Stirring the Pot: Border to Border is an ambitious goal

As originally posted on Blandin eNews...

My first thought as I write this column is to offer best wishes to the Office of Broadband Development staff as they review, rank and select projects for Border-to-Border grant funding.  Clearly the staff will be living in very interesting times over the next 90 days!  From the outside looking in, I am happy to be on the outside.

Over the past weeks, I have done a number of presentations to rural groups and individuals thinking about broadband.  The broadband grant eligibility map, with the large patches of unserved red areas, is always a great discussion starter.  The scope of the challenge seems overwhelming.  In contrast, most of the coverage maps supplied by the 2017 grant applicants document projects that cover very small areas – neighborhoods to townships.   The small coverage area exceptions are the wireless proposals.

Border-to-border is an ambitious goal.  One township at a time with wired services will take a long time.  The wired solution at least brings clarity as to which addresses receive service.  The wireless maps show seamless coverage, but I have heard from far too many rural residents that the wireless services “available” in their area cannot be used due to topography or tree cover.  The fiber projects promise Gigabit capabilities (some only on the download side) while the wireless projects commit to symmetrical 100 Mb services.

No matter how wise the choices of the Office of Broadband Development and the DEED leaders, we know that more than half the projects will not receive funding this year leaving communities and providers hoping for future funding.

 

Stirring the Pot: Good luck grant applicants

Originally posted on Blandin eNews

It’s now September and I want to wish “good luck!” to our MN Twins, Vikings and Gophers as they seek this fall, in the words of Gopher coach PJ Fleck, to be “elite!”

Much more importantly, I want to wish good luck to the many communities that are putting the final touches on their Border to Border Broadband grants.  I have been keeping close watch on more than a few of these efforts as communities work in different ways with broadband providers to submit winning applications.  These community efforts prove the wisdom of two famous quotes.  The first is Seneca’s “Good luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”  The other is Edison’s “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration!”  I know that most every grant applications will have had both plenty of preparation and perspiration motivated by both inspired leaders and a necessary grant program.

In fact, many communities know that just finding a quality broadband provider partner requires some luck, especially those on the short end of the stick!   With decisions about match levels, grants versus loans, market development efforts and subscription drives, everyone is trying to thread the needle to put forth the required public support to satisfy providers’ ROI requirements and to protect the public interest.  For those working to support a competitive provider, we are seeing sophisticated use of GIS mapping as they attempt to thread an even smaller needle on unserved and underserved considerations and CAF2/ACAM funded areas, plus anticipate prospective incumbent provider challenges.

I am counting on the staff at DEED OBD to rely not on luck, but instead on their good judgment (which I know they have in abundance).  I offer them my best wishes as they dig through what is sure to be far more funding requests than funds available.  They will need to sort through legislated criteria, program rules and technical and financial considerations.  That would be a tough job.  As I write this, I realize that maybe they could use some luck to add to their judgment and likely perspiration!

And when grant announcements are made, I will appreciate the joy that select Minnesotans will feel when they learn that their road, neighborhood, township or county has been funded for broadband improvements.  Personally, I prefer the projects that cover large geographic areas like counties or, at a minimum, multiple townships.  I fear when I see haphazard, incomplete infrastructure deployment – down one road, but not the next, maybe next year, maybe not.  While one area wins with unlimited FTTH, while across the road they may have “scalable” 25/3 or quite possibly less or nothing.  This is not really statewide broadband infrastructure planning and deployment; it’s more like a broadband lottery.  I think that we can do better.

Finally, rather than hoping for luck, I have high hopes that early next year, state policy makers will see that Minnesota’s efforts on rural broadband are incomplete.  The emerging regional broadband coalitions and the anticipated large number of 2017 unfunded grant applications make this fact self-evident.  Further state resources will be required to create the ubiquitous, world-class broadband networks that are the necessary platform for rural economic vitality and quality of life.

 

 

Stirring the Pot: A look at the broadband crisis

Originally posted on Blandin eNews...

A short time ago, I heard Andrew Cohill of Design Nine (www.designnine.com) describe the “broadband crisis” faced by communities poorly served with broadband.  The intensity of the truth in that statement is illuminated as I listen to rural residents describe their daily broadband challenges caused by some variable combination of availability, price, reliability, data caps and other service limitations.  Rural people of all ages, incomes and education levels are increasingly stymied as they try to live complete lives.

Many communities have high hopes on their in-process applications to the Border-to-Border Grant Program.  We will soon know how many grant applicants will be chasing the available $20 million, most likely totaling many times more requests than dollars. While some communities with established provider partners have only to assemble the details of the application by September 30, other communities face the difficult task of securing a provider to be a real community partner.  An application without an identified provider partner will not go far; taking all of the legal steps to become a public sector provider is even more daunting legal and political process.

As difficult as it is to find a partner, a community should still be very careful!  I would want a provider partner that was committed to deploying technology that is affordably, not just technically, scalable to achieve the 2026 state broadband goal and beyond.  I would want a commitment to achieve ubiquity in the project area and not leave some residents permanently un- or underserved.  Finally, I would want a partner that I could trust to provide their best efforts without having to reach into the file to confirm and enforce legal agreements on a regular basis.

Good luck to all in the pursuit of better broadband!  The future of your community is at stake.

Stirring the Pot: Deciphering Broadband Fact from Fiction

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation eNews...

Years ago, after an evening of minor teen misbehavior, I was advised by an older, wiser college student – “Deny everything!”  That strategy did not work out so well in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered by my parents.  Today, however, that strategy seems to have taken over by more skilled storytellers than me. Sometimes, it even seems to apply to our Minnesota broadband policy discussions.

Broadband is a complicated subject pairing dynamic technology with unsettled multi-level government policy.  I have learned much by listening to techies and wonks dispute present and future tech capabilities and government policies. No doubt, smart people can disagree on any and all facets of this discussion, but there are some things, driven by physics and business finance 101, that should be accepted as facts.

In spite of the complexity underlying these discussions, residents attend community broadband meetings knowing that they and their neighbors need better broadband.  They know it because they experience service shortfalls every day.  They know that they are paying far more for far less, or have no service at all.  Via the state broadband maps and reports, they learn that 70 percent of Minnesotans already have broadband that meets the 2026 state goal and that a growing number of rural Minnesotans are served by fiber to the home networks.

It is disappointing to me when demonstrably incorrect “facts” gain a life of their own, especially when policy makers repeat them to groups of citizens.  In the past 24 hours, I have heard the following statements expressed either directly or via second-hand accounts at community meetings:

  • CAF2 will solve the rural broadband problem so the state does not need to be involved.
  • Telephone companies cannot cross their existing exchange boundaries to compete.
  • If telephone companies invest in new infrastructure, they have to share it with competitors.
  • All CAF2 improvements must immediately meet the 25/3 FCC broadband standard.
  • Incumbent telephone companies are committed to further upgrade CAF2 networks in the near future.

I often wonder where statements like this begin, especially when they emerge simultaneously from all corners of the state.  I wonder if I am on the wrong mailing lists, watching the wrong channels or visiting the wrong web sites.  I would argue that all of the “facts” above are false, or at best, highly unlikely.

I encourage you to keep your guard up, do some fact-checking and base your local broadband policy and technology decisions on information that holds up to tough scrutiny.  Seeking the quality criticism can help you make your project stronger.  And if someone questions your choices based only on their “facts,” be confident that you have done your homework.

Stirring the Pot: Perspective drives terminology!

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation eNews

Perspective drives terminology!

If our broadband world were as simple as telephone services used to be, we would have broadband to all people and places.  It would be relatively affordable.  It would be world-class in capacity and reliability.  That world was a regulated monopoly where business subsidized residential and urban subsidized rural.

But we now have a complicated playing field with a mix of providers and technologies, including public sector entities.  Differing perspectives and values can drive very different decisions on broadband investment and deployment.  In addition, the same strategy may have different names depending on who does it.  Depending on where you sit, a strategy may be considered “smart” or “indefensible”.

Two examples:

  • When public sector entities collaborate for better Internet access and pricing, they call it “demand aggregation.” A competitive private sector provider would be accused of “cherry picking.”
  • When providers invest only in the areas that have the best potential returns, their “good business planning” is defined as “redlining.” Note that the redlined areas might be urban low-income neighborhoods or entire rural counties or regions.

Public officials expect that their public broadband investments will be well scrutinized.  They outline clear goals and publish their business plan.  Private sector providers would do well to make their network planning and business justification models more transparent.  Public input into those plans, either advice or resources, would add significant value for the providers while helping the public entities meet their important broadband goals.

Stirring the Pot: The gap is deepening

As originally post on Blandin Foundation’s eNews...

According to company press releases, this summer will see the launch of Gigabit (1,024 Mb) services by both Mediacom and Midco in many regional centers and smaller communities in Greater Minnesota.  As a cheerleader for better broadband, I believe that this is great news for the businesses and residents in those communities.  These upgrades rely on a robust middle mile network that can supply multi-gigabit capacity, plus upgrades of electronics to support DOCSIS 3.1 technology.  While some broadband purists will lament the lack of symmetrical upload speeds, the vast majority of home broadband and small business customers will not suffer appreciably with a 25 Mb upload service.

What does this mean for community broadband leaders?  Is the battle won so that everyone can relax?  Hmmm, not yet.  First, ensure that all of the community’s business districts have access to this new service, whether downtown, in a strip mall or in the industrial park.  If not, supporting these new connections through encouragement, market development, or partnership would be a great step.  More broadly, increasing the use of technology by all businesses is necessary – with a focus on business technology assessments, e-commerce classes, shared online marketing strategies, cloud applications and online security. Communities can promote the availability and use of qualified local IT vendors and increase IT training for residents of all ages.  Those who have heard my broadband presentations have heard me use the analogy of an unused exercise machine.  Don’t let your local network be used for hanging laundry!

The other implication of emerging urban and rural gigabit networks is that un- and underserved rural areas are now even further behind in the bandwidth race.  Increasingly in small towns to metro areas, those served with cable modem Internet service have starter Internet at 25 Mb or 50 Mb.  For those served with new CAF2 funded networks, those are likely to be the top available speeds.  Depending on location relative to fiber-fed electronics, many consumers will have something closer to 10 Mb/1 Mb service and many people will still be unserved.  Much of the economic production in greater Minnesota happens outside of city limits – agriculture, forestry, tourism-oriented businesses, home businesses and tele-workers.

So it seems that rural broadband advocates still have plenty of work to do.  To energize your efforts, consider using Blandin Foundation’s Community Broadband Resources program to support your community or regional efforts on infrastructure or adoption strategies.

Stirring the Pot: Chisago Lakes Area quest as America’s Best Community!

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

This month I offer congratulations to Chisago Lakes Minnesota.  Two years ago, five small towns decided to identify and work together as one community in the America’s Best Communities competition sponsored by Frontier Communications, Dish Network, The Weather Channel and Co-Bank. Chisago Lakes includes Chisago City, Lindstrom, Center City, Shafer and Taylors Falls and several townships, a total population of about 20,000.  Leadership for this initiative has come from all sectors – business, health care, local units of government, community volunteers, the school district, Chisago County EDA/HRA, community foundation and chamber of commerce.  I am honored to have worked with Chisago Lakes throughout this planning and implementation process.  They have proven that both vision and leadership matters.

Chisago Lakes was one of more than 400 communities that submitted initial applications to ABC in pursuit of the top prizes of $3 million, $2 million and $1 million dollars.  Clearly, the prospective rewards were a huge motivation for the Chisago Lakes community to enter this competition, especially in the first several meetings.  After that, the positive rewards of working together towards a clearly defined mission on community-established priorities overwhelmed the focus on the awards.  Of course, the idea of winning $3 million dollars is always a pretty good motivator when momentum slowed!

As one of 50 quarter-finalists, Chisago Lakes was awarded $50,000 to create their economic revitalization plan.  They used these funds for project management outside consulting, feasibility studies and community engagement.  The plan has six elements: Marketing and Branding; Broadband and Technology; Energy; Healthy Community; Trails; and Workforce.  Based on this written plan, Chisago Lakes was selected as one of 15 communities to share their plans via a ten-minute presentation in Durham North Carolina.  So much to say, so little time.  Many hours went into creating and practicing that ten-minutes so that every word mattered.   Chisago Lakes’ pitch moved us forward as one of eight finalists.

Even before being named a finalist, we had begun implementing our plan.  With the $100,000 finalist prize in hand, Chisago Lakes continued to implement its plan using mostly volunteers on self-directed work teams.  They used the plan to guide their work, pivoting as necessary and as opportunities arose.  Late in the year, a housing team formed and began work on a key community issue that had been identified as a priority in our planning process, but had been set aside due to the long timelines on housing development. Success on the other projects encouraged housing leaders to initiate their efforts.

ABC Judges are now at work reviewing Chisago Lakes’ work on the 19 specific projects documented in more than 70 pages of reports. Well over 100 community volunteers worked to implement the plan. Multiple hundreds participated in ABC – related events.  Several million dollars were invested in these projects – by telecommunications providers, electric utilities, local businesses, and government. Needless to say, the excitement is building in Chisago Lakes.  The announcement is April 19th in Denver.  Such amazing results! Good luck Chisago Lakes!!

Building a case for $35 – $50 Million per Year for the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program

Legislators need to be aware of the broadband planning occurring in Greater Minnesota.  Counties are taking the lead and banding together to achieve cost savings and scale.  They share a goal to provide a long-term, high quality broadband solution that meets 2026 state broadband goals for all of their county residents, while rejecting partial solutions that leave all or part of their county behind.

The following projects vary in their readiness, but local teams are working with consultants on feasibility studies to gather market demand, cost and financing data while attempting to build partnerships with willing providers for an expected September 2017 Border to Border Broadband Grant deadline. These feasibility studies are expensive, but are essential to create a broadband business and financing plan.  Moving from community broadband discussion to feasibility study to private public partnership is a multi-year, resource-intensive process.

While there are always uncertainties in competitive broadband deployment, the annual uncertainty at the Capitol wreaks havoc on these broadband business plans.  Everyone recognizes that these projects, by incumbent or competitor, require subsidy to be sustainable.  Without state funding, these projects become more improbable.  Yet, these communities persist because they now know the stakes are high!

These projects represent more than 120,000 households that do not have broadband services at the 2026 state broadband standard.   Funding all of these projects would be a considerable investment, but would move rural Minnesota considerably closer to achieving the 2026 goal while leveraging significant private and other public sector investment.  State leaders should recognize that a lack of broadband will leave these places permanently behind.

Aitkin County
With only 3.7 households per square mile, Aitkin County is extremely difficult to serve.  The county economic development office has been working on broadband for a decade with little progress made until a 2016 broadband grant to Mille Lacs Energy in partnership with CTC.  CTC staff advocates for a higher grant percentage in places like Aitkin County as a necessity for their continued investment.  Such a heavily forested area is an unlikely candidate for a wireless solution

Kandiyohi County
While Willmar has competitive broadband services, the rural Kandiyohi county are left behind.  The county was fortunate to have two providers receive grant funding in 2016, but the remaining areas are considerably more rural and will require higher subsidies to facilitate projects.

Kanabec County
This historically poor county has pursued better broadband for many years, including the investment in a broadband feasibility study.  To date, they are unable to find a partner with which it can find an effective financial solution.  A small portion of the county has seen CAF2 investment, but the reach and quality of service is still uncertain.  Even with the county’s willingness to provide long-term loans, providers have lacked interest in Kanabec County.  They continue to talk with incumbents, cooperative telephone companies and their local electric cooperative to find a solution within the financial capabilities of the county.

Otter Tail County
Otter Tail County is one of the larger rural counties in both geography and population.  As a desirable tourism area, the county has had success encouraging telework as an economic development destination in areas where broadband is available.

Redwood County
Redwood County has been working on broadband for several years and has completed a feasibility study.  They have achieved some limited success as existing providers have edged out their broadband services to the rural areas still leaving large unserved areas.

Six SW MN Counties
Chippewa, Yellow Medicine, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray and Pipestone Counties are collaborating on a regional feasibility study to gather data and to consider prospective partnerships.  These very low-density population counties need broadband in rural areas to support precision agriculture and farm families.

Traverse County
Traverse County has completed a feasibility study and is pursuing a partnership with a wireless provider.

Pope County
Pope County has completed a feasibility study and has emerging partnerships with a number of providers delivering services in served areas of Pope County and surrounding counties.

Isanti County
Isanti County is in process of selecting a feasibility study consultant.  They have been communicating with existing wired and wireless providers in hopes of agreeing to partnership terms with one or more providers.

Roseau County
Roseau Electric Cooperative is considering broadband deployment strategies.

Collaborative Community Applications

  1. Ely, Winton and surrounding area
  2. Orr, Cook, Bois Forte, Mountain Iron, Buhl, Kinney, Hibbing, & Chisholm

 

Compiled by:
Bill Coleman
Community Technology Advisors
651-491-2551
bill@communitytechnologyadvisors.com

 

Stirring the Pot: Broadband Vision and Values

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband

While on vacation and reading randomly on Facebook and Twitter, I read an excellent article about someone retiring from the US Department of State after a long career.  The article is long gone from my news feed.

His career distilled to its essence – “Never underestimate your ability to accomplish great things based on vision and values.”  As a specialist in European affairs, he marveled at the falling of the Berlin Wall and other eastern European government transformations in the 1980’s without a shot being fired.  He believed that the USA had significant and positive influence by leading with our long and widely held vision and values summarized by “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Similarly, communities need to decide, “What are our broadband vision and values?”  Hard questions about ubiquity, affordability, capacity, ownership and management need to be asked, discussed and determined through engagement processes that include both leaders and citizens. Failure to do this hard work allows communities to pursue projects lead to dead-ends or off of a cliff, or to nowhere at all. Vision and values can remain consistent in a dynamic broadband environment of technologies, providers, government programs and community leadership. With shared broadband vision and values, it is far easier to set the course, know if you are making progress and when you have reached your destination.

Stirring the Pot – speaking to legislators about broadband

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband

Those readers that know me know that I can go on about broadband for a long time.  I can talk about broadband demand, technologies, economic impact, private-public partnerships and just about any other broadband topic.  So, I am facing a considerable challenge when I consider how to best use my allotted three minutes before a legislative committee this week. http://wp.me/p3if7-3U9

My key points will be:

1)      The pain felt by unserved rural Minnesotans is real.  From lower property values to increased costs of high priced satellite and cellular services or too frequent trips into town to get online, the lack of broadband hurts students, small business owners, farmers and all who live in the countryside.  For a

better understanding of how important broadband is to rural Minnesotans, I suggest that you read some of the posts on some of our broadband providers’ Facebook pages.  You will share the excitement of those just hooked up to real broadband services and feel the pain of those left behind with little or no broadband or unreliable broadband.

2)      Please know that rural elected officials are hungry for real and effective public private partnerships.  While every project is different, creating legal and smart pathways to public-private partnerships that minimize legal expense and maximize broadband investment would be of high value and low cost.  Every community or county should not have to create their own unique way to partner and finance projects, often by bending existing tools to fit broadband investment.  In addition, broadband providers willing to engage in real partnerships should be rewarded for their commitment to rural Minnesota.  A real partnership means that providers have some skin in the game.

3)      We cannot solve rural Minnesota’s broadband problems one township at a time.  We need countywide and multi-county projects that address large geographic areas and that do not leave pockets of people behind.  These larger projects will probably require

multi-year funding commitments and, in some cases, more than 50% public funding.

4)      We need broadband infrastructure that will support rural Minnesotans for a generation.  We should not fund marginally upgraded networks that will require additional upgrades to meet the 2026 state goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb.  Remember, the future business case to upgrade these networks will be no better than the current business case that requires subsidy.  Dig once and do it right.

5)      Finally, going beyond “served and unserved”, communities need providers that are responsive to existing and prospective economic development opportunities and community needs; communities need real broadband partners.  Current and prospective businesses, health care providers and schools need providers ready to make the necessary investments and provide the services that allow these organizations to survive and thrive.