The latest round of Border-to-Border grants from the state of Minnesota total $20.6 million matched by $34 million in other funds for 39 projects to connect almost 7,000 locations, and includes almost a dozen cooperative projects. Among the winners are Paul Bunyan Communications, CTC, and Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative.
St. Louis Park (pop. 49,000), a suburb west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has demonstrated commitment and creativity in bringing broadband access to the region over the last two decades. They’ve done so by connecting community anchor institutions and school district buildings, in supporting ongoing infrastructure via a dig once policy, by working with developers to pre-wire buildings with gigabit-or-better-capable connections, and by using simple, easy-to-understand contracts to lease extra dark fiber to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to improve connectivity options for local residents.
Conversations about improving broadband in St. Louis Park began in the 1990s, when local government officials and the St. Louis Park School District began talking about replacing the aging copper infrastructure it was leasing from the cable and telephone companies with fiber to support educational use and municipal services. At the time the city was paying about $45,000/year to stay connected and online. A 2003 projection suggested it could invest $380,000 to build its own network instead, take ownership of its infrastructure, and see a full return on investment in less than a decade.
Fiber, both the city and the school district decided, offered the best path forward for the range of tools and bandwidth that would bring success. The school district led off in connecting its structures, but by 2004 both were done, with each contributing to joint maintenance and operational costs. The city thereafter decided to keep going and expand its infrastructure wherever it made the most sense. In 2006 it advanced this agenda by adopting a dig-once policy by adding conduit — and sometimes fiber — any time a street was slated for repairs.
St. Louis Park’s first foray into securing better connectivity for residents was a city-wide Wi-Fi project approved in December 2006. It began with a pilot project the previous April connecting 375 households across four neighborhoods which demonstrated strong demand from residents (21% signed up). Users also provided valuable feedback about the implementation obstacles that would need to be addressed, including a strong need for help...Read more
This week on the podcast we’re catching up with what’s been happening in Le Sueur County (pop. 28,000) in southern Minnesota, and path they’re on to turn the region from one of the least connected in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to one on track to becoming among the most connected in the next couple of years. To do so, Christopher talks with Barbara Droher Kline, a county consultant who helped the county organize the recent broadband efforts.
She shares with Chris the history of their recent work to bring area towns together and the resulting partnerships with local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to do both fiber and fixed wireless projects. Chris and Barbara end the conversation by briefly discussing the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, and the adverse consequences it’s having in places like Le Sueur.
This show is 34 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
Read the transcript here.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.Read more
Over the last three years, Le Sueur County, Minnesota has assembled a task force of citizens, local officials, and business leaders which have succeeded in dramatically improving broadband for thousands of residents who previously had poor or no connectivity. In doing so, they’ve also forged relationships, inventoried local resources, and created a model which is likely to see the landscape go from one where nearly all residents in the county were under- or unserved by basic broadband at the beginning of 2018 to one where the vast majority of the community will have access at 100/20 Mbps in the next couple years. And if efforts continue to succeed, it’s possible we might see full fiber coverage in Le Sueur by the end of the decade, making it one of the most connected counties in the state.
Le Sueur is located ninety miles southwest of Saint Paul, and had just under 29,000 residents and 11,000 households in 2019. There are 11 whole or partial cities in the county, of which Le Center and Montgomery are the largest at around 2,500 people each. The remaining communities sit between 200 and a 1,000 residents. More than a thousand farms dot the landscape, and agriculture, along with some tourism and resort development centered on the lake communities, comprise the bulk of the county’s economic picture.
Broadband infrastructure outside of the population centers in Le Sueur is generally poor, which was a problem for residents, for businesses, and for farmers looking to remain competitive and modernize operations: “the lack of this service means students have trouble completing schoolwork and seeking future opportunity, small businesses have trouble connecting with customers and vendors, farmers have less efficient operations, home sales and development lags, and options for telemedicine are closed.”
Until the middle of the last decade, residents were largely on their own to find solutions. Starting about five years ago, however, things began to change. One Le Sueur resident who had paid individually to bring better Internet access to her home so she could run her small business took the initiative to bring up issue to the county board. Shortly thereafter, a diverse and energetic group came together to form the local broadband task...Read more
The failure of policy and leadership at the federal level in addressing the digital divide was ever more clearly exposed as Covid-19 restrictions were put into place last spring. And, as the pandemic continues to rage, daunting connectivity challenges remain.
Yes, the Connect America Fund (CAF) II program has doled out over $11 billion since 2015 in subsidies to the big telcos like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream, and Consolidated ostensibly to upgrade rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps). But, as Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting notes, it’s been a massive subsidy failure given that “even in 2015, it was ludicrous to spend money to build 10/1 Mbps broadband” – the same year the FCC defined broadband as 25/3 Mbps, which means “the FCC was investing in new Internet infrastructure in 2015 that didn’t qualify as broadband at the time of the award of funding.”
And there is reason to doubt that those subsidized upgrades were even completed, even as the FCC just extended the CAF II program for a seventh year.
So as states — and in many instances, local municipalities — step into the breach, the National Governors Association has released a new report that outlines a list of strategies governors can use to increase broadband access in underserved communities.
Published just before Thanksgiving, the report first lays out the challenge:
According to the FCC, in 2018, at least 18.3 million people lacked access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum [I]nternet access speed of 25/3. 1 Of those 18.3 million people, representing 6 percent of the total population, 14 million live in rural areas and 1 million live on Tribal lands, which amounts to 22 percent and 28 percent of those respective geographic populations [even as] studies have claimed that the FCC data is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access, and that the total may be as high as 42 million people.
“In addition to lack of access, the cost of broadband services remains a considerable barrier for many households,” the report points out. “The COVID-19 pandemic has...Read more
One silver lining of the ongoing public health crisis is the chance to attend a wide array of virtual events which tackle aspects of community broadband expansion all across the country, in a variety of contexts. This week features three opportunities to hear about what’s going on in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Read on for details.
Blandin Foundation Annual Conference
First up is Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation’s annual conference. It’s gone virtual for 2020, and the organization has taken it as an opportunity to shake things up. Instead of a three-day conference, Blandin is hosting four weeks’ worth of events starting Tuesday, October 6th, at 9am CST.
The conference will feature a combination of panels with updates on everything from technology outreach to telehealth to efforts by community anchor institutions to stay connected, as well as mentoring sessions, regulatory and legislative updates, and feature presentations by leading voices:
- Wednesday, October 7, 11:00am: From Digital Infrastructure to Transformation: Leveraging Broadband for Community Economic Development by Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., Purdue Extension.
- Thursday, October 8, 9:30am: Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Opportunities and Challenges Post-Pandemic by Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA.
- Thursday, October 15, 3pm: Federal Broadband Regulatory and Legislative Updates by Molly O’Leary, Director of Government Affairs, NTCA.
- Friday, October 23, 10:00am: Book Club: Thank You for Being Late and Thursday, October 29, 9:15am: How I Think About the Importance of Communities in the 21st Century by Thomas L. Friedman, Author, Reporter, Columnist, New York Times.
- Thursday, October 27, 9:30am: Connecting Residents to Essential Services: Solutions for Local Communities by Deb Socia, The Enterprise Center.
- Thursday, October 29, 10:30a: 2020 MN County Broadband Reports: Measured Progress, Accelerated Need by Ann Treacy, Treacy Information Services
It’s likely Deb Socia will be talking about Chattanooga’s landmark effort to connect 28,000 students to free 100/100 Megabit per second (Mbps) Internet. We covered Robert Gallardo’s...Read more
If you live in the land of ten thousand lakes, your help is needed. The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition has launched a speed test initiative to collect much-needed data from everyone in the state so that lawmakers and stakeholders can better direct broadband expansion efforts now and in the future. Hop over to the speed test page and give them a hand.
Data, Data, Data
The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition (MRBC) — which is made up of over a hundred utilities, cooperatives, regional development commissions, nonprofits, private companies, and rural and urban interest groups — has worked for years with local communities and in the state capitol to advocate for more funds and help local communities address Internet access imbalances across the state. The initiative is the latest mark of their efforts, asking Internet users to input their addresses and how much they pay their Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get a better sense of speeds, availability, and prices.
To date, they’ve gotten results from a little over 15,000 tests in 11,000 locations. There are predictable problem areas in the northeast part of the state, and according to the map just under 7% of locations are unserved so far. Saint Louis, Itasca, and Carlton Counties account for the bulk of the tests outside of the metro area, though Minnesotans in Scott and Le Sueur Counties south of the 169 corridor are also putting up a strong showing.
We’ll be interested to see the report the group puts out once the test is complete and the data have been analyzed, but initial qualitative results show great news for those living in areas with cooperatives and other nonprofits and less-great news for those in areas with some of the problem monopoly ISPs. Subscribers of Paul Bunyan Communications (which started life as a telephone cooperative), for instance, enjoy high symmetrical upload and download speeds that should be serving those forced to work, visit the doctor, and grocery shop from home well. 406 results from the ISP in Itasca County show an average of 74 Megabits per second (Mbps) both up and down...Read more
In response to the increased reliance on connectivity precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Legislature is working on legislation to improve access to broadband, online education, and telehealth services throughout the state.
The Senate passed their version of the bipartisan funding bill, SF 4494, earlier this week, and the House has two similar pieces of legislation, HF 1507 and HF 3029, currently under consideration. If the bills are passed and signed into law, there would be a total of $20 million to $27 million (depending on how the different versions are reconciled) available in grants to support distance learning, telemedicine programs, and broadband deployment. Bill authors designed the legislation to prioritize the use of federal money for the grant programs before pulling from the state’s general fund.
Broadband Bills in House and Senate
The Minnesota Senate passed its version of the legislation, SF 4494, on May 4 in a unanimous vote. Representatives in the House have rolled the grant programs into a larger coronavirus relief package that is under consideration, HF 1507. This is in addition to keeping a separate House bill with the broadband funding provisions, HF 3029, alive in case HF 1507 fails to pass.
The bills direct grant funding to three connectivity issues: connecting students for distance education, expanding access to telemedicine services, and deploying broadband networks in unserved areas. To facilitate online education during the pandemic, the bills would make $8 million (SF 4494 and HF 3029) or $15 million (HF 1507) available in grants to schools through the state Department of Education to fund the distribution of devices like hotspots and to reimburse the cost of...Read more
In September 2019, we interviewed Kathryn DeWit from the Broadband Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts about their State Broadband Policy Explorer. The tool documents state laws aimed at expanding broadband access. Now, the group has released a reported titled, How States Are Expanding Broadband Access, that examines developments in nine states where broadband availability has improved after implementing state efforts. The report dives into what those states are doing that works and makes recommendations to emulate those policies and repeat that positive trajectory.
All Hands on Deck
One of the primary discoveries from the report is that states are using many technologies and funding approaches to bring high-quality Internet access to those who have been left behind. Like other projects that involved multiple stakeholders and public funding, Pew learned that building broadband support and requiring accountability are factors that contribute to success.
Pew examined efforts in California, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. They also looked at Minnesota, where the Border to Border Development Grant Broadband Program provides funding for projects in areas where connectivity is slow and unreliable or where people have no service options at all. In Minnesota, notes the report, the state has established measurable and increasing speed goals and allows funding to flow to a broad range of recipients, including local governments, rural cooperatives, tribal governments, and large corporate Internet access providers.
Minnesota also provides a challenge process, which has been used by some of the larger ISPs in the past to delay plans for community-centered projects,...Read more
As state lawmakers debate in committee rooms and Capitol chambers around the country, various broadband and Internet network infrastructure bills are appearing on agendas. Some are good news for local communities interested in developing publicly owned networks while other preemption bills make projects more difficult to plan, fund, and execute. We've gathered together some notable bills from several states that merit watching - good, bad, and possibly both.
For years, local communities were not allowed to bond to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in New Hampshire. Last year, the state adopted SB 170, which opened the door a crack so that municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in "unserved" areas. This year, the New Hampshire General Court has the opportunity to push open the door a bit wider with SB 459.
SB 459 allows local communities to potentially define "unserved" areas themselves by putting more responsibility on Internet access providers. Municipalities must currently engage in a request for information process in which they must reach out to all Internet service providers operating in the community. SB 459, if adopted, would allow a community to consider areas "unserved" if a provider does not respond to such a request to clarify which premises are unserved. With the "unserved" designation, municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure to serve those premises.
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers meet all year, Rep. Pam Snyder introduced HB 2055 in late in 2019. The bill allows local governments to provide telecommunications services, but limits them to unserved areas. If passed, the bill amends the Municipalities Authorities Act and,...Read more