EVENT Dec 13: New Federal Investments in Digital Equity: What Skills Advocates Need to Know

It’s a quick but helpful webinar federal funding for digital equity…

New Federal Investments in Digital Equity: What Skills Advocates Need to Know

Monday, December 13, 2021

4:00-4:30 Eastern Time
Over the past 18 months, National Skills Coalition members have worked hard to educate policymakers on the need to invest in digital skills. Our Digital Equity @ Work campaign has highlighted the importance of holistic digital inclusion investments that help workers not only access the broadband and devices they need, but also to pursue high-quality upskilling and reskilling opportunities.

Now it’s time to celebrate an important victory: The infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November 2021 includes historic, first-of-its-kind funding for digital inclusion, and it’s in part thanks to the advocacy of our network! States will be receiving $2.75 billion in funding under the Digital Equity Act. In this quick 30-minute webinar, you’ll learn about the implications of this new legislation for your state, find out what more needs to be done to achieve digital equity for all workers, and get your top questions answered. You’ll also get a sneak peek at the next chapter of the federal digital equity conversation — coming at the February 2022 Skills Summit. Register now!

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Report

The folks who manage Universal Service and the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) programs just published a report on EBB, the fund established during the COVID pandemic to subsidize broadband access to make it more affordable to households that needed that help. In Minnesota, 76,301 households have signed up for EBB.

Here are some of the other stats…

To close the digital gap, we need a connectivity baseline, better outreach and continued funding

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society carefully maps out their reasoning for recommending that policymakers keep the following in mind when using the newfound influx of funds to help close the digital gap caused by affordability issues…

To ensure that the market for universal connectivity is well-functioning, policymakers should:

  • Establish a “connectivity baseline” for Lifeline: Having both wireline and wireless data is the norm for a majority of Americans and that is the goal on which policymakers should set their sights. Policymakers should also consider service speeds for plans offered in connection with the Affordable Connectivity Program. Low-income households should not have internet speeds that do not support applications necessary for working from home, distance education or telehealth.
  • Fund outreach and communications: Survey data shows that just 23% of lower-income Americans (as of July 2021) were aware of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, underscoring the need for outreach. The newly passed infrastructure bill allows the FCC to conduct such outreach and the Build Back Better spending bill would allocate $100 million for outreach efforts through the FCC.
  • Provide a reliable funding stream: The current contribution method for the Universal Service Fund is strained. By law, there must be specific, predictable and sufficient Federal and State mechanisms to preserve and advance universal service including Lifeline. The infrastructure bill requires that the FCC develop a plan to reform universal service, that does not diminish its goals while possibly asking Congress to expand them. Funding these goals must be part of this plan.

Also something they mention – we need to make it easy for folks to access the funds they need. I just got a booster shot, an hour ago, because I happened to be at the Mall of America walking with my dad and I noticed they had walk-up shots. This was after my mom spent 30 minutes trying to get me an appointment a national pharmacy; they asked one too many questions and she timed out.

I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise the deluge of information on commercial websites and dearth of info on government/community sites combined with everyone’s horror stories on social media clouds ability to see what we need – and getting a shot is easy compared to choosing a broadband solution. We can’t let the paperwork be the barrier.

Federal funding will help MN students get online

KSNI radio reports

Marc Johnson is the executive director of the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative and sits on the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. He says the new funding, coupled with the $70 million in broadband spending already approved by the state this year, will be a welcome shot in the arm for rural students. He says during distance learning, getting lesson plans to students who didn’t have good internet access was extremely inefficient. Schools had to send work “back and forth on buses, you know, to kids so that they could paper copies of things.”

Member school districts of the cooperative are Braham, Cambridge-Isanti, Chisago Lakes, East Central, Hinckley-Finlayson, Milaca, Mora, North Branch, Ogilvie, Pine City, Princeton, Rush City, Pine Technical College, St. Francis, and associate member Elk River.

He says the broadband relief takes financial pressure off school districts and families as they “won’t have to spend the money that they’re spending right now on all of these measures to help families that don’t have access.”

MN Broadband Task Force asks Governor Walz to expedite and increase request for federal funds for broadband

The MN Broadband Task Force sent a letter to Governor Walz, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, Senator Erin Murphy, and Representative Debra Kiel…

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act funding that Minnesota is slated to receive, there is a Sec. 604
Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund that is intended to be used “to carry out critical capital projects directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).” The U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury), which is charged with administering this fund, notes on its website that a
purpose of this funding is to “contribute to the Administration’s goal of providing every American with
the modern infrastructure necessary to access critical services, including a high-quality and affordable
broadband internet connection.”
In August 2021, Treasury identified the amount of Sec. 604 funding that would be allocated to each state; Minnesota’s allocation is $180,702,620. In September 2021, Treasury issued guidance as to how the Capital Projects Fund dollars may be used and broadband infrastructure projects were identified as a presumptively eligible use.
In the 2021 Minnesota legislative session, language was passed to fund the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant program with $70 million over the biennium and with that funding coming from the Capital Projects Fund. This decision was made prior to either information being released regarding Minnesota’s total allocation or guidance on allowed uses.
Minnesota is required to apply for this funding by December 27, 2021 and once its application is
approved and an agreement signed with Treasury, the state must submit a Grant Plan and a Program Plan(s) outlining how it intends to use the state’s allocation of $180,702,620. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband would urge the state to submit its application as soon as possible and once an agreement is in place, file a Grant Plan and Program Plan to use all the funding for the state’s Border-to-Border
Broadband Infrastructure grant program. With prompt approval by Treasury, the Office of Broadband
Development could then open a grant window and approve projects in time to be built, or at least started, during the 2022 construction season. As you are aware, Minnesota’s construction season is shortened due to weather and it is imperative to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.
The guidance issued by Treasury indicates that any home or business in Minnesota that does not have a reliable, wireline broadband service of at least 100Mbps download and 20Mbps upload is eligible for this funding. The latest data available shows that there are at least 240,000 households in Minnesota without a broadband connection meeting those speeds. Assuming an average cost of $5,527 per location to deliver a broadband service (taken from the Task Force’s 2020 annual report), deploying service to those 240,000 households would require funding of over $1.3 billion. Even assuming the grant portion for that funding is capped at 50 percent as it is under current state law for the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program, funding of $663 million would still be necessary.
While Minnesota has been a leader amongst the states with its Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program having awarded $126.2 million to reach approximately 57,000 locations with broadband service between 2014 and 2020, the state is falling behind. In March 2021, Wisconsin awarded over $24.8 million for 58 projects, in October 2021 Wisconsin awarded $100 million to 83 projects and in early November announced that the next grant window to award another $100 million will open December 1, 2021. In October 2021, Iowa announced that it would make available another $200 million for broadband grants in addition to the $100 million in grants announced in September 2021 as part of its Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program. A few other examples include Missouri announcing it will use at least $400 million for broadband infrastructure; Ohio is using $250
million to improve high speed internet service; Texas Governor Abbott just signed a bill allocating $500
million for broadband infrastructure; and Virginia has plans to use $700 million to provide universal
broadband by 2024.
The pandemic has made clear the need for fast, reliable broadband service to all homes and businesses in the state. Federal funding is available to get that infrastructure deployed. Broadband is the foundational element that is a force multiplier for all other issues. We need it to better address critical challenges and build economic opportunity, competitiveness, and prosperity. The state has in place a
nationally recognized broadband office and grant program. All that is needed is for the Governor and
the Legislature to direct the available federal funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program so that the real work of building out the infrastructure to meet the state’s broadband
goals can be achieved. The time is now to invest in our communities.
Thank you for your prompt consideration of this request.
Sincerely,
Teddy Bekele
Chair, Governor’s Broadband Task Force

Heavy lobbying anticipated as agencies figure out infrastructure bill

The Hill reports…

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is enshrined into law, but the lobbying over its implementation is just getting started.

Specifics on broadband…

Meanwhile, internet service providers (ISPs) are expected to aggressively lobby the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as it crafts new internet rules under the infrastructure bill’s $65 billion broadband expansion plan.

The relatively tiny agency has six months to develop a proposal that will require recipients of federal broadband funding to provide a low-cost broadband option and encourage states to explore alternatives to dominant ISPs such as coops, nonprofits and municipalities.

The NTIA will have the final say as to what kinds of speeds and prices providers must offer. An aggressive broadband plan could hurt the bottom line of ISPs that have long operated in underserved communities without any competition.

“The language in the legislation offers a baseline of requirements that need to be met, and it provides some flexibility to the agencies to interpret just how far they can go,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that advocates for increased access to affordable high-speed internet.

“Competition, affordability, speed, reliability, resiliency — with all of those things there is some flexibility, and ISPs would like to keep them at a minimum level,” he added.

States will play a key major role in implementing the broadband rules. That’s another lobbying avenue for ISPs, which successfully pushed more than a dozen states to adopt rules limiting or blocking municipal broadband networks.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), meanwhile, is tasked with creating regulations requiring ISPs to disclose their network performance, data collection and other key factors to customers. The FCC must also craft rules that prevent ISPs from discriminating on customers based on the a region’s income or demographic characteristics.

Senator Klobuchar on broadband upgrades and infrastructure bill

Alexandria Echo Press posts a commentary from Senator Klobuchar on the Infrastructure bill…

But this month, with the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we addressed these urgent needs by investing in our nation’s infrastructure. With 19 of my Republican Senate colleagues — including our neighbors Senators Hoeven and Cramer of North Dakota — we finally came together across party lines to pass a bill to fix our crumbling infrastructure and expand broadband access to every corner of Minnesota.

And more…

This is all important, but competing in the 21st century isn’t just about roads, bridges, and ports — it’s also about making sure all Americans can access the internet, no matter their zip code. As co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, I fought to strengthen our broadband infrastructure to make it possible for families across the country to study, work, and connect with loved ones online.

This is especially significant in rural Minnesota, where an estimated 16 percent of households lack broadband at baseline speeds. Because of this federal funding, the high school student in Otter Tail County will no longer need to drive 40 minutes from home to a liquor store parking lot to find adequate wi-fi to take her online biology quizzes. It will also enable doctors in rural areas to provide telehealth services to patients who don’t otherwise have access to quality, affordable care.

As more of our farmers and ranchers get reliable broadband, they will be able to take advantage of precision technology that can monitor field conditions like soil health and crop growth and log weather. Increased access to high-speed internet will also make it possible for tractors with wireless connections to send real-time data back to farms, helping farmers control pests and manage runoff. This not only supports our local farms but also protects our nation’s food supply.

Federal funding should boost Minnesota’s infrastructure report card grade

Detroit Lakes Tribune Editorial Board says…

Minnesota got an overall grade of C on its most recent infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which may not sound so bad, but that includes a D-plus on its roads, Cs or C-minuses on its bridges, transit, dams, drinking water and energy, and a B only in aviation.

Here’s what they say about broadband…

Broadband: Minnesota will get about $100 million to widen broadband coverage across the state, including coverage for the 83,000, or so, Minnesotans who now lack it. And more than a million Minnesotans will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will help low-income families afford internet access.

Senator Klobuchar Call with Benton, Chisago, Isanti County Officials on how Infrastructure Bill will Expand Rural Broadband: Notes and archive

Here’s the intro…

On Monday, November 22, at 2:00pm CT, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, will hold a call with community broadband advocates from Benton, Chisago, and Isanti Counties to discuss how the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill will help expand broadband to rural Minnesota communities.

Klobuchar will be joined by Chisago Lakes Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Katie Malchow, Isanti County Administrator Julie Lines, and Benton County Commissioner Jared Gapinski, as well as Mary Magnuson, a broadband program administrator at the Blandin Foundation.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill included the largest investment our country has ever made in broadband infrastructure, with many provisions based on Klobuchar’s legislation with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) to help bring high-speed internet to every corner of the country.

And my notes, which are bulleted to keep up. From Sen Klobuchar:

  • Broadband coverage seems random at times
  • Blandin was way ahead of its time in recognizing broadband issues in rural Minnesota and creating solutions
  • Access to email isn’t enough anymore; students need to be able to take tests remotely and corporate/healthcare workers need to be able to consult remotely
  • Problems: mapping, giving money to providers that have a history of not meeting needs
  • Solutions: open access to funds to all providers and get money back from providers who don’t meet needs
  • Make broadband affordable – average monthly cost in MN is $68/month

From Katie Malchow

  • Broadband isn’t about politics, it’s about getting people connected
  • We started out broadband journey working with Blandin Foundation
  • We surveyed residents and found a disconnect between what providers said they offered and what consumers saw at home
  • Not all providers are created equal and some have not met the needs of MN residents for a while now. Maybe it’s time to ask folks on the frontlines who they would choose.
  • This is going to be a one-time investment, it’s spend it wisely.

From Jared Gapinski

  • Started talking about broadband as community in Jan 2020 (he’s new to county commission) in Jan 2021 when they realized they have 600-700 hotspots in student home, which meant that many households were un/underserved
  • They want to do a middle mile fiber project to get providers into the area
  • He pays for 100/100 Mbps connection – but it tests at 30/11
  • The community is stuck in RDOF/LTD limbo – waiting to hear from FCC is LTD got the contract
  • We need time to plan and educate to make sure we spend money wisely.

From Julia Lines

  • Broadband coverage is good in the cities but bad in the land between
  • East Central Energy is (finally) talking to them about providing broadband
  • The boundaries of cities/towns/counties are getting in our way
  • MidCo is helping in the cities but not rural areas
  • If we want people to relocate from the Cities to rural areas, we need to provide metro-quality broadband

From Mary Magnuson

  • We worry about the Swiss cheese effect that leaves certain areas unserved and as others become better served those areas fall farther and farther behind
  • RAMS is now hosting the MN state broadband speed test – available to everyone
  • Local places need to have local buy in – especially when it comes to choosing providers in their communities

We need to work on access and adoption to close digital divide

Governing reports on lessons learned during the pandemic and how we can help with the recently promised federal funding…

Now, with the economy seemingly on the rebound from the most severe economic effects of the pandemic, it’s easy to assume that the overlapping interest will grow between those who have long advocated for increased broadband access and those newer to the issue — and that this increased access will create even more economic growth. The Richmond Federal Reserve found that “the long-run benefits of broadband access could grow exponentially, given the potential for innovation and productivity gains it provides.” A Purdue University study estimated that for every dollar invested in broadband deployment and adoption in Indiana, nearly four dollars went back into the state’s economy.
But these outcomes aren’t guaranteed. In fact, one in three workers still lack foundational digital skills: Nearly 90 percent of executives and managers report that they see employee skills gaps now or expect them in the next five years, but only about one-third of their organizations have active efforts to retrain employees. And a recent McKinsey study found that the pandemic opened the door to fundamental shifts in the health-care marketplace — with up to $250 billion of U.S. health-care spending potentially moving to a form of virtual care — but warned that it’s “not a foregone conclusion” that the shifts will happen without the industry changing its methods of providing care.
One thing is certain: The shifts — whether training clinicians on new technology, wiring households to fiber or retraining workers — won’t happen without partnerships. That’s why the timing of the state five-year action plans is so critical. Research from The Pew Charitable Trusts has found that states have already used planning processes to evaluate need, drive stakeholder engagement and map out a plan for achieving broadband expansion goals.

Now is the time for businesses, research organizations, community partners and others to participate in the continuing state planning efforts, helping to shape state strategies for using federal dollars and developing plans that meet the needs of the state and its communities in ways such as sharing information on skills gaps in the labor force, identifying evidence-based solutions for increasing telehealth usage, or elevating how living on a fixed income may influence aging Americans’ ability to access digital resources.

Minnesota is in a strong position but we need to be working together.

MN Hospitals receive funding from FCC for telehealth

Fox9 reports

St. Paul’s Regions Hospital is receiving $1 million of federal funding for telehealth services.

The funding comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith announced Thursday. It will be used to buy a remote patient care telehealth platform.

“The pandemic has shown us how telehealth services have been a lifeline for patients across Minnesota who may otherwise not be able to access the health care they need,” said Smith in the press release. “This funding will help Regions Hospital continue to use telehealth to make health care accessible to patients who are unable to get services in person.”

Along with the $1 million for Regions Hospital, Klobuchar and Smith secured funding for the expansion of telehealth services for these health providers in Minnesota:

  • $21,533 for Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis
  • $498,818 for Minnesota Community Care in St. Paul
  • $234,352 for CentraCare Health System, the largest provider for rural Minnesota communities
  • $120,305 for Nett Lake Health Services in northern Minnesota
  • $981,204 for Essentia Health in Duluth

The funds will allow providers to expand patient access by purchasing more telehealth equipment like laptops and monitoring devices, as well as increase wireless broadband coverage at several clinics.

Aitkin County gets $4.8 million block grant to expand broadband

Aitkin Age reports

Broadband and bridges topped the agenda of the Nov. 9 meeting of the Aitkin County Board.

Seven townships will benefit from a $4.8 million block grant to expand and improve broadband service. According to Mark Jeffers, economic development coordinator, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative plans to reach about 300 homes with internet access and the block grant will add 850 more homes. Aitkin County has been awarded $4,823,654 from the state of Minnesota, acting through the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Business and Community Development Division.

Townships that are targeted in the project are ldun, Pliny, Rice River, Seavey, White Pine, Williams and the city of McGrath. The project is required to be completed by April 2024.

Need a timeline or checklist to follow federal funding? Benton has one!

The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society has put together a nice list of funding expectations for 2022 and some forecasts for 2023-24. Here’s just the start…

Having waited patiently for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now people want to know what happens next—when will we all get our broadband? For now, the action shifts from Congress to key federal agencies that will implement the broadband provisions of the new law. Our friends at Brookings recently pointed out that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “represents a longer-term patient approach to rebuilding American competitiveness through infrastructure.” The law makes our biggest investment yet in closing the digital divide, an investment measured in years, not weeks—and an approach much more holistic than throwing money at a problem. In the short term, here are the agencies we expect to be busy making sure the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act lives up to its promise.

What To Expect This Year

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did not create the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, but the law instructs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce to allow grantees more time to deploy broadband networks and help more people get online. Congress also added $2 billion in funding to the program. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, created the grant program, setting aside $980 million for awards. In September, NTIA announced it had received more than 280 applications requesting over $5 billion in support. NTIA expects to complete its review, selection of successful applicants, and award processing by November 29, 2021. NTIA expects the earliest start date for awards to be December 13, 2021.

More on what Minnesota Delegates are saying about broadband and the Infrastructure bill

KEYC reports on what Senator Smith, Senator Klobuchar and Rep Hagedorn say…

“This bipartisan infrastructure bill is a big deal for Minnesota and communities all across Minnesota,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D – Minnesota).

Minnesota will receive $6.8 billion to make improvements in several key areas.

“Bridges and transit, it’s focused on building out broadband and it’s also focused on expanding the infrastructure for electric vehicles,” Smith listed.

Smith said it will also jumpstart the economy and create new jobs.

“It’s going to mean significant job opportunities for Minnesota too, especially in construction, especially folks that are interested in getting involved in helping to install those broadband networks,” Smith stated.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D – Minnesota) echoed Smith’s support of the bill.

“One of the reasons that we need this investment is that we don’t want to fall behind the rest of the world,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar’s top priority is to expand broadband internet access to all Minnesotans.

“There are surprising areas of Minnesota that still don’t have high-speed access. They may have internet, but it’s really slow, and this was my piece of the bill. I’m going to be able to make sure that the money goes out and to our state,” Klobuchar explained.

It’s a priority she shares with Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn (MN-01), even though he voted against the trillion-dollar plan.

WCCO reports on what the MN DFL says…

The Minnesota DFL Party released a statement saying Biden and Democrats are “delivering good-paying jobs and major infrastructure improvements for Minnesota.”

“The infrastructure bill President Biden signed today will create good-paying jobs across Minnesota by repairing our roads and bridges, replacing dangerous lead pipes, and delivering broadband to folks who’ve gone too long without it. This really is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America because many of the jobs created by this bill will not require a college degree,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

Fillmore County gets pitches from several broadband providers to invest ARPA funds

Fillmore County Journal reports

Three broadband providers outlined their proposals at the Fillmore County board’s November 9 meeting.

The county has received $4.2 million in American Recovery Act funding. Broadband providers are looking for a portion of this funding to support broadband projects within the county. Much of Fillmore County is still underserved.

Corey Hauer, LTD Broadband, said they have been a provider in the county for nine years. Fixed wireless is limited by hills and trees. He said we have been successful getting federal funding for fiber optic cable. Recovery Act funding could allow us to add additional unserved and underserved areas in one or two years. He estimated it takes $5,000 per household to bring fiber to areas with a low density of households. County dollars could allow them to build quicker in rural areas.

Jill Huffman, CEO of Harmony Telephone/MiBroadband, said they are a cooperative partnership dedicated to the expansion of broadband. There is a significant need in Fillmore County for residents and businesses. Build-outs in rural areas are expensive with return on investment being very long term. Step one is to build it, and then to support it and make it run smoothly. Northern and western portions of the county have very limited household density. She detailed two project areas that could be expanded with the support of state and county dollars. Huffman made it clear she welcomes ideas and is willing to consider all funding options to expand project areas. They are looking at all future funding options at federal, state, and local levels. She suggested projects could be completed in two construction seasons. Huffman expects it will cost more than $5,000 per household in low density areas. She concluded stressing that the installation of fiber will greatly impact the future economic growth in the county.

Zachary Raskovich, Mediacom Communications, has been with Mediacom for 15 years. The Mediacom system makes service available to 6,200 homes and businesses. Mediacom recently built out broadband in the city of Fountain, sharing project costs about 50-50 with a Minnesota DEED Grant. Mediacom is now constructing 4.3 miles of fiber to bring service to 246 homes and businesses in Wykoff. The total investment is 100% paid for by Mediacom and is expected to launch in March 2022. Mediacom is prepared to invest in the city of Ostrander to serve 155 homes and businesses, roughly 3.5 miles of construction. Raskovich requested a county grant in the amount of $50,000 (using American Recovery Act funds) for this project or roughly 16 percent of the total project cost.

AcenTek is expected to present their proposal at the next board meeting on November 23.