Incorrect MN broadband maps making some areas ineligible for broadband grant and leaving students offline

MinnPost reports on folks in rural areas trying to keep up with distance eudcation depsite spotty broadband and the maps that are overstating their access and making it harder to get grants and other funding to upgrade to sufficient broadband. They spoke with a family in in Lake Shore, a northern Minnesota community served by the Brainerd Public Schools district – but I’ve heard similar in other places too…

Ideally, for a faster, more reliable connection, they’d connect their home to the local provider’s nearest cable hub box, located just a quarter mile down their driveway. But it’s never going to happen, Moore says, because the expense of building out that connection isn’t an economical one for the provider.

She’d like to apply for state grant dollars allocated to these very projects in rural communities. But on state maps, her household gets marked as covered by a local provider — a glitch in the system that makes her and many in her community ineligible.

“Until that gets fixed, lots of communities like ours are going to be passed over. We’ll still have kids going to school, people working from home,” she said. “We’re waiting for the system to catch up with reality.”

The article gives a deserved nod to Rep Ecklund and Sen Westrom, who have each been pushing funding in the Minnesota Legislature. And shows the DEED served/unserved map – that most readers will know (also show at right). They talk about the school’s survey too..

In early May, the state Department of Education asked all public school districts and charter schools to self-report the number of individual students without internet access or access to a device for distance learning. The data set isn’t complete, but based on the counts provided by 540 districts and charter schools — including the state’s three largest districts — 20,899 students were still lacking access to a device in early May, and 21,523 were still lacking internet access.

According to the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA), those counts seem a bit low. Their analysis shows that nearly 31,000 rural public students live in households that do not have adequate broadband access (defined as a connection with at least 25 Mbps download speed and at least 3 Mbps upload speed), accounting for 85 percent of the statewide total. The association arrived at these estimates by combining the Minnesota State Office of Broadband Development coverage maps with the American Community Survey data on households with persons under age 18 in each school district, along with state Department of Education data on 2018-19 student enrollment.

I know the survey I received as a parent did not define broadband or access. It asked if we had access to the Internet. I’ve heard the same from folks in other districts. So access at grandma’s may have been counted – even if that isn’t’ 25/3.

Another deserved nod to broadband providers and recognition that they cannot keep giving away access AND invest in future, better soltuions…

The scope of the need, when it comes to closing the digital divide, has also been blurred by the goodwill of providers that stepped up by offering free services and hotspots to districts and families across the state, to finish out the school year from home. …

“It’s not a sustainable model, for the long-term,” she said. “We’ll have to figure out something else.”


Broadband maps are unreliable – even in Minnesota

Broadband Breakfast reports…

Broadband Breakfast Live Online panelists on Wednesday said that current broadband maps are insufficient and that they are harming the people they are meant to serve.

The forum was an opportunity for participants to describe the state of broadband in their respective areas as well as the applications of various services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speakers included Glenn Fishbine, chief technology officer at NEO Partners, LLC, Eric Frederick, vice president for community affairs at Connected Nation, Brian Webster, CEO of Wireless Mapping Inc. and Russ Elliot, director of the Washington State Broadband Office.

The article include a map “showcasing areas in which Connected Nation had low confidence in broadband connectivity reports — which included almost all supposedly connected regions.” I’ve included it here and you can see what Minnesota looks like.

They used an example from Minnesota…

For example, a Minnesota broadband company called Radio Link Internet offers 300-megabyte symmetric wireless, which disqualifies areas under its service for grants. But a NEO Partners study found that Radio Link had not undergone an LTD speed test in the previous 12 months.

“We are seeing the impact of bad reporting by individual ISPs either because they’re clumsy or they don’t know what they’re doing or because the process is broken,” Fishbine said. “But this is taking a large number of communities out of the pool of potential grant applications.”

Webster said that for broadband maps to transition away from clunky inaccuracy, they have to move to the household level.

It’s hard to get good mapping. Broadband coverage changes almost daily. The ISP tends to report in broadband swaths, which can overstate coverage. Speed tests rely on so many moving pieces including broadband speed between the connection to the node, to the home and then the quality of the device. But these maps are important because eligibility for funding – for billions of dollars – is often based on mapping.

Connect Minnesota Mapping Update

Yesterday Brent Legg from Connected Nation gave a presentation to the Minnesota Commerce and Labor Committee Telecom Regulation and Infrastructure Division. (You can download audio of the meeting.) As you may recall, Connect Minnesota, a subsidiary of Connected Nation, received almost $500,000 for broadband planning activities over a five-year period in Minnesota from the NTIA as part of the ARRA broadband funding. Brent was kind enough to share his presentation with me. It’s a sneak preview of sorts since they will be doing a more formal launch of their finding in two weeks. (The details aren’t set, I’ll post them when I get them, but it sounds like a webinar during the week of May 17.)

The presentation outlines the project objectives:

  • To further develop strong working relationships with all of Minnesota’s broadband providers and support an environment of public/private collaboration on broadband issues among all stakeholders
  • To update and improve Minnesota’s detailed maps of broadband coverage and launch a new robust, more user-friendly interactive map
  • To utilize the resulting maps to accurately pinpoint any remaining gaps in broadband availability
  • To assess the level of connectivity currently provided to Minnesota’s “community anchor institutions” (i.e., schools, libraries, hospitals, etc.)
  • To assess broadband use among Minnesota’s businesses and residents, and identify barriers to broadband adoption, and
  • To support the work of the Minnesota Broadband Task Force’s successor as needed

It sounds as if they have had success getting data from providers. Their most recent maps include data from 100 out of 120 providers. More data is expected from 18 more providers; two providers have elected not to participate in the mapping.

Spoiler alert – here are their key findings:

  • 95.55% of Minnesota households have access to broadband service of at least 768 kbps downstream
  • 4.45% of Minnesota households are unserved, representing approximately 93,000 unserved households

They have created a tool (BroadbandStat) that will allow end user to perform interactive searches, such as search for and identify broadband service at a specific address, including available speeds and service providers. (You can learn more about the functionality of BroadbandStat on slide 11.)

Connect Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Commerce are working together on the mapping. As part of the project award, Connect Minnesota was required to have a state partner; their partner is the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce is establishing a project steering committee to work directly with Connect Minnesota. Getting the State and Connect Minnesota working together is great – some of my favorite maps coming out of the initial efforts were the maps created when DEED and Connect Minnesota seemed to work together to create maps for the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force meeting in March 2009.

I’m looking forward to learning more at the formal/public launch.

Connect Minnesota on mapping plans

Connect Minnesota received approximately $1.2 million for broadband data collection and mapping activities over a two-year period and almost $500,000 for broadband planning activities over a five-year period in Minnesota, bringing the total grant award to approximately $1.7 million. I posted on that late last year. (Or you can see the press release here.)

The Connect Minnesota folks were kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the upcoming mapping project:

How specifically will the new maps build on the old?

The new mapping project will differ in several ways from the previous work that we have done in Minnesota. The new project will consist of the following activities:

  1. Updating and maintaining the broadband availability map for at least two years
  2. Gathering speed data by provider
  3. Identifying and assessing the level of connectivity at each of the state’s “community anchor institutions” (government offices, schools, libraries, hospitals, emergency services operations centers, etc).
  4. More robust on-the-ground availability data validation
  5. Research on broadband use and barriers to broadband adoption at the county level and benchmarking that research on a yearly basis for five years
  6. Launching a new, more user-friendly interactive broadband mapping application called BroadbandStat, which will allow greater flexibility and customization

Will you be looking at the demand issues?

As mentioned above, we will be undertaking a rather exhaustive survey research project where we will assess broadband usage and barriers to broadband adoption, among several other things, on a yearly basis for five years. That will allow us to benchmark the results over time. This work will be done on a county-by-county basis, so statistically-significant results will be available for each county. Relevant statistics will also be added as an additional data layer to the interactive mapping application called BroadbandStat. Additionally, we will continue to collect broadband inquiries via the Connect Minnesota web site,, and keep a record of high demand in unserved areas.

Will you be able to focus more on testing the numbers supplied by providers?

The new mapping program will allow for a more robust data verification process that will involve more on-the-ground data validation by our engineering team. Additionally, the survey research data and the broadband inquiries received via the web site will be matched up with the coverage information on the map to see where discrepancies exist.

I know you were able to get most of the providers to cooperate – but is there an approach to get the stragglers to engage too?

We will continue to reach out to all providers across the state to build relationships and collect data. Since this is a stimulus-funded program, there are actually more opportunities and benefits for providers to participate – especially since being included on the maps and information delivery to NTIA allows the provider to be eligible for future grants and funding.

How does the earlier map give us a leg up on a better end product or save us money?

Having broadband mapping completed in the past certainly gives the state a leg up, as providers are familiar with Connected Nation and the processes necessary to collect and aggregate the data to create the maps. This allows us to go back to these providers that we have already developed relationships with to collect the additional pieces requested by NTIA and any updates to their service areas. The earlier map will also allow us to track broadband deployment progress for a longer period of time.

Will you be updating the map incrementally or providing a sneak preview as you did with the earlier map?

As of right now, the maps will be updated every six months past the initial delivery to NTIA. Map updates will correspond to these deliveries. The online map will be updated on an ongoing basis. Just like we did for the earlier Connect Minnesota map we will encourage consumers to play a role in the verification of the maps – and as that feedback comes in we will make updates in real time to any discrepancies that are found.

Will you be able to employ local folks to get the job done?

For mapping purposes, CN’s staff will be augmented through the use of a few subcontractors, selected through a competitive bid process approved by the NTIA and the state agencies of each state that Connected Nation is working with. We’re always looking for opportunities to bring people onboard who live in the states in which we are working.

What will/can be done to keep the maps updated in the future?

NTIA has requested maintenance updates every six months past the initial delivery of broadband information. We will be reaching out to all providers continuously for updates to service areas and information.

How much of the raw data or segment of single factors be available?

Data requested for delivery to NTIA has been deemed public. Connected Nation has worked with ESRI to develop an appropriate interface for public consumption that will contain some of these pieces as well as an interactive interface for information on available services.

Will guys continue to be generous with overlaying the demographic info (economic map et al) with the broadband maps?

Yes, we will continue creating the demographic maps based on the NTIA requested information. The BroadbandStat web application will also allow for greater customization for Minnesota, and will provide a more user-friendly interface for overlaying multiple data layers, and adjusting the transparency of each one to create better views.