BRAINERD, Minn. (Oct. 31, 2017) – “The number-one threat to community and economic development in the 21st Century is the digital divide,“ said technology researcher and development expert Roberto Gallardo last week at the Border to Border Broadband Conference, co-hosted by Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.
“Rural communities can take a big piece of the digital-economy pie if leaders look inward and develop the assets they already have at home,” Gallardo said.
Gallardo, assistant director and community economic development specialist at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, urged more than 150 broadband leaders in the room from across rural Minnesota to double-down on local efforts to prepare for the digital economy.
Gallardo showed conference participants how economic benefits to Minnesotans could be boosted by nearly a billion dollars over 15 years if broadband access and use improved. This number comes from the Digital Divide Index (DDI), a tool Gallardo created to look at broadband infrastructure, adoption and socioeconomic makeup at the county level to determine the amount of missed economic benefits due to lack of broadband access and use. Ranging in value from 0 to 100, where 100 indicates the highest digital divide, Minnesota scores a 21.51, positioning the state as a national leader in bridging the digital divide. DDI profiles for all Minnesota counties are at https://blandinonbroadband.org/.
Blandin Foundation-commissioned research released at the conference informed attendees about the impact public investment in broadband infrastructure has had on five well-served rural Minnesota communities. Using formulas to measure annual economic benefit per household and increased home value with broadband, findings indicate that each of the communities will recoup public investment within one to six years.
“This research looks at economic benefits to an entire community, not just to a broadband provider,” said Ann Treacy of Treacy Information Services, the report’s co-author. “Just because there’s not a business case for a provider doesn’t mean there aren’t economic benefits to be had for the community.”
The case studies report can be found at www.mnbroadbandcasestudies.org.
Cooperation: a broadband development strategy
In hard-to-reach rural areas, new forms of cooperation are needed to reach the last mile, said conference speaker Kevin Edberg, executive director at Cooperative Development Services.
“Communities have to think differently, think collaboratively, to see progress,” said Edberg. “We need to rediscover what it means to connect with our neighbors and our communities if we’re going to have the things that we want.”
Successful broadband partnerships start with conversation and assessing assets, said Laura Withers, director of communications at NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, during her address to conference attendees.
“Broadband partnerships are the future of our industry,” Withers said. “Minnesota is leading the charge and we’re noticing it at the national level.”
Public-private partnerships lead the way for broadband expansion in Minnesota
From fixed wireless to fiber, cooperative partners to legacy providers, eight public-private partnership were highlighted to illustrate the many ways Minnesota communities are finding the right Internet solutions to fit their needs. The projects had been funded in part by the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, which has funded 72 projects totaling more than $65 million and are currently reviewing proposals to grant an additional $20 million. A complete project list can be found at https://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband/grant-program/.
One of the grants featured at the conference was $1.7 million awarded to Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) to reach Aitkin County, Minnesota’s least-served area. MLEC has partnered with nearby Consolidated Telecommunications Company to bring fiber optic service to year-round residents and draw in new seasonal residents.
OBD Executive Director Danna MacKenzie’s leadership was recognized during a special ceremony during the conference, citing the national award she recently received for “outstanding individuals that identify local broadband needs and apply homegrown solutions.” MacKenzie received the “National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisor’s “Hero of the Year” award.
“The reason that the Minnesota program has risen to national attention is that all of us working at the ground level are pulling on the same set of oars,” MacKenzie said. “I accepted this award on behalf of everyone in this room. Thank you for your work.”
“Minnesota has a lot to be proud of,” agreed Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation. “We are beginning to see the impact that creative broadband partnerships can have in a rural community. We cannot stop. Only by working together will Minnesota realize the full potential of border-to-border broadband.”
For 14 years, Blandin Foundation has tackled rural broadband as a strategic priority, positioning it as a national leader and partner in community broadband leadership development and adoption. Partnering with more than 75 communities, the Foundation has invested more than $9 million in rural Minnesota’s capability to design and claim their future, one enabled by high-speed Internet and the digital literacy to put it to work for all residents.
A full archive of conference sessions is at www.blandinonbroadband.org