Bringing Intelligent Community Forum to rural areas

Applying the Intelligent Community framework established by the Intelligent Community Forum (www.intelligentcommunity.org) to rural communities is a specialty of Community Technology Advisors.  Bill Coleman brought the Intelligent Community framework to the design and implementation of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Community (MIRC) initiative of the Blandin Foundation.   based on his experience leading Dakota County to three straight years of recognition as a “Smart 21” global Intelligent Community.  During MIRC, eleven rural Minnesota communities used the ICF framework to drive broadband-based community development efforts.  MIRC was recognized by the Minnesota High Technology Association with the state’s Innovative Collaboration award.  The Intelligent Community framework includes five elements: broadband, knowledge workforce, innovation, digital inclusion and marketing/advocacy.

Bill recently collaborated with the Intelligent Community Forum in rural Louisiana.  After ICF staff delivered workshops and the communities gathered benchmarking data, Bill traveled to Louisiana to work with the communities of Natchitoches, Washington Parish and Vidalia.  Each community had a unique set of assets and circumstances around broadband access and adoption.  Bill conducted community workshops with key stakeholders in each community to help them develop priority projects and develop partnerships.  It was an interesting and challenging project as Bill worked to understand each community’s characters, culture and priorities.  After the workshops, Bill prepared meeting summaries, provided recommendations and maintained a mentor relationship with each community.

It was great to see the various ecosystems of rural Louisiana and experience the Louisiana lifestyle outside of the standard New Orleans tourist sites.  Great food and excellent hospitality made the trip and work enjoyable and memorable.  It is fun to see the communities keep the momentum going forward, particularly on network improvements and digital inclusion efforts.  It was a great experience to continue CTAC’s relationship with the Intelligent Community Forum.  Thanks to them for the great opportunity to partner!  You can learn more about ICF at www.intelligentcommunity.org.

Stirring the Pot: Less beer, more fiber

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

By Bill Coleman, Community Technology Advisors

As my annual physical approaches, I can already hear my doctor proscribing “Less beer, more fiber.” I am already working on the second part of that advice, the first not so much. In turn, I will give the same advice to our Twin Cities leaders, again with the emphasis  on the second half.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are both experiencing significant redevelopment in their urban cores. In Minneapolis, it is widespread throughout the North Loop, Dinkytown, Vikingsville and Uptown. In St. Paul, the Central Corridor is undergoing rapid redevelopment. There is a continuous flow of press releases about new breweries in these neighborhoods attracting young newcomers and relocating baby boomers to enjoy the beer and bicycle urban lifestyle.

I wish I was hearing more about fiber connections in these new communities. With individual buildings containing hundreds of apartments and neighborhoods totaling thousands of new units; these developments are larger than many rural communities. With these demographics, providers have no need to educate hipster consumers on the benefits of broadband. With proximity to the downtowns and the U of M, I assume that dark fiber is readily available. With a billion dollars spent on the Central Corridor light rail, I hope that someone put some fiber and spare conduits in the ground along the route.

With a minimum of discussion and cost, city leaders could be ensuring that these new units are fiber-connected by either enacting ordinances like Loma Linda California or by simply strongly encouraging the developers, Comcast, CenturyLink or a competitive provider to install and market these fiber connected buildings. With a bit of planning, tenants in these buildings could have secure network connections to the U of M and any of the large and small companies in downtown and elsewhere.

It is possible that these buildings are appropriately fibered-up and these ultra-high speed connections are offered with as much notice as basic amenities like water and heat, but I do not think so. If fiber is being installed in these developments, then Twin Cities marketers like Mayor’s Offices and Greater MSP, are missing out on opportunities to build our brand as a place for competitive economic development and quality of life.

Back to my physical… I recognize that there is nothing that I can do today to change what my doctor will find later this week. Likewise if a business came to many towns today wanting fiber, there would be no simple and affordable solution. So, I want to recognize Eagan for its long term broadband lifestyle – convening their key technology stakeholders, installing conduit and fiber, working with broadband providers. They created and pursued strategies which emerged from a technology plan completed almost a decade ago. Congratulations to Mayor Mike Maguire and staff members Tom Garrison and Jon Hohenstein for their commitment and efforts. As a result, they have AccessEagan, a community-owned open-access fiber and conduit network that is used by multiple private carriers to provide highly competitive fiber connections to their primary business parks. Building on this infrastructure, they have just announced the imminent development of a telecom hotel/data center, also a long-term goal and a tremendous benefit to the entire metro region. And to show that Eagan is not only all about fiber, the city council has just revised ordinances to enable development of craft breweries, taprooms and distilleries!”

Stirring the Pot: Connecting the dots

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

Stirring the Pot

By Bill Coleman, Community Technology Advisors

“Connecting the dots” is a metaphor for people who can see the big picture in a complex world of technology, people and trends. In past weeks, I have seen the positive value of connecting people so that 1 + 1  > 2.  I saw references to the powerful impact of “connecting the people” in a Star Tribune article on Fargo Moorhead this weekend, at the Red Wing Ignite hack fest and at several community broadband meetings. With broadband, the universe of possibilities has expanded from local to global.

Last week, Bernadine Joselyn and I spent two days in Washington, DC trying to connect dots, first through a series of meetings with federal agency staff who either use broadband to achieve their mission or fund broadband as their mission, and second, at an excellent workshop of interactive learning and sharing. Both of these opportunities were well-hosted by NTIA, an agency that sees connecting people as a part of their post stimulus mission.

I did a bit of matchmaking myself over the past week. In one opportunity, I connected multiple telecom providers to each other and to regional community broadband advocates and our new Office of Broadband Development. These prospective partners have underutilized assets, that in combination, could improve broadband services in a number of counties at a minimum of capital expense. Combining assets could produce a great partnership, but I would not minimize the challenges of partnering across untraditional lines, especially private-public lines on new ventures. At least, the connection started a discussion.

Spurred by introductions at the state broadband conference, I met with state staff who work with the blind, deaf and hard of hearing community. Over the life of the Blandin broadband initiative, we have not paid very much attention to this community. People who rely on American Sign Language to communicate require a decent broadband connection to use video conferencing technology. For ASL users who want to communicate over distance with those who do not sign, three way connections to translators are required. While translators may be readily available in the metro area, they may not be close at hand in greater Minnesota, especially outside of regional center communities. Some rural residents with these skills may exist but they are not readily identifiable. I had a great conversation with the staff and we came up with several ideas for collaboration. Some of those opportunities might include you!

Sometimes these connections take root with immediate success or they might lay fallow until you provide some tilling and watering. With some, they might not produce at all. In any case, it is spring planting season here in Minnesota so make some connections!

Stirring the Pot: TIme to think about Gig for MN communities!

Stirring the Post – as originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

It seems like a very exciting time for broadband advocates in Minnesota: a new Office of Broadband Development led by a capable, visionary and persistent community broadband advocate (the characteristics shared with all of our best community broadband champions); a prospective multi-million dollar state broadband fund (where do your legislators stand?); and an FCC examining new ways to spur rural broadband deployment (check out the recent Connect MN webinar!)

I continue to be a strong advocate of our state’s broadband goal of 10 – 20 Mbps ubiquitous broadband across Minnesota. That goal, while deceptively low, is fast enough to require significant network investments to reach border to border. And if a provider is going to invest in new network, I don’t think that they are going to settle for a solution that delivers only to the goal. All of the initiatives are aimed at moving un- and under-served areas into the 10 Mbps served category. If successful, it would be a nice simple Connect MN map to admire!

Then all of Minnesota can sit back and rest. Right?? Not!!

Not when a growing number of US communities are served by Gigabit networks. While Google is now famous for its generally prospective $70 Gb service, Chattanooga is delivering a Gb at that same price community-wide! Or you can get in their community’s slow lane with 100 Mbps service for a bit cheaper. Google also promises a free 5 Mbps digital inclusion service. At the recent Broadband Communities Summit, an International Economic Development Council leader noted that while a Gigabit network is now a competitive economic advantage, he expects that soon, the lack of a Gigabit network will be seen as a competitive disadvantage.

Even now, if your local school or hospital is served by anything less than 100 Mb, they are at a competitive disadvantage. Many Minnesota libraries are connecting at less than 10 Mbps, which is just not enough to reach its potential as a real community asset. All of our rural communities, but especially our smaller regional center communities with our courthouses, hospitals, community and technical college campuses, industrial parks and downtown districts, need first-class broadband services. The definition of first-class is now Gigabit. I have had regional center economic developers tell me that “our providers say that our community has everything it needs” and they accept that on face value; every economic developer better be asking about competitively priced Gigabit service, not a 10 or even 50 Mbps Internet service. Remember too that not all high speed connections go over the Internet – some customers need private networks connecting among health care providers, manufacturer supply chains or other associated organizations.

From Fort Snelling’s establishment as the last major army hub at the end of the northwest spoke of western expansion, Minnesota has faced network challenges. This challenge continues today. Minnesota is absent from the list of 36 Google communities. Why not the Greater MSP, Duluth and Rochester? Minnesota is absent from the list of 37 Gig.U communities. Why not our MNSCU campus communities, especially our main campuses in Mankato, Moorhead, Bemidji, Marshall, St. Cloud and Winona? Some of these communities have excellent networks already on which to build both strategy and marketing. Thank goodness for participation of the HBC-Red Wing partnership in the US Ignite program that gives Minnesota a dot on that map. Finally, I cannot see Comcast’s decision to spin the Twin Cities off along with Detroit as a positive sign for future investment. The Google, GIG.U and US Ignite list seems like more desirable than one with the Motor City. As my mom used to say to me, “pick your friends carefully!”

None of this rant even touches on the need to strategically and systematically stimulate the advanced use of technology by end-users on Main Street or in the exam room, school house, courthouse and/or our own house.

We better believe that Minnesota’s broadband deployment and technology adoption work is just getting started!

Minnesota Communities Cosnider Public Options as They Wait for Yes from Private Partners

Yesterday MinnPost ran an article (To close rural broadband gap, Minnesota communities consider public option) that highlighted Minnesota communities that have sought publicly supported broadband networks. Having worked with communities on broadband networks for more than 15 years I thought I’d share my two cents. The following was published as a comment to the original article…

Any discussion of broadband quickly gets murky due to complicated technology choices and business model considerations.  This article touches on both.  It also lumps middle mile networks like Scott County’s with last mile networks that would be funded with prospective state and local dollars.  Middle mile connects towns together; last mile networks reach end-users.

As to last mile considerations, this article states that 99% of Minnesotans have access to broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps.    This number, based on data provided by telecommunications providers, includes mobile cellular wireless services.  Maintaining a voice call in many parts of rural Minnesota outside of highway corridors can be a challenge, much less maintaining a 10 Mbps data connection.  If you see any television ads, you certainly know that a family of four can get 10 GB of data for “only” $160 per month.  The bad news is that the average family of four uses about 50 GB of data on a wired connection.  The reality is that only about 30% of rural Minnesotans can connect via wired networks without data caps at the state goal.

Our schools and governments have large requirements for networks.  In places like Scott County and other places that have developed their own networks, this data flows at Gigabit rates of speed.  Those places relying on a strictly private sector solution are restricted to a comparative trickle of bandwidth.  Payback on relatively large capital investments is relatively short, especially when considering that fiber is a long-term asset with growing usage to accommodate.

For the last mile, it is clear that ownership matters.  The communities that have the best service over advanced networks are locally owned.  Minnesota is blessed with a number of rural telephone cooperatives that were formed when private companies ignored rural communities 100 years ago.  These lucky communities continue to benefit with access through 100% member-owned fiber optic networks connecting homes, farms, small businesses, schools and health care facilities that make metro communities jealous.  Municipal networks provide the equivalent level of service over similar fiber networks.

In 2010, the state’s first broadband task force recommended, and our elected officials set in statute, a goal of 10 – 20 Mbps broadband availability everywhere in Minnesota.  Mr. Christensen representing the MTA and representatives of Qwest and Comcast are signatories to that goal.

Since that time, county and community citizen task forces across the state have organized in pursuit of that goal.   The first step taken by each and every task force has been a call to their incumbent telephone companies with requests for service improvements, petitions of anxious customers, offers to joint venture and finance, and commitment to implement community-led efforts to drum up market demand for prospective broadband network improvements.   Any response from incumbent providers has been limited.

Worse yet have been where providers made investments to wrap up only the most profitable customers, thereby limiting the attractiveness of the market for other providers or a public sector response.  The exceptions to this picture are the multiple cooperatives and a limited few private companies that have approached communities with good faith efforts to expand their service areas.  The final straw is when providers offer to consider a partnership, then dawdle along, playing out the energy of the community initiative.

The Monticello example is illustrative.  That community, with its strong manufacturing base needing broadband services, begged its incumbent providers for improvements and price competitive services with no response.  It was only after the City committed to building its own network that the incumbents improved their networks and dropped their prices.  Other communities served by these same providers wish that those firms would invest in their communities as they have in Monticello.

I have seen this same type of competitive response in places where some of the rural telephone cooperatives have built into incumbent providers’ territories, improving their networks only where there is now competition.  It seems that there is never enough market for one provider, but always enough for two.

It is not like these companies object to government involvement.  They – from small to big, co-op to publicly traded company – benefit from a set of government programs to extend and maintain telecommunications services in rural areas that were established in the New Deal and continue today.  Today, telecommunications services mean broadband and modern broadband means speeds well in excess of 10 – 20 Mbps. A growing number of communities can offer businesses and residents 1,000 Mbps, or gigabit, connections at prices not much more Twin Cities residents pay, or even less than some rural residents pay for their relatively paltry service.

Community broadband advocates have been waiting for the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and other industry groups to offer a plan to reach the state goal to which they committed  in 2010.  That goal says “by 2015” which is now just months away.  They have had a set of willing partners all of this time in communities, counties, school districts, chambers of commerce, health care providers and others.  Instead, all they say is no.  This article confirms that the answer is still no today.

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.