Trusted sources to check out for broadband updates

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband blog

Keeping up with broadband news and information can be a challenge.  Emerging state and federal funding programs, new technologies, and regulatory decisions are all in the news mix.  How can community leaders keep up?

I have some trusted sources; I do consulting work for two of them.  Here is a summary of what I read:

  • Blandin on Broadband (of course!) Subscribe at www.blandinonbroadband.org.  A great summary of everything Minnesota broadband.  This blog is a great resource for daily news and also a great searchable archive for policy and strategy ideas.
  • Pots and Pans by CCG.  Subscribe at https://potsandpansbyccg.com.  Doug Dawson, one of my favorite broadband consultants,  provides daily, thoughtful essays on technology, telecom industry news, community broadband and consumer trends.  This is a must-read for all community broadband advocates.
  • Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Daily Digest.  Subscribe at https://www.benton.org/headlines.  I work on the Benton team for the Illinois Connected Communities Program.  Benton provides a wide ranging broadband policy news digest on both broadband infrastructure and digital equity issues.  They produce their own, high quality original research and spread the word on other policy papers and news.
  • Telecompetitor.  https://www.telecompetitor.com.  This newsletter is tech and industry news heavy and has a bounty of advertising links.
  • One final source that I look to is the NTCA.  Here is a link to CEO Shirley Bloomfield’s blog – https://www.ntca.org/ruraliscool/newsroom/ceo-blog

This should keep everyone busy and informed.  If you have other sources that you would like to share, let us know!

Blandin Foundation is recruiting communities for broadband support

As originally post on Blandin on Broadband blog

Blandin Foundation offers a couple approaches for communities wanting to work on broadband access and use. The Foundation is recruiting communities right now for both approaches.

Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) – The BBC program requires a community team – City, County, School District, Tribal Government, or multi-county region – to work on both broadband access and use over an 18-24 month period. Communities receive leadership education, facilitation and grant resources to plan and implement projects that improve broadband access and use. This might include anything from wi-fi hotspots to e-commerce assessments and training to tele-health to training elders. Each community receives up to $75,000 to implement projects. Projects must fall into one or more of the six Intelligent Community framework, including broadband, workforce, innovation, digital equity, sustainability and/or community engagement. Blandin has worked with more than 40 communities on this program and the results always surpass expectations, even in this virtual environment.

Community Broadband Resources: Accelerate! – This program is focused on equipping your community broadband team to successfully plan and implement broadband infrastructure projects. Over a 16-week timeframe, community teams watch online broadband webinars, then meet Friday mornings for two hours to learn more about that week’s topics and plan the upcoming broadband development efforts.  Through the program, community teams conduct surveys, interview incumbent and prospective providers, develop consensus around local broadband partnership and finance strategies, etc.  We have just completed our first cohort of four county/tribal communities and now these communities are off and running on prospective broadband public-private partnership projects, including the pursuit of federal grants.

If you are interested in either of these programs, please contact Bill Coleman at 651-491-2551 or bill@communitytechnologyadvisors.com. Application timelines on both programs are short, so do not delay.

Invitation to talk public ownership models at Blandin Lunch Bunch on March 10

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

Part One

For rural community broadband champions, pursuing better broadband has never been more complicated.  Factors that currently have me thinking, if not stumped include:

  • RDOF
    • Will the winning RDOF bidder be approved by the FCC?
    • If yes, what will their buildout schedule look like till 2027?
    • Will they build-out the adjacent non-RDOF areas?
  • Starlink
    • Will Starlink maintain the 100 Mb+ speeds once they move from beta to large customer numbers?
    • Will they be able to deliver, as promised, to 300 Mb and beyond?
    • How will low-income households afford $500 or more in upfront costs?
  • DSL
    • Will other DSL providers follow ATT’s lead and phase out DSL services?
    • Will the majority of rural DSL customers ever see widespread speeds that support multiple users?

We should know more about some of these questions soon; other will emerge more slowly.

Part Two

The 1996 Telecom Act was supposed to spur competition, but we are going backwards. In many communities, from affluent suburbs to small rural communities, residents are effectively subject to the services, pricing and responsiveness of an unregulated monopoly provider.  Community leaders need to decide whether this is that a good thing.

The costs to build a fiber infrastructure in a community are low for a 30-year asset.  Community broadband advocates should analyze the multiple options for creating community-owned networks and promote them to elected officials.  Locally-owned networks serve the community as their first priority.

We are going to talk public ownership models at our Blandin Lunch Bunch on March 10 at noon.  Sign up here: https://blandinfoundation.org/programs/broadband/blandin-community-broadband-program-webinar-series/ .  We will discuss at least a couple models.  Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance will join the conversation.

Ammon ID (https://www.ammonfiber.com) is building and maintaining its own fiber network where residents now have their choice of Gigabit providers for $49.50 per month.  Chattanooga TN (https://epb.com/home-store/internet) offers a Gb for $68 per month and solved its pandemic-magnified digital divide issue by simply providing free 100 Mb Internet to 28,000 students.  A new study documented a $2.69 billion long-term benefit from Chattanooga’s fiber network.

We will also talk about the mixed experience of Minnesota’s publicly owned broadband networks (wonders and warts!), including Southwest MN Broadband, the Cities of Windom and Monticello and Scott and Lake Counties.  And, maybe a bit on how new and expanded cooperatives might accomplish the same goals.  Join us!

The need for and benefits of last mile high-speed connections are now obvious

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

Broadband funding is already included and will be expanded in future pandemic and economic stimulus packages. I expect that there will be significant funding linked to both telehealth and distance learning programs.  Minnesotans should be getting ready now to win these funds for infrastructure and adoption projects, but I don’t see anyone leading an effort!

For middle mile infrastructure, the Northeast Service Cooperative serves as a model.  Schools are linked via a multi-Gigabit network as are local units of government and health care providers.  As an open access fiber network, NESC eases competitive entry for small and large broadband providers to deliver Gigabit services anywhere in the region.  Thanks to the vision of NESC’s leadership, the project was funded through Obama stimulus programs. The benefits of the network are adding up with untapped exponential potential in future years.  Minnesota needs more of this.

The need for and benefits of last mile high-speed connections are now obvious. What was innovative ten months ago is now commonplace, but only for the well-connected.  The 25/3 federal standard and 2022 Minnesota goal have been overtaken by the need for multiple video conference feeds.  Internet-based health, education, work and social interaction will continue in a post-COVID 19 world.  Minnesota broadband providers should be working with social service agencies and health care providers to substitute patient transport costs for fiber networks and broadband subscriptions.   Just one quick Google search found evidence that documented a savings of $3823 from one avoided ambulance transfer (Natafgi, Shane, etal. 2018).

We now have multiple regions with nearly 100% FTTH networks from providers like Paul Bunyan, CTC, WCTA, Acira and other cooperatives.  There are growing pockets of FTTH from HBC, Arvig, BEVComm, Metronet and other providers. Are schools and health care providers making full use of these network assets, thus making themselves more attractive to new residents and businesses? Cross-sector, public-private regional teams need to create projects that could be funded by the whole alphabet soup of federal agencies for health care, education, workforce development, economic development, and public safety.

The time to do that is now!  Anyone going to lead on this?

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.