Stirring the Pot: Maximizing community broadband

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

It is so interesting to review the Blandin on Broadband blog reports on county connectivity.  Many counties are making great progress on achieving the 100 Mb/20 Mb state goal.  The next big community challenge will be to maximize the value derived from this combination of significant investment by private and public sector partnerships. The question is how to move from being able to tell stories of individual people, businesses and institutions that are making great use of technology to a bigger story of widespread sophisticated use of the network for work, school, entrepreneurship, health care and social life; in essence, creating a world-class environment that retains and attracts people and investments.  It will take a major shift in mindset for community leaders to focus on this even more complex task.

The Intelligent Community framework provides a guide to measure this shift.  The six elements of Intelligent Community are: Broadband; Knowledge Workforce; Innovation; Digital Equality; Sustainability and Advocacy.  It is interesting to note that the MN Department of Economic Development now has key staff devoted to several of these topics.  The beauty of the Intelligent Community framework is that it helps break down the silos between these topic priorities.  Done right, there can be great synergies between these topics though it is sometimes difficult to knock down those institutional barriers.

Great thanks to those folks who attended one of Blandin Foundation’s Intelligent Community workshops this fall and special kudos to those who followed up with a submitted application to ICF.  Minnesota applications jumped from two to five.  Special recognition to Alexandria Lakes Area; Brainerd Lakes Area; East Central Minnesota – GPS 45:93; Koochiching County; and City of Winthrop. Communities can still submit the benchmarking questionnaire at any time and receive their benchmarking report shortly after. When you do so, you will see how your community stacks up compared to 400 other communities around the world.

We all know that broadband does not get deployed in rural places with strong community effort.  It will take that same level of effort to achieve the full benefits of the network.

 

Stirring the Pot: Celebrating community broadband volunteers

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

Minnesota’s communities are full of great citizen volunteers working to improve both broadband access and use as an essential component of community vitality.  In every community that I visit, there is one or more volunteers putting in hundreds of hours for the betterment of their community. Through their efforts, schools and community centers become more active technology centers, broadband demand surveys are collected via online, mail and door-to-door surveys and elected officials learn that broadband investment is smart investment.

I doubt that many local folks know the depth of commitment and level of effort required to move these broadband projects forward.  While many of these folks do not have an official title, I think that they are heroes!  You have my admiration!

Stirring the Pot: MN Broadband Maps

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

As I prepare to go on a nice vacation, I am looking at the calendar of upcoming meetings and presentations for which I need to prepare before getting on the airplane.  Right when I return, I need to do a Broadband 101 for a county board in south central Minnesota.  The first place I look to prepare is the Office of Broadband Development maps.  This is a rich source of information with various ways to display the data.  The question “How well are we connected?” is not as simple as it once was.  The maps, in their various forms, should be used as conversation starters, not as a place to find definitive answers.

I first look at the maps, then go to provider websites to get more detailed information.  The DEED provider database shows 13 wired and fixed wireless providers.  Speeds vary from symmetrical gigabit over fiber to 500 Mb symmetrical via fixed wireless to 100 Mb/40 Mb over DSL.  Three different fixed wireless providers show complete to partial coverage of the county.  Seems like this county is well served, yet when I look at the Border to Border Broadband grant eligibility map, the vast majority of the county is shown as unserved and grant eligible.  According to provider information, 82% of households have wired connections of 25 Mb/3 Mb while 78% have wired 100 Mb/20 Mb.  Ten percent have symmetrical gigabit coverage.

As I talk with county commissioners, I will be asking them the following:

These questions always stimulate interesting conversations.

Stirring the Pot: Decision making in community broadband

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

Decisions are not getting any easier for community leaders working on broadband.  The pressure to do something is increasing as the impact of being un- or underserved mount, yet new wireless technologies are providing more strategy options.

Consider just these two alternatives from the many out there for consideration:

  1. A cooperative telephone company operating nearby offers to partner on a fiber to the home project that will provide gigabit service to everyone in the area. The project will require relatively large grants from both the state broadband program and from the county.
  2. A wireless company offers to partner with the county to offer services in the rural countryside that will offer 100 Mb/20 Mb service to 80% of rural residents. Implementation of the project will require a moderate sized state grant, but no county contribution.

These two simple examples require local leaders to make judgments that they may feel unqualified to make, considering the following questions:

Reaching a consensus on these questions will drive each community’s unique broadband solution.   “Go slow to go fast” is wise advice that apparently goes back Rome’s Augustus.  I suggest that you take that advice as you consider your options.

Bringing the countryside to ICF Summit and ICF Summit to MN rural communities

Last week the Blandin Broadband crew led a group of intrepid broadband community leaders to the ICF (Intelligent Community Forum) Summit in New York.

It was a great opportunity for us to learn from the Top Seven Smart Communities about what is working in their areas. It was very inspiring. We made some great connections. And we got to talk about some of the great things we have going in Minnesota. It feels like several Minnesota communities might be a good fit for becoming a Smart Community.

ICF co-founder, John Jung will be attending the Blandin Fall Broadband Conference to talk about such opportunities.

At the ICF Summit, Bill Coleman led the session on How to Connect to the Countrywide.

Stirring the Pot: Preparing for MN Broadband Grant applications

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband eNews...

Thanks to the good work of the MN Rural Broadband Coalition and politicians keeping their promises, there is $40 million of funding coming through DEED Office of Broadband Development for grants to be distributed over the two year budget.  As a result, many community leaders are now asking “how do we get some of that?”

For most communities, there is a lot of work to do between asking that simple question and receiving a broadband grant.  That work starts with these hard questions:

  1. What infrastructure will deliver the broadband services that we will require to thrive over the next 10 to 20 years?
  2. Will we be content to incrementally improve broadband services with better, but not great, broadband speeds and more, but not ubiquitous, broadband coverage?
  3. Who do we want as a long term broadband partner?

There will be strong opinions on these questions but you must develop your community’s own answers to these critical questions.   By working hard upfront on your community’s broadband vision,  you can avoid being whipsawed back and forth between various technology and provider options.

Blandin Foundation has two resources to assist communities as they pursue better broadband service.  First, 32 hours of technical assistance can be obtained through the Community Broadband Resources (CBR) program. The purpose of this program is to help your community get organized and education and to discuss the three questions above.

The second program is the Robust Network Feasibility Fund program which is a grant of up to $25,000 (1:1 cash match required) that allows communities to refine their options for the development of broadband project and partner alternatives.

Information for both programs can be found at broadband.blandinfoundation.org . There is no application deadline for CBR; the next deadline for feasibility fund grants is June 14.

In my experience, communities that skip or shortchange the discussion facilitated through CBR are unprepared to effectively direct their feasibility study consultants towards a desired outcome.  The result is an ambiguous study and a fractured community vision.  My advice: do the vision work up front and then pursue that vision with fierce determination.  Good luck!

What’s a suburban guy to do?

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation eNews

This morning I received a call from a Dakota County resident near Lakeville.  He sought me out in response a Strib broadband article.  I could feel his frustration right through with his 4 Mb DSL connection. He purchased his home with the expectation of working from home.  The reality is that his home service is both too slow and too unreliable for telework so he is forced into a long commute.

He has called his telephone company, talked to their techs on the roadside, called other nearby providers requesting service, complained to his county commissioner and county staff, strategized with his neighbors – all to no effect.  As I gave him some advice about possible next steps, he noted that with his twelve hour work and commute day, there was little time left for broadband organizing.  The ironic part of this story is that he moved to Lakeville from Nobles County where Lismore Telephone Cooperative provided fiber optic broadband services to his family farm.

I would love to have a numbers savvy analyst compute the lost value to Minnesotans who suffer from bad or no broadband.  MN DOT computes a lost time value from sitting in traffic; the methodology could be similar.  In this Lakeville resident example, a 50 mile round trip commute times 200 work days equals 10,000 miles at $.55 per mile, or $5500.  If you assign a $20 value per hour commute times two hours per day, that is an additional $8,000 per year, for a total of $13,500 per year.  Multiply this for thousands of Minnesotans, plus the many other assorted direct costs and missed opportunities.  My desk calculator does not have enough zeroes!

 

Support the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition

As originally posted in the Blandin Foundation eNews…

Bernadine is fond of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia classic quote: “Somebody has to do something and isn’t it pathetic that it has to be us?”  While this is true no matter where you live or work, I find it especially true in rural communities.  During meeting introductions as we ask attendees to list their community connections, we find that some folks have quite a long list of volunteer, leadership, and probably financial, commitments. These folks are true community champions and this is a strength for Greater Minnesota.

As for “us” having to do something, I am asking you to support the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, the unified voice on rural broadband. The coalition provides that unified rural voice necessary to convince legislators to do the right thing for greater Minnesota broadband.  While in January and February, there are many public policy groups willing to speak up for broadband, we know that as the session winds down, organizational lobbyists narrow their focus to their own highest priority bills.  Funding this unified, full-time voice means raising money.  We believe that the coalition has been successful in its work to build a bipartisan consensus around the need to spur rural broadband deployment, but we cannot ever rest until that last gavel comes down in May.

We need you, our rural broadband champions to join the coalition and to recruit others in your community or industry segment as well. Prospective members range from school districts to banks to health care providers to chambers of commerce to cities and counties. We have members in each of these categories, so join your colleagues and peer organizations by becoming members.  Those local units of government and telecom providers who hope to apply for Border to Border Grant Funds should especially consider a commitment since investing in the coalition will improve the odds of a significant border to border broadband grant appropriation. Those contributing $500 or more earn a voice in how the coalition operates and in our policy platform.

We all know that fundraising can be a particularly pathetic task and our broadband coalition team is working hard on it, but we need your help to succeed!  A call to a personal or professional connection does wonders. We have raised about two-thirds of our goal, but need to raise an additional $20,000 before the session ends in May.

Check out the coalition website, our upcoming activities and the benefits of membership information at http://mnbroadbandcoalition.com.  Join us!

 

Stirring the Pot: What do you want for Christmas? Broadband!

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

For many rural communities, the answer to the “what do you want for Christmas?” question is simple.  “Broadband!”

But broadband is a big ask and from my experience, Santa does not always deliver on the big asks.  We may get an envelope with some of the money, but we need to find a way to raise the rest though our own efforts.

This is the same with many broadband projects.  Even with provider contributions and hoped-for state and federal funding, the business case for a state of the art broadband network may be lacking.  Increasingly, we are seeing local governments contributing directly to broadband projects.  The willingness to contribute local funds shows that the community is a fully engaged project partner.  With local commitment, prospective competitive providers are encouraged to invest their own dollars and staff resources in project development.  Funders may be more confident of a successful project with local skin in the game.

I encourage community leaders to have the conversation about commitment of local resources upfront and among themselves.  Know the boundaries of your commitment.  Be prepared to negotiate with and as a reliable partner.  This will increase your ability to attract a provider partner and obtain project funding.  With prospective federal and state funding looming, the time for that conversation is now.

Stirring the Pot: broadband requires leadership and technical knowledge and opportunity

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

Moving a community broadband initiative forward requires a mystical blend of community leadership and technical/financial knowledge meeting opportunity.  When I review the many successful broadband projects, I see that each project has a unique mix of these elements.  For me, community leadership is the most interesting facet.  Leadership can emerge from almost anywhere. My friend and former colleague Karl Samp used to say, “The great thing about being in a rural community leader is that you do not need a title, you just have to start doing things.”

Yet there is something essential about having elected officials strongly engaged in these broadband initiatives. Volunteers can gather and analyze information or put together an outline of a strategy or deal. Technical experts can define the best technology options.  But when it comes to actually making things happen, it usually takes a mayor, town supervisor or county commissioner to bring the legal and financial authority of the local government to the table. Convincing local officials to assume that role can be the most challenging task for the local broadband activists. For some leaders, hearing the broadband stories of woe is enough to convince them to act. Other leaders want hard facts  based on data to be convinced. Thankfully, there is a growing set of tools that can provide return on investment (ROI) data for community broadband initiatives.

At the recent Border to Border Broadband Conference, there were two examples of ROI analysis methodologies – one presented by Ann Treacy and Bernadine Joselyn and one created at Purdue University. Luckily, the former model is quite simple to calculate and easily understood. I encourage you to take a look at these session notes and complete the calculator found here.  https://wp.me/p3if7-4PR.  For those reading this with strong data skills, the Purdue model can be found here: https://wp.me/p3if7-4PL. Both models emphasize that the widespread community benefits to broadband investment far exceed the private sector business case for that investment, thus the need for public sector investment to deploy the necessary broadband investment.

For those pursuing improved broadband networks, please take a shot at using these tools with your broadband team.  I think that it will be enlightening for your group – both for the numbers created and possibly more importantly, the discussion that the analysis facilitates with local elected officials.  It would be great to hear your reports.