MN Broadband Task Force August 2016 Meeting: Digital Inclusion

Today the Minnesota Broadband Task Force met to talk about digital inclusion and affordability. They heard from Angela Siefer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance who spoke about her experience with Digital Inclusion – noting that digital literacy is the most expensive component because as technology changes, the goalposts change. And really we can use increased tech skills.

Several broadband providers spoke about their low-income options. All felt that they were able to meet the needs of their low income customers but needed help getting the message out to more potentials qualified users. Most has made iterations to their original offering based on the needs of customers.

BEVVCOM talked about the potential for added costs to broadband providers from content providers (such as Netflix) who currently charge consumers to access their services. They got a rough rundown on the Federal Lifeline Program. And ended the day with ECMECC talking about how the issue with broadband in the schools in not access so much as affordability.

They ended with a discussion on how to translate the info into policy. Here’s a video on the bulk of that conversation:

Read on for the full notes…

Governor’s Task Force on Broadband
August 17, 2016
Minnesota Senate Office Building-Room 2308
95 University Avenue West, St. Paul, MN 55155
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

10:00 a.m. — 11:15 a.m. Introductions, Approval of Minutes, Public Comments
10:15 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Update from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD)

  • Working on USACA and transition of lifeline.
  • Gathering data on K12 broadband for policy consideration.
  • The applications are open.
  • We are participating in a STEM event in NE Minnesota.
  • Working on the fall broadband conference with Blandin.
  • Broadband Properties conference.
  • Monday Deadline is notification of providers that may touch any area.

Grant Updates:

  • Getting quarterly reports – wee have 7 projects that are done. Four are closed out, four are nearly done.
  • Weather has been a factor in getting projects done.

Q: Department of Education got money for Broadband – shouldn’t we tell the Legislature that money should run through OBD?
Maybe it’s enough that the OBD is always a part of the project.
But it would be nice to help Legislators recognize the expertise in the State.


10:30 a.m. — 11:15 a.m. National Digital Inclusion Alliance – Angela Siefer, Director

Adoption Barriers

  • Cost of infrastructure – low income can afford $10/month
  • Access to Devices
  • Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is most expensive because it is never ending. The difficulty is that the goals are constantly changing and we’ll always be catching people up.

One of the biggest issues on the ground is trust. So there need to be multiple prongs to the solutions. When people are uncomfortable with technology they are hesitant to use it – especially at home. They need people they trust to get them started.

So you need libraries, senior centers, tribal centers an everyone to work on digital inclusion. You need to reach people where they are.


Need to determine the pockets of need statewide and focus very locally – down to the neighborhood.


Marketing is not a good use of funding. Need a better outreach plan that posters.


Q: What are success look like?
Churches can be a good place to start. In Appalachia there was a project that worked with churches and a rural coop. They added a component to the annual coop potluck.
A community-based organization that worked with a hospital worked to help people understand electronic health records, health portals and getting patients online.

Q: Do you have examples in the schools?
KC Public Libraries worked with schools – offering hotspots to families to get them online for 12 months.


Q: What State has one a good job with digital inclusion?
California! The PUC still regulates broadband. They can negotiate for the public good with providers. And they have the power to support or not support mergers and other business plans.

Q: Have stories on people who get online and then can get a computer?
They are lots of stories. Just applying for a job requires internet access. Getting the job skills online helps get better jobs.
Think of the cost saving of using Skype over long distance – especially if you have family in another county.
A woman brought her prescriptions to a digital inclusion class and found that some of her medications did not work well together. She went to her doctor and got it fixed.
Right now businesses (and government) move services online but they need to have offline versions too. Getting more people online allows more services to go online without offline alternatives.

Q: If people have a support for 18 months (financial support) we think that they prioritize it to take on the expense themselves. Have you heard that?
One cautionary tale – in Cleveland they had 12 months of subsidy but that wasn’t long enough to solve anyone’s problems. If you go that route you have to have people who work with the consumer to have them lower other costs. For example – how do you get rid of your cable?
You don’t want to subsidize and then have folks not continue.
Also people need a low-cost option for an on-going basis. For the people in the programs but also for next cohort.

Q: Should we have a standard curriculum for digital inclusion?
Curriculum will always need to be customized. It’s helpful to have standards but not a standard curriculum.


Q: Policy recommendation?
Know what’s happening in your area.
Know what’s happening with federal regulation.
Have a relationship with your providers and know that they will have a quality lifeline option.
Look at how broadband is used by our most vulnerable population. What services are available to them? What’s working and is it helping?

Q: How do you think schools are doing at preparing students?
There’s a disconnect between talking to friends on the phone and send a professional email. Lots of youth don’t like and don’t use email. BUT youth have to learn to use it in the workplace. Some schools are teaching digital literacy skills.
Digital literacy training is tough with the K12 crowd because the technology changes faster than the curriculum can keep up.

11:15 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Providers Discuss Discounted Broadband Offerings

Comcast – Internet Essentials
Learn about their programs:

We have better penetration with Spanish speaking customers than with African American.

The Task Force can help people understand why they should go online

Midco: Dan Nelson, Director of Governmental Affairs

We serve rural areas – 1500 households with low income pricing.

We are reluctant to market low income options – we struggle to get the word out. We have partnered with several folks – like county service offices and schools. We have run public service ads.

We don’t have a government agency to intervene. We are regulated to not share our customers’ names.

We will downgrade a current customer who qualifies for the program. We try to get them to get current with bills but happy to get them to a place where they can better afford service.

We have 380 lifeline participants. That’s fewer than low-income broadband providers.

One tricky thing – our low-cost option is $9.95; lifeline is $9.25.

Sjoberg’s: Dick Sjoberg, President

We got involved with offering subsidized options with a Blandin project. We worked with families with kids who qualified for free lunch.

Most of our schools have a 1-to-1 device program. We have been working to get them wireless modems.

We also worked with Connect 2 Compete. It was less personal but it was an opportunity to get reduced rates for programs. Turns out the other program was more popular.

We said you didn’t get the computer until you finished an 8-hour series of classes.

We hired a group of low-incomes kids. They came ot school so that they could work. They They now have jobs in the field.

80 percent of our low-income customers stay with us even after the program ends.

You need to have a champion in every community.

We had to decide how to qualify people. We wanted it to be easy. There’s an inter-county community program and they helped us. She was a champion.

One major barrier is not having the skills to help each other. It’s generational. Education is a key. The internet is a great way to get people access to education – be it GED, college classes, pro


Internet Basics – you can get their program info:

Encourage the use of broadband in disadvantaged markets.

  1. Reduce cost barriers
  2. Address lack of computer equipment

We do lots of marketing to the target market.

Q: Is there a difference in the urban/rural take rates?
I don’ think so.

Q: How does the services meet the needs?
The numbers we have from our subscribers say we’re meeting the needs. In part because our program has evolved to meet those needs.
IN the last 5 years we’ve increased speeds and we continue to market. We are trying to get the word out. And we need to remove the stigma of asking for low income options.

We think that we’re meeting the needs of low income household with a 25 Mbps down connection with wireless modem. And we help them learn to move their smartphones

I think it’s tough to say we’re reaching everyone we need to reach but I think we od make our customers happy.

Q: There are pockets of people we can’t reach. How can government help?

Everyone in government has to know that these programs are a tool for them to hand out to their constituents. We need the people on the frontlines to know about how and help us reach people.

School district participation (especially in Metro) has not been good. I can’t even get meetings with the people I need to talk to. I’ve had good luck with Bloomington but not officially. We’re also working in Mahtomedi – but that’s it.

Part of the problem is getting the schools to pass on information for a commercial company.

Part of it is the attitude of elected officials in some counties and communities. There’s a lot of being online that makes it scarier. Things are more accessible and there’s greater transparency.

12:00 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Lunch

Commodification of Broadband and Long-Term Implications on Affordability

BEVCOMM: Jim Beattie

We have services that are affordable to middle income – in fact prices have come down over the years. We have low-cost options too but we so focus on packages that are affordable and that has helped with take rate.

A threat to broadband affordability…

  • The American Cable Association considered threats to their business models:
  • Title II – broadband will be regulated link telephone (open and free internet access)
  • Some content is free for consumers (Facebook, YouTube…)
  • Some content is not free (Netflix)

ESPN had an online channel. For us to offer that to our customers we were going to have to pay a fee for each of our customers (whether they take that channel or not). We said no.

Will there be an incentive to Edge providers to make broadband providers the middles men – like ESPN tried to do. So if Facebook comes to us and charges us to allow access to Facebook for our customers – what would we do?

Content/Edge providers are not regulated. They might want to hold Title II providers hostage to recoup costs but blocking certain IP addresses.

Q: Is this a state issue?
No. But when our prices go up the lifeline subsidy won’t be helpful because our prices will be so far beyond the $9.25 allocated.
Google is the darling of policymakers. I’m afraid of them especially when it comes to access and use of private information.

Q: What if entertainment was gone from the Internet? We’d still have it for homework.
The growth of internet comes down to entertainment. The higher order tasks (work, education) would not be as far as it is without the support of entertainment.

Will Title II force us to enter into contracts to provide open access to even paid services on the Internet?

As more over-the-top services lose subscribers – they will try to recoup costs somehow.

A lot of edge providers are indebted to the broadband providers for delivering their services. Providers wont’ be holding their breath to get compensation for that.

It’s difficult to fit broadband into low income households. Even when the costs for broadband comes down, it’s an added cost. How do they make it work?

12:45 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. Overview of Federal Lifeline Reform—Shannon Heim, Dykema

Education Perspective on Broadband Affordability – Marc Johnson, East Central Minnesota Education Cable Cooperative (ECMECC)

View slides)

We have been working with Education Super Highway and the OBD to get data to help make informed decisions.

Schools have access  – the cost is the biggest issue. Across the state broadband use in school is going up. In our cooperative use has gone up 300% in the last two years. With rising use comes rising costs. Costs per mg is coming down but we need so much more.

Access to broadband at home is another issue – for rural and urban.

Q: What’s happening in the back office when all of this is happening with qualified IT support?

Schools don’t have enough people to support what they want to do. Reasons:

  • Part of it is the 1-to-1 initiative.
  • Greater reliance on network. (Hard to do school without a network.)

Q: What is general staff makeup?
Most schools have a tech director.

Q: Why doesn’t schools get more MN funding?
Funding for schools and broadband is not a partisan issue. It ends up dying once it gets behind closed doors. People give positive feedback and then it disappears from the Omnibus bill in the last hours. Maybe because of the distaste for categorical funding.

Maybe we can make this one of our top policy recommendations next year.

Q: Wifi on buses – any data that indicates that it helps improve grades?
Great question – we just don’t have great data on what isolated variables might help improve grades.
Anecdotally, we are seeing improvements but we can’t attribute it to the buses alone.

Q: What’s the issue in St Paul / Mpls?
Access to the building isn’t the biggest concern. Actually the age of the schools and inability to get wireless through thick walls is an even bigger concern.

1:45 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Task Force Discussion on Affordability and Recommendations

(see video at top of post)

Many speaker addresses topics we could add:

  • Should we make digital literacy part of the grant metrics
  • Ask digital inclusion groups to better collaborate
  • Make OBD home to digital inclusion better practices – with partners

Do we want a workgroup to ID areas of life in MN where digital literacy is needed? Like jobs, electronic health records and other places?

There are kids too – they know how to use a phone but not email.

We need to partner with others in the state.

How can we make it affordable for these different agencies?

Would like to see funding for the OBD to develop curriculum and to grant funds to communities with champions?

We developed a curriculum because we had to so did other people. Maybe if we could just hire someone create the curriculum. Maybe we could train the trainers.

What if we got the State to commit to a two-year IT program with an option to forgive tuition to low income people if they provide some service.

A shorter program might work really well too.

Maybe we could convene folks who are already working in the field. There’s a need for conversation around what is happening.

We have to remember the Trust. We need to work with trusted partners. We can’t be seen as the government or big business.

Angela suggested an outreach plan that includes trusted partners.

At the OBD we haven’t had a lot of resources to address this issue. There are people out there doing the work.

The landscape is changing as Minneapolis has stepped back from the Technology Literacy Collaborative. We are working with these folks and more and trying to find a way to build an energy that isn’t reliant on one linchpin, especially one that might be vulnerable to political winds.

Maybe the OBD could rough up a budget for resources to tackle adoption

Consider access to affordable computers

Address potential reduction in rates

Focus on libraries as a source for digital inclusion

Training is another issue

Jen Nelson will be here in a future meeting to discuss the options.

Is there a policy recommendation around computers?

Making leaders aware of programs such as PCs for People. Pcs For People is a certified recycler and some leaders do not know that. Maybe we can ID all of the programs that could accept computers to make it easier for potential donors.

Maybe we could talk to the State Department of Admin to see if there are ways to reduce barriers to state agencies donating computers.

2:30 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Update from Subcommittees

Regulatory – they are planning meetings for next week.
Cyber Security  – they are done planning meetings

2:45 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Wrap Up, Plans for September Meeting, Adjourn


This entry was posted in Conferences, Minnesota Advisory Task Force, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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