Broadband is essential infrastructure for the 21st century. Just as paved roads, electricity and drinking water supported development in the last century, broadband communications is required for development today. Yet as author William Gibson said, “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors are still left out.
National surveys indicate about a 20% gap in broadband adoption between urban and rural areas. The Federal NTIA found that only about 55% of rural households had adopted broadband as of 2011. Local surveys in rural Minnesota found an adoption rate somewhat higher, about 64% at that time. Now, some people don’t want broadband—many think it costs too much. Others just can’t get it, or can’t get it at decent speed. Connect Minnesota mapping indicated over 60,000 households across Minnesota are UNSERVED by even baseline broadband (at least 768k down/200k up), and an additional 185,000 UNDERSERVED households with access to service no better than 3 Mbps down / 768k up). I have that kind of DSL service now and the only good thing about it is I don’t have to worry about the kids streaming illegal movies or spending all day gaming. Forget about Remote Access to my work computer.
The Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative was a $6 million, stimulus-funded project put together by the Blandin Foundation, which has a long history of working with local communities in Minnesota. They drew on the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum for a framework to mobilize diverse partners across the state. The project began in the Spring of 2010 and wrapped up in the Fall of 2012, with a focus in three primary areas:
- Education and Training
- Technical Assistance
- Removing Barriers to Broadband Adoption
The Intelligent Community Framework provides a “virtuous cycle” of indicators of competitiveness in the New Economy. Broadband Connectivity provides the infrastructure for Knowledge Workers to Innovate. Broadband is not a “build it and they will come” project; Digital Inclusion and Advocacy efforts help people see the wider benefits.
The MIRC project brought together a wide array of partners across the state. Most of us knew each other, but few of us had all worked together on the same project.
- University of Minnesota Extension Service Center for Community Vitality and a small specialty renewable energy non-profit delivered in-person and online training for small business.
- Minnesota State Colleges system’s Minnesota Learning Commons developed a specialized Knowledge Worker course
- Minnesota’s department of economic development provided extended access to online resources at Workforce Centers
- PCs for People collected donations of used computers, refurbished them with new Microsoft software, and redistributed PCs to low-income families across Minnesota
- Minnesota’s EDA Center and the Intelligent Community Forum measured and evaluated broadband indicators and results during the project
- Minnesota’s rural Regional Development Commissions staff (including several APA members) provided outreach and support—we were the utility infielders for the project
The project focused on 11 demonstration communities, including:
- Cities like Windom and Worthington in Southwest Minnesota
- Counties, like Stevens County around the University of Minnesota at Morris, and Cook County up on the North Shore
- The Upper Minnesota Valley region
- And the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
Each community received grant funding for demonstration projects
- Some projects were capital intensive equipment projects, like a videoconferencing system in Windom that was used immediately for translation-certification classes, and the Laq qui Parle Computer Commuter mobile lab (that proved quite popular with senior citizens)
- Some projects helped small towns implement projects that might be common in big cities, like providing remote access in emergency service vehicles, or public access to County GIS
- Many projects focused on education and awareness. Windom helped bring in more iPads in the schools and provide wifi broadband. The Upper Minnesota Valley RDC helped the regional Public Television station look at local broadband access.
- Some projects turned out to be learning experiences. A community web portal in Windom took longer than expected to complete (tho I do really like the results), while a company providing a simplified PC for health care didn’t work as well as expected, partly due to poor broadband speeds.
So what were we able to accomplish? Building evaluation into the project from the beginning helped track outcomes. According to the Blandin Foundation, MIRC resulted in:
- About 100 community-designed and implemented projects in 11 demonstration communities;
- 2,067 refurbished computers distributed—almost double the project goal;
- over 31,000 hours of technology and digital education, training and support delivered to almost 9,000 individuals and over 2,000 small rural businesses;
- more than 250,000 rural Minnesotans reached with messages about the benefits of digital communications technology
- a new 16 hour online “Knowledge Worker” course
- 60 new public wifi “hot spots”
- A faster than average broadband adoption rate in Demonstration Communities
(Read the University of Minnesota EDA Center report pdf for more particulars.)
The MIRC project provides several lessons for practicing planners:
- Broadband is Infrastructure
- Involve Providers in you planning the same as you would other utilities
- Broadband Access is Everything
- Depends where you are at—check your map
- Some communities build road, water & sewer, why not drop Fiber?
- Broadband Adoption is Not Automatic
- Planners are good at “warm fuzzies”—get out there and do some Community Development
- Broadband is not a “build it and they will come” project—get out there and talk to people about what they can do with broadband, and what broadband can do for them.
Note: My thanks and appreciation to Kate McMahon (Applied Communications) and Ron Thomas for including me on their panel at the APA’s National Planning Conference in Chicago. My presentation was based on this text, more or less. Thanks also to Bernadine Joselyn at the Blandin Foundation, Ann Treacy at Blandin on Broadband blog, Bill Coleman at Community Technology Advisors, and Robert Bell at the Intelligent Community Foundation for sharing visuals and insights.