Minnesota has announced grants totaling $10.5 million in its latest round of funding for broadband projects for underserved areas.
On the day the before the awards were announced, we spoke with Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, which administers the grant program for the Department of Employment and Economic Development. MacKenzie moved to her statewide assignment after serving a rural county on the state’s northern tier.
We were curious how MacKenzie got to the state capital in St. Paul. And, while plenty of folks we’ve talked to would like to see much more state funding go into the “Border to Border” grants program, we were also curious how Minnesota became one of only a handful of states that directly supports broadband deployment.
Daily Yonder: Tell us about yourself and your rural experience.
Danna MacKenzie: I was the chief information officer for one of the most rural counties in Minnesota for 17 years before I came to Saint Paul to do this work [at the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development]. Cook County, which is up on the Canadian border and on the shore of Lake Superior. There are 5,000 people in the whole county, one stop light. I’ve been working on connectivity issues since 1995 when I actually built the first communication server on my own desk. It was hardware for a dial-up server that was a local call instead of a long distance call for all of the businesses up there.
It’s really just progressed from there. [That first dial-up server] was done in a local co-op model, and that co-op still exists today. Then obviously more recently in the mid-2000s, we started to realize that dial-up wasn’t going to be the only answer, so we got involved in higher speed, the broadband issues. Ultimately were able to put the pieces in place to be successful to receive one of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants for fiber-to-the-home. Our electric co-op stepped up as the implementation partner there and actually held the grant and just recently completed construction of fiber-to-the-home to just about everyone on the electric grid in that tiny rural community.
Daily Yonder: How did you move from your county of 5,000 residents to your current position as executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development?
MacKenzie: The Blandin Foundation [based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota] has been running rural broadband capacity-building activities for many years. Thankfully, they are also active in community leadership development in rural areas of our state. They have a strong, long tradition of that. … I came into the process through that and so have been on the Blandin Foundation’s Broadband Strategy Board for many years. [The Broadband Strategy Board consists of private and public leaders who advise the foundation on its broadband initiative. Ed.] Through that work I got involved at a statewide level and not just the community that I was living in. That ultimately led to an appointment at the governor’s task force [on broadband] and then a request that I consider coming into my current role as the executive director of the Office of Broadband Development.
Daily Yonder What does the agency do?
MacKenzie: Our highest profile work is definitely administering the Border to Border broadband development grant that’s just finishing its second year of existence. The Legislature appropriated $20 million in its first year and $10.58 million in this most recent year, and we’re about to announce those awards tomorrow. The administration of that program keeps us busy. It’s renewed on an annual basis, so it’s not ongoing funding, so there’s a lot of work that goes into teeing up the conversation of what the next year is going to look like.
Daily Yonder: A lot of states would be envious of the fact that there’s this office within the state government, and there’s some acknowledgement from the Legislature about how important it is to support broadband. What could you say to other states about how Minnesota was able to get something like this going? What did it take?
MacKenzie: I look at it from a federated approach. I think we have a lot of engaged leaders at different levels and from different organizations that come together. And while they don’t necessarily all fall lock and step with each other, they’re working together on this issue. Blandin Foundation has been a huge catalyst in that regard. They have activated the rural leadership and the rural voice around this issue, which then has had implications and influence at the state level on policy development.
Daily Yonder: What’s the relationship like between urban Minnesota and rural Minnesota in terms of broadband planning?
MacKenzie: I think everyone understands it’s an important infrastructure piece statewide. I think when the rubber meets the road in Minnesota, we prioritize equity and getting everyone to the starting line. As it happens, the areas that are least served right now happen to be in the rural areas. No one is excluding the urban needs, but right now the focus happens to be on getting those folks to the starting line, and those are in the rural areas.
That said, over the last couple of years there has been a little bit of more definition around the urban/rural divide on this issue and that’s, again, largely because we’re focusing on the least-haves. The urban folks have different issues. Affordability is one of the barriers for folks who don’t already have access in urban areas.
That’s another piece that our office works [with other organizations]. Right now there is not a lot of legislative or policy work in place around that, so we work with individual providers we support. For instance, there’s a local organization here called PCs for People, which works to help provide a low-cost wireless solution for low-income folks. That service was in jeopardy nationwide actually, so we worked behind the scenes to try and help support and make sure that that resource doesn’t get lost. We also work with the Comcast and the Century Links of the world, who are in our community and are the biggest purveyors of the low-cost [access] programs, such as Internet Essentials and the others that are available.
Daily Yonder: One thing I’ve heard repeatedly in Minnesota’s broadband discussion are references to the co-op model — where consumers are the owners. Is there something special about Minnesota and co-operatives?
MacKenzie: There is actually. My understanding is … that Minnesota has one of the most progressive co-op laws in the country, so co-ops have a fertile ground to thrive in Minnesota. We have a strong presence of both telephone and electric co-ops in the state, and they are both increasingly becoming engaged in this issue, realizing that they have some resources already in place to springboard them to be natural partners in getting a solution in place where there isn’t already something happening.
For electric co-ops, it’s challenging because electric co-op boards are extremely conservative people who are there to protect the assets of their fellow co-op members. So to help them understand what this broadband issue is and how their co-op can play a role and not jeopardize the assets that they’ve built, that’s a really interesting question that we’re working on right now. We’re seeing more and more of them come to the table and ask good questions that indicate that they may be changing about their interest in getting in the game.