Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 495

This is the transcript for Episode 495 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Bill Coleman, Founder of Community Technology Advisors in St. Paul, Minnesota. They discuss the origins and successes of the Blandin Foundation's Accelerate! Program. Listen to the podcast or read the podcast below.


Bill Coleman: One of the great things about this program is the willingness of others to share their knowledge. Communities. Today we're sharing information with others who are on the same path, but also kind of the broadband consulting community to share their information and knowledge, and then technology companies to bring that higher level of expertise to the community members.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm the person behind it, I guess. Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And today I'm back with one of my favorite fellow Minnesotans. Bill Coleman, welcome to the show.

Bill Coleman: Thank you, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm gonna call you the guy at Community Technology Advisors, the company that you run and you work with communities to help them better understand options and broadband type stuff.

Bill Coleman: I've been in business now about 20 years

Christopher Mitchell: And came to fame, I think, and working with the Blandon Foundation pretty closely, and now working very closely in Illinois with Benton Institute for Broadband and Society and a variety of other partners in Illinois. Is that right?

Bill Coleman: That's correct. And so both Blandon and Benton have been great to work with as a really try and help communities gain the capacity to make good decisions about their broadband future.

Christopher Mitchell: And I want people to know that I think of you as if Minnesota the state, were a person, a human being. I think that person would be you. I think you just embody all that's great about Minnesota , when you hear Bill Coleman's voice and sense of humor and hobbies and whatnot. That is the state of Minnesota, I think.

Bill Coleman: Well, there's a lot to that. So

Christopher Mitchell: , I certainly, I spent enough time in Pennsylvania that I think as I get old, I will not have that, the quality that people who spend a lot of time in Minnesota do get of. There's just a certain inflection way of speaking. But anyway, this show's not about that. We wanna talk about a program that you've been doing, which is you stole the name from a sports drink, accelerate , and then we wanna talk about exactly how that works. So the Accelerate Program is something that I think you developed and have refined over time, and it really helps communities get up to speed, build coalitions, and it's the sort of thing that we wanna see happening all over the United States as this broadband money gets dispersed. So let's start at the beginning and where did this come from?

Bill Coleman: Everything starts with the pandemic now, of course. So our team at Blandon Foundation saw so much of what we had been talking about really coming to fruition over a two week period. Many, many times over the years I've said, you're really gonna need this broadband someday. It's really gonna be making a difference. And we saw so clearly the difference between those communities that had great broadband, those rural areas that had great broadband, and their ability to respond to the pandemic compared to those rural areas that suffer from a lack of broadband. Prior to the pandemic at Blandon Foundation, we had talked about the need to help community leaders prepare more effectively to push broadband infrastructure deployment in their communities. At Blandon, we'd always been kind of a 50 50 emphasis part on infrastructure deployment and part on adoption and use. But we saw the needs for broadband coming on so strongly, even in advance of the pandemic, that we wanted to shift a little bit and find a way to help communities focus more intentionally and intensively on the infrastructure. So we created kind of a bootcamp idea that we were gonna bring half dozen community teams of five to seven, eight people, two Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to the foundation for a week and teach 'em everything they needed to know about BroadB deployment.


Christopher Mitchell: Winter camp is again winter camp, winter Camp

Bill Coleman: , right? And so we had picked our communities and we were about to launch when the pandemic struck. And so of course that was done as a concept and who would've thought two years later we're still not really meeting in communities in that way. So as an approach, we decided, well, let's break this bootcamp into components. And we created a 10 webinar series on broadband infrastructure deployment, and we launched that and we had webinars every two weeks over a five month period or so. And that was a great little product, but we weren't really satisfied with that because we, you put it out there and it's just one more webinar and getting, you might get one person from a community to participate in those webinars, but not the team dynamic that we were really looking for.

Christopher Mitchell: And these webinars covered things from the basics of what is broadband to some examples of different partnerships and things like that. What sort of stuff did you cover? Mapping

Bill Coleman: And so community surveys and broadband mapping, creating a vision and communicating that to your community. Ownership and partnership models, state and federal and local financing powers and feasibility studies, how to do a feasibility study,

Christopher Mitchell: . So you went through these webinars and I think there was a sense at that time that you want this to be evergreen content, you wanted to spur conversations, and part of that dynamic of not being there in person is that you weren't getting that, it wasn't taking root necessarily in the way that I think you wanted it to. Is that right?


Bill Coleman: Well, not compared to the bootcamp concept that we were gonna create these effective teams, . And so as the pandemic continued, we said, well, let's, how do we make this content come alive again? How do we reuse it? And we decided that we would create these teams and we worked with four communities at a time, usually a county in our first cohort, we also had a tribal government, and we asked them to form teams of at least eight people. We asked them to commit to watching an archive video every week of a webinar and to meet for two hours every Friday morning for 14 weeks. Every week they watch one of the videos, they come together on Friday morning and for an hour we reinforce and provide additional information on the topic of the week, feasibility studies or community surveys. And then we give them a second hour is really their community team meeting where they decide how they're gonna implement the survey, how are they gonna interview broadband providers and really work through their taskforce meetings, many broadband committees they meet every month or something. Well, 14 meetings is a year and a half, and we wanted to push communities through this. Thus the accelerate label that in a three and a half or four month period that these communities would really have a team, a vision, the necessary data, have interviewed their provider partners perspective and existing providers, and really come to some decisions about what kind of network is gonna be good enough for their community, what kind of provider partner is most suitable for them to meet their vision and their community culture and be a long term partner, and then be able to pursue the funding opportunities that when we started this program, we had no idea of all these dollars that were coming down the pike. And so especially now, we just finished up our second group of communities in Minnesota through Blandon Foundation, and we're midway through a group of communities now in Illinois.

Christopher Mitchell: Did you see different results then? I mean, obviously if you got to a second season of this program, Minnesota the first season was promising enough to do it again. Did it really take

Bill Coleman: Other communities? Three of the four have already received significant multimillion dollar broadband grants through Minnesota held, used some small cities development grant HUD dollars for broadband. And so our communities, two of the four communities were able in a 30 day period to create a private public partnership with a provider and get their data into the state. And I think they total about 8 million in grants.


Christopher Mitchell: I feel like that's really perfect for a place like Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, where we have these local providers that it may be harder in states where they're mostly served by a single large national company where they may have different dynamics. And although I'm sure that the training would still be really useful, but I feel like the number of independents we have really lends itself to communities being able to reach out and have this knowledge.

Bill Coleman: Minnesota is very lucky in that, although Illinois has a fair number as well. Yes. And so that's a place where you can make things happen. I could also see, and we're talking with one state about doing this in partnership with the electric co-ops, so that instead of working at a geography of the county, we would work with cooperatives as a company and their geography, whatever that was, that they could lead with a community team and really build a plan where the community could support the co-ops deployment plans

Christopher Mitchell: Or even, oh,

Bill Coleman: That would be twice to deploy.

Christopher Mitchell: That would be wonderful.

Bill Coleman: Community leaders are now expected to be broadband experts, and this program really helps them to go through the learning and the information gathering, but then those policy choices that can result in a satisfying result. I think this program really does that in a great way.

Christopher Mitchell: Now you've been working in this field for a long time, and so you have a lot of answers, experiences to draw up on. I'm curious, how often do you just sit back and let them work out challenges amongst themselves as these groups are figuring things out?

Bill Coleman: I try and have that to be my operating mode that I'm ready to jump in. And that's as communities meet in their hour long sessions every week, those are locally led. This is really a directed self-help community broadband planning program. It's not the here's a plan delivered to you. They're doing the hard work. And we even had, yesterday in Illinois, we were discussing community vision and somebody said, well, don't you just have one? We can adopt and in a vision, and I guess I'm coming around maybe late to the power of this, but we've seen it, the phrases in that vision matter. And so as you think about those policy choices that really Dr Drives decision making down the road, when you say we want a community oriented provider, what does that mean? And people can say, well, we want someone who's there in the community. We want an office in our community. We want somebody to be on our economic development board. We want somebody that when we call 'em, they come and fix our stuff. They don't say, we'll be there next Thursday. Or When you talk about affordability, what does that really mean? Or future proof when it's real easy to put those words into a say, oh, that's a great vision community A had over here, let's just use that without really doing the work and the consensus building required for that


Christopher Mitchell: One place where I can imagine there's a lot of differences is areas that have a lot of second homes and cabins and things like that that are not occupied year round. And so I can imagine that being an issue where you have to figure out like who's gonna pay to get those areas connected? Is it worth it? And you can imagine different areas coming to greatly different conclusions

Bill Coleman: Since the pandemic. People now see those secondary homes, they wanna turn them into primary homes. And so I think that is a real opportunity that communities see for economic development is that instead of having somebody there for 90 days during the summertime, people can be there for 180 days of the year or even longer. And so I think that, but people do have those choices and the ramifications just today working with our communities in Minnesota here, did their presentations. So the final ceremony is their here's our plan that we're gonna present to the city council or county board. And then we have people do a critiques of those. But even then, people are still trying to decide, well, what about from the road to the house? Who pays for that? And the policy choice is there. It certainly lowers the total project costs if you don't pay for that last a hundred feet or a thousand feet or whatever that is. But if it's a thousand feet, you've just cut your take rate in half because most people don't wanna say it. Well, I've got 5,000 just sitting there waiting to pay someone to do that. And certainly doing them one by one is a more expensive process than doing everything at once. So we had a good discussion even today of say, go through their plans, we recognize, so this is an iterative process that people have certain goals up front. Those plans hit reality. We need to change something, we need a different strategy. We need greater commitment of the community to have that vision be accomplished.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, blendon makes you available. What else do they do to help these communities to get on their feet?

Bill Coleman: The foundation has a ton of content online and they really manage In addition to this accelerate program, there's availability of just my technical assistance through what we call community broadband resources, a simple online form to complete, and I can show up and do a broadband 1 0 1 presentation and a community meeting kind of task force setting up to about 30 hours of technical assistance. Then they got a changing set of funding options that for planning and so on. That's kind of in flex right now. So I have to keep an eye on the foundation for announcements on that.


Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And I'm curious how the program is different in Illinois, other changes you've made, do things go a little bit differently or is it pretty similar?

Bill Coleman: We've adopted the same framework for Accelerate in Illinois, although we do bring in Illinois examples. So communities are in Illinois are watching the blandon webinar series, which is very Minnesota centric. But when it comes to the weekly meetings, we try and bring in the talent and stories from Illinois. Although yesterday we brought in some folks from AKIN and the wax band Dev Ojibwe to talk about their efforts and accelerate and their successes and their vision, what their vision was. And it is interesting, both of those communities, they each had three different versions of their vision that they created one, two, and three, just as they learned the things and had their discussions about policy and priority, their vision statements were molded to reflect that. But we try and localize these sessions as much as we can. It's worked well. We've done four at a time here in Minnesota, in Illinois, we're working with six communities now. And so that hasn't been a hindrance to try and do this at scale. It's been very positive.

Christopher Mitchell: I understand that some of them are sending a lot of folks too.

Bill Coleman: We have teams of up to 15 people, I think. And so the Zoom room, I think we have about 70 people on the calls in this case every Thursday morning at eight 30.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you see a predictable set of changes when it starts off? I feel like people are of like, what's the answer? And by the end, I think maybe they can help someone that comes to them with that question. Understand all the different nuances and questions and things like that. What other changes do you see?

Bill Coleman: Well, I think the overall knowledge in the room is equalized. When we start the school IT director or maybe you have a broadband provider actually on the team. If a community already has a preferred broadband provider partner, they sit in. And so where that person knows an incredible amount of broadband technology, some citizens just say, Hey, I want my computer to work. I want to more than three megabits download in one megabit upload. They know the problem, they don't know the solutions. And over that three month period, people's the shared knowledge and certainly gets equalized still of our technicians. People are speaking pretty intelligently about the issues and the tradeoffs and the preferred path forward. It's exciting to see. And then that helps. And many of our teams have an elected official or two on their county board members and so on. And so as they get to be more comfortable with the issue, they can really bring that back with confidence to their peers on the county board and really help change minds and help that priority come to the forefront.


Christopher Mitchell: I think that word confidence is one that I come back to a lot in some of the work that I do that's somewhat similar, and I think it's really wonderful to see, and you can't always predict who's gonna be developing that and who's gonna really be enthusiastic and really go out there and do extra homework and things like that.

Bill Coleman: We have in one team in Illinois, it's a village of Elsa, and it's right on the Mississippi River, and they've got a little college there. The college students are three quarters of the population of the town, which is under a thousand people. And so there's 200 people have chosen this little place right on the river. I can't wait to go there. They're just trying to, their best people who are working from home or retirees or just community leaders to bring broadband to their little community, and they do have those, oh, here's how we can solve this. Or then you find other possibilities. And it's that whole discussion, do we need what's good enough for today? If we each had 25 down and three up, would that be great? Well, certainly compared to what they have now, but they'll be three weeks into 25 3, they'll realize, oh, this isn't good enough already. So coming up with those policy choices again about looking to the future, they grow a lot more confident about what their objective is for their community.

Christopher Mitchell: So what's the path for you? I mean, I feel like you could probably do this for another 20 years, but I also feel like you probably wanna spend some time on frozen lakes with a fishing pole,

Bill Coleman: , I think about retiring, but then right now, the work is very interesting and exciting and looking to expand this accelerate concept in other states. Benton Institute is partnering with Heartland Ford, and Heartland Ford is actually financing the work right now in Illinois. So we really appreciate that. And now there's several other states that are where this is under consideration. And the beautiful thing from my point of view is the amount of the scale, the ability to help four or six counties at a time with really just not that many hours per week of drive, especially you had to just drive around to those that would take three days to be able to do that and hold these two hour meetings. And the use of the technology tools like Zoom have really facilitated this, where they're working locally, but we're providing the assistance from outside to really help large numbers of communities participate at a given time is kind of exciting.


Christopher Mitchell: And that's kind of what I was getting at. I think it's interesting how few people can make a difference. I feel like your retiring could set back many communities in multiple states, , so I'm glad

Bill Coleman: I don't know about that. And so one of the great things about this program is the willingness of others to share their knowledge. And so both as a nice thing, like communities today, we're sharing information with others who are on the same path, but also the broadband consulting community has been, of course, they see it as marketing opportunity, but to share their information and knowledge and so on. And then technology companies, we've had them on as well to bring that higher level of expertise to the community members. And so it's really been, the broadband community as a whole has been very supportive of this process and trying to help communities accomplish their goals.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I guess one of the things that I would wrap up with then is that I feel like you're able to do this in part because the blended foundation has established trust with a lot of the local providers, and that wasn't easy. There was some times along the way where some of those providers were a little bit more prickly when it came to blended foundation and its goals. And Benton Institute, I think, has developed some relationships, and it's really important to have those relationships so that if an is s p is welcomed by a community, they feel welcomed and they don't feel like they're embattled or anything that they can come in. And I've sat in on a couple of those accelerate sessions, and I'm always impressed that it's not like some young person that's new that got pulled the short straw and the provider sent them. It's often a top person from the isp.


Bill Coleman: Well, especially when you talk about those community oriented providers that are locally owned, locally controlled, that general manager many times is a face or a division head or something is a face of the company, and they really wanna participate and engage in meaningful conversations. Again, today as we wrapped up in Minnesota with our cohort, there was discussions about very prickly conversations with providers that the providers are, oh, come on. Isn't some good dsl good enough? And the community, because they had their vision, we're really able to stand on that and say, no, this is a rock we're standing on and this is what we need. This is what we expect from a community partner. There's a cost to that though, right? Cause then if you wanna be a, and I think one of the great things about this program is that if you want a good provider partner, a community has to be ready to be a good partner. And that means what's our vision? What are we willing to bring to the table in a partnership? You can't have one group negotiate with a provider and think it's all set and then have it go to the city counselor or county board, and they say, well, no, that's all off. After a provider has invested in engineering and marketing studies and legal and all these kind of just their time. I mean, it takes time to develop these relationships. And we know that there's a lot more communities looking for better broadband than there are community oriented providers who are interested in coming to the community. And so there's real opportunity cost if a provider spends 10, 20, 40 hours working on a community partnership to have it fall through. And I think that the communities through this program, through Accelerate, are able to have that consensus and have that from top to bottom. This is our vision. This is our role. This is where the money can come from. And then they're prepared to be great partners where it's quick decision making, reliable, no one's backtracking and asking for things after the fact and so on. So we try and educate them so they can be good partners.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Well, I think it's really good work. I think it's obviously paying dividends, and I appreciate you taking time to share some of the magic recipe with us.

Bill Coleman: Thank you so much, Chris. It's fun to talk with you.


Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts slash broadband bits. Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles app community nets. Follow muni Stories on Twitter that handles app muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Hughes. Be for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.