State speed goals and mapping are important – especially in Infrastructure Packages if states allocate funds

Fierce Telecom reports

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler argued incumbent cable operators are in prime position to scoop up federal broadband funding and have little to fear from potential overbuild activity.

Speaking about the looming congressional infrastructure package during a New Street Research event, Wheeler acknowledged each state will have discretion over how to allocate the broadband funding allotted to them, leaving some uncertainty about what their priorities in terms of speeds and access technology will be. However, he asserted incumbent operators are best positioned to help close the digital divide.

Wheeler said the idea that there are “massive areas of virgin unserved territory” in the U.S. is a “myth” and instead the reality on the ground is that there are “pockets of served areas surrounded by unserved.”

The article goes on to focus on the advantage that incumbents (or at least existing) providers will have. I am interested in the emphasis on state discretion. To highlight the highest need in the short term, to find the pockets of unserved areas, we need continual and granular mapping. To make the best investment for the long term, we need state speed goals that meet the needs of the next generation as well as for today.

Wabasha County to invest $1 million American Rescue Plan funds on broadband

Post Bulletin reports

Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante said the county board voted to commit $1 million of its $4.2 million American Rescue Plan money to expanding rural broadband access. While counties across the country still have questions on the federal guidelines for spending those funds – Plante said the county will hire a consultant to ensure it follows those guidelines to the letter once their hammered out – he envisions a grant program where internet providers can apply through a request for proposals, letting the county know what projects they prioritize in rural areas for their clients.

“Land-wise, a significant portion of the county is either unserved or underserved,” Plante said. “Primarily, we’re good in the cities. Population-wise, a substantial portion does have those internet capabilities. But businesses and families in the more rural areas need access to that.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, underserved areas are places with wireline broadband of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, but less than 100/20 Mbps. Unserved areas are places with no wireline broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps.

Not everyone pushed for broadband…

Not everyone was supportive of the plan to spent $1 million on rural broadband. Wabasha County Commissioner Brian Goihl said that between the lack of guidance from the federal government, the fact that the county has until Dec. 31, 2023, to put plans in place and another three years for project completion, and other pressing spending needs in the county, he’d prefer to spend the $1 million on other projects.

Recommendations for reforming universal service to keep it around longer!

SHLB Coalition, INCOMPAS, and NTCA, with support from Public Knowledge recently released a report on Reforming Universal Service Contributions Mechanism, which could also be called – how to save Universal Service and help keep more online at all incomes. They look at some options…

To ensure the enduring value of the USF program and America’s connectivity goals, we must have a smart and substantive conversation about the pro[1]gram’s future. At the request of INCOMPAS, NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, this report analyzes several options for FCC reform of the current status quo that have been pending in FCC rulemakings dating back to the early 2000’s: (1) modifying the current revenues-based contribution methodology to assess broadband internet access service revenues, (2) assessing connections, or (3) assessing telephone numbers.

They make recommendations…

Reforming the current revenues-based system to include broadband internet access service revenues is the preferred approach, both as a matter of policy and ease of implementation. Doing so would reduce the contribution factor to less than 4%.

First, it is appropriate as a matter of public policy to assess broadband internet access service revenues because all four programs in the USF promote universal broadband. The revenues from broadband internet access services that are increasingly used by Americans today should contribute to the USF programs that support the expansion of such services to all. This will better reflect the value of broadband internet access service in today’s marketplace for both consumers and businesses.

Second, broadband internet access service revenues are expected to be stable in the future, with the potential for some modest growth. This would stabilize the funding mechanism and stop the death spiral in the current USF contribution methodology.

Third, it is a solution that can be implemented more quickly than the alternatives. It would be far less uncertain than seeking congressional intervention and can be done by the FCC pursuant to its current statutory mandate. FCC reform of the USF contribution mechanism now is an important first step in stabilizing the current system.

Fourth, there is a significant advantage to retaining the current revenues-based system because most of the revenues reported to the FCC for USF purposes come from publicly traded companies that are audited and subject to stringent financial

reporting standards for their revenues. This external financial scrutiny would provide an additional level of assurance that the metric used to assess USF contributions is accurately reported.

Fifth, assessing both broadband internet access service and voice services removes the incentives of providers to arbitrarily allocate revenues from bundled services to one service and not the other. This creates an inequitable situation where some end users continue to pay into USF, while others do not, yet everyone benefits from the positive network externalities of universal connectivity made possible from the four USF programs that support broad[1]band-capable networks and service.

Reform of the current system of financing universal service is long overdue. The FCC has sought comment multiple times on various permutations of the options analyzed in this report and has the ability to move forward to assess broadband internet access service revenues without congressional action. The rapid increase in the contribution factor over the last decade and potentially in the future puts the stability of the entire USF at risk. While other proposals to help finance universal broadband may warrant further examination, the FCC should reform the current contribution methodology now to assess broadband internet access service revenues.

FCC expands Emergency Broadband Benefit Program eligibility for another year

The FCC reports

By this Public Notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau (Bureau) announces that it will expand the school years that will be acceptable for eligibility determination purposes for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB Program).  As a result of this change, households that can demonstrate participation in the free and reduced price school lunch program or school breakfast program for the 2021-2022 school year will now be eligible for the benefit.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (CAA or Act)[1] provides that households with members who are approved to participate in the free and reduced price school lunch program or school breakfast program are eligible for the EBB Program,[2] and the Commission’s rules adopted this eligibility criteria.[3]  In the EBB Program Order, the Commission clarified that, in addition to households that apply for and are approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced price school lunch program or school breakfast program, households with students that are enrolled in schools that participate in the USDA Community Eligibility Provision will also be eligible for the EBB Program under the school lunch program or school breakfast program eligibility criteria.[4]  The Commission further agreed with commenters that proposed that the Commission allow proof of enrollment in these programs for either the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year, “given that many schools have been closed since mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic and students may not be enrolled in the programs” in the 2020-2021 school year.[5]  Based on the EBB Program Order, the EBB Program application and other EBB program guidance specifically identify the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years as eligible school years for purposes of qualifying for the EBB Program, but do not discuss any subsequent school years.

 

Help flesh out MuniNetworks’ Big List of American Rescue Plan Community Broadband Projects

From the Institute for Local Self Reliance

With the first traunch of American Rescue Plan funds going out to counties and cities earlier this summer, many local leaders have begun to propose projects and seek input from citizens about how they should be used. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) represents an unprecedented amount of money flowing to local governments, but the consequences of operating for more than a year and a half under the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic are such that there seems to be so many things that need attention.

Access to universal, affordable, fast Internet access is among them, but the road from recognizing the need and implementing thoughtful policies is not an equally smooth one for all. Sometimes, a little inspiration is all it takes.

That’s where this page comes in. This is our ongoing list of projects which are under consideration, have been announced, or are under way. Arranged alphabetically by state and organized by whether they are under consideration or are planned, the below are those broadband expansion projects being pursued by cities and counties as they look to expand access via telephone and electric cooperatives, nonprofits, community-owned solutions, or private providers.

This page will be updated in the coming weeks and months, but if you have any corrections, additions, or updates, please email ry@ilsr.org

I am thankful to them for doing this – if you have something to add, please send it their way or send it to me atreacy@treacyinfo.com and I’ll add it here and send it to them.

Here’s what they have for Minnesota…

Planned

The Duluth City Council has approved a plan to spend $12.8 million of the $58.1 million it will receive on infrastructure, including $1 million on broadband. There are no additional details, excepting a line item in a recent press release which says the money could be used to “incentivize broadband providers to the City.”

St. Louis County, Minnesota has earmarked a total of $2 million so far in broadband grant programs aimed at boosting connectivity efforts led by communities in the region. By committing a match, the latter can apply for funds in pursuit of a wide range of planning and development activities. Those grant applications are due in September.

One township already taking advantage of St. Louis County’s grant program is Greenwood, which is pursuing upcoming federal infrastructure dollars along with county funds and considering using some of its own $50,000 in Rescue Plan funds for the local match. Broadband continues to be a primary concern to local leaders, with the township running a broadband survey for residents and businesses right now.

ARPA County and Township Support Amounts Mapped by CNS

CNS has created a new map

As discussions with counties, townships, and cities ramp up, we mapped the ARPA funding amounts for MN’s Counties, Townships and Small Cities so you can see how much each entity is receiving in ARPA funding.

Layers include:

  • County Allocated funding
  • Estimated Township funding amounts
  • Disbursed Township and Small City funds
  • RDOF funded census block groups

Zooming in on the map will show more granular data.

We’ll continue to update the map as more data is released. According the state, not all Township and Small Cities have received their first-round funding yet due to incomplete applications. Note that two rounds of disbursements will be sent, one in 2021, one in 2022 – disbursed funds shown in the map are 50% of their total allocation.

FCC announces second ECF application window; $5.137 billion requested in first window

An announcement from the FCC…

The FCC announced  that requests for $5.137 billion in funding to support 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections were received during the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program’s initial filing window.  The window, which closed August 13, 2021, attracted applicants from all 50 states, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia – including schools and libraries in both rural and urban communities seeking funding for eligible equipment and services received or delivered between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022.  Additional information about the demand at the state level can be found here.

In view of outstanding demand and the recent spike in coronavirus cases, the FCC will open a second application filing window for schools and libraries to request funding from the roughly $2 billion in program funds remaining for connected devices and broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons for the current 2021-22 school year.  The second window will open on September 28 and run until October 13.  Eligible schools and libraries will be able to apply for financial support to purchase eligible equipment and services for students, school staff and library patrons with unmet needs.

ECF Demand: Minnesota

  • Amount Requested for Equipment: $50,636,008.93
  • Amount Requested for Services: $12,232,818.32
  • Total Funding Requested: $62,868,827.25

Essentia Health in Duluth gets nearly $1 million from FCC for telehealth

The FCC reports

The Federal Communications Commission today approved an initial set of 62 applications for funding commitments totaling $41.98 million for Round 2 of its COVID-19 Telehealth Program.  Health care providers in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia, including those previously unfunded in Round 1, will use this funding to provide telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic.  The FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program supports the efforts of health care providers to continue serving their patients by providing reimbursement for telecommunications services, information services, and connected devices necessary to enable telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, access to health care has proven to be not only a national issue, but also a local issue, and it is imperative that every community is given the tools to access this care as safely and effectively as possible.  The FCC is committed to ensuring that every state and territory in the United States receive funding as part of this program,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.  “The FCC took action earlier this year to establish a system for rating applications in Round 2, factoring in the hardest hit and lowest-income areas, Tribal communities, and previously unfunded states and territories.  Now even more doctors and nurses in every corner of our country can establish or expand telehealth services to support patients and their families.”

This first set of awards will go to applications that qualify for the equitable distribution step, as required by Congress and outlined in the FCC’s rules, to ensure nationwide distribution of funding to health care providers in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia.  This step funds the highest-scoring applications in every state, territory, and the District of Columbia plus the second highest-scoring application from the states and territories that did not receive funding in Round 1, if multiple applications were submitted from those areas.

Round 2 is a $249.95 million federal initiative that builds on the $200 million program established as part of the CARES Act.  Now that funding has been committed to the highest-scoring applications from each state, territory, and the District of Columbia, the next funding awards will commit funding to the highest-scoring applications, regardless of geography, until at least $150 million has been committed.  The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau will then announce an opportunity for all remaining applicants to supplement their applications, as required by Congress.  After all remaining applicants have the opportunity to supplement, the remaining program funding will be committed.

Here’s the Minnesota recipient…

Essentia Health in Duluth, an integrated health system in Minnesota, serving patients in the upper Midwest, was awarded $981,204 to support the acquisition of remote monitoring devices and video carts with peripheral cameras and stethoscopes/EKGs for care during the pandemic, and to increase wireless broadband coverage at eight clinics to allow for additional space for telehealth patients.

Rep. Angie Craig talks about rural broadband investment

Ag Week reports

[U.S. Rep. Angie] Craig is one of the eight members who was appointed this summer to the Select Committee on Economic Disparity & Fairness in Growth. She said her job on the committee is to focus on rural communities, and she believes the best way to do that is to great good job opportunities for rural communities and make long-term investment in rural infrastructure.

Broadband was a hot topic…

“We’ll look at the issues fresh in today’s day and context,” said Craig. “A lack of broadband in some areas, as well as some of the consolidation that we’ve seen in farming.”

Craig said the committee will be able to put forward policy solutions that “hopefully will help lead to greater economic growth in rural America”. Rural broadband infrastructure is high on her list of priorities, and she said she’s “optimistic” that Congress is going to pass an infrastructure bill.

“There’s $65 billion in broadband investment in the Senate version of the bill, but personally I think it needs to be closer to 80 billion, if we’re going to get 99% of the country all the way to high speed internet,” said Craig. “But there’s going to be a massive investment — certainly the largest investment that I have seen in my lifetime.”

Anecdotally, Craig said rural areas are starting to hear more about the real estate industry shifting to their communities, where plenty of land can be developed.

“They’re saying that people are looking to get a little further out from cities, after the public health crisis of the pandemic has caused a lot of people to reevaluate their lives,” she said. “You could conceive a day where if you have broadband in every community, and you have an e-commerce business, you could live anywhere.”

Minnesota requests almost $63 million from FCC’s n Emergency Connectivity Fund Program

The FCC reports

The Federal Communications Commission today announced that it has received requests for $5.137 billion to fund 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections as part of the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program. The first filing window, which closed August 13, 2021, attracted applications from all 50 states, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia – including schools and libraries in both rural and urban communities seeking funding for eligible equipment and services received or delivered between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. In view of outstanding demand and the recent spike in coronavirus cases, the FCC will open a second application filing window for schools and libraries to request funding for connected devices and broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons for the current 2021-22 school year.

“The Emergency Connectivity Fund is the single largest effort to bring connectivity and devices to students who lack them – and this robust response from applicants shows the tremendous need in our communities. This funding is an important down payment in closing the Homework Gap so that all children, regardless of their circumstances or where they live, have access to the tools they need to succeed,” said acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “The pandemic highlighted like never before the difference a reliable internet connection can make in a student’s education, and we want to make sure that as many schools and libraries can apply for support this school year. The need is there, and the opening of a second application window reflects that. Together with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, we are investing more than $10 billion in American students and households, so more Americans can connect, communicate, and more fully participate in modern life.”

The FCC will open the second application filing window to provide support for the current school year in light of outstanding demand, including applications that were filed after the close of the initial application filing window, and resource challenges some schools faced with a summertime application filing window. Moreover, the rise of the Delta variant means off[1]campus connectivity remains vital to ensuring students, school staff, and library patrons can engage in remote learning as they face challenges and uncertainty amidst the ongoing COVID[1]19 pandemic.

During the second application filing window, which will run from September 28 to October 13, eligible schools and libraries can apply for financial support to purchase eligible equipment and services for students, school staff and library patrons with unmet needs. The acting Chairwoman has long made closing the Homework Gap a priority during her tenure at the Commission. Recent estimates suggest there may be as many as 17 million children struggling without the broadband access they need to fully engage in remote learning.

For the first application filing window, the FCC set a target to review and issue decisions for 50% of workable applications within 60 days of the close of the application filing window and 70% of workable applications within 100 days of the close of the application filing window. The funding is available for the purchase of laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons in need, and is available to support off-campus leaning, such as homework, even if schools have returned to full time in-person instruction.

Minnesota requested: $62,868,827.25

Sen Tina Smith on Impact of Major Federal Investments in Broadband in MN

This morning, Senator Tina Smith, MN DEED Commissioner Steve Grove, Hennepin County Board Commissioner Marion Greene and Tonica Abdur Salaam, Co-Founder and Head of JJ Legacy Schools, discussed the impact of state and federal funding in Minnesota, Hennepin County and specifically North Minneapolis. They specifically spoke about American Rescue Plan & Senate-Passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and state funding including the Border to Border Broadband grants and CARES grants through MN DEED.

Sen. Smith said that broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century and believes that Minnesota will receive a minimum of $100 million from the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill for its effort to connect 157,000 households currently without service. All speakers recognized that digital equity is necessary for rural and urban areas to thrive in Minnesota – and it’s not only about access. People need access to high speed broadband at home but they also need devices and skills to use it.

DLF Chair talks about broadband and other topics in Park Rapids (Hubbard County)

Park Rapids Enterprise reports

When DFL Chairman Ken Martin visited the Park Rapids area Tuesday, he discussed issues relevant to Hubbard County and the surrounding area in an interview with the Enterprise.

There were two questions on broadband…

What infrastructure needs will be addressed in this region?

We’re excited about the bi-partisan deal. It’s the largest infrastructure bill ever to pass in our country’s history. It is investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow while repairing the infrastructure of yesterday. It’s going to invest in bridges and roads, wastewater treatment plants, clean energy, electric vehicles, upgrading public transportation options and broadband.

I think of this through the lens of rural electrification that happened in the 1920s and 1930s in this country. It helped rejuvenate small town America and main streets. Without that, a lot of parts of the country would have been left behind.

Thanks to this infrastructure package, high-speed internet is going to be provided to every corner of our state. That’s an exciting development that should bring more jobs to communities here and that will allow people who work in different industries to stay in greater Minnesota.

Because more people are able to work remotely, there’s an opportunity to reimagine the workforce. But that requires good broadband access. We need to build that infrastructure that will result in economic development in places like Hubbard County and help diversify and expand the tax base.

When will better broadband reach this region?

As soon as this infrastructure bill is signed into law I think the money is going to start flowing out to communities. I don’t know the exact timeline for that but I think money will move quickly like with the American Rescue Plan. There is a great disparity in internet services in greater Minnesota because some internet providers have invested their own money in fiber optics and high speed internet capacities and others have not. This funding will help equalize that by providing money to companies who can then access it through grants to provide higher speeds and have the capability to do that, whether fiber optics or cell service. There are a lot of pockets in the state where you go five miles in one direction or the other and you are getting high-speed internet or not. That’s what we have to fix right now so it’s not this patchwork but wherever you live you will get the same level of service. This is an equity issue as well. A lot of people are being left behind. Their job or their schooling is being impacted by the fact that they don’t have access to high speed internet. We have a responsibility to address that. It’s a huge part of the infrastructure plan and will allow people in rural America to start to prosper again.

Senator Smith says the Infrastructure will help for generations

In a letter to the editor in Litchfield Independent Review, Senator Smith says…

When the U.S. Senate passed a once-in-a-generation bill to make historic and long-overdue investments in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure this month, we achieved something that has eluded our nation’s lawmakers for decades.

The strongly-bipartisan measure will mean people in Minnesota and across the country will soon see a transformative injection of funds to fix roads, bridges, highways, water systems, railroads, ports, and electric grids. It also provides $65 billion to bring quality, affordable broadband networks to communities – especially those in rural America – that for too long have struggled to thrive without modern high-speed internet.

Details on broadband…

When I first came to the Senate, a top priority of mine was to increase access to broadband. It isn’t just nice to have, it’s a 21st Century necessity for communities working to attract families and businesses, and to create jobs and economic development. Broadband connects students to a top-notch education, and allows health facilities to provide much-needed, often life-saving services, like telehealth. The current pandemic has showed us just how important quality broadband is for people working from home, and for students learning remotely.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many stories of Minnesota parents forced drive to a fast food parking lot in order access a connection good enough to allow their children to do their homework. And even the most well-run businesses struggle to compete — and connect with customers — without quality broadband.

The infrastructure bill changes that. Minnesota will receive a minimum of $100 million, which will significantly boost our state’s effort to connect its 157,000 households currently without service. It also ensures that new broadband services are affordable and that any new systems provide quality connections, so that users –especially those in rural areas — aren’t stuck with sub-par or second class service.

There’s a hiccup preventing some people from getting Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

Public Knowledge reports

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in our country, millions of Americans cannot connect to the internet because they can’t afford to, preventing them from going to school, working, accessing government benefits and connecting with friends and family. To remedy this problem, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which offers low-income consumers a $50 discount on their internet bills. Unfortunately, because of a shortcoming in the National Verifier, the database used to verify consumer eligibility for the program, many of those in need do not access this important benefit, ultimately keeping the digital divide open.

Let’s paint the picture of how. Imagine you can’t afford broadband, and learn that, because you participate in a relevant federal program (like SNAP, Medicaid, free/reduced school meals, etc.), you are eligible for the EBB. Huzzah! To apply, you are told to use the Lifeline National Verifier. The Verifier is intended to be a one-stop shop to verify consumer eligibility for the EBB based on their participation in a different federal program. The idea is that eligible consumers enter their information on the National Verifier website and are approved if the database shows they do, in fact, participate in one of the qualifying federal programs. However, the Verifier doesn’t always work that way, because it doesn’t have data about participation in all qualifying programs. So, frustratingly, if the Verifier doesn’t have data about the program you quality through, you have to go through a whole big process to get documentation that you are eligible. Since you don’t have a lot of time on your hands as the head of a household, and don’t have the internet, you never end up enrolling and stay without internet.

The article goes on to explain how this happen – in short info on the relevant federal programs is not necessarily centrally or easily accessible. That leaves the onerous task of proving need to the potential recipient, who likely has issues accessing broadband if they are applying for EBB. I can only imagine the frustration of the user who knows they get SNAP (for example) but it’s not coming up on the database. We’ve all been there when something doesn’t work online and for many the first response is to assume user error.

The author does offer a solution…

How do we solve this problem? Congress must step in by enacting legislation to require that any agencies that have data share it with USAC in a timely manner, and to clarify that data sharing for verification purposes is legal. To the extent Congress needs to exempt such data sharing from existing privacy laws, it should include that in the legislation. Such laws are intended to protect a recipient’s privacy, but are not intended to be a roadblock to participation in other benefits programs. Moreover, the data to be shared is sufficiently minimal that it does not carry with it the broader privacy risks addressed by our privacy laws. Absent Congressional action, we will be left with a patchwork system, enabling some consumers to breeze through the application process, while others cannot.

The ease of enrollment directly correlates to the number of consumers that enroll. If we want to ensure that the EBB (and any future broadband subsidy) can fulfill their purpose of getting low-income consumers connected and narrowing the digital divide, Congress must ensure that all potential participants can be automatically verified through the Verifier.

Enbridge gives broadband grant to Waubun-Ogema-White Earth Community Schools (Mahomen County)

KFGO reports

Enbridge Energy, the Canadian company that owns the controversial Line 3 pipeline replacement project in northern Minnesota, has donated $366,000 to the Waubun-Ogema-White Earth Community Schools to subsidize internet access for low income families.

Enbridge spokesperson Julie Kellner says the grant will provide “a combination of broadband and fiber infrastructure, and fund other services that will help students connect to internet resources and thrive in remote learning environments.”

Kellner says the grant will also provide services for students in the Mahomen-Naytahwaush school district.  Enbridge plans to present a check Thursday morning.