The County Fiber Optic Network Commission and two representatives from the Blandin Foundation hosted a meeting of about 15 community broadband stakeholders on Wednesday. The Fiber Optic Network Commission or FON has a goal of providing broadband connectivity to every Cook County household.
The purpose of the meeting was to familiarize interested community organizations and agencies with the goals and objectives of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities Initiative. The session was an initial introduction to the grant opportunity available from the Blandin Foundation and the federal government.
Bill Coleman facilitates the demonstration-communities portion of the initiative and is administrator for the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board. He talked about the five elements of broadband.
Coleman: The availability of broadband throughout the community helps you to keep and create and support a knowledgeable workforce. Now that we’ve seen in almost every industry that the technology used is becoming more and more pervasive, and if you can’t use the technology, you’re really left behind. Likewise, if you have a highly educated workforce, they are going to be the people who are innovative. If you have highly skilled people, they will figure out ways to do things more efficiently. Then, digital inclusion. We want to make sure that everyone has the skills, the access to a computer, and the access to the internet to really participate in the community. Then, finally from these things, from the broadband infrastructure and services you have, from the knowledgeable workers you have, the innovation that is going on, the digital inclusion, that is really your marketing message, both to the outside community and within your own community.
The initiative has $100,000 to fund at least four broadband related projects in the county over the next two years. Cook County is one of 11 rural areas from throughout the state chosen to participate in the program. Dana Mackenzie is the county’s information systems director.
Mackenzie: Our stated goal here is to get next generation broadband access to everyone in the community. There was a market survey done where households and users were contacted and surveyed, as were businesses, as were seasonal homeowners. One of the pertinent pieces of theirs is over 80 percent of their respondents actually had some sort of internet access. So, there was a high level of interest for internet access within our community. Close to 25 percent of those people said they only had access to dial-up. Probably a little bit more specifically is the state of Minnesota Governor’s Ultra Broadband Taskforce. In their first round of that process, Cook County came in at the least served county in the state, with only 37 percent served.
Participants broke into small groups and discussed the assets and gaps currently in county broadband access. Major gaps identified were the affordability, availability, speed and reliability of internet service. Paul Harvey chairs the Fiber Optic Network Commission.
Harvey: In reliability, there’s also a footnote to reliability where it is just so—you know, talking about hot spots is the perfect example. I mean, they are just spots. Some people can’t get service a block away just because some structure is malfunctioning.
Once a steering committee is formed and various ideas arising from the meeting are prioritized, FON will send out requests for proposals for high speed projects to community organizations. It is hoped projects will be selected early this fall.