will also receive $412,391 through Woodstock Telephone. This project will serve 368 unserved households, 29 unserved businesses and seven unserved community anchor institutions in Westbrook in Cottonwood County. Woodstock will improve services that encourage business growth and more access to health care, education and telecommuting opportunities.

Constituents ask MN legislators to remember broadband promises

A letter to the Editor in the Daily Globe, from a frustrating constituent…

I was expecting the first few days of the legislative session to produce something from the House and the Senate. Maybe something about broadband, I thought, or something to help Minnesota families and farmers, etc. Instead, I see these two proposed bills coming from the Republican-controlled legislature:  a right to discriminate (allowing businesses to refuse service to LBGT communities) and a bathroom bill (which was shot down in 2015).

Are you kidding me? Listening very closely to House and Senate Republican campaign promises, I remember Bill Weber promised he would help lower health care premiums, help farmers and propel broadband to the top of the list of priorities.

Legislators think “broadband is not a high priority” for Minnesotans in 2017

According to InForum

A new report says $100 million in state money is needed every two years to help expand broadband high-speed internet throughout Minnesota, but rural lawmakers have said relatively little about it leading up to the 2017 Legislature.

In a series of Forum News Service lawmaker interviews before the session, none brought up the issue. When asked, rural legislators said more state aid is needed, but there was a feeling that the issue is less of a priority than in past years.

Getting enough money to expand broadband will be tough, “given the fact that there are other issues that get more attention,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said when asked.

The senator said that broadband is not a high priority for the general public when compared to improving roads and spending money on other issues.

“In some of our rural communities, you don’t know what you are missing if you don’t have it,” he said.

Local media picks up on Broadband Task Force: Wahpeton Daily, Hometown Focus, Politics in Minnesota

I will try to condense the media mentions of the Task Force report – especially when the stories are similar and based off the press release sent out by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Today I noticed articles in:

There was one difference in the stories – the Hometown Focus and Politics in Minnesota each mention the two-phase speed goals in Minnesota: ubiquitous access to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up (25/3) by 2022 and 100/20 by 2016. Wahpeton only mentions the 2022 goal, which I think is worth mentioning because while the 2022 goals would make Minnesota competitive by 2016 standards (25/3 is the current definition of broadband according to the FCC), I think 2026 goals aim at helping Minnesota be more competitive in the future.

Minnesota Broadband vs Wisconsin Broadband: Mankato says MN wins!

A recent editorial in the Mankato Free Press compares Minnesota and Wisconsin broadband policies…

Recent news out of Wisconsin highlighted two different approaches to economic development and a reaffirming perhaps that though the Badgers can still beat us in football and basketball, we’ve got their number when it comes to broadband development.

Gov. Scott Walker recently touted a recent $1.5 million annual investment in rural Wisconsin broadband, a figure that is not quite 5 percent of the investment the Minnesota Legislature approved last year.

They recognize the political sway behind the decision to back broadband…

It’s important to note that many outstate Minnesota Republicans in the Legislature broadly supported broadband and increasing the investment. They know that bringing technology to places lacking it allows businesses to expand and bolsters the outstate economy. We should not allow technology to be a limiting factor in quality of life in small town Minnesota. …

However, Republican support for rural broadband grants in Minnesota was not unanimous. In fact, Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the House jobs and energy affordability committee, at one point suggested doing away with all broadband grant money, saying the technology was going to be obsolete.

His Republican colleagues in outstate persuaded him to, if not change his mind about that idea, at least be quiet about it.

They set the tone for continued political support for broadband, even to a national level…

We hope the outstate Republican support for broadband shows that national Republican Party ideology does not drive economic development policy in Minnesota. Republicans were once called “Independent Republicans” in Minnesota. It seems some still are oriented that way for the good of outstate.

Broadband isn’t a one and done proposition for Minnesota

There’s a letter to the editor in the InForum today about broadband and/or politics. Mostly I think the intent was political…

Jay McNamar recently stated he was in favor of bringing broadband internet to Minnesota District 12A. While I am certainly glad to hear that, the phrase “a day late and a dollar short” comes to mind. I say this because our elected representatives, Jeff Backer and Torrey Westrom, were not only in favor of bringing home broadband, they have already done it. Through their efforts, state and federal funding has been allocated for rural broadband.

The writer is under the impression that broadband is done. The estimates I’ve heard to get the entire state covered is between $1-3 billion. The state funding is a $35 million appropriation, which requires a 1 to 1 match – but that still only means $70 million investment. That’s a far cry from what’s required.

The Border to Border Grant is in its third year of “one time” funding. But realistically we’re going to need a few more years of funding if we plan to leave no county behind.

Know a young person with an opinion on broadband? We’d love to know them too.

The Blandin Foundation is listening for the voice of MN youth to share with Minnesota community leaders and policy makers. We would love your help collecting young voices.

If you’re a young person (say under 30) please feel free to tell us what you think.

Please send us a video (or upload it to YouTube and send us the link) with you and/or a friend answering the following questions:

  • What is your name? Where are you from?
  • How do you use the Internet today? (Work, school, entertainment, get news…)
  • How do you think you’ll use it in the future?
  • Where do you get connected and do you ever have difficulty getting online? What are your roadblocks?
  • Would you move to a community or house without broadband access?

We will show videos at the 2016 Broadband Conference in Duluth. (In fact if you send us a video, we will work out a “young voice waiver” for free admission.) We will post the videos on the Blandin on Broadband blog and will be finding ways to use the videos to let policymakers know how important affordable access is in Minnesota. We are interested in the urban and rural views so if you have a rural connection, we encourage you to include it!

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me atreacy@treacyinfo.com or 651-239-4581.

Here’s a sample – the youth involved here is pretty young (my 12 year old daughter) but was ready, willing and able. And frankly even by 12, most folks who have had access to the Internet have an opinion:

Rochester is thinking about a community broadband plan: People are chiming in

Rochester is looking at community broadband options. The story and views on the options are playing out in the pages of the Post Bulletin. They have been getting a range of letters to the editor.

Here’s a quick look on the story…

The Rochester City Council and Rochester Public Utility Board have each heard conceptual presentations from private companies about the possibility of adding broadband service as a utility. Phone and cable television services could be added, as well. …

The report included a capital investment of about $53 million on the city’s behalf, a cost that would have to be issued in bonds, raising the total investment to near $67 million.

Alcatel-Lucent’s assumptions were also based on the new public utility securing a 30 percent market share of internet customers. While a low-cost and lower service option would see customers pay about $10 per month for broadband internet service, the study showed about 58 percent of customers paying $50 or more per month for service.

Given a 30 percent market share, Alcatel-Lucent projected the utility would be cash-flow positive within about four years, depending on whether phone and cable services were included.

They are deciding whether to move forward – and again they are getting feedback from a lot of people. Here’s a sample – in reverse chronological order:

Chris Mitchell from the Institute from Local Self Reliance supports the idea, pointing out that lack of local competition is an issue…

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

And the wealth of neighboring competition…

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

And encouraging Rochester to keep investigating…

Just don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing. …

At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are tracking more than 450 local governments that have made some kind of investment in better access. Some, like Cedar Falls, took on greater risk and debt to rapidly build a citywide network. Others, like Auburn in Indiana, adopted an incremental, multi-year approach.

Mike Schlasner also supports the move forward…

If we are not satisfied with our providers, we have the option of creating a community-owned broadband network. In fact, a 2015 Rochester Public Utilities survey indicates 76 percent of residential customers want RPU to investigate offering Internet service. …

It’s time for the Rochester to envision a new broadband future, one in which affordable, world-class broadband is available to all residents and businesses.

Nanct Bratud, Post Bulletin Advisory Committee Member, lists access to broadband as a way to make SE Minnesota better.

Annette Meeks, from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota does not support a community broadband effort citing

One reason for the failure of these Internet systems is the rosy projections offered to local officials in the form of free studies that show the local community is clamoring for faster speeds and better service based upon low construction costs estimates. The reality is that nearly every one of these assumptions is wrong, and it doesn’t take a lot of wrong assumptions to do a lot of harm to bond holders and taxpayers.

She encourages the City to spend with private providers instead…

Rather than risking and diverting precious Rochester taxpayer dollars on a questionable plan to construct a city-owned network, elected officials would be wise to consider advances underway by private sector Internet providers and to work with those providers who seek to better serve the city with greater innovation that Rochester desires and deserves.

Rochester City Council member Michael Wojcik recognizes broadband as a tool to attract news workers to the area…

“You have to look at what are successful communities doing to attract people, and what are we failing to do?” Wojcik said.

Wojcik singled out new technologies and public resources to be developed, including ride-sharing services like Uber, living options like Airbnb, population-dense environments oriented to public transportation, bicycle-friendly infrastructure and quality broadband internet access.

Brent Christensen from the Minnesota Telecom Alliance doesn’t support community broadband and encourages the city to look at existing private providers…

The current competitive market is important to consider because it will impact success, or more likely, the financial failure of a government-owned telecommunications network in the city.

An Editorial from the Post Bulletin staff encourages greater exploration…

Rochester Public Utilities staff was tapped to review the findings since the utility company would likely oversee the service, if adopted. Peter Hogan, RPU’s director of corporate services, said some of the estimates appeared flexible and more study was needed, which he estimated would take about 18 months and could cost nearly $1 million.

Council members were understandably hesitant to write a check, especially since efforts would also need the approval of RPU’s board of directors, but they did indicate support for moving forward in the quest for more answers.

It’s the right move. We’d encourage the council and RPU board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester’s economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city’s future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester’s businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Bad weather punctuates the need for better broadband

The St Cloud Times recently published an interesting editorial. The premise is that Minnesota needs better broadband. And the author seems to suggest that building a safety network first and expanding it is an approach worth considering…

This summer has included several weather-related disasters around our state. They offer us a reminder that affordable options for community-based emergency broadband infrastructure exist.

When a weather-related disaster occurs, oftentimes power outages follow. During those times, it becomes important to communicate across the community on an alternative access to the internet. The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development would like to see all Minnesotans able to access our internet. However, the agency fails to acknowledge that the first step lies with providing our communities with affordable community emergency broadband options that can then be scaled up to provide other decentralized internet access services.

The good news is that there are efforts to consider this approach. I know the Office of Broadband Development has spoken many times about their conversations with FirstNet. FirstNet is a national effort to build a safety network. The hope is that, especially in rural areas, that network might support growth in unserved areas – either through extra capacity of the network or through extra capacity in deploying the network – like build once, lay several extra strands of fiber or work out pole attachment coordination for multiple networks.

There’s also a little confusion on the idea of the public utility. The FCC was talking about the access to unfettered information – not an effort to deploy broadband as public infrastructure

Last year, the FCC reclassified communications over the internet as a public utility. Corporations are no longer able to control access to the internet. With that fact in mind, it’s time for Minnesota to act and institute affordable community broadband infrastructure for all communities.