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.

Stirring the Pot: balancing the business case with equity considerations

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

The toughest decisions that rural places have often come early in the broadband discussion process.  They are not technical questions, but rather policy choices around balancing the business case with equity considerations.  Sometimes these decisions are made with little or no discussion or even recognition of the long term impact.

The first decision is: “Are we determined to provide everyone in our area with quality broadband services?  If the answer is “yes”, the next decision is “Will everyone have the same level of service?” and finally deciding, “How soon?”  These decisions are generally based on the average cost per passing or service connection.  Where costs in town are somewhere in the $3000 per household range, the cost per rural household can be over $10,000.

When public good and economic development are the primary objectives and the local leadership is deeply committed to broadband, decision-makers are more likely to push for fast and widespread network deployment.  This is best illustrated in places like Rock and Swift Counties where leaders made decisions to get new fiber connectivity to all unserved areas fast.  The RS Fiber project built fiber to the cities and deployed rural wireless services with plans to deploy ubiquitous fiber to the farm.  Pope County stimulated countywide wireless deployment for immediate broadband improvement.

The alternative is to consider partial solutions and expand broadband in an opportunistic fashion.  We see this strategy as either pure private sector development or sometimes supported by public-private partnerships.  Areas around lakes or golf courses, clusters of homes around country crossroads, and homes and businesses along existing fiber routes are the most likely areas most likely to see this deployment.  While this progress can be celebrated by those newly served, the remaining unserved areas become less and less attractive as the cost per passing skyrockets and the low ROI discourages both private and public sector funders.

I strongly encourage community broadband leaders to have this discussion early in the process with key leaders as you determine your strategies.  Quick easy wins based on partial deployment can be welcome, but may leave the most financially challenging parts of your community permanently behind.  Is that OK?

Stirring the Pot: a chaotic broadband scene in the rural countryside

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

We live in interesting times and that is not always for the best.  It is, at best, a chaotic broadband scene in the rural countryside. We have a host of emerging and improving technologies (many of which are highly touted, but unable to meet Minnesota’s 2026 state broadband goal).  We have existing and emerging broadband funding programs (funded, unfunded and promised) that spur community hope.  And we now have many projects to compare to look for models that meet goals of speed, coverage area, economic development and financial stability.

For those active in trying to spur quality broadband deployment (for me, that is a minimum of the 2026 state broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb), it is so important to have and share accurate information.  For those actively seeking better broadband in their county, city or township, it is critical that you be prepared with questions that require real answers for your local candidates.   “Yes, I support rural broadband” is not an informative answer.  You should also be knowledgeable to be able to respond to their questions, especially about projects that are facing financial challenges.

As we compare projects, consider the following:

What these stories show is that rural broadband projects require public subsidy if the deployed networks are going to meet state goals.  More than one rural broadband provider has told me that the areas left unserved at this point will all require at least 50% public funding and long ROI hurdles to be feasible.

I am sure that leaders in Lake County and in the RS Fiber project area wish that they had received more in grants and assumed less debt.  While it’s a current struggle, the benefits of the network are now emerging.  Recent research projects continue to demonstrate the current and projected community benefits from broadband availability (https://blandinfoundation.org/learn/research-rural/broadband-resources/broadband-initiative/measuring-impact-broadband-5-rural-mn-communities/ and https://www.pcrd.purdue.edu/files/media/006-RPINsights-Indiana-Broadband-Study.pdf ).  Local leaders might rather deal with some debt issues than with declining population and economic viability.  Places with ubiquitous fiber broadband networks have a long term economic asset on which to build their future.

Those places without at least one quality broadband option are feeling the real pain of being left behind – economically, educationally and socially.  I have heard many specific examples of these negative effects in my work with community broadband teams across the state.  I am sure that each of the thousands of Minnesota households lacking adequate broadband access has such a story.

Adding to this pain suffered by rural communities is the mixed message that they receive about broadband from national Internet Service Providers.  Through the advertising media – online, mailings, television commercials – consumers hear from providers how important broadband is for business and family life.  Recognizing that they are just an asterisk to these providers (*Service may not be available in all areas) is incredibly irritating!  After all, no one wants to be an asterisk!

Stirring the Pot: Blandin Foundation and the Intelligent Community framework

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

It is exciting to work with three new communities in the Blandin Broadband Communities Program.  This group of communities is unique in our Blandin team experience of working with 36  communities in four previous cohorts.  Each of these three communities is or is in the process of being very well-served.  Swift and Rock Counties have county-wide broadband service, mostly over FTTH, via new competitors Acira and Alliance Communications; both companies are cooperatives.  While HBC is now completing its Fiber to the Home network within the City of Cannon Falls, this area still has some broadband challenges in the rural area.  The strong connectivity in these communities puts the opportunity in front of community leaders to begin the effort to transform their communities, making full use of these advanced telecommunications networks.

Which of these communities, and other communities that are well-served, will invest in their own future to make their communities competitive for attracting people and investment?  This will take vision and commitment, demonstrated by new equipment and tech services purchases.  Employees will need training.  The Blandin Broadband Communities Program is designed to spur cross-sector community collaboration to ease tech investment decision-making and enable community-wide training for current and future workforce.  Over the next several months, these communities will be convening stakeholders and planning their future, designing projects that meet community needs, led by community champions.  With their information highway installed, their future is firmly in their hands!  BBCs, start your engines!

Many people are aware that Blandin Foundation uses the Intelligent Community framework in its work with community broadband and vitality initiatives.  Each year the Intelligent Community Forum (www.intelligentcommunity.org) conducts a competition to name the most intelligent communities in the world.  I encourage you to consider applying for this competition.  The initial application, available online at is not challenging and each participating community receives a benchmarking report on how it compares to other participating communities in the areas of broadband, knowledge workforce, innovation, digital equity, sustainability and advocacy.  I recommend this as a good use of time and as a way to educate local policy makers on what it takes to compete for people and investment in the global economy.

Stirring the Pot: Follow suit or get left behind!

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

On Minnesota’s broadband maps, far too much of greater Minnesota is still unserved. If you zoom into the map, however, you will see that most towns are considered served, with 100 Mb/20 Mb service available, areas outside cities and towns are not.  Many communities have three wired providers for businesses and key community institutions or community-wide.  That is good news.

In pre-Internet days, I managed the state’s business retention and expansion (BRE) program; training and assisting community teams to interview businesses, identify key issues and provide assistance to spur growth of investment and employment.  Today, tech use would be a key BRE element, not only for businesses, but also checking up on chambers of commerce, schools, health care providers and local governments.  As people make decisions on where to live and invest, a town lacking in apparent tech savvy will lose out to places with a tech edge.

For many towns, lack of broadband service can no longer be an excuse for not keeping up with tech trends.  Seek out partnerships to promote available broadband and tech support services.  Convene institutional leaders to create and pursue a shared vision of tech adoption, for tech-based economic development leadership.  If broadband access is still an issue, due to capacity, price and/or reliability, use these same leaders to work intensively on this issue as well as utilization.

Need to know how to get started?  Blandin’s recent case study on broadband ROI https://tinyurl.com/yafjlu9r is a rich resource illustrating what five smart communities are doing to promote a tech workforce and organizational innovation.  They are successfully branding themselves as high tech rural places. These efforts are increasingly inclusive and sustainable.  The Intelligent Community Forum (www.intelligentcommunity.org) has a treasure trove of information on the global competition for people and investment.

My advice: Follow suit or get left behind!