Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 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 ( 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: 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.

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.

  • If you have connectivity challenges, becoming a BBC can help align your community leadership to pursue better broadband infrastructure and services while implementing short-term connectivity projects.
  • If you have good broadband in place, but not seeing much change in community tech vitality, the BBC program can spur more sophisticated technology use through shared learning and collaboration experiences.
  • If no organization is working to address digital equity so that all residents have a device, a connection and computer skills, then the BBC program will shine a spotlight on and provide resources to address this critical issue.

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!

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:  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.

  • Communities can receive up to 32 hours of technical assistance through the CBR program to launch broadband initiatives – community meetings, broadband inventory and assessment, community surveys, etc.
  • The Feasibility Study program provides a grant of up to $25,000 to hire engineering and finance consultants to do more in-depth analysis of alternative broadband improvement strategies.

Contact us to discuss how we can help!

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!!

Southwestern Minnesota Counties Working Together on Broadband with the Blandin Foundation

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Lincoln, Murray and Pipestone Counties are three rural counties that have decided to work together on better broadband.  The counties share a similar mix of small communities and big farms on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.  They also see a growing number of neighboring counties getting fiber to their homes and farms, including Lac qui Parle, Swift, Big Stone and Rock Counties.

The leadership of these counties, staff and elected leaders alike, are worried that current broadband is hindering economic growth and detracting from their ability to attract manufacturing firms, other businesses and, most importantly, people due to the lack of broadband services.  More than 60 people attended one or more of three meetings held in Ivanhoe, Pipestone and Slayton, including a variety of broadband providers.

Attendees learned about the financial and technical challenges of providing high speed broadband in areas with such low population densities.  Those who live behind trees or in low valleys talked about their discussions with providers and challenges of even receiving wireless services.  They learned about the promise of the Connect America Fund 2 and when improvements might be coming.  In the future days, leadership teams from the three counties will meet to discuss the meetings, the input from residents and businesses and next steps.  Each county had 15 or more volunteers ready to team with county staff and elected officials on prospective solutions, including investing their own dollars to make expanded broadband possible.

[slideshare id=69424111&doc=swmnupdatedpresentationcoleman1-161122200327]

Bill Coleman speaks at MN Association of Townships

I was pleased to help start the conversation on broadband last week at Association of Townships annual conference in St Cloud.

[slideshare id=69412026&doc=townshipspresentationcoleman-161122150507]

Blandin Foundation community partners Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Chisago County and Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative were all featured as was the USDA and Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative.  It was great to hear of the winning solutions that will result in Fiber to the Home networks at Fond du Lac and north central Minnesota.

The value of partial solutions was also highlighted recognizing that more work and some luck will be required to reach a full solution.  The Minnesota Association of Townships has been a strong partner in an alliance of rural stakeholder groups, all of which recognize the foundational necessity of rural broadband services.

Stirring the Pot: Deploying $35 million in broadband grants in Minnesota

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

With the $35 million of broadband funding now signed into law, both communities and telecom providers are beginning the process of project development. Some have projects lined up, engineering completed, business cases prepared and partnerships in place. Others are just getting started in their project planning. I suspect that the Office of Broadband Development will have plenty of projects from which to choose. Deciding how to choose in advance of releasing program guidelines and application forms may be the OBD’s toughest job!

Here are some questions with which they might be grappling…

  • Should OBD funds be used to solve rural Minnesota’s broadband shortcomings for generations or should shorter term “something is better than nothing” projects be considered?
    • Should projects like the previously funded Alliance Communications – Rock County partnership that provide a ubiquitous, long – term broadband solution using OBD, county and provider funds, provide the standard project framework funded by DEED?
    • When is it appropriate to fund incremental projects that only edge out and make the hardest to serve areas even more difficult
  • What does “scalable to 100 Mb” really mean?
    • Is a CAF2 fiber to the node deployment with 8,000 foot local loops that defers the majority of FTTH deployment expense into an uncertain future, really “scalable?”
    • Should OBD require a claw-back enabled commitment from all grantees to actually deliver to the 100 Mb standard by 2026
  • What are the essential elements of a public – private partnership?
    • Does a simple support letter from a unit of government count as a partnership?
    • Is a project funded almost exclusively with a combination of federal CAF2, OBD grants and local government funds a partnership or a government giveaway?
    • What is the minimum percentage of equity or borrowing that should be required of private sector providers?
    • As the percentage of government funds increases in a project, what other benefits should the public sector receive
  • With the limited funds for projects in underserved rural communities, where should the focus be?
    • Facilitate and showcase a limited number of FTTH communities?
    • Fund targeted investment in open-access networks that serve anchor institutions, downtowns and business parks?

These are not easy questions. For my part, I would advocate that limited state dollars should be used to fund long-term solutions in projects that provide ubiquitous coverage using a fair balance of public and private funds. In underserved cities, the funded projects should create strong platform for economic development, innovation and an expanded network backbone.

Stirring the Pot: Understanding CAF 2

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband

Nothing has confused rural community broadband policy discussion more lately than the FCC CAF2 funding program. $500 million dollars to rural Minnesota over the next six years is the good news; a minimum 10 Mb/1 Mb standard is the bad news. CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream and Consolidated Communications (formerly HickoryTech in Mankato) will use these funds to extend DSL service deeper into their rural networks by extending fiber to the node. The ability to deliver high speed Internet via DSL is extremely distance sensitive, that is, that if you are within 3000 feet of where the fiber ends, you can get broadband that meets or exceeds the FCC 25 Mb/3 Mb standard. If you live 9,000 feet or just less than two miles from where the fiber ends, you will receive 10 Mb/1 Mb. Old, deteriorated copper will further reduce the carry capacity of the service. Emerging technologies that providers like to talk about – vectoring and G-Fast are only effective to supercharge that first 3000 feet and have no impact on the longer loop length customers.

At the recent broadband industry conference, there was conversation around using future DEED Office of Broadband funds in combination with the FCC CAF2 funds to gain better services throughout rural Minnesota. I have mixed feelings about that since loop lengths would have to universally shortened to 3000 feet to even reach the FCC standard of 25/3, but what about our new proposed state goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026? At what point does it make sense to stop upgrading old networks to build new virtually unlimited capacity Fiber to Home networks? We have all faced that choice with old cars. The decision to rely on an old car often leads to the same situation that many rural Minnesotans now find themselves – stranded on the side of the highway when you most need to get someplace in the worst possible weather.

In this discussion, I have already had incumbent providers cringe when these issues are discussed. Yet there is never a clear declaration of intent or shared plan to reach the state broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb nor any data on what rural Minnesotans will receive in the next five years from CAF2 investment. The physics of broadband are pretty clear – 9,000 foot loop lengths yield 10/1; 3,000 loop lengths yield 25/3 or more. Geometry is also pretty clear; to go from 9,000 loop lengths to 3,000 loop lengths is a lot more expensive and still leaves no clear path to the 100 Mb broadband standard.

Let’s hope policy makers insist on an open and honest conversation on this critical topic.