EVENT Aug 4: Task Force on Broadband agenda & instructions

Online and open to all, here are the details from the Office of Broadband Development

Governor’s Task Force on Broadband

August 4, 2020

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

 

Webex/Conference Call
Dial-in:
1-619-377-3319 or 1-888-742-5095, Passcode 3249482049

Meeting link:

https://intercall.webex.com/intercall/j.php?MTID=m084c72bdb90f292b59fc021ac3ebd7de

PW: DEED

Meeting Number: 130 292 7338

10:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Welcome, Task Force Introductions, Attendee Introductions and Approval of Minutes from June 24, 2020 Meeting

10:15 a.m. – 11:10 a.m.  Minnesota Department of Education Overview of CARES Act Funding for Distance Learning Alicia Waeffler, Equity and Opportunity Programs Supervisor

Michael Dietrich, ESEA Policy Specialist

Sara George, ESEA/ESSA Title I Part A Program Specialist

11:10 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.                Break

11:15 a.m. – 11:35 a.m.  Report out by Minnesota Model Subgroup (Chair: Brian Krambeer; Members: Steve Fenske, Theresa Sunde, Paul Weirtz)

11:35 a.m. – 11:55 a.m.  Report out by Barriers and Technology Subgroup (Co-Chairs: Marc Johnson, Dave Wolf; Members: Nolan Cauthen, Steve Giorgi, Jim Weikum)

11:55 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Report out by Economic Development and Digital Inclusion Subgroup (Chair: Bernadine Joselyn; Members: Dale Cook and Micah Myers)

12:15 p.m. – 12:25 p.m. Discussion of Report Writing Process

12:25 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Public Comment, Other Business, September Meeting Plans, Wrap-up

Dakota County plans for CARES and Broadband (Meeting Aug 4)

If you have an interest in what’s happening in Dakota County or you just want to hear/see what another county is doing, you might consider attending the discussion (online and in person) in Dakota County

WHEREAS, Dakota County is committed to be a high-performing organization for the citizens of the County; and

WHEREAS, the Workshop will be an opportunity for the County Board to discuss Broadband; and

WHEREAS, staff recommends holding a workshop to allow staff to receive direction from the County Board on Broadband.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Dakota County Board of Commissioners hereby schedules a County Board Workshop for Tuesday, August 4, 2020, following the General Government and Policy Committee, in the Boardroom, Administration Center, 1590 Highway 55, Hastings, MN, or via telephone or other electronic means if necessary due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to receive comments on staff direction for Broadband.

You can learn a little more about their plan (easier to read on their site)

Update On Process And Timeline For Potential COVID-19 Related Broadband Expansion Using CARES Act Funding

PURPOSE/ACTION REQUESTED
Provide an update on the process and timeline in developing COVID-19 related Broadband Expansion in Dakota County.
SUMMARY
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic. Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County (Attachment A). These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
The County will mail letters of interest (Attachment B) to all service providers (Attachment C) in the County asking them to respond with project areas that can be built out to better serve the residents of the County. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. The Information Technology (IT) Department will review and recommend the best potential projects and setup meetings to fully develop project plans.
Proposed Time Line:
July 28, 2020 – send Letters of Interest to all service providers
August 12, 2020 – deadline for receipt of responses
Week ending August 21, 2020 reviewing responses
Request Board approval in September
Contracts for approved projects executed September
October/November buildout
Payment before December 1st
County IT will update the board with specific project locations, cost and project schedules.
RECOMMENDATION
Information only; no action requested.
EXPLANATION OF FISCAL/FTE IMPACTS
Funding for any projects, if approved, would be expected to use CARES Act funds with an amount to be
determined.

And a look at the letter that is going out…

DATE: July 28, 2020
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Dan Cater, Chief Information Officer
SUBJECT: Broadband Connectivity within Dakota County borders
Dakota County Government has an interest in expanding high speed internet throughout Dakota County as the COVID-19 situation has illustrated the need for faster more reliable connectivity for our citizens, business, and other agencies.
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic.
Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County. These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
Attached is the most recent service inventory map produced by the State of Minnesota Deed Office of Broadband. CARES Act requires an aggressive timeline. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. Work and payment need to be completed before
December 1st of this year. A high-level timeline is below:
– July 28th – letter soliciting proposals/plans
– August 12
th – deadline for receipt of responses
– Week ending August 21st review responses, setting up zoom meetings
– Request Board approval in September
– Contracts executed in September
– October/November buildout
– Payment before December 1st
Please let us know if you have an interest in discussing in providing a solution by contacting
Dan.Ferber@co.dakota.mn.us or Dan.Cater@co.dakota.mn.us.

Dakota County is always generous with public access to documents, which I think can be a gift to counties with fewer staff working on broadband.

Which students are left behind when learning goes online? Spoiler alert, there’s no spoiler

As every parent, teacher and student in Minnesota waits to hear later today from Governor Walz about how the State recommends schools handling pandemic learning this fall, I think it’s helpful to look at who is left behind when/if we move education online.

Online education is tough enough when all of the tech pieces are there; lack of computer and broadband makes is almost insurmountable. Only last year, report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis finds Minnesota is one of the worst states in the country for education achievement gaps. We need to find ways to make that gap more narrow and shallow. Proving access to adequate technology is a small, but necessary step because as the report below shows, technology does not currently help to close that gap. And the irony is, it could.

Here’s the status as Future Ready Schools reports…

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a near-total shutdown of the U.S. school system, forcing more than 55 million students to transition to home-based remote learning practically overnight. In most cases, that meant logging in to online classes and accessing lessons and assignments through a home internet connection.

Sadly, that was not an option for children in one out of three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households. Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.”

According to an analysis of data from the 2018 American Community Survey conducted for the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Indian Education Association, millions of households with children under the age of 18 years lack two essential elements for online learning: (1) high-speed home internet service and (2) a computer.

Here’s what they found in Minnesota:

Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 19%
Number of Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 264,334

Minnesota By Income

Percentage of Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 40%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 50,660
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 66,298
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 24%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,869
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 15%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 74,704
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 9%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 27,803

Minnesota By Race

Percentage of White Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of White Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 184,337
Percentage of Asian Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 14%
Number of Asian Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 12,461
Percentage of Black Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 27%
Number of Black Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,036
Percentage of Latino Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 35%
Number of Latino Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 30,226
Percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 37%
Number of American Indian/Alaska Native Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 9,655

Minnesota By Location

Percentage of Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 79,087
Percentage of Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of Children in Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 182,209

 

Crow Wing County puts $1.5M of CARES funds into broadband & CTC

The Brainerd Dispatch reports…

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, July 28, approved a plan to distribute dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. After $1.5 million expected to be applied toward reimbursing the county’s expenses, the program includes $3 million toward grants for businesses, $1.5 million for broadband expansion and $1 million for nonprofits grants. An additional $1 million could be shifted to any of those categories, depending on need.

Sounds like folks were OK with broadband but some discussion on the details…

CARES Act fund will also support three broadband expansion projects in the county: for Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who asked for the latter project to be included, said Tuesday officials with the township were willing to commit their own CARES Act funds to the broadband expansion.

County Administrator Tim Houle said last week applying these funds toward broadband expansion would not only better equip residents for the new realities of virtual communication, it would be an investment outlasting the pandemic. With social distancing playing a major role in the response, the demand to connect virtually for distance learning or telework has increased dramatically.

The funding will go to CTC telecommunications company, which will also receive funds to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi access points throughout the community to aid in distance learning efforts and COVID-related broadband installations completed from March to May. CTC CEO Kristi Westbrock said Monday they were in the process of surveying customers to determine how many of those new installations were directly related to needs associated with telework, distance learning or telemedicine.

The measure passed 4-1 with Commissioner Doug Houge opposed. Houge voted against the package because he said he didn’t think it was fair to offer CARES Act dollars only to CTC, when he thought other providers would be interested in pursuing broadband projects in the county.

“We’ve got, how many, four or five providers up there that I know would have projects if this is a definite allowable use of these dollars,” Houge said. “I think it’s only fair that we give them the opportunity to utilize those if they’re comfortable that it’s an allowable use. It just seems like we’re pushing this through without all of the information.”

There was some question as to whether applying CARES Act funding to broadband expansion would be an allowed use of those dollars. Westbrock previously said she’d done the legwork to help ensure it would pass an audit and committed to paying the money back if it became necessary, although there was no official word giving it the OK.

Houle said the contingency dollars could potentially be used for other companies’ broadband projects.

“There is still the potential to do some additional project work and … consistent with what the board’s action, or discussion I should say, was yesterday, I am reaching out to the other telecommunications companies,” he said. “ … What I’m suggesting is, that door’s not closed yet. It’s a pretty tight timeframe. It has to be in the ground by Dec. 1st.”

Houge said with $1.5 million set aside for CTC alone and $1 million in the contingency fund, the other companies would receive much smaller amounts if it was determined to be an allowable use. He said he agreed with all the other aspects of the CARES Act funding program, but was concerned the board was making a decision too quickly on the broadband piece.

Franzen said she thought Houle was doing a good job contacting providers and noted CTC was the only company stating it would pay back funds if the use was not allowed. Houge reiterated he thought that point should be nailed down.

“Well, I think this is a great opportunity,” Franzen said.

“I’m not saying it isn’t a great opportunity, I’m saying let’s make it fair to all the providers,” Houge replied.

“It is,” Franzen said.

“I don’t believe it is,” Houge replied.

Chairman Paul Koering suggested he’d postpone the matter until the next county board meeting. Houge said he still wanted to move forward on the other items. Franzen made a motion to approve the plan, which was seconded by Commissioner Steve Barrows.

Klobuchar Highlights Need to Address Challenges in Rural America During Pandemic

From Senator Klobuchar, her speech on the needs of rural America, including the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act…

— Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) spoke on the Senate Floor to address the impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on rural America—and the need to help our rural communities withstand this public health crisis and the resulting economic uncertainty. 

We must take immediate action to provide critical support that rural areas need…areas that may not have easy access to hospitals…may have smaller hospitals. That’s why that issue of funding for state and local governments as long as we make sure that the rural areas are able to share in this funding as well is so important,” Klobuchar said in her remarks.

“The rural hospitals, the equipment…all of this. And that is beyond what we all know already, and that is the food supply change, our nutrition program. We certainly don’t want a situation where you can’t get homegrown American food, just as we have learned with the supply chains of medical equipment you can’t always get the swabs that you need for so many of our testings and the like.

“We want to maintain not just some romantic vision of the past, our rural areas, we want to maintain them for America. It’s for having that food that’s ours and having it made in America so we’re not dependent on foreign food…It’s for having our own energy supply which can be varied and vast…It’s about having our own technology and developing the next new idea and the next new iPhone. We’re not going to be able to do that if we shut out a big swatch of our country. That’s not going to work. We actually want to encourage the development in rural America. That’s what I think we need to do.” 

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Klobuchar has worked hard to ensure our rural economy is strong and rural communities have the tools they need to spur innovation, create jobs and opportunities, and confront the challenges posed by crises like COVID-19.

In May, following a request from Klobuchar, the Administration provided flexibility for doctors who assist in the fight against coronavirus. A request was made in April by Klobuchar, along with Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK), Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), and Brad Schneider (D-IL). Without a waiver of these restrictions, doctors in the Conrad 30 program who provide care in crisis locations, even remotely, would be putting their immigration status in jeopardy.

Klobuchar has advocated for many years for the Conrad 30 program, which allows doctors to stay in the United States without having to return home if they agree to practice in an underserved, often rural, area for three years. The “30” refers to the number of doctors per state that can participate in the program.

Earlier this month, Senator Klobuchar introduced The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act,which Klobuchar introduced earlier today in the Senate, which wouldill invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. 

In May, Klobuchar and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced theSupporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Actto help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students. 

In March 2020, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. TheKeeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

For years, Klobuchar has been a leader in the fight to strengthen the RFS to support American jobs and decrease dependence on foreign oil. Klobuchar has led several letters urging the Administration to cease issuing small refinery waivers and reject changes to the RFS that would upend stability and predictability for farmers and rural communities. 

In June, Klobuchar led a bipartisan letter joined by Smith, with Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reject petitions for Small Refinery Exemptions (SREs) under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for past compliance years.

In December 2019, Klobuchar led a public comment letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing concern over the proposed supplemental rule establishing the Renewable Fuel Standard’s (RFS) 2020 Renewable Volume Obligations and 2021 Biomass-Based Diesel Volumes. The senators argued that the proposed rule—which determines how much biofuel is required to be blended into our transportation fuel supply on an annual basis—fails to adequately account for the waivers, including those given to big oil companies. In October 2019, Klobuchar sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking the agency to document the impact of small refinery waivers on farm income, commodity prices, and renewable fuel usage.

At a Senate Agriculture hearing in June, Klobuchar highlighted the urgent need to help farmers identify conservation techniques that would have the greatest benefit for the climate and farmers’ bottom lines.

As a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Klobuchar successfully pushed for key climate provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill, including provisions to increase acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by 3 million acres, invest in renewable energy programs including the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), protect native prairies by fixing a loophole in the “Sodsaver” program, and improve the use of conservation data so that farmers are able to make better choices about conservation practices that benefit their yields and the environment – based on her Agriculture Data Act with Senator Thune.  

Transcript of remarks as delivered below and video available HERE.

Continue reading

EVENT OCTOBER: Mark Your Calendar! Broadband 2020: Connected We Stand

From the Blandin Foundation…

We invite you to join us this October for a next generation broadband-enabled, broadband-focused conference.

Interesting times require innovative solutions!

The world is in flux and broadband seems to be at the center of it. The COVID-19 pandemic and guidelines on social distancing are creating the need and opportunity to learn how to do things differently, often with an online element. Meanwhile, the internet and social media are allowing people from all over the world in real time to witness and participate first-hand in the movement to end racial inequities in Minnesota and nationwide.

From telework to distance learning to keeping in touch with family and friends; from citizen journalism to starting a movement online; one thing is certain – access to broadband and the skills to use it is more important than ever.

We have decided to lean in, to take advantage of the technology we’ve been promoting for so long to meet your educational, professional, and civic needs, and hopefully demonstrate new ways to work and meet that you can bring back to your community.

The conference will be entirely virtual – but that doesn’t mean a series of online lectures. While we have planned a few traditional presentations, we have also created opportunities for discussion and collaboration, such as:

  • Custom meetup/mentoring sessions where you can meet online with potential partners and/or experts in broadband adoption and deployment.
  • Learning Cohorts (small groups) to connect you with other attendees to bounce ideas and traverse an online event throughout the conference.
  • Exciting keynote speakers with the option to ask questions in real time or later
  • Opportunities for small group discussion

For more information including a preliminary schedule of events, visit the conference webpage.

One in Five in Rural MN unserved – can better maps or federal funding help?

GovTech reports…

For decades there has been a push to bring high-speed Internet service to all of Minnesota, but today about one in five rural Minnesota households still lack access.

“It’s criminal we don’t have high-speed Internet in rural areas,” said Wes Gilbert of Mankato Computer Technology.

They spoke with Blandin Broadband team member and colleague Bill Coleman…

Bill Coleman of Mahtomedi-base Technology Advisors Corp. has for 20 years worked with counties, communities, schools and others to improve Internet access.

“We’re chasing something that’s running very fast in front of us,” he said of getting universal access.

He said poor Internet speed is especially highlighted as people try to upload data.

The state’s definition of and goal for high-speed broadband has been a 25 megabits download speed and 3 megabits upload.

Bill offers an option for better mapping…

He said there are companies now able to better measure who really has high-speed Internet. A current speed test is being conducted in northeast Minnesota.

“Their mapping in a very sophisticated way and they can show where service is and isn’t despite what providers say. In many cases the service providers say they’re providing doesn’t really exist,” Coleman said.

“A lot of providers say they deliver 25 megs but it’s actually maybe 5.” Depending on how the service is being delivered, customers living farther away from certain equipment will have a slower speed than advertised, and if copper wires or other equipment isn’t good, it weakens speeds.

And hope from federal funding…

One federal program Coleman is hopeful could provide a boost is the Rural Development Opportunity Fund, funded through the FCC.

There is a total of $20 billion available and the money is to be distributed across the country using a “reverse auction.” That means Internet providers who show they can provide the most broadband for the lowest cost will qualify for the grants.

“The lower the speed (providers) promise, they get penalized. So the FCC is incenting the higher speed.

“It will be interesting to see the strategy of providers and how they bid and who gets these dollars,” Coleman said.

OPPORTUNITY: MRHA Emerging Rural Health Leader Award nomiations open

From the Minnesota Rural Health Association

Each year at the MN Rural Health Conference MRHA Awards a deserving student the Emerging Rural Health Leader award. Unfortunately this year’s conference has been cancelled. However, the opportunity to acknowledge an up-and-coming rural health leader is not.

MRHA will be presenting this year’s award in conjunction with National Rural Health Day on November 19, 2020. Please consider nominating someone today.

Click here for the NOMINATION FORM

With the growing reliance of telehealth, it feels like this belongs in a broadband blog as well as any health resource out there. Deadline is Oct 23, 2020.

COVID Funding available at city and county level in Minnesota

The broadband connection here may be tenuous but you have to be online to see the list – and the list may include possible funding for broadband. (Ironic, huh the people who need it most might not see it!) I did want to share this info from the MN Chamber of Commerce because I suspect the info is valuable to many readers…

Businesses around Minnesota need assistance to withstand the challenges of COVID-19. Many cities and counties throughout the state have grant or loan programs available to businesses, so their local economies can compete and thrive. The Minnesota Chamber’s Grow Minnesota! Partnership has compiled a list of available funding at the city and county level.

Find your community on this list, and apply for valuable resources to keep your company operating. If you don’t see your community on this list, email growminnesota@mnchamber.com, and Grow Minnesota! Partnership staff will get back to you with details about your area.

Visit the site to see the list.

So about schools and distance learning and broadband – WCCO is asking

It’s the best of times, worst of times when broadband is hitting the mainstream media. I’m sorry for the problem, but glad that people (even outside served areas) are recognizing the inequity and difficulties: WCCO TV reports…

We’ll learn later this week what school will look like for Minnesota students this fall. No matter what’s announced on Thursday, districts are again preparing for internet service to again be an important piece. Connection problems plagued some areas in Greater Minnesota this past spring.

Telehealth hubs bridge the gap for patients without access to computers, broadband and/or skills to access online help

MinnPost reports…

When COVID-19 hit Minnesota this spring, most health care providers made the shift to telehealth as a way to safely see their patients without risk of spreading the virus. While this approach works for people who are well connected through smartphones, computers and tablets, Joncas said a large number of her clients at the St. Paul Opportunity Center (and its sister program in Minneapolis) live on the edge of the virtual world, making accessing health care via telehealth nearly impossible.

Online is convenient and a life saver for folks who are connected but it’s leaving many people falling farther behind, especially anyone experiencing poverty or homelessness…

“When we’d say, ‘I see you missed your appointment. Let’s get another appointment set up on your phone,’ it usually didn’t work,” she said. “Many of these guys didn’t have phones to begin with. Or, if they did have a phone, their payments were erratic so their service was off and on. Or they had limited data and didn’t want to use it up.”

And when you’re living arrangements are not ideal privacy can be an issue…

And clients who did have a working smartphone weren’t all that keen on giving telehealth a try, Joncas said. Shelter living is famous for its lack of privacy, so virtually visiting with a health care provider in spaces already occupied by other people felt unappealing.

Then M Health Fairview offered an option…

The email went on to explain that M Health Fairview had already set up telehealth hubs — or private rooms outfitted with high-definition computers where patients could safely have remote visits with mental- and chemical-health counselors — at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital just a few blocks away. Would Catholic Charities be interested in setting up a similar hub at the Opportunity Center?

“From there it was pretty easy,” Joncas said. The St. Paul Opportunity Center actually had a number of private consultation rooms that usually are used by case managers during client meetings. The rooms were too small for two people to practice social distancing, so they’d been standing empty for months.

SO they set up space…

When M Health Fairview set up the first telehealth hubs at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the idea was to mimic the usual patient experience as much as possible. The two hub rooms are located near the hospital’s outpatient mental health and addiction clinic, where many patients were used to seeing their provider pre-pandemic.

Staff at the hospital helps walk patients through the virtual visits, showing them to the hub rooms, explaining how to use the equipment and connecting them with their doctors. Levine added that there are plans to expand hub services to other M Health Fairview clinics, where a “skeleton staff” outfitted in PPE would check in patients, and help get their appointment started. “For the most part the process is extremely simple,” he said. “Hopefully for most people it doesn’t feel too far off from an in-person visit.”

Scheduling a telehealth hub appointment should be as easy as scheduling an in-person appointment. “When people call in to schedule an appointment with a provider, our central intake team asks them questions about if they can use a phone or a computer for a video visit or if they have a private place to be able to talk,” Levine said. “If they aren’t able to do any of those they are offered to go to the telehub location.”

They are looking to grow the number of hubs…

Levine said that M Health Fairview is making tentative plans to expand the telehealth hubs to other locations close to communities that could benefit the most from using them.

“The hope would be that we could start putting some of the hubs in strategic locations for people who don’t have a safe place to talk or the equipment they need to handle a call. Because many people have limited transportation, these places will be in areas that they can get to easily with public transportation.”

It would be nice to see some of these in rural areas. I have seen computer kiosks or labs in mini-buses, laundromats, manufactured home communities, campgrounds and more. They need is at least as great in rural areas. There are starting points. It would be great to see!

Bernadine Joselyn and Bill Coleman on League of MN Cities’ podcast with Everything’s Better with Better Broadband

Blandin Broadband team members Bernadine Joselyn and Bill Coleman were recently on LMC’s podcast to talk about broadband. Here’s a brief description from the website…

Access to reliable, high-speed internet is vital to the economic success of a community — a big reason why Minnesota has a goal of border-to-border broadband by 2026. But building a broadband infrastructure in a community takes more than technical know-how. Blandin Foundation’s Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy & engagement, and Bill Coleman, community broadband coach, talk about how technology is just a small piece of the broadband puzzle and how hope, tenacity (gird your loins!), and local leadership are the key ingredients to bringing border-to-border broadband services to cities.

Broadband Life in Little Falls – when the maps say you’re served and you know you aren’t! (Morrison County)

Broadband Communities recently featured Little Falls Minnesota and their broadband story…

Despite being unable to handle bandwidth-intensive activities for city offices and local businesses, the speeds the incumbents do offer, which met the FCC broadband definition of “served,” mean Little Falls is ineligible for federal funds.

“The city didn’t qualify for FCC funding because the maps said the city was served,” said Jon Radermacher, city administrator of Little Falls, during the Broadband Communities webinar, “Fiber Networks – Critical Municipal Infrastructure to Support the ‘New Normal.’” “However, the networks in our city weren’t robust or reliable for the needs of our business, the industrial districts and our schools.”

When a software company set up a location in one of the city’s business parks in 2013, it provided a catalyst to build out a fiber network for businesses. The company strongly demanded a fiber-based network. That prompted Little Falls to strike a network agreement with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC), a Minnesota telephone cooperative that works with utilities, municipalities and government entities to build fiber networks outside its traditional service area.

With support from various partners, the network was built to provide high-speed broadband to local businesses and city services. The hope is that soon it will provide broadband for local residents.

Driving Economic Development

Little Falls partnered with area economic development agencies (EDAs) to fund the build, which cost $530,000. “We came to a construction and lease agreement with CTC to build out a fiber ring that would serve all of that business park, connect another industrial park, build a fiber network throughout our downtown area, and connect over to our school district,” Radermacher said.

The city also is served by a private nonprofit called Morrison County Community Development and local EDAs. “We split up the financing for this network between the partners,” Radermacher said. “We then leased it back with the buyout clause similar to the agreement CTC had with Long Prairie, Minnesota.” After the fiber network went live in 2014, CTC executed the buyout agreement and now owns the fiber network.

The story goes on to point out what’s frustrating (maps), what helps (public-private partnerships) , the benefits and the difference is made in ability to respond to COVID19.

I want to talk to your county or tribal community about broadband and its impact on your COVID response – interested?

As part of the Minnesota Broadband Profiles this year, I would love to talk to counties about their COVID experience based on broadband situation. I have one question only:

Is broadband helping or hurting your community’s ability to function during the pandemic? Generally, do you feel like broadband has been a help or a hindrance?

I would set up and record a Zoom call to include with the 2020 County Broadband Profiles. (You can check out the 2019 Profiles if you are unfamiliar.)  There are 87 counties and 11 tribal communities in Minnesota. My goal is not to talk to all of them. (Although I could.) My goal is to talk to the folks who will make it easy for me. So if you’re the economic developer, county commissioner or anyone with enough passion to get a few folks together for a call – I’m happy to talk to you and schedule something. (atreacy@treacyinfo.com)

Two requests:

  • Looking for multiple people to participate per county
  • Hoping for one local lead (so one point of contact for me)

My deadlines aren’t set in stone but I’m aiming to connect with people by July 31 and would love to schedule videos by Aug 17. I focus on county and tribal community because that is how the MN broadband maps come out.

Blue Cross Blue Shield extends their COVID-inspired telehealth coverage through end of 2020

Blue Cross Blue Shield reports…

As part of its ongoing effort to help prevent the spread and impact of COVID-19 and improve the long-term sustainability of health care in Minnesota, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (Blue Cross) is extending eligibility for certain expanded benefits through the end of the year.

In March, Blue Cross temporarily expanded telehealth coverage to include many additional services that have traditionally been provided in a clinic setting. These changes were made in an effort to ensure members could receive care from their usual providers without the need for in-person visits. As a result of a sustained increase in usage of telehealth by Blue Cross members, all temporary telehealth coverage changes currently in effect will be extended through December 31, 2020. This includes coverage for behavioral health services, in addition to physical, speech and occupational therapy, and medication management. …

In an effort to help bring about more continuity and financial predictability for providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, all telehealth services for Blue Cross members will continue to be covered at the same reimbursement rate as in-person visits through the rest of 2020.

“We’re continuously monitoring and evaluating the cost and quality of telehealth services with a focus on making this a useful and sustainable transformation for our members,” Dr. Samitt added. “For certain services, virtual care isn’t a viable option. But for others, it has the potential to deliver equal or better quality at a lower cost, while improving patient experiences.”