Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Aitkin

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks in Aitkin today.

Like all of the latest BBCs, COVID played a big role in both preparing the community for the pandemic quarantine and stopped projects in their tracks. In Aitkin we heard a lot about healthcare. Turns out they were able to serve 900 patients online in the first few weeks of the quarantine because they were prepared – but also because policy, especially around reimbursement made it financially possible. In fact, the health care folks were somehow able to expedite a plan scheduled really through the end of the year to deploy measures in weeks. Wow!

There were also some projects like the fancy new super-efficient conference room at the Birch Street Center where at first were put on hold as communities meetings were cancelled but now it back in play as they are planning to use it to stream Tai Chi classes for local seniors.

Aitkin is still working on getting broadband and it was good to hear about their short term plans to get it to people immediately but also long term goals to make sure they got what they needed.

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Hibbing MN

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks in Hibbing today.

They have been doing a lot of great work getting iPads to seniors, doing training, WiFi in public housing but there was one application that really struck me. Lots of communities are putting projects on hold during the pandemic or changing them – it’s what we’re doing.

Hibbing got iPads for the ambulances. It was a good way to get a visual connection between the ambulance and the hospital. Well those iPads have been repurposed. Patients use them in the hospital for pre-screening. That saves on PPE for healthcare workers. And patients with (or suspected to have) COVID-19. That reduces the contact (but not care) with healthcare professionals. Also, and this is the part I love, it allows patients to connect with loved ones outside. Technology makes life better.

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Tower MN

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. Tower is the smallest community that has been a Blandin Broadband Community. It’s fun to hear about what they are doing and how they are building greater demand for broadband.

The local public school has a slick new computer lab. Public buildings have computers for public use. Great ideas and they have done a lot to help education local residents to the need. Unfortunately, the pandemic has clearly had an impact on access to those computers. WiFi hotspots in the campgrounds are being used more than usual – as people are able to get access there, which helps them work and learn.

People are feeling the pain without access at home. There was a gentleman who couldn’t access telehealth with his connection at home so he had to go into the hospital for a dermatology appointment. Another opted to use a smartphone and cell access over home broadband for Zoom calls because it was unreliable. And reports on kids unable to learn online from home.

Partial transcript added May 27:


May 14, 2020

44:54 – “It’s exciting, we’ve had the St. Louis County Community Dev. Dir. step in last time and for them to be in touch with the process and understand the direction we’re going…how this work can help us leverage other State and Fed funding…really clicked for St. Louis Co. I think we’re going in a good direction.”

52.36 minutes – “Working with PCs for people…they’re a great bunch. Fun to work with and they fill the need. It was a really positive experience.”

54.19 – “…now that it’s out there (broadband), there is a lot more understanding of it and a need for it.”  “We had no idea how you even go about this, and what a wonderful learning experience it’s been for us. I will not hesitate to take on another project on like this.”

55:11 – “…it’s been very positive all the way around. We had those hurdles at the beginning…we’ll keep at it!”

57:56 – “…we couldn’t have done it without the whole steering committee….Richard has been a great asset, and Pastor Doug, too…And it goes without saying, Kate and John!”

1:02:17: “I’ve seen four of them now (Leadership Webinars). I follow Ann’s blog regularly…It’s great work. She keeps you abreast of everything as far as state government and grant possibilities. She does a great job.”

1:11:40 “We are so lucky to have you guys come into our lives!”

” We don’t really have an ability to get any other internet here right now.”

1:14:39 “Mine would be way back in November of 2018 when Bill first came to Tower and put a presentation on there. From then forward, there was so many people I’ve met that said they’d move here but they don’t have the connectivity. I met a fishing guy that has a website…that said he’d move here permanently, and so would a couple of his friends, if there was connectivity. I met an architect, who is semi-retired who lives in the cities; he won’t move here because he can’t get connectivity. But he would if he could. The other day a friend of mine had to go to the dermatologist and it was going to be virtual, but he couldn’t connect. So, they had to cancel the appointment and he had to go down during COVID to the hospital, and he didn’t like that too much. But he went down and had to have it done there.”

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Rock County

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. My favorite part of the talk with Rock County is when they said they felt prepared (as anyone could be) for the pandemic because they had adequate broadband.

And since the Governor spoke about loosening of stay at home rules, it was interesting to hear how they are planning to meet the needs this summer wrestling essential worker childcare needs with childcare and distraction needs from others. They have shifted to providing a lot of services online – from mental health resources (hope to post more on that later), school lessons and community education. They have even moved county commission meetings online, which led to some interested discussion of at-home business casual dress.

Rock County really is in a good position with broadband. They are working on devices for all (students) and again just wrestling with the new world.

Added May 27

Rock County

May 14, 2020

12:53 – Kyle Oldre’s statement: “You know what we’re going through with distance learning…such a heart-felt “thank you” to Alliance and what they have done. And the entire team at the school and trying to deliver this distance learning. We couldn’t have done it but for Alliance, but we also couldn’t have done it but for Blandin and PCs for People. When you think of what we were collectively tasked to do…during this pandemic, to make sure every student had the opportunity to learn…we got to the point in Luverne where they reached out to me that there was one student that didn’t have some type of connectivity, and that was because they were transitioning and moving, and the library bailed them out with trying to help them with a hotspot, which was also a Blandin-funded item…Both school districts that are located in Rock County, HBC and Luverne, were able to do this because of broadband and because of the team that was put together with the assistance of Blandin. So, hats off to Blandin. Hats off to Alliance. Our students are collectively better for being involved with you.”

19:59 –  Kyle Oldre On Magnolia Campground:

“We’ve had some essential workers that’ve moved in this spring…one is a traveling nurse living out of their camper while remote working. They log on every night through that Wi-Fi and…she’s able to conduct that (tele-health) in a campground…because of the backbone that’s provided…That was a Blandin-coined tool (the tele-health, distance learning, tele-commerce) certainly that’s one of the stools that’s being provided by the Wi-Fi in the campground…They’re conducting essential work out of the campground because they’re able to travel down and do those things.”

59:09 – Kyle Oldre: “I think as a society we are learning from this event. You’re seeing that by businesses moving to remote (work) where they can. We’re going to have smaller office complexes because they’ll have 25-50% of their workforce always working from home…Social Services already told 25% of their staff they’re staying home until the end of December because they found that they’re as efficient, or more efficient, working from home. They’re engaged and there’s no reason…they’re doing their follow-ups, just like this…what we’re all learning is that we can survive in this technology world, regardless of age, and it actually works quite well if used properly. The tools, whether it’s PowerPoints and shared screens…I never dreamt I’d be doing this stuff. But you’re able to do it. I could talk to someone in Biwabik today and we could have a great conversation for $16/month on my Zoom account…What I’m finding is that it works.”

1:46:17 – Kyle Oldre: “Last week I finished my 27th year with the county. When I started one of the department heads came in and said, “I want to buy a computer.” And I’m like, “Well, what do you want to buy?” And he wanted a gigabyte of memory. I told him he’d lost his mind. I said, “You could put every record produced in Rock County on that machine, there’s no reason to buy a gigabyte.” And I say that story because in 27 years I’m realizing how wrong I was, and how valuable this technology is, and how important it is, whether we’re in government or the private sector to continue to say, “Look, you can do more. It’s better. You’ve got to continue to capitalize on the assets that you have.” This is truly a bedrock asset for this county…and I offer this to Blandin: you have been so generous to the county. Now and previously with the number of cohorts that have gone through, and the training, and now with this grant…that if there’s anything we can do to assist you, whether it’s training in other communities, or whether it’s advocating at the capitol, whatever you need from us don’t hesitate to ask because you have been so good to us. And I want to make sure you realize how valuable we see this partnership. It really is more than just the money. The money helps, don’t get me wrong, but it is more than the money. And we just need to continue to educate and continue to advocate and do what we do in the positions we’re in.

Broadband makes democracy possible for MN Legislators

Duluth News Tribune posts a column from Representative Jennifer Shcultz on the role that broadband is playing in allowing legislators to do their job and keeping citizens as active participants in the process…

Contrary to what was claimed or suggested in the News Tribune’s April 29 editorial (Our View: “Open government still must be the expectation”), since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, lawmakers have been committed to being available, accessible, and responsive to community members and the rapidly evolving challenges we’re all facing. When the public health emergency was first declared, Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders quickly moved forward to enact a plan and make investments in our public health response.

Unconventional times have required an unconventional approach to legislating. Since our first actions addressing COVID-19, the House and Senate have largely moved operations online. We’ve held committee meetings via the online video-conference platform Zoom, and all of them have been streamed over the web or televised. We’ve incorporated public testimony into these hearings to get maximum public input.

We’ve held town hall meetings electronically to answer questions and receive feedback. Our email inboxes receive steady traffic, with folks offering feedback or requesting assistance in navigating difficulties, and we’ve worked to help solve problems.

My colleagues and I who represent Duluth’s interests in St. Paul maintain a presence on social media to update constituents on developments and to afford Minnesotans an opportunity to weigh in. None of these is a substitute for in-person conversations, but we value the high level of engagement from community members.

And she recognizes the importance of broadband in the process…

Following the recent situation just next door in Wisconsin, we’re working to enact a mail-in voting option to help Minnesotans participate in democracy safely. Distance learning has been difficult for many families, and we’re working to ensure all Minnesotans have broadband internet to access learning materials, receive telemedicine services, or participate in commerce. Hourly school employees like bus drivers, educational assistants, and food service workers deserve economic security, and we’re working to guarantee their compensation during distance learning.

All of these vital measures have been crafted with the input of people affected by this crisis. They’ve been vetted out in the open during public hearings that, while held remotely, have had debate and public votes — just as if they were held at the state Capitol.

Application deadline May 10 for Congressional Digital Service Fellowship in DC

This looks like an amazing opportunity to go to DC and help them make better use of technology through the Congressional Digital Service Fellowship – the deadline is May 10…

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed Congress into a remote and virtual institution literally overnight. Capitol Hill was not prepared for this moment and is now confronting a number of urgent digital challenges.

We are looking to immediately recruit a small collaborative tech team for an eight month fellowship to help Congress manage this critical moment. 

You can read more about our fellowship strategy on our blog.

To date, TechCongress has sent 29 technologists to Congress to serve with offices including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the House Oversight Committee.

The current challenges in Congress include:

  • Lack of effective technical infrastructure for continuity of the institution (e.g. no platform for digital signatures or electronic bill introduction) and lack of adoption and approval of remote tools (e.g Slack, Microsoft Teams, other video conferencing).

  • Security concerns, including inconsistent use of tools and member and staff reliance on personal devices and unsupported messaging platforms.

  • Lack of expertise to test and support potential longer-term modernization tools/processes/solutions, including video-based committee hearings, virtual staff briefings, and remote voting.

In response to the urgent need for digital expertise, TechCongress is launching a Congressional Digital Service Fellowship, modeled on parts of the United States Digital Service.  This is a limited term fellowship– an eight month sprint– in order to:

  • Meet the immediate need for technical talent to help modernize the digital infrastructure of the Congress.

  • Capitalize on the opportunity to galvanize the institution to build a Congressional Digital Service within the institution,  including by helping implement recommendations from the House Select Committee on Modernization.

Fellows will be paid a competitive stipend, consistent with tech team salaries in the executive branch like the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, as well as reimbursements for health care, relocation to Washington, D.C. and any necessary travel.

St Cloud VA may be largest provider of telehealth for Veterans in the country

The Alexandria Echo reports on the escalated use of telehealth at the VA since the threat of coronavirus…

Stay-at-home orders and other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been the spark for even more veterans to seek health care through electronic means. The growth has been so dramatic that more than half of all routine appointments within the system are now being conducted using virtual tools, Venable said.

“For example, VA Video Connect appointments have increased 63 percent since February across the health care system,” he said. “The Max J. Beilke VA Clinic conducted seven of these appointments in February and 47 appointments were completed in March.”

Before all of this, the St. Cloud system had one of the highest veteran usage rates of any medical center.

“What makes that so remarkable is that central and west-central Minnesota are really rural,” said Joann Houge, the system’s telehealth coordinator.

“We have the capacity to do more,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons for this push to expand telehealth. It allows us to serve more, and it makes it more convenient.”

The VA claims to be the largest provider of telehealth in the country, reasons for which Houge said are two-fold: many veterans live in rural areas where they travel an hour or two each way to the nearest VA clinic; and such a large percentage want to stay within the VA system.