By: Anne Treacy
Last week I posted MN Broadband Profiles for each county. Today I want to dig into the those reports to see if we can find some trends in the top counties.
Here we’ll look at the top ranked MN Counties for speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up (100/20), the MN broadband speed goal for 2026:
|100/20 speeds 2019||Rank 2019||Change in Rank||Blandin*||MN grant||2019 apps||HH Density|
|Lac qui Parle||97.35||9||-3||Y||2||0||4.1|
*Blandin Foundation only works with rural communities, which eliminates Ramsey and Hennepin (and probably other portions of the 7-county metro area but I’ve only eliminated these two).
Drawing from the top-ranking MN counties, household density helps get a county served. But lower population density isn’t a requirement. All of the counties with lower population densities that are well positioned to meet the 2026 goals have a provider that is a cooperative or publicly owned. Government funding and community support was also an essential ingredient for many of these top ranking counties.
Here are some fast facts about the top counties:
- 4 are in top household density ranking (Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Dakota)
- 4 are in the bottom 24 household density ranking (Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Beltrami, Swift)
- 7 have benefitted from MN broadband grants
- 2 counties have moved ranking 30 spaces in the last year (the rest have been battling for top rank)
- 5 (out of possible 8) have worked with the Blandin Foundation
Household density is a big factor when deploying wireline broadband. You pay per mile for the wire (or fiber as the case is for future-looking networks) and you pay to dig the trench, to pull the wire; so the longer the distance, the more you pay. Then once the network is built, there aren’t as many customers to serve. And providing technical support can be more difficult when there are greater distances between customers. So, it’s difficult to recoup cost and make a profit.
In the counties with the highest household density (Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Dakota) it is easier to make a profit and develop a business case to build the best broadband you can sell.
But if household density were the only issue, then there would be an inverse correlation between ranking and density. Yet, the remaining six counties have a household density below 10 houses per square mile.
So how did they overcome lower population densities? There are some commonalities:
- All have cooperative broadband providers in their area
- ACRIA (formerly Farmers Mutual Telephone Company and Federated Telephone Cooperative) serves Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Stevens and Swift
- Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative serves Beltrami
- Alliance Communications serves Rock
- Five have received government support to upgrade their services
- Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Rock, and Swift received MN broadband grants
- Lac qui Parle received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding
- Five of the Six communities have worked with the Blandin Foundation in a formal way.
Cooperatives work in these areas because they are created to support their members (the communities) and they expect and are comfortable with a slower return on investment than commercial entities. Generally, there are other providers there too, but each has a coop covering at least part of the county.
Seven of the counties have received public funding, as outlined to some degree above. The counties that haven’t received funding are: Ramsey, Dakota and Beltrami. Ramsey, as already noted has the highest household density. Beltrami is home to Paul Bunyan Communications; they have invested in their community. Dakota County is one of the most populated counties and the county itself has been investing in middle mile infrastructure for years. So for two of these communities, investment has been made, it just hasn’t come from state grants or large federal financing.
Looking at Swift County may be illustrative. Their ranking increased from 41 to 3 in the last year. Their coverage when from 31 percent in 2017 to 64 percent in 2018 and 99.6 percent today. In 2015, Federated (ACRIA) received almost $5 million from the state to build a network in Swift County. It seems likely that we are seeing the impact of that network completion.
In 2017, Blandin released a report on the community return on public investment in broadband. One statistic indicated that a home with broadband reaped an added $1850 economic benefit annually. Looking at the Top 10 MN Counties, it seems that public investment also gets these networks built.
We gauged community support by tracking counties that have worked with Blandin Foundation. There are other ways to boost a county but this was an easy measure to track. Five of the possible eight counties had worked with Blandin.
Blandin has provided guidance to these counties either in the form of broadband coaching and grants for broadband adoption projects or in supporting a feasibility study. The programming and support is valuable but at the end of each cohort or project I have heard people say that the most valuable outcome was stronger communities relationships.
Community support is important because providers want to work with communities that can help provide information or share some of the work. And in Minnesota, the Office of Broadband Development wants to award grants to area where there is community support. For the community, it helps them work together to meet a goal.