Many advantages to living in rural MN – broadband isn’t always sone of them

Channel 6 News (Rochester MN) uses a recent report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development To talk about the cost and advantages of living in rural Minnesota…

Several local representatives agree with the benefits but say work can still be done to keep our region connected and thriving in this digital age.
The report states that an average adult would have to make $20 per hour hypothetically to live in the twin cities metro.

By taking a trip south on Interstate 35 or Highway 52, you could see that average drop to $14 per hour.
This quite possibly, making rural Minnesota a more attractive location for families.

Access to broadband is one exception…

But there’s at least one issue that many lawmakers continue to fight for in rural Minnesota.
Access to high-speed internet could give families more of the freedom to decide where they want to live and work from in a COVID-19 world.
“If there is access to high-speed broadband, I see a real rural renaissance where families choose to live in our smaller towns,” Sen. Nelson said.

I’m glad that they are aware of the issue and are prioritizing equitable access to broadband. I want to point out that while some areas in rural Minnesota don’t have adequate access, some have very good access. I mention this both to recoginze the areas that do have good access but also to point out that leaves the areas without access in gerater peril in terms of sustaining and growing their population.

Using food stamps online – great in a pandemic but it comes with a price

As we watch the world around us change dramatically, it’s been great to see how (and how quickly) technology can help make things easier for people. It has been literally a life saver for many who have been able to work, learn, stay healthy and shop online rather than risk pandemic infection. But with quick technology changes, I’m always a little worried about unintended consequences.

The Center for Democracy just released a report (Does buying groceries online put SNAP participants at risk?) that reminded me of consequences. The good news they report is that prior to the pandemic, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants could not use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards (the contemporary version of what used to be known as “food stamps”) to make online purchases. But now they can. But that comes at a cost…

People who need government food assistance should have access to the same kinds of online services that others use to feed their families while staying safe. The SNAP online purchasing program could be critical to achieving that goal.

However, as this report shows, the program could also expose participants to increased data collection and surveillance, a flood of intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques, and pervasive promotion of unhealthy foods. While all U.S. consumers who use online ordering services face many of these risks, SNAP participants are likely to be disproportionately harmed.

In the following pages, we present the results of our research on the eight retail companies selected to participate in the SNAP online purchasing pilot. Our study reveals that these companies deploy a range of data-driven targeting and e-commerce practices that are at the center of today’s digital marketplace. The entire e-commerce system has evolved in a largely unregulated environment, without federal or state policies that provide adequate protections for consumers. Neither the USDA nor the companies in the pilot program offer sufficient protections to SNAP participants.

I had a client who worked in the world of SNAP, so this caught my eye. I’m not going to delve deeply because it’s slightly off topic but as we work to improving lives with technology, it’s good to get a reminder of the doors we open without realizing it.

If you have the time, the report is interesting. What I always think is interesting is that the debate isn’t always “should” we use big data to effect change but “who” can use it and how. We frown on businesses using it to sell potato chips and cola but using it to promote apples is seen diffierently.

For a very different perspective on data privacy, look at the clash between US and EU privacy laws. The Washington Post reports…

 The European Union’s top court on Thursday threw a large portion of transatlantic digital commerce into disarray, ruling that data of E.U. residents is not sufficiently protected from government surveillance when it is transferred to the United States.

The ruling was likely to increase transatlantic tensions at a moment when President Trump has already been threatening tariffs and retaliation against the European Union for what he says are unfair business practices. It was a victory for privacy advocates who said that E.U. citizens are not as protected when their information is transferred to U.S. servers as when that information stays inside Europe.

It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but it is an ideologically different take on privacy.

The Cost of Connectivity? Definitely more in the US

New America has released their (sometimes) annual report on the cost of broadband. They look at a number of factors but it’s their statement on affordability in the US is most sobering…

Based on our dataset, the most affordable average monthly prices are in Asian and European cities. Just three U.S. cities rank in the top half of cities when sorted by average monthly costs. The most affordable U.S. city—Ammon, Idaho—ranks seventh. The overwhelming majority of the U.S. cities in our dataset rank in the bottom half for average monthly costs. Internet policy scholar Jonathan Sallet recommends that $10 per month is an affordable benchmark for low-income households. Only six plans in our U.S. dataset meet this $10 benchmark at any speed tier (only four meet Sallet’s 50/50 Mbps recommendation), and all six are offered in Ammon. Out of 290 plans in our U.S. dataset, 118 have advertised initial promotional prices of $50 and under—and only 64 of these plans advertise speeds that meet the current FCC minimum definition for broadband. In addition, some ISPs have abandoned low-income neighborhoods in a form of “digital redlining.” Moreover, COVID-19 has exacerbated a longstanding digital divide that disproportionately affects low-income households and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. As jobs and incomes are lost, this affordability crisis is poised to worsen. Congress and the FCC must take immediate action to stop digital redlining and help more people get online.

A call in US Senate to fund library hotspots for check out

The Washington Times reports…

A bipartisan pair of senators has called for a two-year, $160 million pilot program to purchase and distribute Internet-connected devices to libraries in low-income and rural areas.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin call their proposal the Hotspots and Online Technology and Services Procurement for our Tribes and States Act, or the HOTSPOTS Act. They said the funding would help rural and low-income residents with the growing shift toward online services in the country.

Collins said residents around the country have had to move everything from workplaces to health care to online models due to the coronavirus pandemic. That puts people who don’t have reliable broadband at home at a disadvantage, she said.

That would two years to find ways to extend adequate broadband to rural locations and make it affordable.

WiFi is essential to farmers and farmworkers – seasonal and all-season

The Daily Yonder reports…

Long before the annual fruit harvest began this year, local public health officials and community leaders were discussing how to support farmworkers and their families during the quarantine. While most conversations focused on housing and personal protective equipment, it quickly became clear that the internet would be critical for two reasons: accessing non-emergency Telemedicine services and providing education for children of farmworkers unable to attend their usual in-person summer classes.

The communities they are talking about span Oregon and Washington – but the picture they paint could be in Minnesota with seasonal and year-round households in rural areas. The article talks about the surveying folks, finding solutions (from WiFi to satellite) but it’s the what, how and why they do it that seems apt for us in MN…

In an effort similar to Dave Anderson’s, the Columbia Gorge Education Service District sought funding through the Covid-19 Gorge Community Response Fund, a partnership between the United Way of the Columbia Gorge and the Healthy Gorge Initiative. The Fund awarded $10,000 to directly support summer education for children of farmworkers through 10 wifi hot spots and satellite phones for instructors in areas without cell service.

“Students haven’t had class for three to four months,” said Jonathan Fost, Migrant Education Program Director. “And now it’s such a bonus and such a bright spot in their day. It’s saying, ‘somebody cares, they’re caring about me and providing academics to me in a safe place, and in an open-air classroom.’”

According to Jonathan, students also access wifi for STEM-based activities that get them moving, exploring nature, and playing games.

While Telemedicine and education are arguably the most important wifi applications, farmworkers are also using the internet for other purposes. Thus far, news, science, and technology are the most frequently searched items.

Wifi interest among farmworkers was instantaneous, according to Hailey Elliott, owner of Tenneson Orchards. When she announced that wifi was available, workers immediately began requesting the password.

“It’s a really nice amenity to allow farmworkers to do things like online bill pay, sending emails to companies, and doing general business,” said Ashley Thompson.

While Covid-related challenges remain, expanding wifi access in orchards has alleviated some of the strain of the pandemic in the Columbia Gorge. The commitment by community organizations and local businesses to this effort also sends the message to farmworkers that they are valuable members of the community, and that their health and safety matter.

Land O’Lakes, Inc. and partners launch a growing coalition to close America’s digital divide

Land O’Lakes announces…

Today, 49 organizations spanning multiple industries announced they have joined forces as part of a new coalition dedicated to helping close America’s digital divide. Convened by farmer-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes, Inc., the newly formed American Connection Project Broadband Coalition (ACPBC or “Coalition”) will advocate for public and private sector investment to bring high-speed internet infrastructure to rural areas, in addition to advocating for policies and contributing their own resources to facilitate remote education, health and mental health  services, job opportunities and more, with the goal of connecting and lifting up all American communities through access to modern digital technology. The Coalition is continually adding members who share a desire to connect the country.
“All too often, farmers, business owners and even school children are disadvantaged by being on the wrong side of our country’s digital divide, a problem that has become more acute as we deal with the challenges of COVID-19,” said Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc. “But this isn’t just a rural issue. The American Connection Project Broadband Coalition represents a mix of companies from tech, health care, agriculture, and more who understand the ramifications of our country’s broken internet infrastructure and who have the willingness and expertise to help address this need. We are so grateful to our partners who recognize that connecting all Americans is possible and who are willing to work with us to close our country’s digital divide and invest in our collective future.”
Currently, the ACPBC is made up of 49 businesses, trade associations, non-profits, municipalities and academic institutions. In addition, the Coalition works with organizations like The Business Roundtable and individual political leaders to jointly advance their efforts in this area.
In conjunction with the launch of the Coalition, the companies today sent a letter to President Trump and congressional leadership urging them to “enact groundbreaking broadband connectivity legislation that includes the necessary resources to close the digital divide in this country.”
The Coalition recognizes that bridging America’s digital divide is a costly goal, but firmly believes it is worth the investment. The Federal Communications Commission estimated in 2017 that it would cost $80 billion to bring high-speed internet to remaining parts of the country that do not have access, while a more recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated it would require “between $130 and $150 billion over the next five to seven years, to adequately support rural coverage and 5G wireless densification.” However, a study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Technology Engagement Center has found that “better adoption of online tools and digital services by businesses outside metropolitan areas could create 360,000 new full-time jobs in rural areas and add more than $140 billion to the U.S. economy over the next three years.”
In the letter, the Coalition added, “As we look to help our nation recover from this global pandemic, let’s make a smart investment in the future competitiveness of this country and ensure that all Americans, in both rural and urban areas, are able to access the internet.”
The member companies have also collaborated in a number of ways prior to launch. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Land O’Lakes, Inc. and other partners have established free, guest Wi-Fi access points outside Land O’Lakes’ business locations in more than 150 communities. For example, Microsoft donated hotspot boosters to further the reach of the guest Wi-Fi, so that area residents could safely conduct business, communicate with family and friends, and carry out other daily activities online while staying socially distanced in their cars.
In April, the Coalition sent a letter to all 50 U.S. governors, asking for their support of the initiative and inviting them to leverage their own resources to add more Wi-Fi hotspot locations around their states. In addition, the Coalition asked states to support policies that would make telemedicine more accessible and affordable and urged their support of robust state and federal infrastructure investments to solve rural internet connectivity challenges. Separately, the Coalition has worked closely with governors from 11 states who recently called on Congress to pass groundbreaking legislation to bridge the digital divide.
The Coalition plans to expand its membership and continue its advocacy work in the coming months. Many of the members have taken steps individually to help close the digital divide through donating funds and equipment, and part of the group’s activity will be to identify new ways to work together to maximize the reach of these actions and fill needs that have not previously been met.

Telehealth more important during pandemic as facilities close – increasing need for adequate/affordable broadband across MN

Medical Express recently posted an article that reports that telehealth is an important tool for rural hospitals for treating COVID-19

Telehealth connects patients with doctors by computer or telephone when in-person appointments are not possible or safe from disease transmission.

“It’s a relatively easy way to expand access,” Feyereisen said. “More health care access is good. It’s one of the goals of the system.”

Minnesota is one of the states the publication recognizes as a leader…

Puro and Feyereisen concluded that talking with doctors remotely is an important part of improving rural health care. The odds of hospitals to provide telehealth services vary, with Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas leading the way among the nine regions designated by the U.S. Census.

While Becker’s Hospital Review reports further telehealth accolades for Minnesota…

Duluth, Minn.-based Essentia Health this month received Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota’s Trailblazer Award for its efforts to improve virtual care access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Essentia Health launched its virtual visit program March 18, a month ahead of schedule, to accommodate patients during the healthcare crisis. The health system trained more than 1,200 primary care providers and physicians representing at least 60 specialties in how to conduct virtual visits.

“We knew we had to step in and fill a void that was quickly created by our patients not being able to come to see us,” Essentia Health CEO David Herman, MD, said in a news release. “We literally went from zero virtual visits to about 3,000 virtual visits per day in less than three weeks.”

The numbers are as staggering as the need. And diagnosing and treating people without exposing them to coronarvirus or other germs is obviously beneficial – especially (as I always add) for the folks who have adequate broadband to take advantage of the opportunities.

For those folks on the opposite end of the digital divide this pandemic has been hard with limited access to school work, economic opportunities and healthcare. It has meant sitting in library parking lots using their wi-fi, missing opportunities and longer drives to healthcare facilities.

And those drive just got longer as HealthPartners just announced that 7 of their clinics will not be reopening…

– Central Minnesota Clinics, St. Cloud.

– Highland Park Clinic, St. Paul.

– Park Nicollet Shorewood Clinic, Cottage Grove.

– Regions Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, St. Paul.

– Regions Maplewood Behavioral Health Clinic.

– Riverside Clinic, Minneapolis.

– Stillwater Medical Group, Mahtomedi.

– Westfields HealthStation, New Richmond, Wisconsin.

HealthPartners says the pandemic has caused it rethink its business and where it needs physical locations, which comes amid a major increase in telehealth video visits as a result of the pandemic.

It really pushes the need to get everyone connected as it becomes a great healthcare concern. In rural areas, that often means making it available; in urban areas it means making it affordable!

 

Closing the digital divide for distance education estimated cost: $6-12 billion

Common Sense recently published a report on what it would take to close the digital divide in the age of distance learning

With the prospect of another distance learning school year on the horizon due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new analysis released today finds that a full 15 to 16 million public school students across the United States live in households without adequate internet access or computing devices to facilitate distance learning. The analysis, from Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group, also finds that almost 10% of public school teachers (300,000 to 400,000) are also caught in the gap, affecting their ability to run remote classes. The 32-page report, Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning, fixes a one-year price tag of at least $6 billion and as much as $11 billion to connect all kids at home, and an additional $1 billion to close the divide for teachers.

I’m more of a writer than a mathematician but that looks like $732 per unserved student and teacher. (That’s looking at highest estimate for cost and number of disconnected.) That doesn’t feel like such a high number – especially when you know that a house with broadband reaps an average ANNUAL economic benefit of $1850 – and that’s a pre-COVID number. Broadband is an investment is education and economic development. And especially during the pandemic, it can be a literal lifesaver to compromised patients who need healthcare services.

The report also pulls data out by state. Here’s how Minnestoa shows up:

  • Students without adequate high-speed connection 249,845
  • % Students without adequate high-speed connection 28%
  • Students without devices 162,607
  • % Students without devices 18%
  • Teachers without adequate high-speed connection 6,379
  • % Teachers without adequate high-speed connection 11%
  • Teachers without devices 1,046
  • % Teachers without devices 2%

The speed they are looking at for unserved is 25/3, which is the 2022 speed goal in Minnesota. In April, the Office of Broadband Development said 92.19 of Minnesota households were served – leaving 7.81 unserved.

So what’s the difference in these numbers? OBD is looking at available access only, which means if a household is in a served area. Not whether they get it or not, just if they could. Common Sense is looking at whether a household subscribes and do they have devices available to use it. Common Sense is looking at students and teachers access, not households. So the numbers tell slightly difference stories. Knowing the difference I think helps to frame the discussion of digital equity.

Broadband funding passing in US House – now to the Senate

NDIA (National Digitial Inclusion Alliance) reports…

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Moving Forward Act” (HR 2), a $1.5 trillion infrastructure funding bill that includes $8.8 billion for a new “broadband benefit” program to help low-income households and recently laid-off consumers pay for internet connections, as well as $1.3 billion in funding for state and community digital inclusion initiatives.

NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer enthusiastically welcomed the House vote. “This is an historic moment for digital inclusion practitioners and advocates, as well as for millions of urban and rural Americans who remain excluded from mainstream digital connection,” Siefer commented.

Here’s what it means…

HR 2, approved by a 233-188 vote cast along mostly party lines, incorporates all the provisions of the $100 billion “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act”, introduced on June 24 by South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn and more than two dozen colleagues.  Those provisions include:

  • $8.8 billion for a new “broadband benefit” program that would reimburse internet providers for discounts provided to low-income households (eligible for Lifeline, qualified for federal school lunch subsidies, or receiving Pell Grants) and consumers who are recently unemployed. Bills for normal home internet service could be subsidized as much as $50 a month ($75 for households on tribal lands.)
  • $1.3 billion over five years for state and community digital inclusion initiatives. These include the State Digital Equity Capacity Program, an annual grant program for states to create and implement comprehensive digital equity plans to help close gaps in broadband adoption and digital skill; and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program to further support these efforts through digital inclusion projects undertaken by local communities. (This is mostly the contents of the Digital Equity Act.)
  • $85 billion in grant and loan funding for broadband infrastructure deployments that bring at least 100/100 Mbps access to areas where those speeds are unavailable. Funded projects must offer affordable rate tiers.
  • $5 billion to support local schools’ efforts to invest in home connectivity for students and staff.
  • Federal protection against state restrictions for communities seeking to build their own broadband networks.
  • A requirement for the FCC to start collecting and publishing residential internet price information from all broadband providers.

Next step – the Senate, where Senators Klobuchar and Clyburn introduced The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act earlier today. It will invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities.

 

HBC Announces Extension of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge

The latest from HBC...

Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc. (HBC) is taking additional measures to protect customers, from losing essential broadband services, by extending the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge.
“Many of our customers continue to endure significant financial challenges because of COVID-19,” HBC President Dan Pecarina said. “HBC understands that and is
committed to helping our most financially vulnerable customers keep their services which have become even more essential in this pandemic environment because of online learning and working from home.”
Extension of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge means:
-Free broadband service to qualified low-income ouseholds. Eligible households must have school-aged children enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program or the
Telephone Assistance Plan (TAP).
-Temporarily suspending disconnections of service due to failure to pay and waiving late fees for customers.
-Maintaining free access to HBC Community Wi-Fi hotspots.
Since signing the initial FCC pledge in March, HBC has worked with 12 school districts across all its service communities to make sure each student, their families, and
teachers would have access to broadband for both education and working from home through its wired and wireless networks. HBC continues to make all its community WiFi access points available free of charge.
Throughout this pandemic, HBC Installation Technicians have been safely connecting and servicing customers while following strict safety protocols. All employees must pass a daily health screening which includes temperature checks, before being allowed to serve customers. All local HBC offices are open by appointment only with customers
being asked to answer several health-related questions prior to scheduling any appointment. These protocols will remain in place to protect our customers and employees and to help stop the spread of COVID-19. HBC is proud to report that these precautions have kept all employees healthy and virus free.
According to Pecarina, HBC will continue to implement these safety measures as long as they are needed.
“It is important that we do everything thing we can to be able to safely serve our customers and continue to provide them with the tools they need to be successful in both work and school,” Pecarina said. “HBC is committed to providing access to technology and high-speed broadband connectivity to make available learning resources required by families with school-aged children.”
HBC has also worked with local and area schools to provide live coverage of socially distanced graduation ceremonies allowing distant family members to celebrate this milestone event. In addition to being broadcast live on HBC Channel 25, ceremonies are also live streamed around the world where nearly 1,000 households have viewed these broadcasts.

Governor Walz announces Public-Private Partnership to Support Technology Needs of Minnesota Students

Excited to share the news…

Today, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan announced a public-private partnership of philanthropic and business leaders from across Minnesota that aims to meet the technology and connectivity needs of families with school-aged children. Partnership for a ConnectedMN is led by Best Buy, Comcast, Blandin Foundation, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota Business Partnership, in collaboration with the State of Minnesota.

Before the start of the upcoming school year, ConnectedMN’s goal is to bring technology and internet access to students across the state, especially communities most in need, including Indigenous students and students of color, students from low-income families, and families residing in rural Minnesota.

“I’m grateful to see Minnesota companies step up and help meet the needs of students,” said Governor Walz. “We need to work together — as individuals, state agencies, private companies, and schools — to face the opportunity gap and make sure that Minnesota is the best state for each and every child to grow up and receive the best education possible.”

“As the parent of a seven-year old, we endured our share of triumphs and challenges with distance learning this past spring,” said Lieutenant Governor Flanagan. “Those challenges are exacerbated for low-income families, Indigenous families and families of color, and families in Greater Minnesota who may not have access to technology that meets their work and learning needs. Whatever school looks like this fall, this partnership will help us fill in the gaps.”

“As someone who grew up in rural Minnesota in a family without many resources, I am aware of how important this effort is. Without it, far too many of our state’s students will be left behind as we face an uncertain school year, more reliant than ever on the tools and resources necessary to learn remotely,” said Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy. “As a founding partner, we are pleased to work with the Governor and other organizations to truly ‘connect Minnesota’ and I call upon my fellow CEOs to engage however they and their business are able.”

“It is vital that all Americans are connected to the internet—for education, for work, and for personal health reasons, but unfortunately, many low-income families who live in our service areas don’t have internet at home and that’s where we can help,” said J.D. Keller, regional senior vice president, Comcast Twin Cities. “We are proud to be a founding partner of ConnectedMN knowing we can help through our Internet Essentials program, which is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program for low-income Americans.”

“Access denied is opportunity denied,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation. “It will require partnership to make sure that every student, in every corner of every county, has access to the knowledge, learning and services for their success.”

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) estimates that at least 25,000 Minnesota students lack the technology and high-speed internet access essential for academic learning, out-of-school activities and critical services such as telehealth. These students are disproportionately students of color, Indigenous students, and low-income students. ConnectedMN aims to supply these students with technology before the start of the upcoming school year. In addition, the partnership will work to create solutions to the lack of reliable, affordable broadband access in communities around the state, so students have the tools necessary to connect and engage around school, physical and mental health, and future career pathways.

Business and philanthropic leaders have collectively raised $1.65 million to date. In addition to the founding partners of the initiative, other organizations contributing include Accenture, Andersen Corporation, Bush Foundation, Ecolab, EY, Land O’Lakes, Minneapolis Foundation, Protolabs Foundation, Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, Securian Financial, SPS Commerce Foundation, and Xcel Energy. These organizations will provide financial support and resources to this important initiative, including in-kind products, services or other support (e.g., hotspots, devices, connectivity, technical assistance).

The Governor and Lieutenant Governor have prioritized the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) dollars to meet technology and connectivity challenges, with approximately $14 million earmarked for districts to prioritize devices and connectivity. MDE has prioritized distributions of GEER and the discretionary Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund dollars to districts with the highest numbers of students receiving special education, students of color, homeless students, English language learners, and students who qualify for free-and reduced-price meals. Districts applying for these funds should visit MDE’s website .

Partnership for a ConnectedMN’s application process will be available later in July. The Governor and State do not have a role in fundraising or directing funds for the Partnership for a ConnectedMN. More information on ConnectedMN can be found at www.connectedmn.us .

What happens when the COVID-inspired free broadband expires?

The (Chicago) Daily Herald reports…

Thousands of people in communities across the country are about to grapple with a similar dilemma. Earlier this year, to help students and teachers finish the disrupted school year online, Charter, Comcast, AT&T and others began providing free internet. They also pledged not to cut off service or charge late fees to customers struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Now, several of those programs are set to end in the coming weeks — a looming expiration that, if left unaddressed, threatens to unravel a precarious thread of the social safety net at a particularly difficult time for many American families. Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit focused on increasing internet adoption, said that although the school year is winding down, the need for access to the web — and the challenge of affording it — have not gone away.

The industry’s charitable internet programs have been helpful, said Siefer, but ultimately amounted to a temporary “Band-Aid” on the still-gaping digital divide. “We had this problem pre-covid,” Siefer said. “All covid did was draw attention to it because of online learning. We have to come up with a substantial, long-term solution.”

They outline the number of families taking advantage of the free programs…

Charter said it expects to provide free internet to more than 400,000 students, teachers and their families. A Comcast spokesman said the company signed up 32,000 families for a free version of its low-cost service, known as Internet Essentials, at the end of March, just a few weeks after the lockdowns began. An AT&T spokeswoman said more than 156,000 customers have received financial assistance to stay connected to the company’s wireless, broadband and video services.

Several providers are extending the option…

Last week, Comcast announced it will be continuing its 60-day free internet offer through the end of the year. AT&T plans to extend free unlimited wireless internet for students until late August if schools request it by June 21. Similar free-internet offers from Charter and Altice USA Inc., another cable provider, are set to expire June 30. Cox’s program is ending on July 15.

The generosity of the providers has been great, but it seems like we need a national policy to ensure consistency and predictability for customers and reduce the responsibility for providers. The debate about whether broadband is a utility has ended with the pandemic. As a nation, we can’t afford to have the cost of broadband be the reason kids can’t get to class, older folks can get to the doctor and people qualify for fewer jobs. Helping someone get broadband is like helping them get a fishing pole – it pays off in greater self-sufficiency.

Does federal broadband funding discriminate against black Americans and people of color?

The NDIA recently released a report outlining how current broadband funding channels more funding to white, rural communities that urban dwellers of color…

The federal government’s existing broadband programs target tens of billions of dollars to expand broadband availability for residents of “unserved and underserved” rural areas, while studiously ignoring tens of millions of urban Americans who still lack high-speed internet service.

This policy framework is counterproductive for reducing the nation’s overall digital divide. It is also structurally racist, discriminating against unconnected Black Americans and other communities of color.

We present data below showing that:

  • most Americans who have a chance of benefiting from federal spending on rural broadband deployment subsidies are non-Hispanic white
  • Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons other than network availability are disproportionately people of color.

Conscious or not, the objective effect of current policy is that broadband investment – not just by the FCC and USDA, but by some states as well – is directed mostly to assisting non-Hispanic rural white people to get better internet connections.

Continued federal policies which direct federal “digital divide” spending only to rural infrastructure, and not to broader digital inclusion programs for both urban and rural residents:

  • are inequitable to communities of color, and

  • will help perpetuate the digital exclusion of those communities’ members from employment opportunities, education, healthcare services, financial and commercial access, and social and civic participation.

US Chamber Recommendations for Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America – are they long term?

The US Chamber has released 9 principles to close the digital divide. Well, they say there are 9 I can only see 8…

Broadband Funding Principles

  1. Technology Neutrality: Allow all technologies [and providers] to compete for funds to serve truly unserved areas, prohibit duplicative funding, and establish funding programs without existing Section 254 limitations, such as existing ETC requirements.
  2. Collocation: Support collocation by enabling funds to be used for leasing tower space in addition to capital expenditures.
  3. Speed to Market: In a COVID environment, speed matters and funding should be distributed to those who can stand up broadband network quickly.

Homework Gap Principles

  1. Funding Source: Fund out of general appropriations, not universal service contributions.
  2. Program Design: A separate program from E-rate, but to the extent FCC finds useful it can borrow E-rate rules.
  3. Targeted and Temporary: The program should last for only the duration of the national emergency and be targeted to low-income households without a home broadband connection or in jeopardy of losing their broadband connection, including related equipment and/or a computer (laptop, tablet, or desktop computer).
  4. Technology Neutrality: Allow any technology.
  5. Eligibility: Limited to; 1) connectivity (wired or wireless), 2) service equipment (e.g. modems, routers, hotspots), and 3) devices (e.g. tablets/computers/smartphones).

There are a few things here that make me nervous, such as the speed to market and the targeted and temporary principle. I’ve mentioned before I am nervous about this big investment in the short term. The need for broadband will not go away. We can’t lose focus on that. COVID19 is likely to have some sort of impact on school through 2021 – so even the short term needs to be longer term.

But beyond the pandemic, the need to interact online is accelerating during the pandemic and for many more tasks, going online will become the regular or the only way in the future. So closing the divide temporarily will leave part of the population even farther behind when the stopgaps are removed.

Also limiting eligibility to connectivity and devices is only supporting two legs of what is often called the three-legged stool of digital equity. We need to include training and the human side of support to increase use to improve use. The good news is that can be a temporary investment as people who are trained can train others. Training is a renewable resource!

M Health Fairview expands telemedicine to homeless shelter

Becker’s Hospital Review reports…

Minneapolis-based M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center will expand its telemedicine hub pilot to local homeless shelter for patients who need mental health and addiction therapy, Pioneer Press reports.

M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., began piloting the telemedicine hubs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The private private rooms, which physicians refer to as “phone booths,” are equipped with computer screens and telehealth provider Amwell’s virtual communications software, which allow patients to have private conferences with psychiatrists, drug counselors and other professionals at the hospital.

“We realized when COVID hit that not all of our patients have the access to be able to use a smartphone or computer, or maybe they don’t have a safe place in their home to be able to talk privately,” said Rich Levine, MD, a psychiatrist and family medicine provider who helped launch the effort. “That brought up the idea of a telemedicine hub, a location where they could go to a private room or have virtual visits with a provider to be able to get care.”

The new telemedicine hub at Catholic Charities’ Opportunity Center will be the health system’s third. The pilot has drawn a handful of patients, and M Health Fairview may expand to more hospital locations, according to the report.