1st District Congressional candidates Hagedorm and Feehan agree that broadband is important

The Journal wrote about a recent debate between 1st District Congressional candidates Republican incumbent Jim Hagedorn and Democratic challenger Dan Feehan…

In a contentious debate hosted and televised by KEYC, Minnesota’s First Congressional District candidates accused each other of misusing funding.

Republican incumbent Jim Hagedorn and Democratic challenger Dan Feehan previously ran for the 1st Congressional seat in 2018. Hagedorn won the seat by a slim 1,300 votes. The current race remains relatively close.

In a debate that sounds very contentious, they both agreed that broadband was important…

Feehan also believes broadband internet for all students is necessary, especially in light of the pandemic. He would later comment rural broadband was needed to promote job growth in southern Minnesota.

Rural broadband was the only point of agreement between the candidates. Hagedorn agreed broadband was important and said there would be bipartisan support for its expansion.

Charter expands broadband in Lake Carlos area (Douglas County)

Alexandria Echo Press reports…

Charter Communications, Inc. announced completion of a nearly $150,000 broadband construction project in the Lake Carlos area Monday, Sept. 28.

As a result of this project, around 40 more farms, homes and businesses in the Lake Carlos area now have access to the company’s full suite of services.

Charter also expanded its network in Alexandria in July, which included a $250,000 investment to reach more than 160 area homes. Charter covers more than 150 communities around Minnesota, many of which are rural.

Both candidates in MN State Senate District 17 support broadband

West Central Tribune reports…

No great political divide showed itself when Minnesota State Senate District 17 candidates Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and his DFL challenger Fernando Alvarado, of Willmar, faced one another in a forum hosted for broadcast online by the League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area.

Both candidates emphasized their willingness to work with members of the opposite party, find compromise and put the interests of the rural district first.

Good news for broadband proponents, they both recognize the importance of broadband…

The two fielded a range of questions from forum host Andrea Pieske, but none put the candidates at great odds. Both support building rural broadband infrastructure. Alvarado would like to see Minnesota do more.

“It’s like electricity. We need to have it in every house and business in Minnesota,” he said.

Lang pointed out that the Legislature has appropriated $30 million for broadband infrastructure.

“This is infrastructure,” he said by way of emphasizing the importance he places on it.

How are UMN students experiencing telehealth? Mixed bag

The University of Minnesota’s  Minnesota Daily Podcast, looks at…

the Boynton Mental Health Clinic’s coronavirus response and patients’ reactions, speaking to providers at Boynton and students who have experienced virtual therapy.

The experience sounds much more mixed than I would have anticipated. They spoke with students and health care providers. Healthcare, especially mental health care, went online in early March due to COVID, as soon as the campuses closed. In March, they saw a sudden drop in mental health appointments, often based often on policies of a students home state as well as because need for therapy may have changed as students went home. But eventually that number went back up.

As I listened I try to track the pros and cons of remote telehealth:

Complaints about telehealth:

  • It doesn’t capture body language.
  • It would be difficult to build a rapport if you had never met in person.
  • Difficult without broadband.
  • Difficult when home isn’t a safe place.
  • Availability depends on students home state when they go home.
  • Digital skills are required

Advantages:

  • It is more convenient.
  • Can do it from a distance.
  • Students can keep connected from home.
  • Able to see students who are sick or in quarantine.
  • Reaching students who were hesitant to come into the office in the past due to stigma.
  • Online doesn’t require masks, in person does. Hard to read a face behind a mask.

Love it, hate it or site somewhere in between, telehealth is here to stay – even in a post-COVID world. Despite the shortcomings, it is a way to encourage new patients, to maintain continuity for a transient population and it keeps people safe.

MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey: 85% would continue telehealth after COVID

Thanks to Teri Fritsma at Office of Rural Health & Primary Care for sharing their MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey. I’ve pulled out the stats that I thought seemed most broadband related. You can see that broadband has made telehealth easier in ways and COVID has accelerated adoption.

About the survey…

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, MDH designed a brief survey to learn more about the changes Minnesota’s health care providers are facing at work as they respond to the pandemic. The COVID Health Provider survey focuses on a handful of COVID-specific topics, including providers’ concerns, time spent working, use of telemedicine, and related topics.

Some highlights…

▪ Approximately 15 percent of providers reported that their primary work location was some sort of remote site (such as their home), where they consulted with patients via telemedicine. However, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health professionals far more likely than others to be working in a remote setting away from patients or clients. An estimated 57 percent of licensed professional counselors (including LPCs and LPCCs); 54 percent of social workers; and 58 percent of psychologists reported that they were working remotely.

▪ More than half of all providers reported that at least some of the care they provided was remote—either via telephone, email, or dedicated telemedicine equipment (or all three). Again, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health providers most likely to be providing care via telemedicine or telephone.

▪ More than 85 percent of all respondents who were using telemedicine said they thought they would continue to provide at least some care via telemedicine after the pandemic ended.

▪ Nearly two-thirds of all respondents reported that their work had changed in some way because of COVID-19—for example, taking on new responsibilities at work, backfilling for other employees, and/or managing patients’ and clients’ COVID-19-related concerns. ▪ An estimated 23 percent reported that their worksite had been “totally prepared” to respond to the pandemic.

licensed marriage and family therapists renew their licenses in the fall and therefore would not have had the opportunity to take the survey

Comments on telemedicine…

  • “Telemedicine can be very challenging for patients who need an interpreter.”
  • “Should be allowed going forward. It’s very helpful for elderly patients who have a difficult time getting to appointments.”
  • “I work in mental health and I think it works well. We have fewer no-shows, and clients generally like it. A lot of people are uncomfortable coming in to the office even without a pandemic.”
  • “It’s okay for follow-up or non-acute care, but it doesn’t work for evaluating new, acute problems.”
  • “It’s been a great tool for some patients, but some (non-tech savvy) don’t have the ability to use it.”
  • “Exacerbates existing inequities in health care.”
  • “Telemedicine works well for me for people who struggle with transportation issues in rural areas.”
  • “It works in the sense that I can still provide much-needed client care. But it doesn’t work in the sense that there’s inequality in clients being to access telemedicine.”
  • “We need to do more of it. It improves patients’ care and our professional lives.”
  • “Telemedicine has been integral in providing services to vulnerable and oppressed populations that face transportation issues, scheduling concerns, unforgiving work schedules, family demands, and poor organization due to a variety of factors. It behooves us as social workers to fight for this service to remain a widely-available platform for services that have typically been gatekept for those with flexible business hours, reliable transportation, and available childcare.”
  • “I have found telemedicine a great way to provide care especially for established patients with whom I am familiar. It is a bit more difficult for complex medical issues and for multiple concerns but I think my patients really appreciate the option. There are some things that we still need to see patients for.” “The CMS rules going forward are unclear.” “Works great.”

 

Dakota County approves $800,000 in CARES Act funding for broadband

Dakota County Commissioners meeting notes from September 15, 2020, indicate an approval for $800,000 of CARE Act funding for broadband investment…

On a motion by Commissioner Thomas A. Egan, seconded by Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg, the consent agenda was unanimously approved as follows:

Operations, Management And Budget

20-436 Authorization To Execute Agreement With Hiawatha Communications Ltd. To Implement Broadband Connectivity Improvements For COVID-19 Response, Amend 2020 Non-Departmental Budget And Amend 2020 Information Technology Budget

WHEREAS, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dakota County residents, families and schools are experiencing a greater need for affordable, fast and reliable internet connectivity; and

WHEREAS, Dakota County received funds to use through the Federal CARES Act; and

WHEREAS, the County Board has determined that assisting broadband carriers to implement immediate broadband connectivity improvements to unserved and underserved areas of Dakota County is a necessary and reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore eligible for the use of CARES Act funds; and WHEREAS, the County Board directed staff to seek out interest from providers in expending their network in unserved and underserved communities; and

WHEREAS, staff sent letters of interest to providers on July 28, 2020 and received six proposals; and WHEREAS, staff presented the six proposals to the County Board at the August 25, 2020 County Board meeting; and

WHEREAS, the County Board directed staff to award Broadband Connectivity funds to Hiawatha Communications LTD (HBC); and WHEREAS, speeds of service will be offered in Nininger, New Trier, Hampton and Miesville between 10 Mbps minimum and a maximum of 100 Mbps.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Dakota County Board of Commissioners hereby authorizes the Chief Information Officer to award Broadband Connectivity Cares Act funds to and execute an agreement, approved as to form by the County Attorney’s Office, with Hiawatha Communications Ltd., in an amount not to exceed $800,000;

Minnesota “has become a state that others look to”

Broadband Breakfast reports on a recent presentation where Minnesota gets a nice nod…

“States play a very important role in expanding broadband access,” said Anna Read, officer of broadband research initiatives at Pew Charitable Trusts, during a webinar on regional and state broadband initiatives on Wednesday, which aired as part of Broadband Communities 2020 Virtual Summit.

And…

“Minnesota has been a leader in the space for a number of years,” said Read, detailing another successful state initiative.

“The state not only has a broadband grant fund, but has state established broadband goals,” said Read. The state has an interim goal of providing 25 download / 3 upload Megabit per second, Mbps, speeds to all Minnesotans, and a secondary goal of providing 100/20 Mbps speeds to state residents by 2026.

“By setting state standards, the state’s Broadband Task Force has been able to focus on making progress towards the higher speed goals,” said Read. According to Read, Minnesota “has become a state that others look to” when establishing broadband initiatives.

What I love is that she calls the 25/3 speed goals interim!

46 percent of MN school CARES funding so far going to technology

MinnPost reports on how CARES funding is being spent in the schools in Minnesota. First a quick summary of the programs…

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely. That includes $244.8 million via the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), $38 million via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, and $140.1 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) aid.

Each comes with its own parameters of allowable uses and timeline. The bulk of these dollars are allocated on a per pupil basis, with some priority given to low-income students. And while the amounts available are largely non-competitive, school leaders must still submit a budget application to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval in order to access their funds.

As of Wednesday, the state Department of Education reports that only $111 million in applications, across all three buckets of funds, had been approved. Since there’s a tighter deadline for CRF funds — in which applications must be signed and approved by Oct. 1, with funds spent by Dec. 30 — the bulk of applications received to date fall into this category.

There’s still a lot of money to be requested but early days, it looks like technology is the biggest request…

By the end of last week, the Minnesota Department of Education had only approved about $9 million in budget applications submitted across all three buckets of funding. Breaking that amount down into eight categories, about 46 percent of budgeted items fell into the “technology” category. Expenses in the “instructional support” and “operating” categories made up another 41 percent of that amount, with the remainder falling under the following categories: transportation, nursing, non-instructional support, contracts and other.

Koochiching County Chat: Broadband helps deal with COVID when affordable

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Koochiching County is looks unserved, but 68.8 percent of the population has access to speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. On the ground that means if you are in International Fall, you are served but get just three miles away and folks report they have trouble streaming Netflix. Fortunately most folks do live in town but for those who don’t there are some barriers. Affordability is another barrier exacerbated by COVID.

Koochiching County has been working on getting better broadband for a while. They are well organized and engaged through Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI); they are a Blandin Broadband Community. They have done innovative work in providing access in the homeless shelters. They have been active in getting residents to take the statewide speed test. Last year, Paul Bunyan Telephone was awarded a Border to Border grant that will help deploy FTTH to about half of the currently unserved households. But that project competition date is a year from now (2021). So while good news it doesn’t help today.

Today I got to speak with Jim Yount, Isaac Meyer, Ariana Daniel, Derek Foss, Jaci Nagle and Kathy LaFrance – all from social services, healthcare, the county and an IT business. Everyone recognized that broadband was a help; they mentioned that there were “holes in the service” where residents lack broadband access and some areas where cell coverage wasn’t good but that didn’t seem to be the major issue – affordability was. The County is especially concerned with affordability and making sure that access is equitable.

Ariana and Isaac both talked about strides to reach folks on the far end of the digital divide. Ariana is  Executive Director of Servants of Shelter. She noted that at the onset of the pandemic less than 25 percent of their guests had a device aside from their phone. That makes it difficult to go to school, work or fill out necessary paperwork to get assistance. So they have been working to get affordable laptops through KTI. They have also been working on training guests on how to use the devices and making sure they have access while on site.

People experiencing homelessness were especially vulnerable during the strict shut down due to COVID. When libraries closed many lost their connection to broadband, which meant a break in some services and often the loss of social connections. It increased the onus on shelter and housing providers.

Jaci talked about the business of the County. They had two days to shift everyone from onsite to remote work. They did it but it was precarious. They were successful because they were prepared. But such a shift was unchartered water. Same with Derek in the healthcare world. It was thanks to broadband and Webex that they were able to even put together an Emergency COVID Response team. Meeting remotely they were able to assess needs and come up with solutions. The solutions were made more difficult because the access is not ubiquitous. Swaths of the county, especially Western Koochiching are served by satellite only. Also worth nothing, Koochiching is a border county, so not much relief or connectivity coming from the North.

The COVID Response team came up with a mobile emergency network – a redundant network that could be used in a healthcare facility if there was an unexpected outage.

Making healthcare work remotely was not only a healthcare concern, but as Isaac pointed out an economic concern as healthcare is a local industry. Insurance waivers to promote telehealth have been a boon and there are hopes that they will continue even in a post-COVID world to help with mental health especially.

We spoke briefly about local business. It seems to be going well. They have actually seen an increase in new residential recruits to the area from out of state. The beautiful Northwoods and broadband have been a draw.

There are some difficulties now with getting devices and technology tools, but that is not limited to Koochiching. There are also challenges with training, especially with seniors. Koochiching is looking for a COVID-appropriate way to deploy intergenerational learning. (We’d all love to hear that!) They see that more of life has moved online Kootasca Social Services has seen online traffic triple and calls to 211 have also increased. But as Jaci noted, people have also gotten nicer. People are ready to help each other and everyone, most notably policymakers are recognizing the import of broadband, which everyone thinks will help drive resources to improve coverage throughout the county.

Both candidates running for MN Senate in District 18 list broadband as a priority

The Hutchinson Leader covers the Senate District 18 …

Voters in Minnesota’s Senate District 18, which includes McLeod, Meeker and Sibley counties, as well as Cokato and Cokato Township, will have two choices in this year’s election: incumbent Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and challenger Chad Tschimperle, a Democrat from Cokato.

They asked both candidates a series of questions; both mentioned broadband at some point…

  • If [re]elected, what would be your top priorities in the next four years?
    TSCHIMPERLE: I would like work on legislation to make health care more affordable for working people and the self-employed. The MNCare program has helped and could be expanded. There is a tremendous need for affordable health care in our district, and I would like to work on a solution.Another issue I believe is important is rural internet access. When student learning, social interaction and working from home became the norm during COVID-19, the inadequacy of Minnesota’s internet services was revealed. Border-to-border broadband is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and I will work to accomplish that goal.
  • What do you see as the most important step or steps to bolster rural schools in Minnesota?
    NEWMAN: 1. Provide broadband internet service to all rural schools. Without broadband, students are severely handicapped.

Monticello’s municipal network FiberNet is 15 years old – catch up with them via ILSR

From the unique pronunciation of Monticello (think “sello” not “chello”), the town has never been afraid to stand out. Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Chris Mitchell talks to City Planner Jeff O’Neill about FiberNet, Monticello’s municipal network. It has been the subject of talk since it started 15 years ago. Spoiler alert, it’s going well, especially in the time of COVID. Here’s the description of the conversation from ILSR -and know that it’s a fun quick listen…

Christopher and Jeff delve into the history and development of the network over the last fifteen years. They discuss how business leaders began calling for the city to look for a solution to poor Internet speeds all the way back in 2005, why the city ultimately decided to build its own network, and how FiberNet persevered in the face of an early lawsuit so that incumbent provider TDS could slow competition as it began its own fiber buildout. Jeff and Chris then talk about the network subsequently weathering a vicious price war with Charter Spectrum which contributed to the fracturing of its relationship with early partner Hiawatha Broadband, but which also brought significant savings and better customer service from incumbent providers to everyone in town.

They end by discussing the multitude of community benefits realized today by having three competing providers in Monticello — two offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the city of 14,000 — and what it means for community savings and economic development for the city moving forward. Jeff ends by sharing some of the work he’s most proud of being involved in and what he sees as important for FiberNet in the years ahead.

ConnectedMN Awards $2.1 Million to Orgs Serving Digital Access Needs of Minnesota Students

ConnectedMN reports…

To address digital inequities faced by students in Minnesota, Partnership for a ConnectedMN, a public-private partnership of private businesses, philanthropic entities and community leaders, today announced that it has awarded $2.1 million in grants to 23 nonprofits serving the connectivity needs of students and their families. ConnectedMN grants will support an estimated 154,000 students and families in urban and rural communities gain access to computing devices, critical support services and the internet.

ConnectedMN was founded by Best Buy, Comcast, Blandin Foundation, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota Business Partnership, in collaboration with the administration of Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan. In June, ConnectedMN announced that their goal was to bring technology and internet access to students most challenged by the sudden shift to online school, including Indigenous and students of color, as well as students from low-income families across urban and rural Minnesota.

The announcement was made at St Anne’s Place, which is part of Having Housing shelters in North Minneapolis. In the spirit of full disclosure, my worlds collided in the best way today when I got to cover broadband expansion and visit with my good friend Monica Nilsson, CEO of Having Housing. I have heard Monica talk about how hard it is for the kids at the shelter to go to school and do homework, especially during COVID. There may have been some camaraderie pre-COVID of everyone trying to work in the corner of the room by the window where you could get a signal – that is if you had a device. But with COVID, the kids are distanced and everyone needs a computer as most schools in Hennepin County are online or hybrid.

COVID is deepening the digital and opportunity gaps; today was a nice example of how we can try to stop that trends. Below Monica details what they are doing with labs, devices to check out and things like noise-cancelling headphones and laptop tables that help kids learn without barrier.

Grants have been awarded to:

  • Aeon Housing
  • Austin Aspires
  • Boys & Girls Club of Leech Lake
  • Centro Tyrone Guzman
  • CHANGE INC
  • East Central MN Education Cable Cooperative
  • FamilyMeans
  • Haven Housing
  • Itasca Area School Collaborative – Deer River ISD-317
  • Little Crow Tele-media Network
  • Local Initiatives Support Corporation – Duluth
  • Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy
  • MN Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs
  • Neighborhood House
  • New Vision Foundation
  • Northfield Healthy Community Initiative
  • NW Links -Region 1
  • PORT Group Home Inc
  • Project FINE – Winona Co.
  • Project for Pride in Living
  • ResourceWest
  • South Central Service Cooperative
  • Southwest West Central Services Coop

Crow Wing Power on broadband updates in Crow Wing, Morrison, Cass and Aitkin Counties

In their most recent newsletter, Crow Wing Power spoke with local providers about broadband upgrades and expansion in the area, often spurred by great need in COVID.

From CTC…

  • Kristi [Westbrock, CTC CEO] explained that in mid-March, the company scrambled to extend finer to where it was needed and where they could reasonably expand, so students could have access to Internet for distance learning. It’s estimated that their efforts in the Brainerd ISD 101 school district provided broadband access to approximately 200 families in the region and set up 50 hot spots where kid cluster could go to study.
  • In 2019, CTC received an $830,587 MN Border to Border grant from the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to expand services to build to Ft. Ripley, and other areas in Crow Wing and Morrison Counties. This allowed CTC to build to 399 homes in portions of St. Mathias and Fort Ripley Townships, as well.
  • “Most recently, CTC received CARES Act funding from both Crow Wing and Cass County to build broadband to unserved areas of Welton Road, County Rd 10, Border Lake, Little Pine Road and unserved areas in Lake Edward Township. The funds must be used by December 1 so these locations will have access to fiber Internet.

From Emily Cooperative Telephone Company…

  • Five hot spots were also installed throughout the communities, which are still available. Josh [ECTC CEO] said they are updating 100 homes in the Crosslake area to finer services and reviewing other areas for 2021. ECTC also received a MN DEED grant of $376,000 to build fiber services to the Esquagamah and Round Lake area in Aitkin County.

COVID-inspired free tutoring for Minnesota kids preK-8 through AmeriCorps Serve Minnesota

There’s a story behind this initiative –based on students’ need and AmeriCorps talented team and infrastructure. For busy parents who are juggling working and trying to facilitate teaching from home, I have something that might help. Remote tutoring that’s free. You don’t have to drive a kid anywhere or worry about exposure to COVID. You don’t have to pretend to understand how new math works. All you need is sufficient broadband…

Do you want to learn more about this new initiative to bring Reading Corps and Math Corps directly to families? Here’s how to works:

If you are a Minnesota family with a child in PreK – 8th grade, it’s easy to get started:

  1. Visit Reading Corps/Math Corps online for a personal consultation – it’s FREE! — minnesotareadingcorps.org/families
  2. Meet with a literacy or math expert to discuss the needs of your learner(s)

Based on the identified needs of your student, you’ll either:

  • Be matched with a reading/math specialist who will work with your learner(s)directly
    to provide skill building and practice (likely in a virtual setting) and/or
  • Receive resources and activities you can do at home to support learning

Schools across the country rely on Reading Corps and Math Corps to support students who need extra help. Our highly trained specialists focus on skill building and use research-based activities proven to work. For homework help and other assistance, please contact your child’s school.

Le Sueur County uses CARES funding for wireless towers in Tyrone Township

Le Sueur County News reports…

One of Le Sueur County’s top priorities for the year is to expand broadband into under-served areas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in planned and proposed broadband projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year through federal funds from the CARES Act.

Le Sueur County received $3.4 million from the federal government. One of the first projects approved with that money is a $140,000 proposal to bring high speed wireless internet to Tyrone Township in partnership with Netwave Broadband.

Netwave, a subsidiary of Access Networks Inc., brought a proposal to set up a 5G 900 Mhz wireless tower. The tower would provide 100 mb speeds for up to 218 homes in a 7-mile coverage radius from a tower off Hwy. 169 near the Cambria Processing Facility.

And here’s what it will look like to customers and the provider…

On the customer side, it would cost $299 for a basic one-time installation fee. Customers would be charged $99.99 per month for 100 mb of service in a three year contract. The $99 would only cover internet, but NetWave also has a phone service and is in the process of setting up television services.

In the deal, NetWave Broadband would take on most of the risk for keeping the wireless tower operational.

“All the risk as far as the tower maintenance, keeping everything afloat as far as tower rent, power, the responsibility is all on us,” said Steve Herman with NetWave Broadband. “We’re just asking for capital investment to provide service in the area and then we’ll take all management and everything over from that point.”