5G – the good, the bad, and the things we hear again and again

Last Friday I happened to catch NPR’s Science Friday’s segment on The Future of 5G. If 5G is still a mystery to you – it’s absolutely worth listening to the program. It starts with a 101 and then delves into potential security risks and what 5G means for rural areas. They also talk about 5G as a marketing term. Some providers talk about 5G Evolution, which isn’t yet 5G but is more like 4G+.

Minneapolis is a 5G shining star – I’d go on a limb to say that hosting the Superbowl last year put us on that map. 5G is great for high speed connectivity in small spaces. So if you want everyone in a packed stadium to be able to stream a football game from their awesome seats to friends back home – 5G is your friend. The MN Broadband Task Force heard all about the upgrades last February; policy changes like small cell equipment regulation helped.

Rural areas will have a tougher time getting on the 5G stage – in part because distance is not your friend with 5G. It takes a lot more equipment to support 5G than it does 4G. I think I heard 9 times the equipment. Someone can please correct me if I’m wrong. That kind of infrastructure is expensive and in rural areas it’s hard to make it up in volume. Mainstreet publications, such as Fortune, have pointed out that to be ready, rural areas need more fiber.

Last week, FCC Chair Pai and President Trump announced federal programs intended to help the US “win the race to 5G.” Specifically they mentioned the following:

President Trump’s historic tax cuts and deregulatory actions have created incentives for the wireless industry to invest in 5G technology.

To ensure rural America is not left behind, the FCC aims to create a new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will extend high-speed broadband to 4 million homes and small businesses.

The Benton Foundation has taken on the claims of the latest announcement…

An FCC fact sheet claims the $20.4 billion will be distributed in rural America over the next ten years. “It will provide funding through a reverse auction to service providers that will deploy infrastructure that will provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in parts of the country most in need of connectivity.” Chairman Pai claims, “The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund represents the FCC’s single biggest step yet to close the digital divide.”

Details of the plan began to emerge in the days after the White House event. We learned that the funding would come from essentially extending and rebranding the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program. …

CAF is the program aimed at connecting rural and remote areas that are expensive to reach. The Obama-era FCC created CAF to support broadband instead of just traditional voice phone service. CAF II currently makes around $2 billion in insubsidies available for telecommunications providers each year. CAF II is scheduled to end in 2020.

The crux of Chairman Pai’s announcement is that he is proposing to extend CAF’s current $2 billion per year for another ten years.

One of the issues that I can see for folks on the frontlines is that while they are extending the speed minimum, it still won’t keep pace with urban counterparts…

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would establish a minimum speed threshold of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads (25/3), as opposed to the current 10/1 Mbps. Wigfield also said the new program would be “technology neutral” and “open to all qualified providers,” but specifics about eligibility will depend on an FCC rulemaking not yet launched.

By comparison, the MN speed goals for 2022 are 25/3 and for 2026 are 100/20. So yes, the new speeds are faster – they are still not at pace of growth in other areas.

Reaction has been…

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, characterized the proposal as “more of a rebranding than a new project,” although she was careful to note that details about it are still unclear. “I don’t think it’s significantly different,” she said. But the proposal was still welcomed. “We’re always happy when more money can go into rural communities,” Socia added. “And we’re really pleased to see them upping the speed.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said, “This is really just like slapping ‘new and improved!’ on the same package.”

Feld also said repurposing USF funds as proposed could prove legally problematic because the FCC decided in the 2017 net neutrality repeal to re-reclassify broadband as a Title I information service rather than a Title II telecommunications service. “It is hard to see how you can do this given that broadband is a Title I information service and USF is restricted to Title II telecommunications.”

What do you do when the maps are wrong and you aren’t served?

I heard from reader Steve Riley who is stuck in Crow Wing County with less broadband than he needs, “I’ve been trying to get faster DSL at my home. Currently I’m at 5-9 Mbps, but usually slower.” Since an injury a few years ago, his wife teleworks but those speeds make it difficult to be productive.

He sent me pictures of the telecom situation in the area.

He adds, “My current provider and the FCC say my area is served by high speed internet, but as you can see it’s not if you’re between DSLAMS. I’ve asked 3 different techs why I can’t be hooked up to the new DSLAM installed 2 years ago that’s less than 500 feet from me and they all say it’s easy to do but it’s against policy.” My guess is that they don’t want to sell beyond capacity but I can understand the frustration. And I hear often about the frustration of maps that aren’t quite right and just the inability to get the broadband you need.

And I worry about the communities where this happens. Who is going to move into an area, who is going to start a business where you can’t get sufficient broadband?

Better broadband comes to Side Lake (St Louis County)

The Hibbing Daily Tribune reports on better broadband happening in St Louis County with the help of Paul Bunyan and MN State Broadband Grants…

“Side Lake area residents are on track to have their homes and cabins wired with fiber optic cable starting this summer, thanks to a 2017 grant that Paul Bunyan Communications received from the state of Minnesota.

“The Border to Border Grant Program is provided by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to promote broadband internet to underserved or unserved areas in the state,” said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications’ Information Technology and Development Manager.

Two years ago, Paul Bunyan Communications (PBC) was awarded $802,620 to deliver broadband services to areas near the communities of Park Rapids, Bigfork and Side Lake, in Hubbard, Itasca and St. Louis counties. According to the state Office of Broadband Development’s website, “this project will improve the economic vitality of the region and bring advanced technology to areas that would likely not see state-of-the-art services without opportunities such as the Border to Border Broadband Grant.” The total eligible cost of the project is about $1.78 million.

What does all that mean for local residents?

Lightning fast broadband services lakeside.
During a recent interview, Howard pulled up a service map of the Side Lake area and provided more detail. The map uses red lines to highlight the properties around Big Sturgeon, West Sturgeon, Little Sturgeon and South Sturgeon, as the “2019 Construction Grant Area.” Another area of land to the east of the construction surrounding Side and Pickerel lakes is highlighted in green and has been designated “Possible 2019 construction, pending pre-orders.”

Howard explained, “At the time the area in red was considered unserved, while the area in green was considered served by CenturyLink. The grant will pay for 45 percent of the installation fees for the area in the red, with Paul Bunyan paying the remainder 55 percent. The area in green would be 100 percent funded by Paul Bunyan.”

PBC is encouraging property owners in both zones who are interested in bringing these services to their residences to call and get signed up early. He stressed that property owners in the green zone who are interested in installation should call and get put on the list for consideration by June 18. “We’ll look at that area in late June and see if there’s enough interest to make it a go,” Howard said.

Lyon County promotes app that test broadband speed

The Marshall Independent reports…

People living in southwest Minnesota know about the challenges of getting a good Internet connection. But in order to help fix the problem, they might need to spread the word about it first. Lyon County officials said this week they’re encouraging people to use a free smart phone app that will help highlight areas of low Internet connectivity across the U.S.

The TestIT app allows users to test their broadband speed with the press of a button, and see how it compares to the national average and minimum standards set by the Federal Communications Commission. The app also collects a snapshot of the test data and location, to show what Internet connectivity is like in areas around the country.

Lyon County Board Chairman Gary Crowley said Wednesday that he’s already tried running the speed test on his own internet connection.

You can learn more about the app and download it from the Lyon County website.

Star Tribune features PCs for People and CEO Casey Sorenson

PCs for People has been working with Blandin Broadband Communities, brigning refurbished computers to rural communities, for about 10 years. The days of computer distribution in the communities are often some of the most heart warming stories. So it was fun to see PCs for People and CEO Casey Sorenson featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

When Casey Sorensen was 9, his mother, a secretary at the local high school, saved her pennies for a full year to get the family a computer and “DOS for Dummies” handbook. Her son recalls being “instantly hooked.” He decided he would pursue a degree — and a career — in technology. He’s done that in a big, and unexpected, way. Sorensen is CEO of the St. Paul-based nonprofit PCs for People, which is celebrating 20 years of getting refurbished computers and low-cost internet into homes across the United States. Recently honored with the Charles Benton Digital Champion Award, which recognizes national leadership in advancing digital equity, Sorensen talks about expansion, what he still worries about and how he unplugs.

They talk about the typical computer recipient…

A family of three, living on $14,000 per year. Even in 2018, 60% of our recipients say they have never owned a computer. A staggering 58% report they are unemployed. That is a powerful statistic that shows the importance of a home computer and internet connection, and how we have transformed into a digital society.

And the different a computer can make…

According to the Department of Labor, more than 75% of jobs will require digital skills by next year. This is not just sitting at a computer in an office. Many jobs that were previously manual now require using high tech tools to increase efficiency, accuracy and productivity. Someone without basic technical skills will automatically be less qualified for 75% of jobs. Libraries do a great job of providing the first point of access to technology, but having a home computer allows someone to build digital skills, search for a job and do homework on their own schedule. …

Some individuals are facing homelessness. Having digital access is a vital part of developing job readiness skills to get and maintain a job. They are appreciative of the mobility of their laptops and internet access. While in transition, they can easily bring their technology with them and stay connected.

Brent Christensen Named 2019 Grassroots Advocate of the Year by NTCA

Congrats to Brent – and to the NTCA for selecting him…

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association awarded Brent J. Christensen, president and chief executive officer of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance (MTA), with the 2019 Grassroots Advocate of the Year award during the recent Legislative & Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. on April 15.

Christensen earned this acknowledgement for his achievements and service to the industry through his active participation in grassroots activities. He is responsible for the administration and operation of a state trade association that represents over 40 independent telecommunications companies, over 20 affiliate telecommunications companies, and over 250 associate members. Christensen also advocates on behalf of MTA members at the state and federal levels.

“I am pleased to congratulate Brent Christensen on this well-earned award honoring his dedication to supporting the vitality of rural communities through his work in the rural telecommunications industry,” said NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. “The grassroots advocacy efforts Brent has participated in are essential to ensuring that the broadband needs of rural communities are understood by policymakers in our nation’s capital.”

Brent was on the original MN Broadband Task Force. That was a group that really hammered decisions that helped get us to state speed goals and the Office of Broadband Development. He has hosted FCC chairs and others through tours of rural Minnesota. He’s the the Capital, he’s on the front lines, he does a great job keeping rural broadband (and Minnesota!) in the foreground for policymakers and community leaders.

Media Democracy Fund is Hiring a Program Officer

Media Democracy Fund is hiring – for a remote position…

The Media Democracy Fund (MDF) seeks a skilled manager and strategic thought partner experienced with communications and internet rights, technology policy, and development to fulfill its Program Officer position. The Program Officer is responsible for oversight and management of MDF’s grantmaking and contracts program, including grantee and contractor due diligence, grant and contract review, and annual docket development. This position will help design and administer MDF’s robust work with the field, which has a strategic focus on an open, secure and equitable internet through the effective use of research, communications, organizing, litigation, and policy advocacy. The Program Officer works collaboratively with the MDF team, managing the organization’s portfolio, distilling and reporting on key issues and strategies, and actively engaging with field leaders, funding partners, and issue-aligned supporters. The Program Officer must maintain an objective approach to the work and the varying strategies supported. This is a full time (1.0 FTE) position with travel required. MDF staff work remotely from several East coast cities.

While specific project assignments are subject to change at any time, MDF anticipates that, in 2019, the program officer position will work across MDF three priority areas (open, secure and equitable internet), while also supporting emergent initiatives, such as Platform Accountability and/or the Unicorn Fund. MDF is a rapidly growing and evolving organization; the portfolio management responsibilities for this position are subject to change.

For more information, please see the full job description.

Please send a resume and cover letter to amalia deloney, Program Director at hiring@mediademocracyfund.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis until the position is filled.