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Region 6W Talks About Public Sector Role in Local Broadband

by Melissa on October 13th, 2014

Article written by: Ann Treacy

Last week, I got to be a fly on the wall during a fun discussion in Appleton Minnesota, hosted by UMVRDC (which covers five counties) and the Blandin Broadband Team of Bernadine Joselyn and Bill Coleman. I wanted to write about the meeting because I think they are on the cusp of a couple of trends in Minnesota:

  • People are talking about broadband – not just for geeks anymore!
  • The focus has broadened from city, to county, to region
  • The public sector is wondering what they’re role is; the private sector is wondering what the public role it too.

So why are people talking about broadband? Money. I think the Minnesota State Broadband Fund has got people thinking. Now this follows the ARRA funding and Google community competition from a few years ago. So we may not be on the bleeding edge here. But the previous discussions set a fertile ground and I think the push to get state funding got people who aren’t interested in broadband or broadband sake interested.

One of my favorite comments from the meeting came from a county director of IT. There was a move to further discussions and he noted that we needed to bring new people to the table. There was a time when IT wanted IT to discuss broadband – but not they are willing to open the door and others are happy to walk through.

So what are they talking about? Economic development, cost savings and innovation. The top topics discussed defined by attendees included:

  • Economic Development
    • Fear of losing jobs
    • GIS apps – for management and to attract outdoor enthusiasts
    • Need to start with online transactions as young people won’t come into the courthouse to pay a bill
    • Some counties have online credit card applications
    • Local banks want to counties to go online
    • Workforce transition to tech
    • An online presence is important!
    • Getting businesses to have websites, maintain websites and use social media
  • Spurring use by existing businesses
  • Spurring innovative tech use
  • Resource sharing
    • Staff
    • GIS info
    • Servers/Equipment
  • Workforce

They talked about barriers and benefits and what’s currently happening, which includes a couple applications for the State Broadband Fund and a history and interest in working with the Blandin Foundation.

Barriers

  • People
  • Competition
  • Differing priorities in counties

Opportunities

  • Regional Network –
  • Anchor tenants spend lots of money
  • Use backbone to spur last mile
  • Regional IT Committee
  • Regional IT (& others) Events
  • Fix redundancies

The counties were in different places as far as broadband access goes – but they were happy to share the relationships they had, especially the relationships that helped to build successful broadband networks – for example in Lac qui Parle County. They recognized the opportunity to build upon each other’s success.

They all were overworked – having more to do and no more staff to do it, which spurred the great interest in resource sharing. Having shared IT support would build human redundancies. (Maybe allow for phone-free vacations!) Creating standards among the counties would help support such an effort. They recognized the opportunity for many hands making light work – or again just supporting redundancies.

They also recognized that especially with middle mile and institutional networks that the value increases the more folks who are on it and the cost goes down the more that folks can ante up for the network. Scott County was lifted up as a great example of a county that had been able to build their network and recoup costs through reduced rental fees. It’s a good example of how public sector can support ubiquitous access – by building or supporting the building of middle mile infrastructure.

They realized in the end that it makes sense to meet regularly to talk about ideas and plans and just to check in to see where there are opportunities for collaboration and cost saving.

It was fun to see my colleagues Bill and Bernadine lead the group through the process. And this is an area where I have worked on broadband adoption projects, so it was also fun to see folks see opportunities to do even more – to create even greater value from the network. (If you want help in your community, you could contact the Blandin Foundation to ask about Community Broadband Resources grants.)

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