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!

Stirring the Pot: Life after MN Legislative Session

Originally posted in Blandin eNews…

I hope that the screeching halt to the legislative session does not bring an equally painful pause to community efforts to improve Minnesota’s broadband progress.  Those areas with quality broadband are moving fast ahead of the unconnected places.  Economic developers forced to work on improving broadband are left at the starting gate while developers in connected communities are supporting creative entrepreneurs, transforming their workforce to meet tomorrow’s needs and creating a place in the global economy for their community.

The loss of $15 million to the Border to Border grant is a huge blow to the many rural places – counties, cities and townships – that have been organizing, strategizing and perfecting broadband implementation plans.  The lack of state funding will put more onus on local resources to fill the gap the provider partners need to make their business case – whether their ROI hurdle is 36, 60 or 120 months.  Communities will have to be smart in how they participate in these projects.  If the funding balance swings too far to the public side, public ownership of networks will require serious consideration.  Communities can then decide whether to partner with a single or with multiple operators to offer services over the public infrastructure.  There are excellent working models for this framework around the country and elsewhere.

 

Stirring the Pot: What makes your town special

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

I’m in Austin TX for the Broadband Communities Conference.  Austin is widely noted for talent attraction.  Minnesotans remember Austin grabbing a big 3M expansion in the Perpich years.  Seemingly, decades ago, locals started the “keep Austin weird” movement. Now with corporate campuses, condo towers and traffic everywhere, I expect that few of those locals still live here.  Or, if they do, feel that they have lost the battle. As Joni Mitchell sang, “tear down paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Most rural communities now put talent attraction high on the economic development priority list.   I advise that your team think about what makes your town special and work to build on and preserve that essence, that unique weirdness.  You can look to the Strong Towns movement for more thoughts on this topic.  Welcome the newcomers; keep what brought them (and you) to your community.

Bill Coleman speaks to Arrowhead Regional Development Commission

Today Bill Coleman talked about broadband with local officials serving on the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) about their options for better broadband for the whole region. (Learn more.)

Broadband in the Arrowhead Region (MN)

Stirring the Pot: How to become a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC)

Originally posted in Blandin eNews…

Earlier in this E-news blast, you should have seen some details about applying to become a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC).  I would like to fill in more details about why you should consider this intensive initiative for your community.

In rural communities, great broadband infrastructure is an essential element of community competitiveness, but building infrastructure is not enough.  Becoming a BBC will create a lasting platform for ongoing community innovation and investment.

I highly recommend it!

CTAC presents at Connect Rural Broadband Summit in Region 9

Today Bill Coleman presented to the Connect Rural Broadband Summit in Region 9. It was a good opportunity for folks in the area to learn about broadband needs and roads to possible solutions.

Broadband 101 for Rural Connect Broadband Summer 

Stirring the Pot: What is your broadband story?

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

Over the past weeks, I have been privileged to participate in a number of events hosted by regional development commissions and an Initiative Foundation.  Attendees have included county commissioners, town board members, legislators, tribal government staff, Internet service providers, economic developers, school technologists, bankers and residents.  When we start these sessions with introductions and a “what is your broadband story?” icebreaker, the rural voice is clear.  Local officials are clearly ready to partner to bring quality, ubiquitous broadband services to their residents so identifying quality provider partners is a top priority.

It is great to hear the success stories where broadband has recently been deployed or where solid plans are in place for the next 24 months.  These efforts will turn their county from unserved red to well-served green on the DEED broadband maps.  It is fun to hear these project champions give Blandin Foundation a measure of credit for the assistance received from either or both of Blandin’s Community Broadband Resources and Robust Network Feasibility Fund programs.   Details on these programs can be found here: https://blandinfoundation.org/programs/expanding-opportunity/broadband/  Both programs help communities be better prepared to attract a private sector partner and to access state or federal broadband funding programs. We often see countywide initiatives through these programs, but the determination of the best geography is a local decision.

Contact us to discuss how we can help!