Gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer focuses on broadband in Bemidji

The Bemidji Pioneer reports that Candidate Tom Emmer went to visit Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative to learn more about broadband in rural Minnesota. According to the article…

He learned about rural telcos and the need for broadband Internet to reach every home in rural Minnesota. He also learned about Paul Bunyan Telephone’s leading-edge push to bring broadband to remote areas, including Ash River at Lake Kabetogama.

After learning more about Paul Bunyan’s recent upgrade (last year they extended fiber optic to homeowners’ premises – including to areas such as Big Fork, Little Fork and International Falls), Emmer commented…

“Japan is touted as having the greatest telecommunications network in the world? They don’t, we do,” Emmer said, referring to comments by Randy Young of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance that Japan is totally wired in the cities, but has yet to bring broadband to rural Japan.

“It’s amazing when you look at this (service) map and see what this company has done,” Emmer added. “When I saw how they just expanded to 100 customers in Ash River, one of the most remote locations in northeastern Minnesota, it gets amazing. And these guys are always taking a chance.

“This is one place where government is important,” he said, “to make sure that the little guys can compete; make sure that the little guys can provide the competition for service that is necessary. Bemidji may not be where it is today if it hadn’t been as far as communications if Paul Bunyan had not been here.”

(My goal is to highlight every time I see broadband mentioned in a Minnesota context – so whenever I see a candidate, any candidate, mention broadband I’ll highlight it. If your favorite candidate mentions it and I miss it, please send the mention my way.)

Telcos in Crosslake meet with Local Legislators to discussion National Broadband Plan

According to the Northland Press

Leaders from Crosslake met with Representative Larry Howes on July 16 to discuss concerns with the national broadband plan being proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

It sounds as if the biggest concern is the potential for a rural/urban divide brought about by the National Broadband goal to have 100 Mbps to at least 100 million Americans by the year 2020 – but leaving a backdoor open to lower speeds with another goal of ubiquitous coverage of at least 4 Mbps.

It’s a debate that came up recently in an earlier post about the FCC’s broadband report, where their list of least served counties in Minnesota was so drastically different from Connect Minnesota’s list, cited in the Minnesota Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force report. That leads into a distinct difference in the reports (the State recommendations and the National Broadband Plan) that also came up at the meeting in Crosslake.

The National Broadband Plan calls for faster broadband speeds for the majority, where the Minnesota speeds are lower (20Mbps up and 10 Mbps down by 2015) but focus on ubiquitous coverage.

Here’s what was mentioned in the Northland Press about the topic…

Randy Young, past President of Minnesota Telecom Alliance, told representatives at the meeting that it would be difficult for rural towns to attract businesses if they cannot assure high-quality, sustainable broadband access.

In 2010, Minnesota established broadband goals of 20 Megabyte download and 10 Megabyte upload to all Minnesotans by 2015.

Young praised the state legislature for recognizing the need for service for the entire state, not just the urban portions, “The FCC plan will make rural Minnesotans, and all rural Americans, second class citizens in the broadband world,” he said

Even with e-health tools, adoption is key

I wish I had better news to report but, according to a new national study from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) based on surveys from 2008 only one-third of all physicians in ambulatory settings (32.3%) routinely used e-prescribing.

There are a couple of immediate barriers. First, only two in five physicians in office-based ambulatory practice (41.9%) reported that technology was available in their practice to write e-prescriptions in 2008. Offices where they use only electronic records were more apt e-prescribe – indicating that perhaps where paper is available it’s use is still more prevalent.

Also there’s a hierarchy of use. When you e-prescribe you can use the system to check for adverse drug interactions, you can check to see if a drug is covered by the patient’s insurance and you can send the prescription the pharmacy. Few doctors reported using all features.

The good news is that there are policies in place to encourage greater use – or meaningful use. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have recently created a site that highlights the meaningful use incentives. I haven’t been following a lot but in short doctors are compensated for using the online tools. It sounds as if they can earn a 2.0% incentive payment for demonstrating e-prescribing use.

The study in fact appears to be a base report upon which the CMS will measure success of their incentive programs. So if you’re a healthcare professional or are hoping to work with a healthcare professional you might want to learn more.

Give ‘em your two cents on the CenturyLink Qwest deal

Back in April CenturyLink (aka CenturyTel) announced that their plans to acquire Qwest in a stock swap worth $10.6 billion. Now they have put together a CenturyLink/Qwest Merger web site for more info. (The starts will a big disclaimer that the plans presented are just that – plans, not set in stone.)

It seems as if the merger is at a point of waiting to get permission from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to approve the indirect transfer of control of Qwest and its operating subsidiaries to CenturyLink. In fact, now is the time to contact the Minnesota PUC if you have any comments you’d like to submit; the PUC’s first round of testimony is due August 19, rebuttal Sept. 13 and surrebuttal Sept. 27 (though surrebuttal isn’t the time to raise new issues).

If you are a customer of CenturyLink or Qwest you may have already received a postcard informing you of your opportunity to provide comment (or you may hear from them soon). Here are some of the details for providing comment, as stated on the postcard…

You may provide comments on the proposed merger to the Minnesota PUC:

By Mail: 121 Seventh Place East, Suite 350
St. Paul, MN 55101-2147
By Phone: 651-296-7124 or 1-800-657-3782 (toll free)
[Citizens with hearing or speech disabilities may call through Minnesota Relay by dialing 711 or 1-800-627-3529]
By Fax: 651-297-7073
By Web: www.puc.state.mn.us — Click on “Comment on An Issue”
[Please reference MPUC Docket No. P421, et al./PA-10-456 on all correspondence.]
Written comments are most effective when they include:
1. The issue in the merger request you are addressing.
2. Your specific recommendations.
3. The reasons for your recommendation.

If you are looking for reasons to support the merger, I think there isn’t a better place to start than the site the companies developed themselves. For a glimpse at the other side you could start with DSL Reports – especially the comments.

Upcoming NATOA conference includes broadband economic development day

Thanks to Jodie Miller for the heads up on NATOA’s “broadband economic development day” September 28. The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) is planning its 30th annual conference in Washington DC; broadband economic development day is a pre-conference event planned for the before the conference.

It looks like a good line up (including Jim Baller, Blair Levin, Joaquin Alvarado and other) and seems to focus on practical topics such as “Strategies for enhancing broadband and economic development in your community.”

FCC lists 9 unserved counties in MN

This week the FCC unveiled their Sixth Annual Broadband Report (aka Report 706). They found that…

a substantial majority of Americans have access to broadband connections capable of “originat[ing] and receiv[ing] high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications,” roughly 80 million American adults do not subscribe to broadband at home, and approximately 14 to 24 million Americans remain without broadband access

New Definition of Broadband

Big news! They have upgraded the standard for broadband from 200 kbps downstream, a standard set over a decade ago when web pages were largely text-based, to 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. The FCC notes in their report that some will still find this definition to low, while others will find it too high.

Dave Peters from MPR’s Ground Level had a nice description of the bandwidth difference from Vijay Sethi, former MN Broadband Task Force member and Clay County’s administrator…

“For daily use, it’s [the lower speed] OK,” Sethi said. “Where I do complain is when I have to send some photos. . . It takes forever.”

If your daily use doesn’t require sending photos, downloading video, uploading almost anything, two-way video or audio communication – then 200k might be enough. But that doesn’t sustain a lot of education, health care or business applications. (It doesn’t even keep my kids entertained for an hour.)

FCC Reports Meets National Broadband Plan

Back to the report… It unequivocally says “that broadband deployment to all Americans is not reasonable and timely.” It “mandates that the Commission take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [advanced telecommunications] capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” It calls for the reform of FCC’s universal service programs in support of public-private partnerships as well as for the “unleashing” of additional spectrum for mobile broadband. So the research support the National Broadband Plan.

The report focuses on county “due to questions about the accuracy of the most recent data collected at the Census Tract level” not because the FCC feels that focusing on counties is “the best way to determine the “geographical areas that are not served” by broadband.”

The report finds that…

  • We estimate that 1,024 out of 3,230 counties in the United States and its territories are unserved by broadband
  • The unserved areas appear to have lower income levels than the U.S. as a whole
  • The unserved areas also appear to be more rural than the U.S. as a whole
  • Counties where at least half the population lives in a Native Homeland area or where at least half the land mass is a Native Homeland area also tend to have lower broadband subscription rates than the U.S. as a whole. We find that only 12.5 percent of all households on Native Homeland areas subscribe to a broadband service faster than dialup compared to 56 percent of all households nationwide.

The FCC on Minnesota

In Minnesota, the 9 counties that are defined as unserved: Cass, Clay, Clearwater, Grant, Hubbard, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman and Wilkin. All are in NW Minnesota. It includes 1,45,100 people; 85 percent represent rural housing.

This list is quite different from the list of counties that appeared to be “least served” according to the Broadband Task Force Report published last November. The Task Force included a table that listed counties by “percentage of broadband availability” using data provided by ConnectMN and using the 200 kbps as the definition of broadband. Here were the 9 counties with the lowest percentage: Cook, Pine, Kanabec, Aitkin, Mahnomen, Wabasha, Jackson, Redwood and Morrison.

I thought that time might make a difference but looking at a ConnectMN map from April 2010, NW Minnesota is still not jumping out at me in the same way. Maybe it indicates that the counties featured in the Task Force report generally have speeds greater than 200 kbps but available to fewer homes. It gets into tricky debate between the importance of ubiquity vs speed.

What’s happening to the ARRA broadband funding?!

Thanks to Ann Higgins for keeping me in the know with a heads up on a recent letter from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National Association of Counties (NACo) and their members sent to key Senators asking them to not to pull out money previously promised for broadband.

Here’s a quick description taken from the NATOA web site

Last week, the War Supplemental Appropriations Bill (H.R. 4899) passed by the House contained a last minute amendment that would rescind funding from a number of programs in an effort to offset increased spending on the Afghanistan War. Included in these cuts was $602 million in funding to BTOP and BIP (in total). The Bill will now be considered by the Senate who previously passed a Supplemental War Appropriations Bill that did not include the cuts.

In the letter, NATOA President Ken Fellman and NACo Executive Director Larry Naake urged Senate leaders to oppose the rescissions to the BTOP and BIP programs, stating “the proposed rescissions to BTOP and BIP would likely cost our citizens thousands of jobs that would not be created by the program. Job creation was one of the central purposes of the ARRA and the BTOP and BIP programs in particular. Budget cuts should be targeted at wasteful spending and unnecessary programs – they should leave alone programs that are intended to (and do) create jobs in a time when unemployment is such a significant issue for our country.”

So what does this mean for Minnesota?

It doesn’t seem as if they intend to rescind funds to programs that have been awarded money – but  chances for anyone still in the hopper are at best dramatically reduced.

In an earlier post I outlined the BIP proposals that related in any way to Minnesota. (Here’s a list of the BTOP proposals.) There were almost 40 BIP proposals and more than 50 BTOP, although many of the BTOP proposals are national or multi-state projects that touch but don’t center on Minnesota.

Four Minnesota projects have received funding (Zayo/Anoka, Federated Telephone, Leech Lake Reservation and the Communications Services for the Deaf CDS project which involves but doesn’t focus on MN).

That leaves a lot of projects in the hopper. So if you’re one of those projects and/or you think it’s important for ARRA funds to continue to support these broadband projects, consider writing to our Minnesota Senators to urge them to support a final package that leaves the $600+ million in place so that projects will continue to get funded.