Event April 8: Meetings in the Time of Coronavirus: Tips and Tricks of online meetings

I want to invite folks to the Blandin Foundation webinar. Mary Magnuson and I will be taking this on. Mary is the tech glue that is making the Blandin webinars run so smoothly. A few years ago, I did a webinar a month for about a year. The tools have only gotten better and there are some real advantages to online meetings.

Our goal is to make you feel comfortable attending and maybe hosting webinars yourself…

Meetings in the Time of Coronavirus: Tips and Tricks of online meetings
As we move online, all of us are getting a crash course on online meetings. We thought we’d open up our sandbox to talk about how we’ve been hosting Zoom meetings and what we know about Facebook Live, Google Hangouts and Twitter parties. (Mostly Zoom.) We’re not experts, but we’re practitioners. We want to create a safe space for everyone give it a go – you can share your screen or take a chance to ask a question!

No advance registration required.
April 8 – 2-3pm CST

Join Zoom Meeting https://zoom.us/j/283488059
Meeting ID: 283 488 059
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Recognizing that rural connectivity doesn’t equal urban connectivity

The Center for Rural Policy and Development looks at the need for broadband in the time of pandemic and the difference in rural, town and urban broadband connections…

In rural areas, having a subscription to an internet service doesn’t equal a quality connection. Counties outside of the seven-county metro have a noticeably lower percentage of households with access to broadband or, in some cases, any internet at all. Figure 1 provides the average percentage of households by internet connection type by county group. The more rural a county is, the more likely it is to have a significantly lower percentage of households with an internet subscription. In fact, Minnesota’s most rural counties can have a percentage of households with an internet subscription that is 10 to 20 percentage points less than entirely urban areas.

The percentage of households who are subscribed to a broadband service decreases significantly as a county becomes more rural. In addition, the percentage of households relying on their cell phone data plan or dial-up connection increases with rural-ness. Data: U.S. Census Bureau, ACS 5-year (2013-2017).

What I find fascinating is the perentage (low as it is) of dial-up connectivity!

The article goes on to detail good works by local and national providers in improving access in Minnesota – a fleshed out version of what I’ve been tracking on the blog too – super helpful if you want to know exactly what folks are offering.

The internet superhighway isn’t going to shut down but your last mile might falter – especially uploading!

Internet infrastructure is getting a workout these days. According to a recent article in Vox, internet traffic in the US is up 18 percent from Jan 1 to Mar 22, 2020. But as the article points out, we are unlikely to break the internet…

The internet itself is an incredibly robust and resilient network that was specifically designed to adapt to huge spikes in traffic just like the one we’re living through. The platforms and apps that make the internet useful, however, are less tested. So the good news is, America’s internet is better prepared for this pandemic than you think. The bad news is that Mark Zuckerberg and others are worried that their platforms might not be able to handle this. Lucky for you, many experts think that everything will be fine.

In fact, overall performance hasn’t suffered…

Even still, so far it looks like performance hasn’t noticeably suffered. Ookla recently published a dataset that shows the mean download speed in the US on March 22 was actually about the same as it was on December 15. In the past few days, it has been trending down slightly, but we’re talking 10 megabits per second of difference. Just for context, the average download speed for fixed broadband in the US is about 140 Mbps, so that variation is pretty insignificant.

That’s good but it turns out that what we experience at home might not reflect this not-much-change status…

The “last mile” is where you might start running into some problems right now. It’s the part of the internet infrastructure that consumer-facing ISPs like Spectrum or Comcast control. If there’s going to be a bottleneck for traffic anywhere, there’s a good chance it’s either going to be along the last mile or even inside your home.

Let’s start with what could go wrong on the last mile. If you work for a big company, there’s a good chance that your office internet is a fiber connection that theoretically has unlimited bandwidth. Your work computer might even get gigabit speeds for downloads and uploads, which is plenty fast enough to have a high quality Zoom call.

The situation at your home is different, however. Most residential broadband connections link the larger internet, which is fiber-based, to your home through an aging cable infrastructure. This cable system was designed to carry TV signals into your home, not carry information out of it. That’s why, if you’ve got a cable connection and run a speed test, you’ll see a huge difference between your faster download speeds and your slower upload speeds.

“I think that if there is going to be one place that we do see bottlenecks, especially in the US or other markets that are primarily served by cable operators, it’s going to be in that upload capacity,” Prince said.

Upload capacity is key to video conferencing services. So if your Zoom meetings aren’t going so well, you might be maxing out what your old infrastructure can handle. But if you’ve got a fiber connection, you should ask your ISP about getting symmetrical upload and download speeds. Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are a couple of ISPs that offer this.

Now, even if we assume you have unlimited bandwidth, you still might run into problems at home. Network congestion is an obvious consequence of increased usage, and that can lead to latency, which is the amount of time it takes for a packet of information to get from its source (a server) to its destination (your computer). A stuttering or out-of-sync video chat, for example, is a sure sign of high latency, which means that packets of data are probably getting backed up along the way. This might be because those packets have to travel through multiple routers before arriving at the one in your house, and due to congestion, each of those stops slows it down by a few milliseconds. In keeping with the highway metaphor, think about cars trying to get off a highway at a crowded exist. So even though you may think you have plenty of bandwidth and should therefore have fast internet, there’s a chance your connection just feels slow because high congestion is causing latency issues.

“The thing that I’m more concerned about with the load on the internet that we’re seeing right now is not that it’s going to stop working or even that we’re going to get low quality videos,” Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode. “What I am worried about is that we’re going to see higher and higher latencies from these queues building up in the network, making it harder to do things like video conferencing.”

If you think you’re experiencing latency problems, the first thing to do is check how many devices are connected to your network. If you’re streaming Netflix on your smart TV, someone else in your house is streaming video gameplay on Twitch, and someone else is having a FaceTime conversation at the same time, you might have a problem. More connected devices doing high-bandwidth tasks typically means more congestion on your home network, and, therefore higher latency.

These latency issues can happen at either side of the connection. While big internet companies like Amazon and Facebook have sophisticated server setups that route and reroute traffic in real time, smaller operations can easily get strained by a surge in traffic. Sherry offered the example of her local library website grinding to a halt in the early days of the pandemic as the entire neighborhood tried to check out books at the same time. So if you’re dealing with smaller websites like these, you might just have to be patient.

I’ve often heard people say, download is for consumers and upload is for producers. The Minnesota broadband speed goal (100 Mbps down and 20 up by 2026) is an example of assuming greater consumption. I remember when they talked about the discrepancy, many people noted that the upload they selected was asymmetrical abut that 20 Mbps should suffice for most users. It will be interesting to see, if/as we spend more time online – working, learning and keeping ourselves entertained, whether that 20 Mbps still seem sufficient.

EVENT Mar 30: Human Services’ Calls with the Governor’s Office

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Reports

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, in conjunction with the office of Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, is pleased to host a series of four weekly Calls with Governor’s Office featuring updates for nonprofits on Minnesota’s response to COVID-19.
The Governor’s office values the state’s nonprofit partners and would like to easily give information as news is breaking in this changing environment. Each free virtual chat will take place over the next four Mondays from 11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. and will feature Gov. Walz, Lt. Gov. Flanagan, or both.
The first call will focus on information for, and questions from, nonprofits in the human services sectors. Visit MCN’s event page in the coming weeks for information on future calls.

On the face of it, this isn’t necessarily broadband-related, unless of course you had questions about the inequity of broadband connectivity in rural areas impacting ability to access government services or adhere to sheltering in place executive order.

NetSqaured meetings for nonprofit techies move online

NetSquared is a series of groups of techie and techie-inspired people involved with nonprofit organizations or social justice projects. There is a group in the Twin Cities.

It’s been a while but I used to attend their meetings, which were always interesting and often led by folks from the group. Well, their meetings have moved online and so suddenly might be of more interest to readers. Here’s the schedule…

Think of it as an up side to social distancing – for those who have access to broadband.

What are local communities doing to get infrastructure to kids for online learning?

MinnPost reports on what’s happening with schools moving to remote and/or online education, in terms of capacity for local households…

Households that lack a reliable internet connection — or any connection, at all — pose an added challenge to distance learning. Rural districts have long lobbied state lawmakers to help close gaps in broadband availability that disproportionately impact their communities. Now, faced with an unprecedented ask — to prepare distance learning plans to allow students to complete their studies from home as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, if need be — rural districts are troubleshooting ways to immediately expand internet access to all student households.

This Friday marks the end of a statewide eight-day school closure that Gov. Tim Walz announced as part of an executive order earlier this month, giving school administrators, teachers and staff a student-free chunk of time to work out the details involved in delivering lessons remotely in the event of an extended school closure — a possibility that’s sounding more and more likely.

 

They take a look at what’s happening in school districts across the state. In Blue Earth…

Fletcher says her district surveyed families a couple of years ago and found that about 95 percent of its families self-reported some type of internet access, whether through broadband, fiber, or a mobile hotspot. The district also purchased a batch of mobile hotspots to check out to families in need.

In recent years, the local internet company BEVCOMM has done a good job of expanding its footprint, she adds. And it has stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis by offering districts a $3,000 donation to support the purchase of additional Wi-Fi hotspots for distribution, and by offering discounted broadband rates to low-income families.

“We purchased an additional 10 mobile hotspots,” Fletcher said, noting they’ll “be distributed to families that still do not have internet access.”

On the Iron Range…

School districts located across the Iron Range are looking to expand internet access to families currently without through the purchase and distribution of hotspot devices as well, says Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

In preparation to support online work as they roll out distance learning plans (potentially starting next week), the Hibbing Public Schools district purchased 500 hotspot devices from AT&T, he says.

In other communities, school leaders he’s in communication with say they’re looking at ways to strengthen the bandwidth at sites that are already connected — like banks and grocery stores — to create a hotspot around those facilities.

And the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools district had already outfitted its school buses with WiFi, prior to the pandemic, he says. They might consider parking their buses in various locations “to create hotspots that way.”

In Warroad…

For students in the Warroad Public Schools district, access to a device doesn’t pose a barrier to online distance learning. Two years ago, the district invested in becoming a one-to-one district.

But as more and more businesses ask their employees to work remotely, following social distancing guidance from state leaders and public health experts, Superintendent Shawn Yates says he and his team are staying mindful of the fact that “there’s only so much bandwidth” to go around.

“To that end, we’re trying to adjust a little bit, as far as our [distance learning] plan,” he said. “So we’re not doing a great deal of live streaming of lessons. In other words, there’s not a particular time that a teacher will be online hosting some kind of a chat with direct delivery to our students.”

In Foley…

Paul Neubauer, superintendent of Foley Public Schools, says he and his educators have explored the flipped lesson option — where a teacher records a lesson that’s downloaded to a device for a student to watch later on — as well. But if students still aren’t allowed to come on site, even if it’s just to wipe old lessons off of their device and download new ones, this workaround becomes a bit more cumbersome, he says.

Technically, Foley isn’t a one-to-one district. But so far the school has been able to equip nearly 200 families with a laptop for students’ use at home. For now, the district is prioritizing students in grades 4-12. If possible, they’ll extend the device distribution to younger students a bit later.

In Westbrook-Walnut Grove…

In the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools district, Superintendent Loy Woelber says they’re planning for monthly packets to be used to deliver distance learning at the elementary level.

Older students in one school community are operating at a one-to-one device capacity. For their classmates in the two other school communities served by his consolidated district, he thinks they’ll be able to get at least one device into the homes of each family with school-aged children that’s currently lacking a device to work on at home.

Even after taking measures to eliminate or reduce the hardware barriers to online learning, he’s concerned about things like weak connections — the sort of thing that’s already made conference calls with staff that needed to stay home this week hard to understand — and students relying on cellphones to complete their school work on.

 

How to quickly deploy free WiFi – from CTC Technology & Energy

As we settle into social distancing IRL (in real life), communities may want to find ways to help make online social interaction easier by setting up wifi hubs where broadband is otherwise limited or not affordable – like a manufactured home park, campus or any multi-dwelling buildings. Here are some great instructions from CTC Technology & Energy…

This approach needs to be customized for each building but would include the same key elements.

1: Ensure there is adequate backhaul to the building. A range of technologies can perform this task. If the building has municipal- or county-owned fiber, this is simply a matter of configuring sufficient capacity. If fiber is absent but reaches a nearby building, and you have line of sight to that building, mmWave, 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or other wireless technology can enable backhaul using a mast-mounted or building-mounted antenna.  (If you don’t have line of sight, 900 MHz equipment can serve the same function.) Failing these options, seek commercial service—preferably over fiber.

2: Install Wi-Fi hotspots. These should be installed in hallways, mounted on ceilings or walls (ideally in false ceilings or crawl spaces), with as much density as possible.  The ideal outcome is that no more than 25 feet or one wall separates user from the access point and there are no more than eight users simultaneously using each access point. You will want to interconnect each access point using a single Cat 5/6/7 cable to a power-over-ethernet switch with a 1000 Mbps port. A good practice in a high-rise is to have a switch on each floor and connect each floor’s switch to a building switch located in the basement or on the rooftop that connects to the backhaul service. Where appropriate, consider wireless mesh technologies so as to reduce the amount of cabling.

3: Connect users to the network. You want members of the public to easily connect to the network. Generally, this is a simple matter. Most people own some form of Wi-Fi enabled device, even if they can’t afford ongoing carrier service. Students may have received devices from their schools. What remains is to provide instructions for connecting:  usually just an SSID and a password. For others who are using city-, county-, or school-provided equipment, ideally this equipment is preconfigured with the needed applications (including remote management) and browser links and instruction screens in the appropriate language. You may also need to lock down equipment to protect against inadvertent or deliberate tampering with the operating system or other components that could compromise the network.

4: Set up user supportYour residents may need a moderate level of technical support. In ideal circumstances, a handful of people at a building or development who have basic technological skills can assist clients or neighbors if they get stuck—using text-messaging or voice calls if needed to enforce social distancing. Additionally, municipal or county staff—or volunteers from local schools or technology companies—could also assist from call centers.

5: Set policies to lessen the risk of network congestion. Gaming and interactive video use considerable bandwidth that may slow your network and limit use for critical needs during this crisis. If a locality wants to control use of its devices or its network (for example, to avoid slowdowns and bottlenecks in the building networks), it may consider blocking or limiting some content or applications on those devices, or within its network. This can be done in the network configuration or the device configuration. (Some applications used for teleworking, such as Zoom, should be whitelisted.)

Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you think through these strategies.