Category Archives: Minnesota News

Minnesota Communities Cosnider Public Options as They Wait for Yes from Private Partners

Yesterday MinnPost ran an article (To close rural broadband gap, Minnesota communities consider public option) that highlighted Minnesota communities that have sought publicly supported broadband networks. Having worked with communities on broadband networks for more than 15 years I thought I’d share my two cents. The following was published as a comment to the original article…

Any discussion of broadband quickly gets murky due to complicated technology choices and business model considerations.  This article touches on both.  It also lumps middle mile networks like Scott County’s with last mile networks that would be funded with prospective state and local dollars.  Middle mile connects towns together; last mile networks reach end-users.

As to last mile considerations, this article states that 99% of Minnesotans have access to broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps.    This number, based on data provided by telecommunications providers, includes mobile cellular wireless services.  Maintaining a voice call in many parts of rural Minnesota outside of highway corridors can be a challenge, much less maintaining a 10 Mbps data connection.  If you see any television ads, you certainly know that a family of four can get 10 GB of data for “only” $160 per month.  The bad news is that the average family of four uses about 50 GB of data on a wired connection.  The reality is that only about 30% of rural Minnesotans can connect via wired networks without data caps at the state goal.

Our schools and governments have large requirements for networks.  In places like Scott County and other places that have developed their own networks, this data flows at Gigabit rates of speed.  Those places relying on a strictly private sector solution are restricted to a comparative trickle of bandwidth.  Payback on relatively large capital investments is relatively short, especially when considering that fiber is a long-term asset with growing usage to accommodate.

For the last mile, it is clear that ownership matters.  The communities that have the best service over advanced networks are locally owned.  Minnesota is blessed with a number of rural telephone cooperatives that were formed when private companies ignored rural communities 100 years ago.  These lucky communities continue to benefit with access through 100% member-owned fiber optic networks connecting homes, farms, small businesses, schools and health care facilities that make metro communities jealous.  Municipal networks provide the equivalent level of service over similar fiber networks.

In 2010, the state’s first broadband task force recommended, and our elected officials set in statute, a goal of 10 – 20 Mbps broadband availability everywhere in Minnesota.  Mr. Christensen representing the MTA and representatives of Qwest and Comcast are signatories to that goal.

Since that time, county and community citizen task forces across the state have organized in pursuit of that goal.   The first step taken by each and every task force has been a call to their incumbent telephone companies with requests for service improvements, petitions of anxious customers, offers to joint venture and finance, and commitment to implement community-led efforts to drum up market demand for prospective broadband network improvements.   Any response from incumbent providers has been limited.

Worse yet have been where providers made investments to wrap up only the most profitable customers, thereby limiting the attractiveness of the market for other providers or a public sector response.  The exceptions to this picture are the multiple cooperatives and a limited few private companies that have approached communities with good faith efforts to expand their service areas.  The final straw is when providers offer to consider a partnership, then dawdle along, playing out the energy of the community initiative.

The Monticello example is illustrative.  That community, with its strong manufacturing base needing broadband services, begged its incumbent providers for improvements and price competitive services with no response.  It was only after the City committed to building its own network that the incumbents improved their networks and dropped their prices.  Other communities served by these same providers wish that those firms would invest in their communities as they have in Monticello.

I have seen this same type of competitive response in places where some of the rural telephone cooperatives have built into incumbent providers’ territories, improving their networks only where there is now competition.  It seems that there is never enough market for one provider, but always enough for two.

It is not like these companies object to government involvement.  They – from small to big, co-op to publicly traded company – benefit from a set of government programs to extend and maintain telecommunications services in rural areas that were established in the New Deal and continue today.  Today, telecommunications services mean broadband and modern broadband means speeds well in excess of 10 – 20 Mbps. A growing number of communities can offer businesses and residents 1,000 Mbps, or gigabit, connections at prices not much more Twin Cities residents pay, or even less than some rural residents pay for their relatively paltry service.

Community broadband advocates have been waiting for the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and other industry groups to offer a plan to reach the state goal to which they committed  in 2010.  That goal says “by 2015” which is now just months away.  They have had a set of willing partners all of this time in communities, counties, school districts, chambers of commerce, health care providers and others.  Instead, all they say is no.  This article confirms that the answer is still no today.

Sales Tax Is Not the Primary Barrier to Border-to-Border Broadband

Today I have an editorial in the Twin Cities Daily Planet: Sales Tax Is Not the Primary Barrier to Border-to-Border Broadband.

I’ve been watching rural areas strive for better broadband for a long time now and I wanted to encourage policymakers to focus on policies that would support and promote better broadband in Minnesota. I don’t think the greatest barrier is telecommunications equipment tax. Read the editorial for more. And let me know what you think.

Stirring the Pot: February 2014

As originally posted in Blandin eNews

Minnesota’s winters increase the potential value to be tapped from broadband. Imagine realizing the full advantage of broadband with our recent spate of cold weather school closings and the painfully slow snowy commutes to work. Stress would be reduced, time would be recaptured and cars would escape the auto body shop.

I read last week that one metro private high school, with a student body that is 100% connected with laptops and Internet, assigned students homework while the school was closed. With a little bit of planning and preparation, that at-home school experience could be escalated to include YouTube lectures, Google chat small group discussions and online quizzes and writing exercises. Sports coaches could even lead teams on conditioning drills and chalkboard sessions. This scenario is possible with a 100% connected student body. While the students might rather be at Starbucks or the mall, parents might be glad to know that their kids are busy and supervised. Extra smart kids might even be able to pull off their schoolwork at some of these fun alternative locations.

In the workplace, companies could increase their preparedness to support telework. At the recent DEED Economic Competitiveness Conference, Thomson Reuters Executive Rick King talked about the importance of broadband for disaster recovery operations. It seems like our snow clogged freeways fit the definition of a disaster. If at-home snow days were encouraged, businesses might even gain some productivity. Workers could be at their home computers working rather than staring at taillights for several hours each way. Email, conference calls, videoconferencing and other tools could be easily used to make this happen. And when a real disaster strikes, workers will be more comfortable and the IT department more prepared for large scale teleworking. While some of this is happening, it is obviously not enough.

In the metro area and in parts of greater Minnesota, the provider networks are generally up to the task to use these alternative school and work strategies. In the 25% of the state that does not meet state goals, residents may need to hit the road in dangerous conditions. For those who are limited by broadband data plans that charge by the Gigabyte or have usage caps, or those that have broadband services affected by heavy snowfall or high latency, their ability to fully participate in telework may be limited. Unfortunately, they are generally the same people who would have the farthest to travel to work or school or library. For those people with lower incomes, they may lack both a home computer and a broadband connection. They may also have unreliable cars, day care issues with kids at home from school, and more tenuous work situations. It seems that telework would be especially valuable to them.

When people ask, “What’s the value of broadband?” ask them to think about the lost school days, lost hours in bumper to bumper traffic or the cost of a tow out of the ditch. Affordability and ROI considerations would seem to melt away. As will this snow…someday.


Stirring the Pot: Jan 2014

As first posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

It has been fun for Karl Samp and me to work with the nine Blandin Broadband Communities as they developed partnerships and project plans for another round of BBC grant applications. Critical to their success are the teams that are functioning well in bringing the right people and groups – economic development, schools, chambers, ISPs, health care providers, social service agencies and others – together to address community opportunities.

Through MIRC and BBC, Blandin Foundation has helped communities form these teams and fund projects. The communities have demonstrated that they can both leverage and stretch these funds for widespread impact. The change is real and positive.

Imagine if we had many more of these teams in rural Minnesota? And why not in suburban communities and urban neighborhoods too? Enhanced digital literacy, smarter workers, more innovative companies all making effective use of wired and wireless networks. Why not?

Stirring the Pot December 2013

As originally posted in the Blandin Foundation eNews

Congratulations to Danna MacKenzie, the director of Minnesota’s new Office of Broadband!  I know Danna will be getting lots of advice about the best strategies to move Minnesota forward – tax exemptions, financing programs, new regulations and other ideas. Here is mine!

I would encourage all of us, but especially Danna, to take a look back at a set of sound principles on which to base our way forward.  Danna is well-familiar with the Blandin Foundation Broadband principles – she helped to create them in 2006.  These principles were adopted by a stellar group of Minnesotans, including telecom providers, community representatives and elected officials.  These principles have stood the test of time.  Considered individually, each principle makes sense, but recognizing the interplay of these principles is essential.

  • Ubiquity – Meaning broadband availability for everyone, this is a cornerstone adopted by the first Minnesota Broadband Task Force chaired by Rick King of Thomson Reuters.
  • Symmetry – Both download and upload speeds should support content users and content creators.
  • Affordable – Services that are too expensive are essentially unavailable to many Minnesotans.
  • Competition – Drives innovation, customer service and affordability.
  • World Class – Broadband is the essential infrastructure of our time.
  • Collaboration – Sometimes too focused on public-private partnerships, we also need increased collaboration between private companies and within the public sector.
  • Neutrality – Neutrality does not mean not choosing technologies, it means being open to new technologies and collaborative models.
  • Interoperability – Networks and applications should operate easily across systems of health care, education and government.

From my perspective, I see Ubiquity, Affordable and World-Class as the cornerstones of these principles. Achieving all three of these will be a challenge!  Competition, Collaboration, Neutrality and Interoperability are supporting principles.  To achieve the cornerstone principles, Danna will have to lead the way to an environment where these supporting principles become the norm of our public and private sector entities.

Stirring the Pot Oct 2013

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband eNews

Just when you think that you know it all, you get new information that messes with your confident line of thinking.  This morning, I saw a summary of a study by the Leichtman Research Group that claims that almost 80% of American households have a broadband connection at home and that two-thirds of those folks also have a smartphone with data plan.  So I am thinking “What’s with all this talk about the need for public entities and non-profits to promote broadband adoption?”  Later in the day, I answer a phone call from someone who sounds a bit like my 93 year old mom, which brings me back to my teen years – “Where are you?” she asks, probably hoping that I am not in India!

I have no idea how Janice got my phone number, but she lives in rural Minnesota.  She had just purchased a computer, but had no idea how to set it up.  Needing some good karma, I took her name and phone number, fired up Google and searched for her community’s library.  I talked with a very nice librarian (is there any other kind?) and she gave me the name and phone number of a kindly computer guy in town.  I called him, made the referral and he promised to call her. I am not sure if this would be free or fee for service, but hopefully Janice’s problem is solved!

The take rate study, Janice’s call and a meeting I attended yesterday puts several thoughts into my head.

First, we need to abandon the idea that we need broadband adoption activities to help telecom providers make their business case to invest in delivering broadband services. With the high costs of serving the remaining unserved areas with fiber to the home or fiber to the node DSL, it is impossible to make a business case for investment in these areas with an 80% or even a 100% adoption rate without some types of subsidy such as those that have enabled our rural coops to build fiber their networks or by using the long term finance capacity of government agencies.

Second, we need to continue to build support services for people like Janice who are new computer and Internet users.  The public purpose in providing this assistance is clear – a well-connected citizenry is well-positioned to use online government, business and health services as well as to improve their connection to friends and family.

Finally, a concept advanced some time ago by Danna MacKenzie, Cook County IT visionary at a Blandin event, was proved true to me again yesterday – everyone has their own level of digital illiteracy.  Yesterday, I was reminded of my technical shortcomings when I was at a meeting discussing hackathons and hackfests.  My conception of ‘coding’ is about as advanced as Janice’s computer set-up skills.  We all have lots of learning to do to keep up with our amazing world.  I give Janice a lot of credit for moving forward with her new computer and I am learning about hackathons.  As a side note, I am also enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from Northwestern University School of Journalism looking at Google – with 41,000 other students from 150 countries!!

Stirring the Pot: July 2013

As originally posted on Blandin on Broadband blog

As the timeless Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played “I won’t back down,” at their Minneapolis concert this weekend –  I thought good things about all our community champions in greater Minnesota that keep plugging away on their efforts to improve broadband in their communities and the rural countryside.  (On reflection, that is a bit scary, isn’t it!)

Eighteen months ago at the Blandin Broadband Conference, audience members helped to write a MN broadband song when we could have just claimed ownership of this great song.  The crowd had no trouble singling along to this song on Saturday night!  Some of the lyrics¦

Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around There ain’t no easy way out Well I know what’s right, I got just one life (substitute – “I got just one byte!) And I won’t back down!”

The 4th of July is here and a reason to revisit another set of great and inspiring words, definitely more important and written by another Tom – slightly more important, the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson wrote of unalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  As a rural farmer, scientist, voracious reader and writer, Jefferson is likely to have been an advocate for rural broadband!  And we know that Tom and the other founders, did not back down!

Stirring the Pot June 2013

As originally posted in Blandin Foundation’s Broadband e-News

Stirring the Pot

The nine Blandin Broadband Communities have now received approvals for the projects that they prioritized  and developed through a good community process – good in that it involved lots  of community folks and moved from needs assessment to project planning to  project funding in a relatively short period of time. Now onto coordinated  implementation tasks that will create great events that attract strong  participation. Thanks to these community teams for their great work!

One of the challenges these small teams of community leaders  presented is the abundant and different opportunities to improve their  community.  Should a community work on achieving the state broadband goal  across their entire community, rural areas and all?  Or should  infrastructure discussions focus on bringing Gigabit service to schools,  hospitals, large businesses and government entities?  Or both?

On the adoption side, similar questions emerge.  Should  efforts focus on getting the slowest adopters online for the first time or  should a community implement strategies that will move those already online,  both as content providers and consumers, towards significantly higher levels of  sophistication?  Or both?

As community broadband leaders feel a bit overwhelmed, they  should consider who benefits from successful broadband projects.  Getting  more community residents online certainly benefits the local Internet Service  Providers so getting them involved makes sense. But other organizations  also benefit – more people online increases the opportunities by local  institutions to deliver cost-effective e-solutions in health care, education,  government and business.  I have been a part of recent discussions that  are focusing on the increased costs to health care and education of their  clientele not being connected, either through lack of a capable network or  because of digital inclusion considerations.

Having a great network spurs adoption.  Valued  applications drive adoption.  Reach deep into your community leadership to  spur their engagement in your broadband promotion efforts.  Help them to  understand their value proposition of better connectivity and more  sophisticated users.

More users + more uses = more value for everyone.  The  net result is a better community for all.

Stirring the Pot April 2013

As originally posted in the Blandin Foundation April 2013 eNews…

Good planning, collaboration and action!  Seems to be the recipe for success.

A regional broadband event, a draft feasibility report and an email from a newly satisfied broadband consumer have me thinking about the path to achieving the Minnesota broadband goal.

Congratulations to the organizers of the East Central Broadband Summit.  With 80 attendees and the active participation of many broadband providers, it was an exciting day of active conversation.  The organizers are now following up on at least a couple of the priorities identified at the event and it will be interesting to see if the conversations begun at the Summit can lead to broadband solutions – wired, wireless or hybrid – in these five underserved communities.

Redwood County is now reviewing the feasibility study partially funded through the Blandin Foundation Robust Broadband Networks Feasibility Fund program.  The study examines a couple of options for bringing Redwood County up to the state broadband standard.  The study is unique in its significant assumption about the role of the area incumbent providers.  Again, it will be interesting to see if study and discussion can lead to a broadband solution.

The email that I received was from a health professional who had contacted me more than a year ago about her frustration with a lack of broadband at her home in northeastern Minnesota.  Thanks to the entrepreneurial folks at Laurentian Wireless, her situation has greatly improved.

Stirring the Pot (March 2013)

As originally posted in Blandin on Broadband eNews

Good planning, collaboration and action!  Seems to be the recipe for success.

Over the past couple weeks, our Blandin team has seen the fruits of the harvest of our MIRC communities and new seeds planted in our new BBC communities.  In addition, we have seen what a small group, ad hoc in nature, can do with a little facilitation and assistance.

I was part of a group that toured central and northern Minnesota with federal evaluators. In each location, our MIRC coordinators and their teams talked about success through collaboration, new partnerships and sustainable efforts.  Project leaders beamed with pride about new activities and new ways of doing old things.

Over the past several weeks, Karl Samp and I have helped launch nine new community teams in our BBC communities.  It was fun to meet so many great people who are interested in benefiting their communities and organizations.  They have plenty of ideas and lots of energy.  They are hoping to repeat the success of the MIRC communities and by utilizing the lessons learned through MIRC, Karl and I are determined to help them do just that.

Finally, the Blandin team was energized and amazed by the attendees at the East Central Broadband Summit in Hinckley.  About 80 people attended and heard presentations from Bernadine Joselyn, telecom providers, community members and Margaret Anderson Kelliher.  Then the attendees got to work and discussed ways to work together, within and across sector and geographic boundaries.  Thanks to the planning team and the participating telecom providers for a very active discussion!

We will be anxious to support the continuing work and recognize accomplishments. With four BBC communities operating within the five counties, this will be a new opportunity for significant broadband related activities on improved services, access and use.

Makes it fun to go to work!