Stirring the Pot: Superbowl, super broadband – what’s the best investment for your community?

As originally posted on Blandin eNews

The big game will have come and gone by the time you read this post.  A week from now, most of the event and marketing glitz will be removed – zip lines, ice sculptures, event stages and tents.  But some things will remain in place, especially newly installed telecommunications infrastructure.  At the next Broadband Task Force meeting, Minnesota’s largest ISPs will share details of their recent investments in a super-connected environment that I imagine encompasses most of downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and 494 strip, US Bank Stadium, the airport and other key sites.

This is a preview of the future that raises all kinds of question about the future. For rural community leaders, key questions include:

Stirring the Pot: Broadband Resolutions

As originally posted on Blandin eNews

While I have my own set of personal resolutions again this year,  I have also created a short list around my broadband work.  Here they are:

Get smarter about broadband co-ops

RS Fiber has shown that it is possible to create a new broadband cooperative and the citizens in their area are experiencing the benefits of ubiquitous high-speed broadband. Meanwhile, other communities are talking about the co-op model, but have not yet followed on this complex path. My resolution is to dig in on co-op formation and share what I learn.

Public policy advocacy

Broadband has moved from a “someday this will be important to your community” consideration to a “no one is coming to a place without quality broadband” crisis for rural Minnesota.  It is clear that no provider, whether publicly traded, co-op or government utility, can conventionally finance 100% of the required investment for a quality rural broadband network.  My resolution is to think and act more strategically about influencing public policy about broadband to benefit rural Minnesota.

Economic development

Roberto Gallardo’s Digital Divide Index https://wp.me/p3if7-4j8 illustrates the strong relationship between rural broadband availability and enhanced economic vitality.  We know from observation that access does not guarantee widespread effective use.  I resolve to help rural communities design and implement strategies that directly improves business and workforce outcomes.

Resolutions are always more fun when it is a group activity.  Who is in?

 

Stirring the Pot: Broadband as important as ice to ice fishing

As originally posted on Blandin eNews...

Ice fishing is one of my favorite winter recreation activities, but this year is proving problematic.  You can’t ice fish without ice and good ice is highly preferable to thin ice. We Minnesotans even have rules about ice – four inches to walk, 12 inches for a car.  All of my ice fishing preparation, experience and equipment is useless without ice.  It’s hard to plan for ice fishing with no ice and no one wants to fall through the ice and suffer possible deadly consequences.   If there was ice, I would make a reservation at a resort or possibly purchase a better fish house or sonar flasher that would make me a more productive ice angler.  This uncertainty is frustrating me and financially hurting the resort owner,  the sporting goods retailer and the many others that would like to sell me stuff and experiences.

Seems that those hoping for rural broadband deployment face a similar kind of uncertainty.  We have the broadband benchmarks for effective broadband use – 25 Mb/3 Mb by 2022, 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026, with Gigabit as the endgame.  Those places without quality broadband are now walking on thin ice: opportunities are falling through; businesses are stagnant praying for walk-in customers; and community leaders hoping for a reasonable provider partner solution.

Here in Minnesota, we can confidently rely on our northern climate to eventually provide real winter weather, at most, maybe a week or two late.  For communities lacking quality broadband, there is no such reassurance.  Dedicated community leaders need to act like the great north wind and create the necessary environment for broadband deployment.  So if you want to start this conversation in a fish house or anywhere else in your community, apply for Community Broadband Resources assistance at http://broadband.blandinfoundation.org. I encourage you to get organized now to begin work early in the new year!

 

 

Stirring the Pot: The Future is Now

As originally posted on Blandin eNews

Thanks to all who attended the broadband conference.  I have been to many such conferences both here in Minnesota and elsewhere and I have to say that this was a very good event.  Those who could not attend can check out the videos and PowerPoints listed above.

We had a great mix of community and regional leaders and tech vendors, especially many providers seeking community partners.  Noticeably absent were some of our largest providers which was their loss.  Special thanks to all of our presenters – from the pre-conference sessions to the learning stations.

For years, my presentations to community leaders were future-oriented – that broadband would be a necessity.  That the future is now.  Roberto Gallardo provided great data linking broadband availability and adoption to population and economic growth and also the inverse.  Our Minnesota case study project, led by Ann Treacy and supported by the testimony of our case study participants, demonstrates that smart economic development strategies built on a base of great broadband is enabling a clear separation between thriving and struggling rural communities.  The huge opportunity cost paid by broadband starved communities is evident as they focus on better broadband rather than marketing, workforce development, innovation and tech adoption.

My advice to those communities with great broadband: continue to partner with your providers to spur community transformation.  For those still seeking better broadband: double your efforts on network deployment, but don’t forget adoption efforts.  As people and investment increasingly choose well-connected communities, it will be increasingly hard to catch up.

Stirring the Pot: Border to Border is an ambitious goal

As originally posted on Blandin eNews...

My first thought as I write this column is to offer best wishes to the Office of Broadband Development staff as they review, rank and select projects for Border-to-Border grant funding.  Clearly the staff will be living in very interesting times over the next 90 days!  From the outside looking in, I am happy to be on the outside.

Over the past weeks, I have done a number of presentations to rural groups and individuals thinking about broadband.  The broadband grant eligibility map, with the large patches of unserved red areas, is always a great discussion starter.  The scope of the challenge seems overwhelming.  In contrast, most of the coverage maps supplied by the 2017 grant applicants document projects that cover very small areas – neighborhoods to townships.   The small coverage area exceptions are the wireless proposals.

Border-to-border is an ambitious goal.  One township at a time with wired services will take a long time.  The wired solution at least brings clarity as to which addresses receive service.  The wireless maps show seamless coverage, but I have heard from far too many rural residents that the wireless services “available” in their area cannot be used due to topography or tree cover.  The fiber projects promise Gigabit capabilities (some only on the download side) while the wireless projects commit to symmetrical 100 Mb services.

No matter how wise the choices of the Office of Broadband Development and the DEED leaders, we know that more than half the projects will not receive funding this year leaving communities and providers hoping for future funding.

 

Stirring the Pot: Good luck grant applicants

Originally posted on Blandin eNews

It’s now September and I want to wish “good luck!” to our MN Twins, Vikings and Gophers as they seek this fall, in the words of Gopher coach PJ Fleck, to be “elite!”

Much more importantly, I want to wish good luck to the many communities that are putting the final touches on their Border to Border Broadband grants.  I have been keeping close watch on more than a few of these efforts as communities work in different ways with broadband providers to submit winning applications.  These community efforts prove the wisdom of two famous quotes.  The first is Seneca’s “Good luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”  The other is Edison’s “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration!”  I know that most every grant applications will have had both plenty of preparation and perspiration motivated by both inspired leaders and a necessary grant program.

In fact, many communities know that just finding a quality broadband provider partner requires some luck, especially those on the short end of the stick!   With decisions about match levels, grants versus loans, market development efforts and subscription drives, everyone is trying to thread the needle to put forth the required public support to satisfy providers’ ROI requirements and to protect the public interest.  For those working to support a competitive provider, we are seeing sophisticated use of GIS mapping as they attempt to thread an even smaller needle on unserved and underserved considerations and CAF2/ACAM funded areas, plus anticipate prospective incumbent provider challenges.

I am counting on the staff at DEED OBD to rely not on luck, but instead on their good judgment (which I know they have in abundance).  I offer them my best wishes as they dig through what is sure to be far more funding requests than funds available.  They will need to sort through legislated criteria, program rules and technical and financial considerations.  That would be a tough job.  As I write this, I realize that maybe they could use some luck to add to their judgment and likely perspiration!

And when grant announcements are made, I will appreciate the joy that select Minnesotans will feel when they learn that their road, neighborhood, township or county has been funded for broadband improvements.  Personally, I prefer the projects that cover large geographic areas like counties or, at a minimum, multiple townships.  I fear when I see haphazard, incomplete infrastructure deployment – down one road, but not the next, maybe next year, maybe not.  While one area wins with unlimited FTTH, while across the road they may have “scalable” 25/3 or quite possibly less or nothing.  This is not really statewide broadband infrastructure planning and deployment; it’s more like a broadband lottery.  I think that we can do better.

Finally, rather than hoping for luck, I have high hopes that early next year, state policy makers will see that Minnesota’s efforts on rural broadband are incomplete.  The emerging regional broadband coalitions and the anticipated large number of 2017 unfunded grant applications make this fact self-evident.  Further state resources will be required to create the ubiquitous, world-class broadband networks that are the necessary platform for rural economic vitality and quality of life.

 

 

Stirring the Pot: A look at the broadband crisis

Originally posted on Blandin eNews...

A short time ago, I heard Andrew Cohill of Design Nine (www.designnine.com) describe the “broadband crisis” faced by communities poorly served with broadband.  The intensity of the truth in that statement is illuminated as I listen to rural residents describe their daily broadband challenges caused by some variable combination of availability, price, reliability, data caps and other service limitations.  Rural people of all ages, incomes and education levels are increasingly stymied as they try to live complete lives.

Many communities have high hopes on their in-process applications to the Border-to-Border Grant Program.  We will soon know how many grant applicants will be chasing the available $20 million, most likely totaling many times more requests than dollars. While some communities with established provider partners have only to assemble the details of the application by September 30, other communities face the difficult task of securing a provider to be a real community partner.  An application without an identified provider partner will not go far; taking all of the legal steps to become a public sector provider is even more daunting legal and political process.

As difficult as it is to find a partner, a community should still be very careful!  I would want a provider partner that was committed to deploying technology that is affordably, not just technically, scalable to achieve the 2026 state broadband goal and beyond.  I would want a commitment to achieve ubiquity in the project area and not leave some residents permanently un- or underserved.  Finally, I would want a partner that I could trust to provide their best efforts without having to reach into the file to confirm and enforce legal agreements on a regular basis.

Good luck to all in the pursuit of better broadband!  The future of your community is at stake.

Stirring the Pot: Deciphering Broadband Fact from Fiction

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation eNews...

Years ago, after an evening of minor teen misbehavior, I was advised by an older, wiser college student – “Deny everything!”  That strategy did not work out so well in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered by my parents.  Today, however, that strategy seems to have taken over by more skilled storytellers than me. Sometimes, it even seems to apply to our Minnesota broadband policy discussions.

Broadband is a complicated subject pairing dynamic technology with unsettled multi-level government policy.  I have learned much by listening to techies and wonks dispute present and future tech capabilities and government policies. No doubt, smart people can disagree on any and all facets of this discussion, but there are some things, driven by physics and business finance 101, that should be accepted as facts.

In spite of the complexity underlying these discussions, residents attend community broadband meetings knowing that they and their neighbors need better broadband.  They know it because they experience service shortfalls every day.  They know that they are paying far more for far less, or have no service at all.  Via the state broadband maps and reports, they learn that 70 percent of Minnesotans already have broadband that meets the 2026 state goal and that a growing number of rural Minnesotans are served by fiber to the home networks.

It is disappointing to me when demonstrably incorrect “facts” gain a life of their own, especially when policy makers repeat them to groups of citizens.  In the past 24 hours, I have heard the following statements expressed either directly or via second-hand accounts at community meetings:

  • CAF2 will solve the rural broadband problem so the state does not need to be involved.
  • Telephone companies cannot cross their existing exchange boundaries to compete.
  • If telephone companies invest in new infrastructure, they have to share it with competitors.
  • All CAF2 improvements must immediately meet the 25/3 FCC broadband standard.
  • Incumbent telephone companies are committed to further upgrade CAF2 networks in the near future.

I often wonder where statements like this begin, especially when they emerge simultaneously from all corners of the state.  I wonder if I am on the wrong mailing lists, watching the wrong channels or visiting the wrong web sites.  I would argue that all of the “facts” above are false, or at best, highly unlikely.

I encourage you to keep your guard up, do some fact-checking and base your local broadband policy and technology decisions on information that holds up to tough scrutiny.  Seeking the quality criticism can help you make your project stronger.  And if someone questions your choices based only on their “facts,” be confident that you have done your homework.

Stirring the Pot: Perspective drives terminology!

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation eNews

Perspective drives terminology!

If our broadband world were as simple as telephone services used to be, we would have broadband to all people and places.  It would be relatively affordable.  It would be world-class in capacity and reliability.  That world was a regulated monopoly where business subsidized residential and urban subsidized rural.

But we now have a complicated playing field with a mix of providers and technologies, including public sector entities.  Differing perspectives and values can drive very different decisions on broadband investment and deployment.  In addition, the same strategy may have different names depending on who does it.  Depending on where you sit, a strategy may be considered “smart” or “indefensible”.

Two examples:

  • When public sector entities collaborate for better Internet access and pricing, they call it “demand aggregation.” A competitive private sector provider would be accused of “cherry picking.”
  • When providers invest only in the areas that have the best potential returns, their “good business planning” is defined as “redlining.” Note that the redlined areas might be urban low-income neighborhoods or entire rural counties or regions.

Public officials expect that their public broadband investments will be well scrutinized.  They outline clear goals and publish their business plan.  Private sector providers would do well to make their network planning and business justification models more transparent.  Public input into those plans, either advice or resources, would add significant value for the providers while helping the public entities meet their important broadband goals.

Stirring the Pot: The gap is deepening

As originally post on Blandin Foundation’s eNews...

According to company press releases, this summer will see the launch of Gigabit (1,024 Mb) services by both Mediacom and Midco in many regional centers and smaller communities in Greater Minnesota.  As a cheerleader for better broadband, I believe that this is great news for the businesses and residents in those communities.  These upgrades rely on a robust middle mile network that can supply multi-gigabit capacity, plus upgrades of electronics to support DOCSIS 3.1 technology.  While some broadband purists will lament the lack of symmetrical upload speeds, the vast majority of home broadband and small business customers will not suffer appreciably with a 25 Mb upload service.

What does this mean for community broadband leaders?  Is the battle won so that everyone can relax?  Hmmm, not yet.  First, ensure that all of the community’s business districts have access to this new service, whether downtown, in a strip mall or in the industrial park.  If not, supporting these new connections through encouragement, market development, or partnership would be a great step.  More broadly, increasing the use of technology by all businesses is necessary – with a focus on business technology assessments, e-commerce classes, shared online marketing strategies, cloud applications and online security. Communities can promote the availability and use of qualified local IT vendors and increase IT training for residents of all ages.  Those who have heard my broadband presentations have heard me use the analogy of an unused exercise machine.  Don’t let your local network be used for hanging laundry!

The other implication of emerging urban and rural gigabit networks is that un- and underserved rural areas are now even further behind in the bandwidth race.  Increasingly in small towns to metro areas, those served with cable modem Internet service have starter Internet at 25 Mb or 50 Mb.  For those served with new CAF2 funded networks, those are likely to be the top available speeds.  Depending on location relative to fiber-fed electronics, many consumers will have something closer to 10 Mb/1 Mb service and many people will still be unserved.  Much of the economic production in greater Minnesota happens outside of city limits – agriculture, forestry, tourism-oriented businesses, home businesses and tele-workers.

So it seems that rural broadband advocates still have plenty of work to do.  To energize your efforts, consider using Blandin Foundation’s Community Broadband Resources program to support your community or regional efforts on infrastructure or adoption strategies.