The opportunity for great broadband all across Minnesota – Border to Border – is upon us due to federal funding. The question for us all is “Are we prepared to maximize the long-term value of these pending investments?” Personally, I don’t think so. Instead, I fear that the state will continue to fund seemingly random projects with little regard for a systematic approach to the goal.
When I work with communities – whether tribal governments, counties, economic regions or townships – time is invested in coming to consensus on community vision, and then developing strategies to achieve that vision. Vision and strategy elements might include symmetrical services, affordability, reliability and customer service. Communities are also focused on having at least one provider that is ready to be a great community and economic development partner. I have seen time after time where these compelling visions and smart strategies have resulted in countywide fiber to the home networks that provides a platform for long-term community vitality. Or, at a minimum, a planned approach leading to significant progress towards the vision.
There are many states that are actually taking the lead in broadband planning and development. Recent examples include a 38-county consortium in California that is partnering with Utopia to build a rural open-access fiber network. Vermont is all-in on Communications Union Districts. New Mexico is partnering with community-focused broadband providers on a statewide broadband network (MN already has this through the Aurora network assembled by community-oriented providers). These are great examples of state leadership which we have not seen here in Minnesota. The Governor’s Broadband Task Force Report focuses on almost exclusively on maps and grant details with no regard to vision. Frankly, when I hear about the “Minnesota broadband model”, I am thinking that we have a Model T rather than a state-of-the-art Tesla.
Minnesota has created and relied on an inconsistently funded broadband grant program as its primary broadband development strategy. The approved grants cover the gamut in terms of geographic size and amount, thus leaving pockets of adjacent, unserved residents with no promise of improved service in the future. In the last funding round, projects with projected upload speeds of 20 Mbps were funded which are guaranteed to not meet tomorrow’s needs.
Minnesota’s application to the US Treasury for the Capital Funds has not been made public, but I assume it mirrors the current Border to Border Grant Program. The upcoming BEAD application process represents the last, best chance for Minnesota to develop a broadband vision and strategy that helps Minnesota achieve the vision created through a collaborative process at the 2015 Minnesota Border to Border Conference: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.” The BEAD application process is a great opportunity for Minnesota to use the BEAD process to update this vision AND develop smart strategies to achieve the vision. Community broadband champions know what’s best for their communities and regions and have great ideas on how to achieve the vision often accumulated through years of effort. Let’s not miss this opportunity!
Congratulations to both of Minnesota’s East Central Region and Alexandria Lakes Area for making this year’s Smart 21 Communities list. This recognition means that these communities’ economic development teams are doing some great thinking and working on the future! I have been promoting the Intelligent Community concept through my work with Blandin Foundation for more than a decade – first, with the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Community initiative, and then followed by the Blandin Broadband Communities program. Depending on how you count, we have worked with more than 50 “communities, “ including cities, counties, tribal governments and regional planning commissions, even a unique multi-community effort called the “Central Woodlands” in the northern section of east central Minnesota.
The Intelligent Community concept transforms the thinking around the pursuit of broadband infrastructure from the end in itself to the creation of a platform for community vitality. Many of you have heard my analogy of broadband infrastructure as an exercise bike. To achieve benefit, you need to actually get up off the couch and pedal. ICF views broadband infrastructure as supporting workforce, innovation, digital inclusion, sustainability, and community engagement activities. Blandin has funded hundreds of projects to get communities up and pedaling that has increased community tech vitality.
The real value in the ICF framework is where the various elements connect; it is there where there is great opportunity for cross-sector collaboration and systemic transformation. Strategic thinking and partnerships among universities, businesses, and government partners are essential for big picture initiatives that can support long-term community competitiveness. You also need to include the general citizenry! The ICF model requires “adaptive community coalitions,” a phrase used by the New York Times Tom Friedman at last year’s Blandin broadband conference. Or, in the ideal, what I would say is getting the right people together at the right time to do the right thing! Or in real life, “getting some of the right people together, not too late, to do the best you can!”
Communities that work together over a long time, like the Alexandria Lakes Area and the East Central Region, build the relationships and trust to be successful. The Alexandria Economic Development Commission has worked in close partnership with the Alexandria Technical and Community College for 40 years through the Minnesota Star City Program and beyond that program’s life. That work continues. Similarly, Pine Technical College has been building a regional economic development coalition for almost as long. The positive results are evident. Congratulations to their past, present and emerging leaders!
Over the past year, Blandin Foundation has worked with eight rural communities on its Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! Program. Each community recruited a team of at least eight broadband champions – elected officials and staff, school technology coordinators and superintendents, economic development and chamber officials, and citizen volunteers. I thank them for their dedication and congratulate them on their progress!
The broadband shortcomings in these communities – six counties, one tribe and one city – do not revolve around getting good broadband to one or two homes, or even a neighborhood. These communities face persistent and systemic shortcomings crossing, in most cases, the majority of the land area in these places. Even where cities are considered served, community surveys indicate that many people are unhappy with the reliability of the service and the poor customer service. The same surveys have documented the efforts that individuals have made in an attempt to obtain broadband services. Some respondents have called area providers regularly to ask about service availability. many others have simply given up and adapted as best they can to combinations of Internet service – cellular hotspots, traditional satellite, inconsistent fixed wireless service. Their stories are amazing.
Through the Accelerate Program, these community leaders are creating and pursuing the deployment of widespread, high-quality broadband solutions covering large areas. They are working intensely with providers of all types in a variety of ways. Minnesota should not be pursuing strategies or passing legislation that supports treating broadband as a question of getting broadband to one or two, one or two hundred or one or two thousand houses. We can and need to do a lot better than this type of small thinking. High quality, at scale. Solve the problem.
I want to take this opportunity to recognize the tremendous leadership that benefits rural Minnesota communities every day. Over the last several months, our Blandin team has completed work with one set of four Blandin Broadband Communities (BBCs) and launched initiatives with a new cohort of six BBCs to develop and implement community technology projects using the Intelligent Community model as a framework to improve broadband, address digital inclusion, develop workforce, spur innovation and support community engagement. The BBC program is all about “What is going to be different with broadband?” At the same time, we are midway through the Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! program that focuses intensely on how our four participating communities can get better broadband. Both programs have proven effective over the years – the BBC program (originally MIRC Demonstration Communities) was recognized by both the MN High Tech Association and the Economic Development Association of Minnesota for excellence. The Accelerate! program helped two of the original four participating communities receive almost $6 million in grants before the 14 week program was even completed!
Our Blandin team provides some pretty good assistance, but nothing would be possible without the community leaders – elected, staff, and volunteers that devote countless hours to these initiatives. Few of these leaders know much about broadband when they begin this journey, but they excel in learning, teaching, motivating, encouraging, tracking, reporting, and doing – creating opportunities and positive results for their community. I have a memory bank full of these leaders and I think of them often, stirred by a trip through their town, a similar personality or incident.
For those of you long in the trenches, I want to thank you for your efforts and commitment. For those of you new in community initiatives, know that you can make a tremendous difference, both in the short and long term success of your community. I have forgotten who first told a crowd of leaders, “In rural areas, you do not need a title, just start doing things!” And as Bernadine often says “Bring a friend.” That is true now more than ever. Keep up the good work!
The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality educators help communities navigate their futures. Bill Coleman has been working with them to create short micro-learning videos that highlight economic and community development emerging ideas, new research, best practices and lessons learned.
By January 2023, many of the decisions affecting long-term rural broadband investment and deployment decisions will be made. Local governments will have allocated their ARPA dollars. States will have created and begun implementing their BEAD plans. NTIA will have awarded the funds from their Broadband Infrastructure, Tribal Broadband Connectivity and Connecting Minority Communities Programs. The FCC will have finalized their due diligence on RDOF funds. Everyone will have their own eligibility and technical requirements. It is hard to imagine how all of this chaos will turn out and even, harder to imagine that it will turn out as well as we hope. To quote famous railroad man Leonor Loree, “This is no way to run a railroad.”
The current broadband investment boom compares closely to the railroad boom of the late 19th Century. The federal government, led by President Lincoln, spurred private investment in the trans-continental railroads. Decisions made in Washington DC and in state capitols determined local futures. Communities invested their own precious local dollars with railroad developers with mixed results. There were many winners and losers, just like today. With the many positives of population and economic growth came monopolies, robber barons and swindlers as well as loss of tribal lands. The effects of these 19th Century decisions can still be seen on our US geography today. (As a side note, abandoned rail lines are now bike trails which demonstrates the ongoing value of infrastructure investment even if the long term benefits are drastically different than anticipated.)
Lewis Carroll’s “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” highlights the range of community role choices. To ensure that your community ends up as a busy station on an advanced broadband network, community teams must carefully create their community vision and then assume the roles necessary to achieve that vision. Or wait for someone to do something and hope for the best.
With ARPA funds, some communities will simply issue an RFP that invite providers to make proposals, selecting the projects that provide the best results in terms of cost per household, number of households, quality of service, etc. without much discussion of “What’s next?” or “How do we get service to the next group of houses down the road?” I fear that many of these incomplete solutions will be permanent with long lasting impacts. Others will work with provider partners ready to embrace a comprehensive solution to your community broadband needs. This approach requires community leaders to adopt John Henry – the famous steel driving man – as the role model. Here is some motivation
And then again, maybe not! 🙂 If not the lyrics, get inspiration from the teamwork!
The availability of locally controlled federal funds and the opportunity for competitive state and federal funding has motivated multiple townships, cities and counties to move broadband funding up the priority list. It’s kind of like a kid in a candy store after his after receiving cash gifts. This kid is faced with so many choices – what kind of candy, how much candy, favorite candy only or mix-it-up? How can/do they want to share their candy with others? If not candy, what else could they buy? One big difference…most kids have some good knowledge about candy and know exactly what they want to do and I expect that many elected officials would not have the same confidence in their decision making.
For those communities wanting to improve their confidence in their broadband decisions and strategies, I recommend that they participate in Blandin’s Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! Program. Over 14 weeks, community teams of at least eight members meet weekly and learn about broadband technologies, review their current situation, interview current and prospective ISP partners, set policies and priorities and create plans and partnerships .
Keeping up with broadband news and information can be a challenge. Emerging state and federal funding programs, new technologies, and regulatory decisions are all in the news mix. How can community leaders keep up?
I have some trusted sources; I do consulting work for two of them. Here is a summary of what I read:
Blandin on Broadband (of course!) Subscribe at www.blandinonbroadband.org. A great summary of everything Minnesota broadband. This blog is a great resource for daily news and also a great searchable archive for policy and strategy ideas.
Pots and Pans by CCG. Subscribe at https://potsandpansbyccg.com. Doug Dawson, one of my favorite broadband consultants, provides daily, thoughtful essays on technology, telecom industry news, community broadband and consumer trends. This is a must-read for all community broadband advocates.
Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Daily Digest. Subscribe at https://www.benton.org/headlines. I work on the Benton team for the Illinois Connected Communities Program. Benton provides a wide ranging broadband policy news digest on both broadband infrastructure and digital equity issues. They produce their own, high quality original research and spread the word on other policy papers and news.
Blandin Foundation offers a couple approaches for communities wanting to work on broadband access and use. The Foundation is recruiting communities right now for both approaches.
Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) – The BBC program requires a community team – City, County, School District, Tribal Government, or multi-county region – to work on both broadband access and use over an 18-24 month period. Communities receive leadership education, facilitation and grant resources to plan and implement projects that improve broadband access and use. This might include anything from wi-fi hotspots to e-commerce assessments and training to tele-health to training elders. Each community receives up to $75,000 to implement projects. Projects must fall into one or more of the six Intelligent Community framework, including broadband, workforce, innovation, digital equity, sustainability and/or community engagement. Blandin has worked with more than 40 communities on this program and the results always surpass expectations, even in this virtual environment.
Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! – This program is focused on equipping your community broadband team to successfully plan and implement broadband infrastructure projects. Over a 16-week timeframe, community teams watch online broadband webinars, then meet Friday mornings for two hours to learn more about that week’s topics and plan the upcoming broadband development efforts. Through the program, community teams conduct surveys, interview incumbent and prospective providers, develop consensus around local broadband partnership and finance strategies, etc. We have just completed our first cohort of four county/tribal communities and now these communities are off and running on prospective broadband public-private partnership projects, including the pursuit of federal grants.
If you are interested in either of these programs, please contact Bill Coleman at 651-491-2551 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Application timelines on both programs are short, so do not delay.
For rural community broadband champions, pursuing better broadband has never been more complicated. Factors that currently have me thinking, if not stumped include:
Will the winning RDOF bidder be approved by the FCC?
If yes, what will their buildout schedule look like till 2027?
Will they build-out the adjacent non-RDOF areas?
Will Starlink maintain the 100 Mb+ speeds once they move from beta to large customer numbers?
Will they be able to deliver, as promised, to 300 Mb and beyond?
How will low-income households afford $500 or more in upfront costs?
Will other DSL providers follow ATT’s lead and phase out DSL services?
Will the majority of rural DSL customers ever see widespread speeds that support multiple users?
We should know more about some of these questions soon; other will emerge more slowly.
The 1996 Telecom Act was supposed to spur competition, but we are going backwards. In many communities, from affluent suburbs to small rural communities, residents are effectively subject to the services, pricing and responsiveness of an unregulated monopoly provider. Community leaders need to decide whether this is that a good thing.
The costs to build a fiber infrastructure in a community are low for a 30-year asset. Community broadband advocates should analyze the multiple options for creating community-owned networks and promote them to elected officials. Locally-owned networks serve the community as their first priority.
Ammon ID (https://www.ammonfiber.com) is building and maintaining its own fiber network where residents now have their choice of Gigabit providers for $49.50 per month. Chattanooga TN (https://epb.com/home-store/internet) offers a Gb for $68 per month and solved its pandemic-magnified digital divide issue by simply providing free 100 Mb Internet to 28,000 students. A new study documented a $2.69 billion long-term benefit from Chattanooga’s fiber network.
We will also talk about the mixed experience of Minnesota’s publicly owned broadband networks (wonders and warts!), including Southwest MN Broadband, the Cities of Windom and Monticello and Scott and Lake Counties. And, maybe a bit on how new and expanded cooperatives might accomplish the same goals. Join us!