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.

Stirring the Pot: Chisago Lakes Area quest as America’s Best Community!

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

This month I offer congratulations to Chisago Lakes Minnesota.  Two years ago, five small towns decided to identify and work together as one community in the America’s Best Communities competition sponsored by Frontier Communications, Dish Network, The Weather Channel and Co-Bank. Chisago Lakes includes Chisago City, Lindstrom, Center City, Shafer and Taylors Falls and several townships, a total population of about 20,000.  Leadership for this initiative has come from all sectors – business, health care, local units of government, community volunteers, the school district, Chisago County EDA/HRA, community foundation and chamber of commerce.  I am honored to have worked with Chisago Lakes throughout this planning and implementation process.  They have proven that both vision and leadership matters.

Chisago Lakes was one of more than 400 communities that submitted initial applications to ABC in pursuit of the top prizes of $3 million, $2 million and $1 million dollars.  Clearly, the prospective rewards were a huge motivation for the Chisago Lakes community to enter this competition, especially in the first several meetings.  After that, the positive rewards of working together towards a clearly defined mission on community-established priorities overwhelmed the focus on the awards.  Of course, the idea of winning $3 million dollars is always a pretty good motivator when momentum slowed!

As one of 50 quarter-finalists, Chisago Lakes was awarded $50,000 to create their economic revitalization plan.  They used these funds for project management outside consulting, feasibility studies and community engagement.  The plan has six elements: Marketing and Branding; Broadband and Technology; Energy; Healthy Community; Trails; and Workforce.  Based on this written plan, Chisago Lakes was selected as one of 15 communities to share their plans via a ten-minute presentation in Durham North Carolina.  So much to say, so little time.  Many hours went into creating and practicing that ten-minutes so that every word mattered.   Chisago Lakes’ pitch moved us forward as one of eight finalists.

Even before being named a finalist, we had begun implementing our plan.  With the $100,000 finalist prize in hand, Chisago Lakes continued to implement its plan using mostly volunteers on self-directed work teams.  They used the plan to guide their work, pivoting as necessary and as opportunities arose.  Late in the year, a housing team formed and began work on a key community issue that had been identified as a priority in our planning process, but had been set aside due to the long timelines on housing development. Success on the other projects encouraged housing leaders to initiate their efforts.

ABC Judges are now at work reviewing Chisago Lakes’ work on the 19 specific projects documented in more than 70 pages of reports. Well over 100 community volunteers worked to implement the plan. Multiple hundreds participated in ABC – related events.  Several million dollars were invested in these projects – by telecommunications providers, electric utilities, local businesses, and government. Needless to say, the excitement is building in Chisago Lakes.  The announcement is April 19th in Denver.  Such amazing results! Good luck Chisago Lakes!!

Building a case for $35 – $50 Million per Year for the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program

Legislators need to be aware of the broadband planning occurring in Greater Minnesota.  Counties are taking the lead and banding together to achieve cost savings and scale.  They share a goal to provide a long-term, high quality broadband solution that meets 2026 state broadband goals for all of their county residents, while rejecting partial solutions that leave all or part of their county behind.

The following projects vary in their readiness, but local teams are working with consultants on feasibility studies to gather market demand, cost and financing data while attempting to build partnerships with willing providers for an expected September 2017 Border to Border Broadband Grant deadline. These feasibility studies are expensive, but are essential to create a broadband business and financing plan.  Moving from community broadband discussion to feasibility study to private public partnership is a multi-year, resource-intensive process.

While there are always uncertainties in competitive broadband deployment, the annual uncertainty at the Capitol wreaks havoc on these broadband business plans.  Everyone recognizes that these projects, by incumbent or competitor, require subsidy to be sustainable.  Without state funding, these projects become more improbable.  Yet, these communities persist because they now know the stakes are high!

These projects represent more than 120,000 households that do not have broadband services at the 2026 state broadband standard.   Funding all of these projects would be a considerable investment, but would move rural Minnesota considerably closer to achieving the 2026 goal while leveraging significant private and other public sector investment.  State leaders should recognize that a lack of broadband will leave these places permanently behind.

Aitkin County
With only 3.7 households per square mile, Aitkin County is extremely difficult to serve.  The county economic development office has been working on broadband for a decade with little progress made until a 2016 broadband grant to Mille Lacs Energy in partnership with CTC.  CTC staff advocates for a higher grant percentage in places like Aitkin County as a necessity for their continued investment.  Such a heavily forested area is an unlikely candidate for a wireless solution

Kandiyohi County
While Willmar has competitive broadband services, the rural Kandiyohi county are left behind.  The county was fortunate to have two providers receive grant funding in 2016, but the remaining areas are considerably more rural and will require higher subsidies to facilitate projects.

Kanabec County
This historically poor county has pursued better broadband for many years, including the investment in a broadband feasibility study.  To date, they are unable to find a partner with which it can find an effective financial solution.  A small portion of the county has seen CAF2 investment, but the reach and quality of service is still uncertain.  Even with the county’s willingness to provide long-term loans, providers have lacked interest in Kanabec County.  They continue to talk with incumbents, cooperative telephone companies and their local electric cooperative to find a solution within the financial capabilities of the county.

Otter Tail County
Otter Tail County is one of the larger rural counties in both geography and population.  As a desirable tourism area, the county has had success encouraging telework as an economic development destination in areas where broadband is available.

Redwood County
Redwood County has been working on broadband for several years and has completed a feasibility study.  They have achieved some limited success as existing providers have edged out their broadband services to the rural areas still leaving large unserved areas.

Six SW MN Counties
Chippewa, Yellow Medicine, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray and Pipestone Counties are collaborating on a regional feasibility study to gather data and to consider prospective partnerships.  These very low-density population counties need broadband in rural areas to support precision agriculture and farm families.

Traverse County
Traverse County has completed a feasibility study and is pursuing a partnership with a wireless provider.

Pope County
Pope County has completed a feasibility study and has emerging partnerships with a number of providers delivering services in served areas of Pope County and surrounding counties.

Isanti County
Isanti County is in process of selecting a feasibility study consultant.  They have been communicating with existing wired and wireless providers in hopes of agreeing to partnership terms with one or more providers.

Roseau County
Roseau Electric Cooperative is considering broadband deployment strategies.

Collaborative Community Applications

  1. Ely, Winton and surrounding area
  2. Orr, Cook, Bois Forte, Mountain Iron, Buhl, Kinney, Hibbing, & Chisholm

 

Compiled by:
Bill Coleman
Community Technology Advisors
651-491-2551
bill@communitytechnologyadvisors.com

 

Stirring the Pot: Broadband Vision and Values

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

While on vacation and reading randomly on Facebook and Twitter, I read an excellent article about someone retiring from the US Department of State after a long career.  The article is long gone from my news feed.

His career distilled to its essence – “Never underestimate your ability to accomplish great things based on vision and values.”  As a specialist in European affairs, he marveled at the falling of the Berlin Wall and other eastern European government transformations in the 1980’s without a shot being fired.  He believed that the USA had significant and positive influence by leading with our long and widely held vision and values summarized by “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Similarly, communities need to decide, “What are our broadband vision and values?”  Hard questions about ubiquity, affordability, capacity, ownership and management need to be asked, discussed and determined through engagement processes that include both leaders and citizens. Failure to do this hard work allows communities to pursue projects lead to dead-ends or off of a cliff, or to nowhere at all. Vision and values can remain consistent in a dynamic broadband environment of technologies, providers, government programs and community leadership. With shared broadband vision and values, it is far easier to set the course, know if you are making progress and when you have reached your destination.

Stirring the Pot – speaking to legislators about broadband

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband

Those readers that know me know that I can go on about broadband for a long time.  I can talk about broadband demand, technologies, economic impact, private-public partnerships and just about any other broadband topic.  So, I am facing a considerable challenge when I consider how to best use my allotted three minutes before a legislative committee this week. http://wp.me/p3if7-3U9

My key points will be:

1)      The pain felt by unserved rural Minnesotans is real.  From lower property values to increased costs of high priced satellite and cellular services or too frequent trips into town to get online, the lack of broadband hurts students, small business owners, farmers and all who live in the countryside.  For a

better understanding of how important broadband is to rural Minnesotans, I suggest that you read some of the posts on some of our broadband providers’ Facebook pages.  You will share the excitement of those just hooked up to real broadband services and feel the pain of those left behind with little or no broadband or unreliable broadband.

2)      Please know that rural elected officials are hungry for real and effective public private partnerships.  While every project is different, creating legal and smart pathways to public-private partnerships that minimize legal expense and maximize broadband investment would be of high value and low cost.  Every community or county should not have to create their own unique way to partner and finance projects, often by bending existing tools to fit broadband investment.  In addition, broadband providers willing to engage in real partnerships should be rewarded for their commitment to rural Minnesota.  A real partnership means that providers have some skin in the game.

3)      We cannot solve rural Minnesota’s broadband problems one township at a time.  We need countywide and multi-county projects that address large geographic areas and that do not leave pockets of people behind.  These larger projects will probably require

multi-year funding commitments and, in some cases, more than 50% public funding.

4)      We need broadband infrastructure that will support rural Minnesotans for a generation.  We should not fund marginally upgraded networks that will require additional upgrades to meet the 2026 state goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb.  Remember, the future business case to upgrade these networks will be no better than the current business case that requires subsidy.  Dig once and do it right.

5)      Finally, going beyond “served and unserved”, communities need providers that are responsive to existing and prospective economic development opportunities and community needs; communities need real broadband partners.  Current and prospective businesses, health care providers and schools need providers ready to make the necessary investments and provide the services that allow these organizations to survive and thrive.

5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.
(Download as White Paper)

5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

Minnesota legislators are now hearing that a market-based broadband solution is near. 5G wireless to the rescue!  Learning that public dollars would not be necessary for rural broadband development would be soothing music to elected officials’ ears as other groups line up for funds– roads, schools, health care, tax cuts; the list is endless.

After all, many counties and regional entities are growing desperate for broadband and are actively studying the options for spurring broadband delivery to meet at least minimum FCC broadband standards.  Alternatives range from subsidizing incumbents to partnering with new or existing broadband cooperatives.  While the State of Minnesota is seen as the major finance partner, even townships are writing checks for broadband!

So the question “Is 5G coming to rural America anytime soon?” is critical for policy leaders and elected officials.  They wonder, “If we wait, will our future pass us by?” Conversely, they question “Will our investment in fiber be a waste of money as wireless becomes the preferred and available technology?”

After doing a lot of reading and talking with technologists, it is clear that 5G wireless is coming to the marketplace, but it is not coming to rural America anytime soon.  5G wireless does offer promise, but only to high density population centers such as  campuses, large office buildings and apartment buildings.  5G’s chief feature is very high bandwidth– 1 Gigabit or more!  Once established, 5G promises to have the ability to connect many devices with very quick responses, especially applicable for self-driving vehicles or many smart devices in a factory, on urban streets and so on.  5G would also be great for large file sharing applications like HD movies.

So why not 5G in rural areas?  That answer is easy and indisputable.  Deployment of 5G wireless services will require significant fiber deployment, more than either the current 4G wireless cellular network or the new CAF2 Fiber to the Node (FTTN) installations by large incumbent providers.

Rural 5G wireless services would require installing radios every 1,000 – 3,000 feet on towers and poles.  These small cells would require direct fiber connections and all of them would require electricity to power the radios.  The radios would connect to wireless devices in customers’ homes and to other devices on the network and, of course, back to the network backbone.

For comparison, today’s fiber-fed 4G towers might be four to fifteen miles apart depending on terrain and the number of customers.  We know that 4G services have yet to reach many rural customers at their homes since these services are often focused down state and federal highway corridors in tandem with existing fiber routes leaving those in the bulk of the rural countryside without modern service.

In today’s CAF2 environment, providers are making significant investments to deploy FTTN, shortening copper loops to approximately 7,500 feet.  These shorter loop lengths will allow some customers to exceed the 25 Mb download and 3Mb upload FCC broadband standard while others at the end of the line will more likely receive 10 Mb/1 Mb. While this may be a significant improvement from current services, it lags far below the Minnesota broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026.  Optimists view these CAF2 improvements as an interim step to future FTTH deployment; others view these improvements as the last incumbent investment for a generation.

There are many questions yet unanswered on 5G wireless technical standards and final standards may be years in the making. There are just as many questions on the different business models that will drive deployment in urban, suburban and rural markets.  These deployment strategies will likely vary by location and provider mix.

For example, ATT and Verizon are dominant wireless carriers seeking to use more wireless in their old wired local exchange areas.  They could relatively easily transition their landline customer base to the new 5G networks adding to their existing wireless customer base.  In Minnesota, these wireless companies use a combination of their own networks and leased facilities from a variety of providers to reach large customers, but primarily to reach cell towers.

In Minnesota, incumbent providers CenturyLink and Frontier are just one year into a five-year process to deploy their CAF2 FTTN networks.  Once completed in 2020-21, likely to coincide with 5G technology and devices entry into the marketplace, will they be willing to open these deep fiber networks to competitive 5G wireless providers?  Or will they offer their own 5G wireless services on enhanced CAF2 networks?  Or, will these companies decline to sell access to their networks to wireless providers to preserve their own customer base.  In that scenario one has to wonder if there would ever be a business case for wireless carriers like ATT and Verizon to install duplicate fiber networks to reach rural customers?

So 5G is coming, definitely and soon, but only to metro areas, just as new technologies always seem to hit metro markets first.  But will and when will 5G reach rural?  For those rural residents and businesses still waiting for 4G wireless services, the answer is clearly not any time soon.  Fiber networks, to the home or to the node with very short loop lengths, will be a requirement to support future 5G wireless services.  First fiber, then 5G.  Not the other way around.

My advice: keep pursuing local fiber deployment so that all innovative broadband services – wired and wireless – can be offered in your community.

Steven Senne of Finley Engineering reviewed this article for technical accuracy.

Bill Coleman discusses broadband on AM950 – the impact of broadband on rural areas

Mike McIntee of AM950 spoke to Bill Coleman (speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Broadband Coalition) about broadband in Minnesota yesterday. (The broadband discussion starts at minute 31:35.)

Bill draws from his experience working with communities across the state as well as recent research on broadband in Minnesota.

They talk about the impact of not having broadband. For example, people won’t  move to areas without broadband. Entrepreneurs can’t run their businesses. Students can’t do their homework. Bill used to spend time working with communities to help them understand the value broadband – now they start the meetings tell him how much they need it!

In towns and cities people have broadband that at least meets FCC definition of broadband but get a few miles – or sometimes even just blocks – away from the town do not have access. They are stuck with slower, more expensive satellite or using personal hotspots for home connectivity, which gets expensive with their data caps. In fact, 30 percent of rural Minnesotans can’t get access to real broadband.

Mike asks if there’s a way to “make” providers serve everyone. However, broadband is generally an unregulated industry. There’s a move at the FCC to start regulation with universal coverage. But Chairman Wheeler is retiring January, leaving the next Chairman to be appointed by the Trump Administration.

Southwestern Minnesota Counties Working Together on Broadband with the Blandin Foundation

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Lincoln, Murray and Pipestone Counties are three rural counties that have decided to work together on better broadband.  The counties share a similar mix of small communities and big farms on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.  They also see a growing number of neighboring counties getting fiber to their homes and farms, including Lac qui Parle, Swift, Big Stone and Rock Counties.

The leadership of these counties, staff and elected leaders alike, are worried that current broadband is hindering economic growth and detracting from their ability to attract manufacturing firms, other businesses and, most importantly, people due to the lack of broadband services.  More than 60 people attended one or more of three meetings held in Ivanhoe, Pipestone and Slayton, including a variety of broadband providers.

Attendees learned about the financial and technical challenges of providing high speed broadband in areas with such low population densities.  Those who live behind trees or in low valleys talked about their discussions with providers and challenges of even receiving wireless services.  They learned about the promise of the Connect America Fund 2 and when improvements might be coming.  In the future days, leadership teams from the three counties will meet to discuss the meetings, the input from residents and businesses and next steps.  Each county had 15 or more volunteers ready to team with county staff and elected officials on prospective solutions, including investing their own dollars to make expanded broadband possible.