Stirring the Pot: Blandin Broadband Lunch Bunch Jan 13

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband eNews…’

In any other time, I would be starting this column with a breezy Happy New Year and offering platitudes for sunny skies ahead.  Instead, uncertainty tending towards gloom fills the air in my office and over Zoom.

My hope for clear broadband skies has been crushed by the unexpected results of the FCC’s RDOF auction.  Like many, I expected that many, locally-oriented ISPs would win the majority of eligible areas adjacent to their existing fiber-served areas, thus guaranteeing a timely and smooth deployment of affordable and reliable service for a generation. Non-RDOF eligible areas would be reached through provider investment supplemented by the state’s Border to Border grant program and local public dollars.  We would achieve the Minnesota Broadband Vision – rural areas having the broadband infrastructure necessary to attract people and investment.  Communities could then focus on broadband utilization for economic competitiveness and quality of life.

Instead of this expected certainty, we must all now wait for clarity to emerge from the next steps of the FCC process.  Unfortunately, there are many questions, but few answers:

  • Will the FCC approve the engineering and financial plans of winning bidders?
  • What technology will be deployed to achieve the promised Gigabit service?
  • What is the build-out timeline?
  • What about adjacent underserved areas?
  • How will incumbent providers respond?
  • How will state and federal funders adapt their broadband programs?
  • Has the community role changed?

What are your thoughts on the implications of RDOF?  Maybe we can shred some clouds and see some sunshine.  No presentations, just shared conversation.  All are welcome!

Blandin Broadband Lunch Bunch
January 13 ~  Noon to 1:00pm
Register Here (for 2nd Wednesdays on infrastructure)

 

Stirring the Pot: ICF deadline Jan 11

Economic developers can get sidetracked from pursuing long-term strategies because of the latest crisis of the day.  Two examples in recent years are day care and housing shortages.  These days, CARES Fund initiatives for small business are hoarding valuable time.  Little time seems to be available for vision setting and strategic planning, but in a fast changing world, at least some time needs to be allocated for this purpose.

Communities interested in jumpstarting efforts to learn and respond to how they measure up on global economic competitiveness should complete and submit the Intelligent Community benchmarking questionnaire. 

Around the world, communities use the framework to create their vision and pursue a more competitive, equitable and sustainable future.  Each participating community receives a complimentary “snapshot” report and is entered into the Intelligent Community of the Year competition.  More information on the framework and the questionnaire can be found here: www.intelligentcommunity.org.  The submittal deadline is January 11th

Blandin Foundation has used the framework statewide for over a decade to help communities think about the importance of broadband infrastructure and services.  Over the past four years, Blandin and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation have worked with ten northeastern Minnesota communities to improve access and use of broadband, building stronger and more vibrant communities.  The Foundation and Agency are now  working with partners to launch this work regionwide.

Completing the Intelligent Community benchmarking has two positive benefits.  Short-term, it is a chance to collect and analyze data as well as to showcase your community’s success stories.  More importantly, it is an opportunity to develop a powerful vision leading to an enhanced community and economic development future.  The questionnaire takes just a handful of hours to complete.  Give it a try!

Stirring the Pot: Let Broadband Partners Find You

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband

It was a different experience to participate in the annual broadband conference last month.  It was great to see friends on the Zoom, but I missed all the trappings of a traditional conference – nice Minnesota location, great food, and of course, the hundreds of informal interactions with Minnesota’s broadband champions.  One advantage of virtual was the presence of more national level speakers than ever before, both for keynotes and Broadband 101 sessions.  If you missed them, make time to watch the archived versions on the conference web site.

So many presentations noted the importance of partnerships but didn’t talk much about how to find one.  I think that the simplest and most effective tactic is to let partners find you.  This is not a passive, hoping strategy.  Instead, pretend that you don’t need a partner and start making progress towards the goal.  In other words, start doing things that drive you towards a successful broadband network.

Announce your intention to solve your broadband problem.  Form a serious team.  Create and adopt a vision.  Start gathering market data about competition and the demand for broadband.  Do a feasibility study. Create a business plan.  Seek funding.  I believe that as you move down this development path, prospective partners will emerge.  In addition, your community will be able to better prepared to select the best possible partners.

Momentum is the key to attracting attention and prospective partners.  While you don’t need external partners for this; you do need a good set of community partners.  And you attract them the same way.  Start down the path with whoever you can recruit and keep going.  There is an old, but fun and informative TED talk on this.  It will bring a smile to your face and encourage you forward.

 

Stirring the Pot: Access, adoption and use

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Access. adoption and use are the three legs of broadband promotion.  Access is the network.  Adoption is affordability and basic training. Use is increased sophistication of technology by individuals, but also entire economic sectors, like retailing, education, health care and manufacturing.  I have observed the inconsistent pace at which these three factors move forward.  Broadband network deployment is heavily influenced by federal, state and even local government finance programs.  Federally, we saw the underwhelming impact of poorly designed and executed CAF II program and more positive continuing results of the ACAM funds.  The next big this is the RDOF reverse auction that will heat up in October and November.  We have seen the overwhelmingly positive results of the MN Border to Border Broadband Fund.  In rural, if the government is not funding it, wired broadband investment just is not happening.

Adoption is driven by availability and affordability, especially the latter.  Affordability took a big leap forward with the Comcast Digital Essentials Program.  Originally designed as some eye candy to allow regulators to approve Comcast’s purchase of competitors, the company continues to implement the program and has increased the speeds provided during the pandemic.  Some other providers have followed suit and have started their own programs, some of which have since abandoned their low-cost programs.  The new Connected MN program will be a helpful addition, at least short-term, to the adoption toolbox.  Prior to the pandemic, the digital “homework gap” was highly noted, but not cause for significant policy response.  With kids attending school from home, the gap became a chasm.

Sophistication of use was mostly held back by fear, regulations, inflexible management and other non-technical factors.  The pandemic busted through all of those barriers around tele-health (payments, privacy), tele-work (management oversight and e-security issues), e-commerce offerings and purchases (fear and lack of investment by businesses and fear and tradition by consumers).  “Necessity as the mother of invention” swept away many of these artificial barriers.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens as we move forward post-pandemic.  Will federal and state governments decide to limit funds for broadband projects or will broadband deployment be a centerpiece of economic stimulus packages?  Will downtowns and suburban office buildings need to be converted to housing as people continue to work from home?  Will education be transformed with more choices for either at-home or at-school offerings?  Which direction will the health care industry go with tele-health?  Affordability is certain to be front and center on the adoption front.  Today, school districts are providing devices and connectivity for students.  Will this continue or will we be content to again worry about the homework gap for a significant portion of the student population.

Seems like some good questions for our candidates!

Stirring the Pot: Boating and broadband

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

I recognized a bit of the challenge that broadband providers face this weekend as I was thinking about upgrading my classic 1987 16-foot Lund fishing boat.  Someone made me a tentative offer, somewhat out of the blue.  It is a good boat with a new transom that I installed last year.  No leaks which is a big positive!  The vintage motor runs great once you get it started.  I have now got it set up the way I want with the right accessories.  A big advantage to this boat is there are no monthly payments!

To upgrade to a boat that is newer, bigger, faster, more features involves a lot of analysis, risk taking and expense.  To get a new boat that is similar in size and features to mine would be six times my current investment.  To get a used boat costs less but creates more risk and calls to mind the saying, “better the devil you know!”  Some boat brands have a great reputation but still all kinds of negative online reviews and problems.

I have learned from ISPs that getting people to switch services, either an upgrade from their existing provider or to a new provider is a tougher sell than one would think.  There is a lot of uncertainty in terms of installation, timing, new email addresses, expense.  Is the faster Internet worth the expense?  All kinds of questions.

There are all kinds of online forums that can provide comfort to the boat buying process.  You can get great feedback on boat models, motors and price.  I think that community broadband champions can play this role to advocate, especially advocating for new broadband competitive providers.  Think about how you can support the companies who have been willing to invest in your community by supporting their marketing efforts and ensuring their success.

By the way, I am sticking with my old boat, at least for now!

Stirring the Pot: MN Statewide broadband speed test

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Broadband advocates in Saint Louis County have been engaged in a crowd-sourced broadband speed test that is yielding fascinating and useful results.  Approximately 7,000 completed tests have led to clear conclusions made visible through sophisticated GIS mapping tools. Several neighboring counties are now moving forward with a similar strategy and there is an emerging consensus that this should be a statewide initiative.

The GEO Partners mapping tool provides address-specific data about the actual speed a customer is receiving.  The biggest value will be for local areas that have low-speed connections. The most important data will be collected in places where the state and federal maps show broadband service in excess of 25 Mb/3 Mb and the actual service is less.

The benefits of this approach are many.  It offers clarity to local government leaders about what broadband services are actually available.  This statistically valid evidence helps build community consensus.   State officials could use this data in adjudicating grant challenges from competing ISPs.  Federal programs would consider this information as input when deciding which regions were eligible for federal programs based.  Importantly, prospective providers could use this information to determine the actual quality of existing networks where they are considering expansions.

The results show very clear differences among providers and among different technologies and are no surprise to anyone working on broadband issues in rural areas.  While some customers may buy low-speed services for affordability reasons, the lack of any high-speed connections in an area can be used as evidence that high-speed service is not widely available or simply too expensive.

At community meetings in rural areas, the display of broadband maps often brings reactions of disbelief and testimonials of poor service.  Today, the burden of proof to correct these maps is on local leaders who have only these individual stories to bring to state and federal elected officials and staff.  A crowd-sourced statewide broadband speed test would create a second source of reliable data that could be a strong counterweight to the existing over-optimistic maps submitted by providers.

Stay tuned for more information on this emerging statewide initiative.  Large numbers of tests are required to be statistically valid.  Getting too a statistically valid sample in your area will be a local responsibility and require participation of a wide variety of promoters – local units of governments, chambers of commerce, school districts, lake associations, churches and other community organizations.

Stirring the Pot: Broadband end user resources

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Today, I find myself relatively speechless.  In this time of high social anxiety, the Internet is showcasing its power to both support and stress our communities and country.  Rather than personally blathering on, I thought that I would provide a few great sources of information for your thoughtful consideration.

Privacy
Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org)
Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.Epic.org)

Digital Inclusion
National Digital Inclusion Alliance (www.digitalinclusion.org)

Internet
Berkman Klein Center – Harvard (cyber.harvard.edu)
Benton Institute for Broadband and Society (www.Benton.org)

Stirring the Pot : Eye on the Broadband Prize

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Community broadband leaders need to keep their eyes on the prize – broadband money!  “To the Victors belongs the Spoils.”  In Andrew Jackson’s day, that meant political patronage.  Today, the spoils are fiber optics!

In addition to the $20 million (with an additional $10 million in play) of Border to Border Broadband grant funds, there is a whopping $20 billion on the table via the FCC’s Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) coming in October.  Large areas of Minnesota are eligible for funding to be allocated via a reverse auction. https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/auction-904-preliminary-eligible-areas/

The state’s broadband fund is designed to give communities input on provider proposals.  A community can choose to support applications via a single letter of support, by rallying multiple letters of community support and/or by providing direct funding.  A community could choose to write a letter of protest to the state if the service to be delivered was deemed in adequate or if the funded project would be a barrier to future fiber infrastructure investment.

The RDOF program incents fiber providers but allows fixed wireless, DSL and even satellite.  While the RDOF program offers no formal role for community engagement, there are important ways for governments to influence the results.  The community need to find a provider who will bid and, preferably, someone ready to deploy fiber optics.    At a minimum, community broadband activists should be in contact with prospective providers to see if they plan to bid and with what technology in mind.  A community could also work with a provider to get adjacent areas deployed via some combination of state, local or provider funds.  Finally, documenting the demand for broadband will help a provider to appropriately bid for the RDOF funds.

The RDOF eligibility map is a patchwork based on claims of existing services by incumbent providers.  If a provider claims one house in a census block to be served with 25 Mb/3 Mb, the entire area is deemed served making them ineligible for RDOF.  CenturyLink and Frontier are now claiming thousands of census blocks as served taking them out of the program.

Communities should work with GIS mapping experts, either consultants or their own county planning staff, to see the impact of these new service claims and to test the reality of those claims.  While there is no formal way to refute the data, communities can act by working through state and federal staff and elected officials to ensure accuracy.

Clearly these RDOF dollars will have a huge influence on broadband deployment; I believe that what a community has for infrastructure and services for the next generation will be determined by this auction.  Don’t just sit and watch.  Make this program work for your area or suffer the long-term consequences.

Stirring the Pot: Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF)

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Community broadband advocates need to take a look at the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) funding that will be made available via the latest FCC’s funding program for rural broadband.  Communities should engage with their preferred provider partners now to encourage them to bid for this available funding.  A preferred partner is one whose deployment plans line up with your community’s vision for future broadband service rather than a provider using these funds to meet today’s minimum broadband standards similar to the CAF II 10 Mb/1 Mb debacle.

Over $20 billion is available and only areas that lack 25 Mb/3 Mb funding, using the current FCC maps, are eligible.   Eligible areas can be found here: https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/auction-904-preliminary-eligible-areas/ along with GIS data tables.  There are large blocks of eligible areas in northeast, east central, southeast and southcentral Minnesota.  One interesting aspect of the reverse auction process will be to reward providers who commit to providing higher speeds and lower latencies.  Frankly, this whole process is very complicated.

A significant barrier to effectively using these funds is the patchwork of eligibility.  The funds would be a great building block in a collaborative funding plan, combining provider, local and state funds with federal funding to cover a wide geographic area.  County and regional broadband planners would do well to commit local funding to their preferred provide partner which would increase their ability to bid confidently on these federal funds.

Smart legislators would empower the DEED Office of Broadband to reserve some of their funds supporting providers chasing RDOF funds.  I hope that they are talking about this.  With a prospective DEED application window in September and the October FCC auction, the timing seems compatible.  Combined, these funds could be used to ensure widespread deployment of fiber to the home networks, especially since so many of the eligible areas are not idea for wireless deployment.  This would be a great opportunity to push the “Minnesota Model” to a new level of innovation.

Stirring the Pot: Community Broadband Leadership

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Community broadband leadership is front and center for me right now, stimulated by a recent orientation session for five new Blandin Broadband Communities and the task of creating content for an upcoming Community Broadband Leadership Workshop.  To clarify my thinking on the topic I have been online reviewing definitions of leaders and leadership.  The lists are all well and good and include many admirable qualities.   In my experience, teams of leaders are significantly more effective in community broadband development than lone rangers.  We also know that on every leadership team, there are extraordinary individuals that are instrumental to the success of the group.

Ultimately, it all comes down to people who are willing to do the hard work to move their community forward.  Our community broadband leaders do the investigations and learning to understand the challenge, then recruit and inform others to the issue.  They convince organizations to devote resources for finding and funding solutions.  They devote the time to going door-to-door to boost community survey completion. They join regional and state efforts that may or may not pay dividends for the local effort.  They recognize others’ contributions to the effort.  As Edison said, “success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

When meeting new community teams, I often try to anticipate who will step up into leadership.  I am often wrong and many times surprised.  Established community leadership needs to be open to these emerging leaders but that can be harder than it seems.  Some of the most effective leaders have no title or position or broadband expertise. You will recognize them over time – they show up, ask questions, volunteer for and complete tasks.

I was with one such leader this morning at

the Cherry Township hall where happy residents were signing up for new fiber to the home broadband service.  It was fun to see area residents shaking his hand and thanking him for his efforts while he deflected the praise onto others.  For a while my new favorite saying was that “every community needs a Kippy!” In retrospect, I think that every community already has one or more Kippy’s.  The leadership trick is to find them and allow them to serve your community.