CTAC keynotes at Broadband Communities Summit in Austin TX

I was honored to present the final keynote presentation at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin TX last week.  My session was part of the Rural Telecommunications Congress track.  My presentation highlighted some of the great community and organizational projects developed with the support of the Blandin Foundation.  Using the Intelligent Community elements as the framework, I highlighted about 20 projects out of the more than 200 projects funded over the past several years.  As the final presentation at the end of a long conference I was a bit nervous about speaking to an empty room.  I promised those who stayed a unique bonus at the end of my presentation! 

The conference had many great examples of new FTTH networks and the ins and outs of their development.  Discussions about applications and economic development seemed to be a bit more theoretical and prospective.  I think people enjoyed the real-life and diverse examples of great projects in Broadband, Knowledge Work, Innovation, Digital Inclusion and Marketing that I was able to present as the accomplishment of residents of small towns, regional centers and rural counties.  You can see my slides below.  If you are interested in having this presentation delivered in your community, let me know!

Sales Tax Is Not the Primary Barrier to Border-to-Border Broadband

Today I have an editorial in the Twin Cities Daily Planet: Sales Tax Is Not the Primary Barrier to Border-to-Border Broadband.

I’ve been watching rural areas strive for better broadband for a long time now and I wanted to encourage policymakers to focus on policies that would support and promote better broadband in Minnesota. I don’t think the greatest barrier is telecommunications equipment tax. Read the editorial for more. And let me know what you think.

Stirring the Pot (March 2014)

As originally posted on Blandin Broadband eNews

The Minnesota broadband policy pot is beginning to simmer and will soon be at a boil. For the first time, we have the following in place at one time: an Office of Broadband Development, aggressive state task force funding recommendations, a team of legislative champions, and proposed broadband funding, with a state budget surplus!

At the federal level, the FCC is seeking innovative solutions to rural broadband deployment through its proposed experimental program.

With all this positive energy, community leaders might think that they can just sit back and watch fiber deployment happen across their piece of rural Minnesota. That is wrong, wrong, wrong!

On the legislative side, constituents need to let their senators and representatives know that broadband funding is a HIGH priority. Monitoring the various and understanding how various amendments might affect the final outcome of the legislation is a critical and constant task. There are many competing demands for the available surplus supported by well-organized stakeholder groups. If Internet Service Providers and community broadband advocates cannot get on the same page, legislators might support initiatives where there is more consensus.

At the legislature and at the FCC, there seems to be a “solve this problem one place at a time” mindset. It does not appear that there will be a “top-down, one size fits all” solution. This approach bodes well for the well prepared – for those communities/counties/regions with public-private partnerships or public sector strategies in process, for those who are committed to add their own funds to supplement the FCC or state dollars, for those with “shovel-ready” projects. Can you include your area in that readiness category? With 500,000 unserved Minnesota households, appropriated funds fall short of need.

My advice: don’t sit and wait for someone else to deliver a solution. Follow the successful path of those communities whose federally funded stimulus fiber networks are almost now complete; they were prepared when that funding became available. Put your community at the front of the line with aggressive planning and partnering now so that you can adjust your plans to fit whatever programs and dollars emerge over the next several months.

A Comprehensive Community Approach to Broadband

As first presented at the 2014 Border to Border Broadband Conference for the Blandin Foundation…

A Comprehensive Community Approach to Broadband from atreacy

Stirring the Pot: February 2014

As originally posted in Blandin eNews

Minnesota’s winters increase the potential value to be tapped from broadband. Imagine realizing the full advantage of broadband with our recent spate of cold weather school closings and the painfully slow snowy commutes to work. Stress would be reduced, time would be recaptured and cars would escape the auto body shop.

I read last week that one metro private high school, with a student body that is 100% connected with laptops and Internet, assigned students homework while the school was closed. With a little bit of planning and preparation, that at-home school experience could be escalated to include YouTube lectures, Google chat small group discussions and online quizzes and writing exercises. Sports coaches could even lead teams on conditioning drills and chalkboard sessions. This scenario is possible with a 100% connected student body. While the students might rather be at Starbucks or the mall, parents might be glad to know that their kids are busy and supervised. Extra smart kids might even be able to pull off their schoolwork at some of these fun alternative locations.

In the workplace, companies could increase their preparedness to support telework. At the recent DEED Economic Competitiveness Conference, Thomson Reuters Executive Rick King talked about the importance of broadband for disaster recovery operations. It seems like our snow clogged freeways fit the definition of a disaster. If at-home snow days were encouraged, businesses might even gain some productivity. Workers could be at their home computers working rather than staring at taillights for several hours each way. Email, conference calls, videoconferencing and other tools could be easily used to make this happen. And when a real disaster strikes, workers will be more comfortable and the IT department more prepared for large scale teleworking. While some of this is happening, it is obviously not enough.

In the metro area and in parts of greater Minnesota, the provider networks are generally up to the task to use these alternative school and work strategies. In the 25% of the state that does not meet state goals, residents may need to hit the road in dangerous conditions. For those who are limited by broadband data plans that charge by the Gigabyte or have usage caps, or those that have broadband services affected by heavy snowfall or high latency, their ability to fully participate in telework may be limited. Unfortunately, they are generally the same people who would have the farthest to travel to work or school or library. For those people with lower incomes, they may lack both a home computer and a broadband connection. They may also have unreliable cars, day care issues with kids at home from school, and more tenuous work situations. It seems that telework would be especially valuable to them.

When people ask, “What’s the value of broadband?” ask them to think about the lost school days, lost hours in bumper to bumper traffic or the cost of a tow out of the ditch. Affordability and ROI considerations would seem to melt away. As will this snow…someday.


Stirring the Pot: Jan 2014

As first posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

It has been fun for Karl Samp and me to work with the nine Blandin Broadband Communities as they developed partnerships and project plans for another round of BBC grant applications. Critical to their success are the teams that are functioning well in bringing the right people and groups – economic development, schools, chambers, ISPs, health care providers, social service agencies and others – together to address community opportunities.

Through MIRC and BBC, Blandin Foundation has helped communities form these teams and fund projects. The communities have demonstrated that they can both leverage and stretch these funds for widespread impact. The change is real and positive.

Imagine if we had many more of these teams in rural Minnesota? And why not in suburban communities and urban neighborhoods too? Enhanced digital literacy, smarter workers, more innovative companies all making effective use of wired and wireless networks. Why not?

A report from the Gigabit Highway Conference in Austin TX hosted by the FTTH Council…

Some very interesting presentations at this conference earlier this week.  Here are some highlights…

Federal news

Patricia Shorter of federal EDA in Commerce and her colleague talked about how EDA can fund fiber infrastructure development and pointed to the Economic Development Districts (MN RDC’s plus the West Central Initiative) as the gateway to those funds – job creation and retention are important in these projects.  They have funds for strategy development and implementation.  Depending on demographic and economic indicators, grant funds range from 50% to 80%.  It seems like these dollars might be used for funding lateral fiber runs off of middle mile networks.  Key phrases – Collaborative Regional Innovation, public-private partnerships, global competitiveness, economic distress and underserved communities.

A panel that included US Ignite, CISCO and a game developer has very interesting conversation around the sustainable business model for broadband development.  The US Ignite speaker talked about why health and education are such important drivers of broadband – a limited number of experts to whom many people want to connect.  The question on this was whether this would drive revenue to the providers adequate to fund network development.  The CISCO speaker talked about video and mobile as two drivers of innovation and that residential style applications are now driving development of business applications, gaming as an example.  With the game developer, the elimination of latency was noted as equal or more important than bandwidth availability.  High quality applications will drive them from niche to mainstream.  In justifying Gigabit networks, they will now do the same things, but faster.  In the future, there will be new things.

There was also a panel of expanding Gb providers.  One provider in Mississippi, C Spire, was planning to expand their business and wanted to check community interest so they published an RFP.  52 communities submitted responses with nine finalists selected.  They noted that their expected payback for business networks was two- three years, with longer paybacks on residential investments.  While residential ARPU (average revenue per unit) is $105 for residential, the business ARPU was two – three times that.

I facilitated a panel with Sharon Strover of the University of Texas-Austin, Doug Sicker of University of Colorado-Boulder and John Horrigan, a noted broadband researcher.

Sharon talked about the her research which points to increased broadband adoption as a driver of economic activity.  There is a clear difference between similar counties that are either above 60% adoption versus below 40% adoption.  The higher adoption counties had greater economic growth as measured in income and employment and attracted more “creative class” residents.

Doug Sicker supervised graduate student research that shows that a fiber connection adds between $3,000 and $7,000 in value to a home using three communities in New York as a study area.  He suggested that communities get their realtors to start listing fiber optics as an asset on the MLS listing page.

John Horrigan talked about digital readiness, which is a more flexible indicator the digital literacy as it can be used to measure a more complete range of knowledge rather than just being able to log on to a computer, send and email and surf the web.    His studies show that only 20% are making full use of technology.

It was a fun conference.  An entertaining highlight was watching representatives of Google and ATT engage in word play over their soon to be competing services in Austin, deployment plans, pole attachment battles, marketing plans, etc.

Finally, I want to say that you can see that the boom in knowledge work is on in Austin.  Similar to Minneapolis, there was lots of construction, live music, restaurants and bicycles.  While waiting for my coffee at a local shop, the server acknowledged my Surly Beer shirt and said that he had just moved from Minneapolis within the past 90 days.  The next customer in line had just moved from New York City.  Both looked to be in their 20’s.  My Minneapolis friend moved there just to see what was happening there; the New Yorker had moved for a job in the tech industry. There is definite competition for the talent of the future.  I also met an entrepreneur who is planning to open three to four new, for-profit engineering schools in what he sees as tech hubs.  Palo Alto, Austin, Brooklyn and Columbus.  We have our work cut out here in MN!

Stirring the Pot December 2013

As originally posted in the Blandin Foundation eNews

Congratulations to Danna MacKenzie, the director of Minnesota’s new Office of Broadband!  I know Danna will be getting lots of advice about the best strategies to move Minnesota forward – tax exemptions, financing programs, new regulations and other ideas. Here is mine!

I would encourage all of us, but especially Danna, to take a look back at a set of sound principles on which to base our way forward.  Danna is well-familiar with the Blandin Foundation Broadband principles – she helped to create them in 2006.  These principles were adopted by a stellar group of Minnesotans, including telecom providers, community representatives and elected officials.  These principles have stood the test of time.  Considered individually, each principle makes sense, but recognizing the interplay of these principles is essential.

  • Ubiquity - Meaning broadband availability for everyone, this is a cornerstone adopted by the first Minnesota Broadband Task Force chaired by Rick King of Thomson Reuters.
  • Symmetry - Both download and upload speeds should support content users and content creators.
  • Affordable - Services that are too expensive are essentially unavailable to many Minnesotans.
  • Competition - Drives innovation, customer service and affordability.
  • World Class – Broadband is the essential infrastructure of our time.
  • Collaboration - Sometimes too focused on public-private partnerships, we also need increased collaboration between private companies and within the public sector.
  • Neutrality - Neutrality does not mean not choosing technologies, it means being open to new technologies and collaborative models.
  • Interoperability - Networks and applications should operate easily across systems of health care, education and government.

From my perspective, I see Ubiquity, Affordable and World-Class as the cornerstones of these principles. Achieving all three of these will be a challenge!  Competition, Collaboration, Neutrality and Interoperability are supporting principles.  To achieve the cornerstone principles, Danna will have to lead the way to an environment where these supporting principles become the norm of our public and private sector entities.

Stirring the Pot – November 2013

As first posted in the Blandin Foundation eNews

In the community broadband world, I enjoy my work with the broadband evangelists who work very hard to promote access and use of technology in their communities and regions.  Over the years, I have seen the great results that these champions have brought to their communities.

On occasion, however, I hear the tone of frustration in their voices and emails.  “No one listens!”  “I can’t get people to participate!”  “No one is showing up!”

My advice for these champions is to take a step back and change the conversation with the following approach…

With this approach, the path may not always seem so straight-forward, but it will be forward and in the right direction.  And it may turn out better than you had ever imagined!

Stirring the Pot Oct 2013

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband eNews

Just when you think that you know it all, you get new information that messes with your confident line of thinking.  This morning, I saw a summary of a study by the Leichtman Research Group that claims that almost 80% of American households have a broadband connection at home and that two-thirds of those folks also have a smartphone with data plan.  So I am thinking “What’s with all this talk about the need for public entities and non-profits to promote broadband adoption?”  Later in the day, I answer a phone call from someone who sounds a bit like my 93 year old mom, which brings me back to my teen years – “Where are you?” she asks, probably hoping that I am not in India!

I have no idea how Janice got my phone number, but she lives in rural Minnesota.  She had just purchased a computer, but had no idea how to set it up.  Needing some good karma, I took her name and phone number, fired up Google and searched for her community’s library.  I talked with a very nice librarian (is there any other kind?) and she gave me the name and phone number of a kindly computer guy in town.  I called him, made the referral and he promised to call her. I am not sure if this would be free or fee for service, but hopefully Janice’s problem is solved!

The take rate study, Janice’s call and a meeting I attended yesterday puts several thoughts into my head.

First, we need to abandon the idea that we need broadband adoption activities to help telecom providers make their business case to invest in delivering broadband services. With the high costs of serving the remaining unserved areas with fiber to the home or fiber to the node DSL, it is impossible to make a business case for investment in these areas with an 80% or even a 100% adoption rate without some types of subsidy such as those that have enabled our rural coops to build fiber their networks or by using the long term finance capacity of government agencies.

Second, we need to continue to build support services for people like Janice who are new computer and Internet users.  The public purpose in providing this assistance is clear – a well-connected citizenry is well-positioned to use online government, business and health services as well as to improve their connection to friends and family.

Finally, a concept advanced some time ago by Danna MacKenzie, Cook County IT visionary at a Blandin event, was proved true to me again yesterday – everyone has their own level of digital illiteracy.  Yesterday, I was reminded of my technical shortcomings when I was at a meeting discussing hackathons and hackfests.  My conception of ‘coding’ is about as advanced as Janice’s computer set-up skills.  We all have lots of learning to do to keep up with our amazing world.  I give Janice a lot of credit for moving forward with her new computer and I am learning about hackathons.  As a side note, I am also enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from Northwestern University School of Journalism looking at Google – with 41,000 other students from 150 countries!!