Congressman Stauber and Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach hear that broadband is a workforce need

The Bemidji Pioneer reports

With representatives from agriculture, construction, education, mining, hospitality, trucking and timber, there was no shortage of concern over the need for workers right now during a gathering Thursday, April 8, in central Minnesota.

The pathways to bring people into these industries came as one of the top focuses of panelists when sharing with 8th District Congressman Pete Stauber and 7th District Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach at Central Lakes College in Staples, Minn. In related concerns, the communities noted the need for housing, child care, broadband and health care for those hired and to expand operations locally.

Others mentioned broadband as well…

Schornack is also part of an initiative called Grow Perham, which has added apartments in Perham, Minn., over the past half-decade. The goal is to bring people to the area, and bring their commitment to the local community. Otter Tail County also formed the Community Development Agency to continue building relationships for support in child care, housing and broadband about two and half years ago.

Rural Minnesota lags behind the rest of the state, grants help close the gap

The Alexandria Echo reports

About 92% of Minnesota homes and businesses have internet service of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

But that percentage drops to 83% in rural Minnesota, the agency said. And time is running out to meet the state’s goal of ensuring those speeds for all Minnesotans by 2022.

And they give the local details…

In Douglas County, Alexandria, Osakis, Holmes City and much of the southwestern part of the county are considered to have good internet service, according to the state’s 2020 map of internet access. Most of the unserved areas are in the eastern third of the county, and along the Douglas-Otter Tail County line. Most of the underserved areas, meaning those that only reach the 2022 state goal, are along I-94 and in the northwestern part of the county.

To provide incentives to extend broadband to Minnesota’s hard-to-reach places, the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program has provided $126 million to fund more than 179 projects connecting more than 57,000 homes, businesses and farms, said Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison.

Free internet coming to Jasper’s campground (Rock County)

The Pipestone Star reports

The campground at Marilyn DeBates Park in Jasper will soon offer campers a new amenity — free wifi.
The wireless internet access was made possible by a $75,000 Blandin Broadband Communities grant that Rock County received in 2018.
“We completed a number of projects with this grant money, including installing wifi in every campground in Rock County,” said Rock County Community Library Director Calla Bjorklund Jarvie, who was the administrator for the grant.
Tim Totman, of TNT Services in Pipestone, have the fiber lines that will provide the internet to the Jasper campground in by the end of the day on Tuesday, April 6.

Doctor in Duluth asks policymakers to make COVID telehealth changes permanent

The Duluth News Tribune runs a letter to the editor from Dr. Sarah Manney is the chief medical information officer at Essentia Health in Duluth…

We didn’t conduct our first virtual visit until mid-March 2020. Within weeks, we were performing thousands per day, peaking at more than 3,500. One year later, we have surpassed 400,000 virtual visits. Further, 80% of our mental health encounters were done via virtual visits this last year. For those patients, when one of the biggest hurdles is simply getting out of the house to seek help, that initial obstacle was rendered obsolete by the accessibility of virtual visits.

We’ve also done more than 100,000 e-visits, which are targeted at 20 of the most common conditions, pushing Essentia’s telehealth encounters in a single year well north of half a million. And this was only the first year; imagine how many more people will benefit from these innovative offerings as they become more prevalent.

Right now in Minnesota, we have a tremendous opportunity to increase that access. We can make permanent some of the temporary advances that occurred because of COVID-19 through bipartisan legislation — specifically, Senate File 1160 and House File 1412. The bills are sponsored by Republican Sen. Julie Rosen and DFL Rep. Kelly Morrison, one of two physicians in the Legislature.

While previous law required patients to visit a health care provider site to access telehealth, this bill would continue to allow providers to deliver telehealth services directly to a patient’s home setting via audio-only telephone calls or secure two-way audio-video services on a tablet or computer. The legislation would allow scheduled visits to be conducted by phone when a patient does not have internet access or the appropriate electronic device.

These care-delivery practices are currently in effect due to COVID-19. But we feel strongly that they should become a staple of 21st century health care, even after the pandemic. They let patients receive treatment that may prevent the worsening of chronic health issues and may reduce potentially avoidable emergency-room visits.

EVENT April 13: MN House to discuss broadband: Ways and Means Committee

From an email from the Committee Admin…

AGENDA – Ways and Means Committee – Tuesday, April 13, 9:00am – Remote Hearing by Zoom

NOTE: The committee will recess at 10:25am and reconvene at the Call of the Chair

 

HF1670 (Ecklund) – Labor and Industry omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

HF1342 (Noor) – Workforce and Business Development omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

  • NOTE: The language of HF1670 (Ecklund) will be added to HF1342 during the hearing

HF14 (Ecklund) Broadband grant program deposit transfer

HF1524 (Sundin) Agriculture omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

  • NOTE: The language of HF14 (Ecklund) will be added to HF1524 during the hearing

HF1684 (Hornstein) – Transportation omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

HF1076 (Hansen, R.) Environment and Natural Resources omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

 

 

Meeting documents will be posted on the House Ways and Means Committee website at https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/Committees/Home/92029

Public Viewing Information:

This remote hearing will be live-streamed via the House webcast schedule page: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp.

Libraries Without Borders US and Blandin working to bring the library to patrons in rural MN

The last year of pandemic has shone a light on the need for better access to technology at the very local level. By access, I’m talking about that three-legged stool: broadband, device and the skills to use both. Those of us who have them take it for granted; those who don’t are in danger of falling farther behind especially as work, school and healthcare move online. This move didn’t start with the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated it and exacerbated the divide between those to have and those who don’t.

The library has always helped level the playing fields for the have-nots. Libraries Without Borders US (LWB US) and Blandin Foundation are working on some ways to extend the reach of the library beyond the ways – to meet people where they are literally and in terms of where they are with their needs. (Do they need broadband, a device or training.) As LWB US reports on a project in Nobles County… 

So how can rural communities be connected to critical resources, considering obstacles that span from a lack of connectivity to finding a way to get to a local library? Our answer: by bringing library resources directly to these communities. LWB US, the Blandin Foundation, and local partners have teamed up to design and implement digital literacy labs and pop-up libraries, equipped with digital resources and programming ranging from monthly story time and ESL classes to workforce training and digital literacy workshops. 

Both organizations focus on creating solutions with the local organization, not for, and that’s the special sauce here. LWB US and Blandin have expertise and experience but the people on the ground know the needs and trusted places. LWB US spoke to participants working to develop the digital pop-ups. 

Andrea Duarte-Alonso, Lead for America Hometown Fellow at the Southwest Initiative Foundation commented…

The [Southwest Initiative Foundation’s] interest came from wanting a creative and innovative idea that would support community members through resources that are often not accessible to them. This support also encourages closing the technological and educational gap for families. It provides literacy to families without transportation or other needed amenities to access books and technology. 

 Katherine Craun, board member and past president of the Nobles County Library and alum of the Blandin Leadership program noted… 

Access, Access Access.  All citizens need to be connected and involved in community activities. First individuals and families need the hardware and software to connect.  Second, they need a location to connect.  Pop-ups would be a great way to meet needs of isolated housing units, small towns/villages, and rural farms. 

The project is shifting from design to deployment. I look forward to finding out how, where and when the digital labs pop up and about the difference they are able to make to the patrons! (For more details and more on participant interviews, please check out the original article from LWB US.)

Blandin Foundation helping Aitkin County expand and use broadband

Aitkin Age reports

Now, with the help of the Blandin Foundation Accelerate program – a 15-week program that helps both educate the community and develop the best solutions – the county could potentially be making some strides forward.

Over the 15 weeks of the Accelerate program, communities work together to discuss broadband development options, gather information from the communities on need and demand, analyze the data and then determine what the next steps should be moving forward.

The article looks at broadband in the last few years…

Among the progress made in Aitkin County through the 2017-20 Iron Range Broadband Community:

  • A Wi-Fi hotspot in Jacobson Community Center
  • High-speed broadband at Long Lake Conservation Center
  • Increase MyChart usage at Riverwood Healthcare Center
  • Community conference centers with computer lab, smart boards, digital equipment and community education
  • Wi-Fi networks for Palisade
  • Wi-Fi at Berglund Park in Palisade
  • Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at East Central Regional Library

However, while the cities are addressed, much of the population of the county lives in the more rural areas.

The Blandin project will meet the community where they are…

That’s where the Blandin project comes in. Jeffers, along with city and county leaders, is working on education first and foremost. He is to educate themselves and the public about not only what is available but also what meets the 100M/20M goal for the state of Minnesota.

“That’s part of the issue,” Jeffers explained. “It depends on which provider you’re with. It depends on whether it’s broadband high speed, or if it’s cable DSL.

“There’s a lot of variations in that,” he added.

Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin, said that many providers are trying to sell what they have – which may or may not be what the county needs.

“Most of the people in the space are trying to sell something,” Joselyn explained. “It’s challenging for local officials to find their way forward.”

Also…

The Blandin Foundation remains involved in order to address the need, as it has through facilitating its Cyber Partners program – teaching people how to use and participate through high-speed internet – and the Accelerate program.

“We’ve been working in broadband for almost 20 years,” Joselyn said. “Without out access to broadband and the skills to use it, there’s no future in rural communities. It’s absolutely critical.”

MN Report on Automated Vehicles mentioned 10 year investment in fiber

Transportation Today reports on the Minnesota Gov’s Advisory Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles 2020 annual report…

The Minnesota Governor’s Advisory Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles said in its annual report Monday that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was able to move forward toward readiness for Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAV).

Also…

The report noted that the state was able to test new cellular vehicle communications technologies that connect snowplows and avoid collisions by preventing red-light running. Additionally, the Advisory Council completed a 10-year investment plan for fiberoptic cable that will support CAVs and broadband and conducted the nation’s largest CAV survey to determine the attitudes Minnesotans’ have about CAVs.

I was interested in the 10-year investment in fiber so I checked out the report. Here’s what I was able to find…

  • Fiber and broadband: MnDOT, MnIT and Department of Employment and Economic Development are completing a 10-year investment plan for fiber optic that supports CAVs and broadband. The state also met with the private telecommunications industry to understand their broadband expansion goals and learn how to partner in future pilots.
  • Connectivity & Work Zone Safety: The FHWA granted Minnesota funding to test connected vehicle work zone safety applications. With the FCC ruling, the state is also looking into new cellular connected vehicle technologies, including those being piloted in Ramsey County in Roseville. DEED, MnIT and MnDOT are also partnering to deploy fiber and broadband in key areas of the state to advance CAV and rural connectivity goals.

I remember that MnDOT, MnIT and DEED had a broadband commission a few years ago that, as far as I knew, did not have public meetings. I don’t know if they are still around and I think it only included the commissions of each department. I also don’t know much about the 10 year investment in fiber and I wonder why the MN Broadband Task Force doesn’t factor that into the plans to get everyone connected.

Broadband is happening around Ely with CTC, Midco and Treehouse Broadband expansions

There’s a lot of broadband activity happening in Ely these days between CTC, Midco and wireless options (Treehouse Broadband). Ely Timber Jay reports

Existing cable and internet customers who are frustrated with all-too-common service disruptions recently learned that Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for the Ely area.
The expansion and investment by the cable provider is an effort to reduce or eliminate service disruptions caused by fiber cuts and other sources of internet and business connections. Their recent investment announcement also appears to give the cable provider a bigger piece of the broadband pie in the immediate Ely area.

CTC is also building in the area…

CTC is in the midst of installing a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network in the city’s downtown corridor and is actively selling business services. In their first phase, CTC offers broadband technology to homes and businesses along Sheridan Street, and looks to offer business and residents internet, phone, and TV services along with business phone systems and IT services.
“We are scheduling a meeting with Midco at some point,” Langowski said. “We want to discuss where our project is and where their project is. I was a little concerned when I talked with (Midco’s) government affairs representative, who wasn’t aware of what we are doing or what our project is. I told him he must have been living under a rock. If he had read our local newspapers, he would have seen that we have been working on this for the last decade-plus.”
The first phase of the city of Ely’s CTC Broadband project is limited to the downtown area. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m not excited about (Midco’s) investment,” Langowski said. “I just want to make sure they don’t come in and overlay what we just did and cut us out of the market.”
Midco also announced that crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 capable of up to five Gbps. Connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, according to the cable provider.
The neighboring communities of Tower, Soudan and Babbitt will see similar construction activity with full FTTP network upgrades in 2023, company officials said.

Wireless is coming to the area too…

A wireless broadband project is also moving forward in the Town of Morse around the Ely area. Isaac Olson of Treehouse Broadband uses directional antennas operating on the radio frequency spectrum to provide high bandwidth internet service. With direct line of sight to their towers and repeater locations, they service customers in the Ely area. Unlike traditional satellite service, according to Olson, rain, snow and other weather has no impact on the frequencies and short-range transmissions he uses to deploy broadband.

Midco is expanding in other areas too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern Minnesota communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds from Midco in the coming year.
“All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet,” McAdaragh said.

Kandiyohi County is poising to use American Rescue Plan funding for broadband

West Central Tribune reports…

Kandiyohi County is gearing up to complete broadband projects in the county, with the hope it will be able to use money from the American Rescue Plan to help fund those projects.

The County Commissioners are poising to take advantage of any opportunity…

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package enacted by the federal government in March, the county could find itself with an influx of federal funding, an estimated $8.38 million, which early guidance says can be used for broadband projects.

The County Board work session was scheduled Tuesday to make sure the commissioners were up to date on county broadband challenges and opportunities.

“So when we get the federal American Rescue dollars, hopefully we can use some of those dollars for broadband, we can hit the ground running,” Kleindl said. “We want to be ready. Today we are at the starting blocks. We are putting our foot on the race and we are going to kick it off.”

They are already working…

Officials are now working on a new project with Federated Telephone Cooperative, to bring high-speed broadband access to Arctander, Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. The project is estimated to cost between $6,818,656 and $7,626,906 depending on the size of the service area to be included in the new project. The plan would provide broadband to nearly 600 properties.

The county has already approved a $25,000 grant to each of the townships for broadband expansion and Federated has said it will provide 25 percent of the project costs. All four of the townships are also on board, estimating to pay around $1,945,597 in total.

“Everybody will need to have some skin in the game,” said Commissioner Corky Berg.

The EDC is also applying for a state Border-to-Border broadband grant for about 50 percent of the project costs. Without the state grant, which is very competitive, the project will not be possible, Schmoll said.

They are asking residents to take the speed test to help the State recognize the need…

We know how important it is to get broadband out. We need citizens’help to do that,” Kleindl said.

This could mean writing letters to legislators, providing letters of support to the EDC and participating in the state internet speed test. In 2020, residents were urged to take the speed test. And while some did, more is needed.

“It is important for us to know where the underserved, unserved people are,” Kleindl said. “Do your part.”

MN Senate Ag Committee (Chair Den Westrom) pass omnibus with $40 million for broadband

Minnesota State Senate Republicans report

Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, passed the committee’s omnibus bill on Wednesday to fund agriculture, rural development, and rural COVID recovery.

The bill includes some funding for broadband…

Further, this bill funds the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. Rural Minnesota has faced the brunt of lack of Internet access, and this funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Minnesota contains large segments of the state that fall into the categories of unserved and underserved. This significant funding from the legislature matches the critical need that has become apparent this year.

“Broadband is essential to our way of life. This has become even more clear over the past year as Minnesotans have struggled to work remotely and navigate Covid-19. If students can only access school online, it is imperative that accessibility to an internet connection is widely available. Funding broadband is addressing the issue head-on and will help rural Minnesotans flourish,” Westrom remarked.

Senator Klobuchar appreciates FTTH network in SE Minnesota built by Harmony and MiEnergy Coop

Ag Week reports

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a call on April 6 with the co-owners of Harmony Telephone Co. and MiEnergy Cooperative. The company has been a leader in the Midwest when it comes to using federal funding to expand broadband infrastructure at a fast pace.

She has good things to say about the team…

Klobuchar held a call to discuss efforts to expand internet access on April 6 with the co-owners of Harmony Telephone Co. and MiEnergy Cooperative. Last winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development awarded Harmony Telephone a $2.7 million grant and a $2.7 million loan to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network.

Federal resources to boost broadband capability have been given out in the past to companies who have “not used them correctly,” said Klobuchar. She said that’s not the case in southeast Minnesota.

“I think sometimes people don’t understand how much you do, as small companies, and how you’re on the ground and able, if given the resources, to get things done for your subscribers,” Klobuchar said to the group.

MRBC Legislative Update: Senate Agriculture Committee Triples Broadband Funding to $120 Million

From the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition…

Senate Agriculture Committee Triples Broadband Funding to $120 Million
The Senate Agriculture Committee completed work on its omnibus bill this afternoon. The first draft of the bill included $40 million for broadband. Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL-Saint Paul) offered an amendment to the bill that would raise that figure to $120 million over the biennium. After some technical revisions from Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls), the committee unanimously approved the amendment and sent the amended bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

If the state receives guidance that federal covid relief funds can be spent on broadband, up to $80 million in additional funding would be allocated to the Border-to-Border Grant Program. If not, only $40 million would be spent.

Here’s a breakdown of how the funding would work:

  • Guaranteed Spending: FY2022 $30 million/FY2023 $10 million.
    • Federal funds must be used, but state general funds would be used if federal funds are not available.
  • If more than $40 million of federal funding is available: FY2022 $60 million/FY2023 $60 million.
    • Additional funding would be up to $30 million in FY 2022 and up to $50 million in FY2023.

The additional funding for broadband is a major victory for broadband advocates at the Legislature. The bill still contains some policy provisions that the Coalition is concerned about, like changes to the statutory broadband definitions. We will ask the upcoming conference committee on the bill to remove those provisions. However, we remain thankful to Sen. Torrey Westrom, the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, as well as the rest of the committee members for making broadband a top priority.

Interactive Technology Gap Map: 9.65 percent of MN households have no computer

Digitunity is a national organization working to close technology gaps. They are recently published a very cool interactive maps that tracks computer ownership down to county level and cross referenced with a number of census topics: education attainment, race, age and gender…

I tracked some of this information in the County Profiles last year – but this is a handy way to access the information.