Policy Recommendations for bringing communities into the digital age from Roberto Gallardo

Roberto Gallardo’s recent paper on digital inclusion offers the following recommendations are meant to strengthen federal and state policies so that they may better support initiatives such as those discussed above:

  • Align Federal and State Policies around Digital Inclusion and Equity
  • Increase Community Awareness of the Importance of Digital Inclusion
  • Provide Digital Inclusion–Specific Funding
  • Support and Incentivize Digital Inclusion through Local Solutions

And one way they got to those recommendations was by looking at the Minnesota Broadband model…

One example of an effective state policy framework is the Minnesota Border-to-Border broadband grant program. It began in 2014 and is one piece of a comprehensive statewide approach to digital inclusiveness known as the “Minnesota Model.” This model launched in 2008 with a set of broadband goals proposed by a statewide task force appointed by the governor and adopted by the legislature. Progress is reviewed annually and consists of four interacting components: statutory goals, data and mapping, an Office of Broadband Development (OBD), and a grant program. This dynamic plan responds to the changing needs of communities and Internet service providers (ISPs) and to the intelligence garnered through data monitoring and measurement. The OBD serves as the central broadband planning body for the state. It operationalizes the various elements outlined in the law, such as administering the Border-to-Border broadband grant program as well as a telecommuter forward program. Another critical role of the OBD is to accurately map broadband deployment throughout the state to aid in the planning and monitoring of broadband infrastructure investments.

According to Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Public Policy and Engagement for the Blandin Foundation (a member of the statewide task force), these mutually reinforcing broadband plan elements constitute a critical civic infrastructure that strengthens the capacity and voice of local communities. This civic infrastructure provides support to broadband access and adoption throughout the state from setting broadband goals to supporting the OBD and to state mapping of broadband infrastructure and unmet needs (Interview, January 2020).

Statewide connectivity goals adopted in 2010 called for universal access at 10–20 Mbps download and 5–10 Mbps upload. By 2016, these goals were updated to universal access at 25/3 Mbps by 2022 and 100/20 Mbps by 2026. To achieve these goals, the Border-to-Border broadband grant program has invested more than US$85 million in broadband infrastructure in 110 projects connecting nearly 39,000 homes, businesses, and farms while leveraging roughly US$110 million in private and local matching funds. By the end of 2018, 86 percent of homes and businesses had access to 100/20 Mbps up from 39 percent in 2015. Also, 93 percent of homes and businesses had access to 25/3 Mbps up from 70 percent in 2011. In 2019, the legislature appropriated an additional US$40 million in funding for broadband grants over the following two years.

According to Angie Dickson, OBD broadband development manager, the state of Minnesota recognized early on that broadband access is a vital component of the state’s economy and all of its communities, especially its rural ones (Interview, January 2020). By maintaining this commitment consistently over time, Minnesota has taken major strides toward achieving digital inclusiveness.

After the Fact: what are the 21 million who aren’t online doing during the pandemic

Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew’s broadband research initiative, explains who’s not online and shares what some states and communities are doing to bridge connectivity gaps in this recent podcast.

She talks about the need for understanding broadband need and mapping, when it comes to distributing funds to make broadband happen, especially in rural areas.

We’re talking about multiple areas, multiple departments in government who handle possible solutions and affordability.

The problem of home access is highlighted now that people can’t go to libraries, schools, fast food restaurants and other public places to access broadband to get work their work and homework done.

Carlton County uneven broadband – large swathc unserved

Pine Journal reports…

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, vast swaths of rural Carlton County are either unserved or underserved by broadband internet services.

An unserved residence lacks any connection to a broadband network and underserved areas have access, but at speeds unable to support video chats or other frequently used online tools required for working and learning remotely. Most underserved areas of the county have download speeds of 25 megabits per second and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

Video chats, streaming services and other modern internet tools typically require 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.

They take a look at what that means on the frontlines…

Brenda Nyberg, a grant writer for the Carlton County Economic Development Department, knows firsthand about the problems with slow or unreliable internet service. A Cromwell resident, Nyberg has been working remotely for most of the past two months and her three sons have been trying to continue school from home, putting enormous pressure on an area of the county that is underserved. Nyberg said she recently found out she can get internet access from Frontier, but potentially not at the speeds the family needs.

They are still investigating the service, but have been using an AT&T hotspot to access the internet.

“There are four of us trying to be online at the same time, and it is really tough,” Nyberg said. “It’s definitely not ideal. The speeds are slow, it’s unreliable, you get kicked off. It’s just really hard to have any long term connectivity.”

While larger cities and those relatively close to the I-35 corridor like Cloquet, Carlton and Moose Lake enjoy ideal speeds, the more rural communities like Cromwell, Wrenshall and Kettle River are underserved at best.

OPPORTUNITY: FCC & IMLS Partner to address digital divide with CARES

From the FCC

The Federal Communications Commission today announced that it is partnering with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to promote the use of $50 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help address the digital divide during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The agencies will team up to raise awareness of these funds among libraries and Tribal organizations, which can use them to increase broadband access in their communities.

The CARES Act allocated $50 million in funding to IMLS, the primary source of federal funding for the nation’s museums and libraries, to enable these institutions, as well as organizations serving Tribal communities, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus pandemic.  This includes work to expand digital network access, purchase Internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services to their communities.

More than half of this funding was distributed through State Library Administrative Agencies (SLAAs) in all states and territories based on population.  States and territories may use these funds to expand broadband access and prioritize their efforts to high-need communities using data on poverty rates, unemployment rates, and broadband availability.  IMLS has provided additional details regarding this funding availability directly to SLAAs.

Additionally, $15 million of this funding will be awarded through grants to libraries and museums, as well as Tribes and organizations serving and representing Native Hawaiians.  The goal of these grant programs is to support these entities and organizations in responding to the coronavirus pandemic in ways that meet the immediate and future COVID-19 needs of the communities they serve.  Grant proposals may include short- or medium-term solutions to address gaps in digital infrastructure.  For example, libraries may partner with community organizations to develop community Wi-Fi hotspot and laptop lending programs in underserved areas.  Applications are due June 12, 2020 with award announcements anticipated in August 2020.

“Now more than ever, it is critical that all Americans have access to broadband to participate in online learning, get medical care via telehealth, search for jobs, and stay in touch with family and friends,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.  “And many Americans rely on their local library for this connectivity.  So I’m pleased that Congress has provided funding to libraries and other entities to help them respond to the needs of their patrons during the coronavirus pandemic by bringing digital tools such as Wi-Fi and tablets into their communities.  We look forward to working with IMLS to ensure that our nation’s libraries and Tribal organizations know about this opportunity and how it can help bridge the digital divide, especially in rural and low-income communities.”

“We are called to respond to the urgent needs of our communities,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper.  “IMLS is focusing on bolstering the digital capacity of libraries and museums, helping them address the digital divide with the resources and direction provided by Congress and the White House through the CARES Act.  We are pleased to do this jointly with the FCC, which, under the leadership of Chairman Pai, has also taken a key role in addressing the pandemic and technological challenges in low-income, rural, urban, Tribal, and underserved communities.  This money and this partnership will make a difference in the lives of people across the nation.”

As part of the FCC’s collaboration with IMLS, the FCC will publicize these CARES Act resources, help conduct outreach to libraries as well as organizations serving Tribal communities regarding the CARES Act funding and other IMLS resources available to them, and provide information on broadband service providers that may be able to help.  The agencies will also share information on the availability of broadband and on the connectivity needs of libraries, including in rural areas, and work together to ensure that libraries across the country are aware that community use of Wi-Fi networks supported by the FCC’s E‑Rate program is permitted during library closures due to COVID-19.

For updates on the FCC’s wide array of actions to keep consumers connected during the coronavirus pandemic, visit www.fcc.gov/coronavirus.  For information on Chairman Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Initiative, visit www.fcc.gov/keepamericansconnected.

Pandemic exacerbates and shines a light on inequity in Minnesota

MinnPost recently ran an editorial from Jane Leonard and Dane Smith from Growth & Justice on need for equity in Minnesota – a need that didn’t start with the coronavirus pandemic but the pandemic is pushing the inequity to the headlines. Here one example from the article…

An April 11 Star Tribune front-page story (“Spotty broadband, rural toll”) revealed a family on Minnesota’s Iron Range coping with COVID-19 by driving 15 miles to a McDonald’s parking lot and connecting to high-speed Wi-Fi there so that kids could do online homework and mom could do basic household business. Given the emerging importance of telehealth, rural regional leaders in the article emphasized once again that high-speed broadband in Greater Minnesota must now be considered basic public infrastructure, a matter of regional equity, and no longer an optional luxury.

They mention other inequities but of course broadband what interests me here. The mention the inequities in the context of a solution. For several years now, Growth & Justice has been working on a statewide blueprint to reduce inequities, unite Minnesota and lift us all up…

One of the featured recommendations in the Blueprint squarely addresses the rural broadband disparity and the urban “digital divide.’’ The report explains in detail how Minnesotans without high-speed internet can’t run their businesses, do their jobs, attend school, seek medical help, or function as consumers. The Blueprint proposes an ambitious multiyear state investment over at least a decade to ensure that construction proceeds regardless of location or market strength. In the COVID aftermath, robust and affordable anywhere-for-anyone broadband will continue to be central to the recovery and continued operations of our communities, economy and society at large.

COVID can be our crucible of long-term change for the better, if we choose. And our Minnesota Equity Blueprint could be the first draft of that new socioeconomic contract for a more inclusive, equitable and secure prosperity across the North Star State.

Pro Bono Consulting for K-12 Districts from NDIA list

I wanted to share two free resources today. First the NDIA (National Digital Inclusion Alliance), if you don’t know then, is …

a unified voice for home broadband access, public broadband access, personal devices and local technology training and support programs. We work collaboratively to craft, identify and disseminate financial and operational resources for digital inclusion programs while serving as a bridge to policymakers and the general public.

They have a listserv that is particularly useful for ideas for practitioners, researchers and policy wonks.

From that list, I learned about the following opportunity. I don’t know much about the group making the offer – but seemed like a deal worth sharing…

The Learning Accelerator – a national nonprofit – recently launched a large-scale, FREE coaching network that brings together some of the nation’s top expert consulting organizations to offer school districts rapid, customized, and sustained guidance on how to successfully shift to remote learning and prepare for instruction in the fall and beyond. The Always Ready For Learning Network includes the following coaching partners (with more being added soon): 2Revolutions, Afton Partners, Catalyst:Ed, Highlander Institute, InnovateEDU, ISTE, KnowledgeWorks, LINC, PowerMyLearning, and Transcend.

Summer school a good fit for schools in communities with limited broadband?

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on the recent decision to lift stay at home restrictions that include schools…

The state first shifted to distance learning on March 30 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walz announced later that the move would remain in effect through the current school year.

The new order allows for classroom instruction if schools comply with state Department of Health guidelines on masking, social distancing, personal hygiene, screening and cleaning. The order states that being able to attend school is especially important to students in communities with limited broadband access as well as those needing engagement and mental and physical health supports.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said the state was well aware that many students struggled with distance learning.

“We are excited to be able to offer some in-person learning opportunities,” she said.

I have mixed feelings. I think kids and parents are probably glad for the activity but worried about health risk. It is difficult to hear that rural areas are in a different position than urban counterparts because of their lack of access. (Urban areas likely have issues with affordability and lack of devices.)  It’s difficult that any decisions be made because of limited broadband. In a time with so many unknowns and such dire consequences, it seems like solving the broadband equity issue is an easy one. We have the expertise (great providers), we have a system in place (broadband grants), we have demand, we just need funding!