Biden visits Duluth and mentions broadband as tool to put people to work

Duluth News Tribune reports on a recent visit from presidential candidate Joe Biden to Hermantown, outside of Duluth…

Biden’s economic plan called for a now-familiar tax increase for people making over $400,000 per year. Money raised would go toward putting tradespeople to work by modernizing infrastructure, bringing broadband internet to all homes, and reinforcing existing homes and structures.

Minnesota House, District 3A campaign: Rep Ecklund lists broadband as a priority

The Internation Falls Journal looks at various political races, including Minnesota House, District 3A: Rob Ecklund and Thomas Manninen. They ask basic questions to help provide a snapshot of each candidate. Representative Ecklund mentions broadband as a priority for economic growth…

In addition to short term investments to create jobs, we need a comprehensive strategy to attract and retain families and businesses. The biggest barrier to this is a lack of dependable high-speed broadband internet across Greater Minnesota. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded these challenges. I’ve successfully carried legislation to invest $40 million in the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program, but major coverage gaps remain. If students can’t get online to do homework, or businesses can’t get online to bring their products to the global marketplace, people will move to where they can get this access. Regions like ours can’t afford to lose out on the opportunities presented by internet access, which in the year 2020 should be a basic necessity rather than a luxury for rural families.

Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking: Finances and COVID

Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED), which measures the economic well-being of U.S. households and identifies potential risks to their finances. Recognizing the unprecedented financial disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve conducted a supplemental survey in April and July 2020 to monitor changes in the financial well-being of Americans.

The survey is conducting entirely online. So folks are the very far end of the digital divide are likely not included. It would interesting to know the impact of online only. It would also be interested in know the impact of having sufficient broadband among people who have gone back to work, hope to go back and those who aren’t likely to go back to the same job.

Growth & Justice’s Equity Blueprint Breakfast on Broadband Notes

Earlier this week, I attended a Growth and Justice webinar on broadband. I suspected they would share they notes and they have…

As part of our Recipes for Success series, Growth & Justice hosted a virtual Broadband Breakfast yesterday, where we were joined by Diane Wells of the MN Department of Broadband Development. Diane gave us a detailed update on the state of broadband in Minnesota; you can look at her slideshow and data here. If you missed the event and would like to watch the recording, you can access it here. If you are interested in registering for our next Blueprint Breakfast on September 30th focused on healthcare, you can register for it here! Additionally, the Blandin Foundation’s Annual Broadband Conference is happening over Zoom from October 6—29. Talk about broadband access, participate in sessions with experts, hear from keynote speakers and network and collaborate with others interested in broadband! You can read more and register on their event’s page. In related news, don’t forget to take the MN Rural Broadband Coalition’s Speed Test! You can access the test here

Senators Smith and Klobuchar join others to ask FCC to use E-Rate to connect students now

Senator Smith and Senator Klobuchar join a list of 30 senators sending a letter to ask the FCC to use e-rate to get students the broadband they need to distance learn if and when they need to do so…

As a new school year begins, students across the country are increasingly returning to virtual classrooms due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. 1 These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. 2 Without urgent action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we are deeply concerned that they will fall further behind in their studies. The current emergency demands that you take immediate action to help our nation’s most vulnerable children.

We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this “homework gap” without further delay. The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to start connecting students immediately.

Red the full letter

Lac qui Parle (LqP) County Chat: Broadband made COVID easier, and boosted interest in adoption

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Lac qui Parle (LqP) County is served. They rank third in terms of county coverage (99.57 percent)  at speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

The county is well served because the County and Farmers were awarded a $9.6 million ARRA award in August 2010. Pam Lehmann was the Director of the Economic Development Authority at the time and instrumental in that project. At the same time, they outfitted a small commuter van with computer and internet access. The Computer Commuter. Ten years ago it was all the rage and folks may remember it. It is still making the rounds, mostly helping seniors make better use of technology.

So it was fun to talk to her today about whether broadband has been help or hindrance in dealing with COVID. It’s a help!

Pam works with small businesses and does recruitment for healthcare. The effort to move businesses online has not been difficult. For some businesses it was a matter of choosing a higher tier service than they currently use but is fiber installed so the upgrade is easy.

Having broadband has made it possible for Pam to connect with state and federal funders quickly, which in turn has allowed the community to get COVID funding. What took a few hours to download and process would have taken days before the upgrade. Although as Pam says, it’s hard to remember because they take the connection for granted now.

Many businesses have allowed people to work from home. Business owners note greater productivity this year over last! For Mainstreet businesses, it’s been a matter of getting creative with offering new services – like a lunch to pick up instead of a meal at the café. Knowing that the business and the customer have great broadband has made that easier.

Great broadband has helped with recruitment too. The healthcare facilities have been hiring and have been holding all of the interviews online. It’s not the same as having someone come to town but, especially in the healthcare industry, you don’t want people coming from their hospital to fly to LqP to local hospitals; so adequate broadband for video interactions have been a potential life saver. And one of the big questions is recruitment is how to make the family and partners of employees happy. Increasingly they are finding that the partner of the healthcare professional can keep their old job and work online.

The schools has planned on in-person classes this year but when the middle school had a case of COVID and the high school flooded due to a construction incident, they are now (temporarily) online. They send no paper packs home. They all sign on. At Pam’s place, which is a farm, she has two adults working on laptops, two kids working on Chromebooks and half a dozen devices all going at the same time. No hiccups or slowdowns.

For healthcare it’s the change in reimbursement and other waivers that have made life easier. That and the impetus for many people to just start using Zoom and other technologies. The comfort level for using technology has increased since COVID but the means to use it has not.

Mille Lacs County looks at CARES funding for wireless broadband

Mille Lacs Messenger reports…

Talks of potential broadband expansion in the southern portion of Mille Lacs County have taken place over the last month among county board members and county administration. The county is pursuing CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding for this expansion.

During a special meeting in late August, the County outlined a proposal to implement broadband infrastructure using the CARES Act funding available to counties and local government.

The proposal stated that Advantenon, a broadband wireless internet provider servicing Minnesota and South Dakota, will complete the building of towers that provide broadband internet service, beginning with the southern border of Mille Lac County and working northward. Coverage in the unserved and underserved areas would extend to an east/west line three miles north of Page to the southern border of the County.

Advantenon’s responsibilities would include confirming suitable tower locations for internet backbone connectivity and for hub and spoke antenna host sites, creating construction plans for all sites, installing and configuring network infrastructure to support Internet connectivity and inter-tower connectivity, installing end users (a residential, business, institutional, or government entity that uses services for its own purposes and does not resell such services to other entities) as time permits until Dec. 31, 2020, and installing end users as requested after Dec. 31, 2020.

The County’s responsibilities were outlined as assisting Advantenon in identifying antenna host sites in smaller towns, particularly when water towers are good candidate locations, identifying antenna hosting at suitable county-owned premises and assisting in permitting process for county permits.

Advantenon will utilize the feasibility study and a past State of Minnesota grant proposal, which has been denied twice for Mille Lacs County, to confirm tower locations within the southern portion of Mille Lacs County. Once tower locations have been confirmed, the towers will be utilized to install and configure end use connectivity.

The estimated project cost, which would include six completed towers and direct internet access, is $1 million. Individual Internet plans through Advantenon would range from $39 to $109 per month or a discounted year-in-advance rate.

Does broadband policy matter? Turns out it does.

Last month, Telecommunications Policy posted a study from Brian Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo on the impact of state policies on broadband availability. The news is good for states and local governments who promote better broadband. And especially because Roberto will be one of our keynotes at the MN Fall Broadband conference I wanted to share the results.

Here’s the abstract…

We use a county-level panel dataset from 2012 to 2018 to assess the impacts of various state policies on total and rural broadband availability in the United States. The primary dependent variable is the percentage of residents with access to 25 Megabits per second (MBPS) download and 3 MBPS upload speeds via a fixed connection, with alternative specifications considering other aspects of availability such as technology type and competition. We control for the main determinants of Internet availability such as income, education, age, and population density. Our policy variables come from the newly released State Broadband Policy Explorer from the Pew Charitable Trusts and individual contacts from the nationwide State Broadband Leaders Network. Our primary policies of interest are those related to: (1) availability of state-level funding, (2) existence of a state-level broadband office/task force with full-time employees, and (3) restrictions on municipal/cooperative broadband provision. We find a positive and significant impact of state-level funding programs on general (and fiber) broadband availability, and a negative impact of municipal/cooperative restrictions. The findings are similar when the analysis is restricted to the rural portions of counties.

And to cut to the chase, here are the numbers indicating the impact of policy support…

  • We find that state-level funding programs increase general broadband availability by 1–2 percentage points.
  • We find that municipal/cooperative restrictions decrease general broadband availability by 3 percentage points.

Are AT&T and other providers changing their tune about mapping or changing their spin?

AT&T is getting a lot of heat after CEO John Stankey published a column in Politico. As Ars Technica reports…

AT&T—which has spent the past decade fighting US-government attempts to improve the country’s horrible broadband maps—is now claiming to be very concerned about the mapping problem that has helped thwart efforts to wire up millions of American homes without adequate broadband access.

AT&T CEO John Stankey this week published an opinion piece in Politico with the apparent goals of improving AT&T’s reputation, reducing government regulation, and getting more federal funding. The piece is titled, “A Game Plan to—Finally—Connect Every American to Broadband,” and the first item on AT&T’s game plan is “to identify where broadband is unavailable with geographic precision.”

Most of the heat stems from the fact that AT&T (and other broadband providers) have a history of not supporting mapping. So folks are questioning the change. Medium offers a high level framework upon which they build a case…

AT&T’s Stankey game plan has 4 goal posts.

  • POINT 1:“First, we need to identify where broadband is unavailable with geographic precision.”
  • POINT 2:“Second, the Federal Communication Commission’s program that supports connectivity for low-income households needs to be modernized.”
  • POINT 3:“Third, as Congress debates earmarking up to $80 billion for rural broadband as part of the next round of pandemic relief, we should give equal weight to wired and wireless options.”
  • POINT 4:“Lastly, Washington should enact a policy framework that incorporates sustainable funding mechanisms for the long run.”

Our take is different: America needs:

  • RESPONSE, POINT 1:A complete accounting of AT&T’s copper and fiber lines in service, “lit” or not lit, (known as “dark”, which are installed but not in use) needs to be done immediately in each state utility.

  • RESPONSE, POINT 2:An investigation to explain why America’s prices are 3–14 times more expensive that other countries, worldwide — with the goal: lower rates 50% or more.

  • RESPONSE, POINT 3:Go after the $95 billion in overcharging over the last 5 years from AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink — and use the money to solve the Digital Divide, once and for all.

  • RESPONSE, POINT 4:New federal and state government oversight andenforcement with penalties and fines must happen now.

The situation calls for a high ranking ombudsman who looks out for the short and long terms needs of consumers and citizens. Or maybe, as is happening, it calls for broadband proponents to respond to Stankey’s position and start a conversation that moves us farther afield.

 

St Cloud Times tells MN Legislature that broadband is key to rural success

In an editorial. St Cloud Times outlines the ways that broadband can help, especially during a pandemic…

We are a long way from learning all the lessons this pandemic has for us. But about this, there is no question: Access to reliable, high-speed data networks is the great equalizer. In these unprecedented times, it’s the difference between learning and earning — or not.

When the virus arrived in Minnesota, the workplace and the classroom changed in the blink of an eye. Decent internet service became the key tool for keeping workers productive, or even employed, and connected students to their teachers and classmates.

Less discussed but perhaps just as important was the internet’s ability to deliver services like a doctor visit online, a counseling session, a visit with an aging parent in a nursing home, a music performance or a virtual happy hour with coworkers. The network’s most tragic job has been connecting families to seriously ill or dying patients quarantined in hospitals.

But back to the economy.

As companies whose workforces were well-equipped for remote work sent their teams home, a defining factor of success became the speed and reliability of the data stream to their workers’ homes. As anyone who has lived through 6 months of video meetings knows, that speed and reliability leaves something to be desired, even in sizable communities.

They tell Minnesota policymakers to make it happen…

Minnesota has done good work. The state has even set a statutory broadband speed goal for all Minnesotans of 100 Mbps/20 Mbps by 2026. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband in 2018 recommended $70 million per biennium in ongoing funding to provide businesses and households across Minnesota to access minimum broadband internet at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program.

But the 2020-2021 biennium allocation was $40 million, the most to date but not enough to help local governments and the private sector level the digital playing field for all Minnesotans.

With the pandemic forcing a mass, if involuntary, proof-of-concept for remote work at scale, all that’s left to do is close the gaps in our rural broadband and demand that lawmakers in St. Paul help fund it.

Mankato Free Press asks MN Legislature to act quickly and decisively on broadband

Mankato Free Press posts an editorial imploring legislators to spend CARES money on rural broadband…

We would argue broadband funding to expand coverage in the short-term and long-term should be a priority. Thousands of Minnesota workers and students now work from home and broadband has become as necessary as electricity.

While broadband coverage has slowly been coming up to state standards in rural areas, there remain large parts of area counties that aren’t up to snuff.

Blue Earth, Brown, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Martin and Waseca counties have between 13 percent and 17 percent of households without broadband that meets the state standards of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Watonwan County (which has a large Hispanic population) has 20 percent without. Faribault County is the best with only 8 percent without high speed broadband.

These percentages of internet darkness are unconscionable for a modern society. And Democrats and Republicans need to step up and fill the gaps, which are not a problem in metro areas.

Senator Klobuchar promotes better broadband in Farmfest forum

The Land (out of Mankato) reports…

Senator Amy Klobuchar spoke as part of the Farmfest virtual “Current State of the Ag Economy” panel on Aug. 4. Presenting from her senate office in Washington D.C., Klobuchar proudly touted that she is one of the most-senior members of the Senate Ag Committee. That being her focus, she explained there’s a concerted effort to get some additional funding for ag in the senate.

She emphasized the need for expanded broadband…

Klobuchar believes not enough attention has been paid to the needs of rural areas and the vital role they play in sustaining this nation. “It gives us a really strong case to make, about why it’s so important that we have producers and growers in our own country.”

Klobuchar believes it’s not only the farm bill which is critical to our rural areas, but access to high speed internet as well. “Not only do we need a strong farm bill, but expanded broadband coverage. Kids in parts of rural America don’t have access to virtual learning right now due to the lack of high-speed broadband in areas. There’s a story in southern Minnesota of a kid taking her biology exam in a liquor store parking lot because it was the only place she could get that high speed. We’re working really hard to get some added funding in this next package when it comes to broadband,” Klobuchar said.

Update from MN Broadband Coalition: Fourth Special Session Begins Today, Broadband Bills Introduced

From the MN Broadband Coalition (via email)…

Saint Paul, Minn.—The Legislature returned, once again, to Saint Paul to convene what are now regular, monthly special sessions. Governor Walz’s emergency powers are set to expire and he must call the Legislature back into session so they can vote on another 30-day extension of the emergency powers.
We expect the session to be brief, likely lasting long enough for the House and Senate to convene and vote on the emergency powers extension. The GOP-run Senate will vote against extending the Governor’s powers and the DFL-controlled House will vote in favor of extension. Both parties are eager to get back on the campaign trail with less than two months before the election in November.
Broadband Bills Reintroduced
Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-Int’l Falls) and Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) have reintroduced their $27 million broadband funding bills from earlier this summer. You will recall this included $2 million for telemedicine, $15 million for education, and $10 million for a supplemental broadband grant program. This legislation in all likelihood will not be moving during the brief September special session (along with almost all other legislation). However, it shows that Capitol leaders remain engaged on the issue and are ready to continue working on it.
In the mean time, all eyes are on the federal government’s negotiation of a second round of coronavirus relief. If Congress allocates more funding to states like they did this spring with the CARES Act, the Coalition intends to ask legislators and the Governor to spend a portion of that money on broadband expansion. Thousands of students are headed back to school through distance learning and we believe it makes sense to have additional funds in the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. Look to the October special session for movement on that effort should Congress agree on a relief package in the next few weeks.

Sherburne County Chat: Broadband is OK, not a big hindrance nor a big help with COVID

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Sherburne County is a mixed bag of served, underserved and unserved. They rank 49th in terms of county coverage at speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

It’s surprising given their proximity to the Twin Cities but the market has driven deployment, which means densely populated areas are served and other areas aren’t. But in terms of COVID response, they have one advantage and that is good cell coverage (with limited hills), which means you can get households decent coverage with mobile hotspots. But mobile hotspots don’t build for the future.

I met today with Dan Weber and Bruce Messelt from County Administration, County Commissioner Raeanne Danielowski, County Commissioner Tim Dolan, and David Roedel from Public Works. I have to say that these guys are no broadband freshman. They have upperclassmen experience and knowledge. They are acutely aware of the state, federal and industry policies that make things go smoothly and make things hard.

Five years ago the county had a feasibility study done. Subsequently, they have received some MN Broadband grants; they have (or are) taking advantage of opportunities such as the State Telecommuter Forward program and the chance to use CARES funding for broadband. They have seen COVID dramatically increase the need for broadband and it are reignited a fire under the team.

They recognize that broadband deployment has largely been led by the providers and that has left some holes. They are looking for ways to work with providers, such as building out conduit as they do construction to make it easier and cheaper for providers to extend services.

Not only has COVID reignited the interest in deployment but across the county people have experienced forced adoption as schools, jobs and services move online. COVID has accelerated the pace of technology adoption but the acceleration hasn’t been unilateral so the County is still required to provide services online and offline for folks who don’t have technology. It’s a tricky and expensive position.

The move to telework has also been uneven. They are working on managing productivity and equity of/in access. Some jobs are easier to do online; some jobs and more difficult. The county has had success with virtual interviews, visitations and courtrooms. While field social workers are finding that they would like to visit their clients, maybe not always but sometimes. Also, not everyone in a department has access at home, which leads to different workloads based on broadband access, which can create an imbalance that isn’t fair and/or doesn’t produce what needs to get done. They are working on fair solutions that get the job done.

Somewhat related, some folks have access to broadband but choose not to get it or choose lower tier services. Sometimes that’s a budget issue, sometimes it’s a priority issue, sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of needs. Especially for people working for the county, there are questions about who should pay for household connectivity.

They are also learning that while five years ago, they were focused on getting broadband to the businesses, now they are finding that the businesses are often at home. So they are full circle to looking for ubiquitous coverage and realizing that the county/community will need to get involved in a public private partnership if they want to see areas that aren’t economically viable get access.

The good news is that Sherburne is the fastest growing county in population. While there was a slow down in 2008, growth has caught up and new development is happening. Broadband follows new development; and development follows broadband but as growth continues those paths seem to catch up to each other.

Finally, right now schools are using a hybrid model for education for sustained continuity. It offers some wiggle room if COVID numbers increase. But they also have students who elect an distance-only path. So the schools and teacher accommodate them. In the spring they had homes without access and without devices but they were better able provide for those students because mobile hotspots worked for all of the students. That has not been the case for other counties.

It seems like the situation in Sherburne is that everything is OK but it’s not good. The difficulty with that is that it’s easier to let OK go than to let a problem fester. Hotspots work for the students but again, it doesn’t build infrastructure. I think it was Commissioner Dolan who said that 25/3 just isn’t enough anymore. They need to change the metrics, they need to focus on coverage for homes and businesses.

Policy plans and proposals to make broadband affordable for all

CNN Business posts an editorial from Gigi Sohn. The details are more on affordability than access. I only note that because often I’m more focused on availability in rural Minnesota. But while availability is necessary, it is not sufficient. And whatever solution is created to make broadband more affordable to all, will ensure that when rural areas get broadband residents in the community will get it equitably.

She starts with a recap of where we are…

Roughly 162 million Americans don’t have access to the internet at broadband speeds due to high prices and a lack of faster options, according to a 2019 study from Microsoft. Meanwhile, there are estimates that anywhere from 21 million to 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband at all.

Minorities and low-income Americans, particularly in urban areas, are disproportionately on the wrong side of this digital divide. Only 56% of American families making less than $30,000 annually have a broadband connection at home. And 66% of Black and 61% of Hispanic adults have home broadband, compared to 79% of Whites.

The current support system…

Currently, low-income Americans receive a $9.25 monthly subsidy through the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, a small stipend that must be spent on either cell phone, telephone, broadband or cable service. While this decades-old subsidy provides essential aid to low-income communities, it’s simply not enough to help the most vulnerable Americans afford the kind of robust broadband connectivity needed to participate in our society and our economy.

And movement toward improvement…

In recognition of this shortfall and in response to the pandemic, last May the House passed the Heroes Act, which still awaits Senate approval. This legislation earmarks $5.5 billion to help expand broadband access to underserved areas, and another $8.8 billion to provide a $50 per month discount on broadband service to help low-income Americans and the recently unemployed to pay for broadband access. That discount jumps to $75 per month for those living in tribal areas.

Several other proposals before Congress, including Democratic Representative Marc Veasy’s Emergency Broadband Connections Act of 2020 and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s Emergency Broadband Connections Act of 2020, not only seek to offer similar discounts, but also authorize US libraries to provide broadband service beyond the confines of their property lines.

These bills acknowledge the urgent importance of expanding essential internet access during a public health crisis. The Moving Forward Act, passed by the House in July, would make the $50 per month discount permanent, in recognition that the digital divide will not magically disappear once the virus is under control.