Minnesota has 134,000 locations eligible for FCC Phase I Rural Digital Opportunity Fund funding

The FCC reports on how many locations (homes and businesses) are eligible for Phase I funding later this year. There are 134,000 locations in Minnesota that are eligible. More info from FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced initial estimates of how many homes and businesses in each state could benefit from Phase I of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In total, about 6 million rural homes and businesses could be eligible for bidding in an auction slated for later this year to receive funding for high-speed broadband. This state-by-state list is for Phase I funding, which would target a total of $16 billion to census blocks with no broadband service at all meeting the Commission’s minimum speed standards. The remainder of the funding would be disbursed during Phase II. As recently announced, the FCC will vote January 30 on launching the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“The digital divide affects many people in many rural communities. I’ve said that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would be our boldest step yet to bridge this divide, and today we get a glimpse of the broad impact this investment in rural America would have across the country,” said Chairman Pai. “Our staff’s initial estimate shows that in 25 states there would be more than 100,000 locations that would be eligible for Phase I of the Fund, and the benefits would be felt from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is critical to bridging the digital divide. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voting for it on January 30.”

Democrat Presidential candidates’ view on rural broadband

Agri Pulse reports…

The leading Democratic presidential candidates are all calling for major increases in spending for roads, bridges, rural broadband and other infrastructure needs, but they’ll need large increases in tax revenue to pay for their plans.

The Democrats’ plans rely far less heavily than private investment than President Donald Trump would. Trump’s 2018 budget proposed spending $200 billion “to spur at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments with partners at the State, local, Tribal, and private level.” Trump hasn’t pursued the plan with Congress.

The article outlines the increase priority level for broadband…

Just a few years ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation said transportation facilities were its clear top priority for rural infrastructure. Now, broadband has joined transportation as the organization’s two priorities for infrastructure spending, says R.J. Carney, an AFBF congressional relations director.

Fortunately, “we’ve seen a lot of bipartisanship in regards to broadband infrastructure,” he said. He points to USDA’s ReConnect Program, launched with $600 million in 2018 to provide grants and loans to extend broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas. It was plussed up in December with another $555 million.

And a summary of views from candidates who qualified for this week’s debate in Iowa…

Former Vice President Joe Biden wants to spend $1.3 trillion over the next ten years, leveraging private, state and local investments to complete $5 trillion in infrastructure projects. His climate plan calls for “rebuilding our roads, bridges, buildings, the electric grid, and our water infrastructure,” and all “to prevent, reduce, and withstand a changing climate.”

Separately, Biden’s Plan for Rural America aims to “modernize the lock and dam system vital to getting rural products to markets (and) … roads to give farms and small-town businesses access to markets.”

Biden says the federal spending would be “paid for by rolling back the Trump tax incentives … reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share … and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.”

He wants to spend over $20 billion to expand broadband in rural America, and says he’ll direct agencies to help cities and towns set up their own high-speed internet networks.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., proposes boosting investment in national infrastructure as part of his goal to “create good jobs and combat climate change through smart infrastructure investments.”

Buttigieg recently expanded on his infrastructure agenda, which now calls for spending $1 trillion on a wide range of infrastructure investments in transportation, clean water and environment. For example, his initial proposal for an American Clean Energy Bank, with capitalization of $250 billion, now calls for spending “$6 billion in grants and loans through the (bank) for states and cities to partner with private companies and unions on installing publicly available charging infrastructure powered by clean energy.”

Buttigieg would add $165 billion to the highway trust fund to ensure it remains solvent through 2029. He wants to “repair half of roads in poor condition and structurally deficient bridges by 2030,” including a “$50 billion grant program for states to repair bridges.”

He also proposes spending $5 billion to repair and modernize inland waterways.

He proposes spending $80 billion to expand rural broadband.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says her infrastructure plan will be her “top budget priority” as president. She would strive to get it funded in her first year, if elected, and it begins with repairing, roads and bridges.

Klobuchar proposes $650 billion in federal funding for infrastructure. Like Buttigieg, she wants to create a new government bank to finance projects, a proposal she has pushed in the Senate for years. It would be primed with $25 billion in seed money to help state and local governments leverage private funds to build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. Plus, she wants several initiatives to issue federally backed bonds, similar to the Obama administration’s Build America Bonds, issued in 2009 and 2010.

Her plan includes expanding broadband to “every household by 2022.”

Klobuchar would pay for her infrastructure proposals with “a number of corporate tax reforms, including adjusting the corporate tax rate to 25% … establishing a financial risk fee on our largest banks, and increasing efforts for tax enforcement.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ infrastructure plan starts with his Senate bill that would provide $75 billion to the Highway Trust Fund and money for freight and passenger rail facilities.

His plan focuses heavily on advancing efficiency of cars, trucks and trains on the nation’s roads and rails, and he wants to fund a dramatic shift to electric vehicles. His plan calls for developing electric vehicle charging infrastructure and providing $2 trillion in grants for people to buy electric-powered vehicles and spending $216 billion to help trucking companies replace diesel trucks with electric ones.

Sanders wants $150 billion in federal grants and technical support for communities lacking good broadband service to build their own “publicly owned and democratically controlled, cooperative, or open-access broadband networks.”

Tom Steyer, a billionaire businessman who was the sixth and last candidate to qualify for Tuesday’s presidential debate, wants $2 trillion invested in an array of climate-resilient infrastructure projects, including $450 billion for highways, bridges and levees, plus $775 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, freight rail and transit systems, and $500 billion more for clean water systems, public lands, parks, and waterways, among other things.

His proposal for $755 billion in “community resilience” projects includes a goal for “universal broadband access to every community in America not currently served.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s infrastructure plans are similar to Sanders’, and her green jobs plan is aimed at creating jobs and addressing climate change. “With $10.7 trillion in federal and private investments, we can turn these opportunities into 10.6 million new, union jobs rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and transitioning to the new clean energy economy,” her website declares. Her priorities are to “rebuild our crumbling transportation infrastructure … build in climate resiliency, and create a transportation system powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels.”

Warren advocates a Green Bank idea described in a Senate bill that she cosponsors. The bank would “mobilize $1 trillion in climate and green infrastructure investments across the country over 30 years.” It would finance “large-scale infrastructure projects that serve the public interest but might not otherwise attract private capital due to risk-return thresholds.”

For rural broadband buildout, Warren’s goals are again similar to Sanders’ and others who allege that giant internet service providers have been “running away with taxpayer dollars” but not getting service to rural areas. She would create an Office of Broadband Access, supplied with $85 billion in grant funds for communities to set up their own public networks.

Beyond telemedicine – there’s demand and some solutions for tele-caring

I just finished reading a report on how rural areas can be slower to adopt broadband because the population can be older, have less education and lower incomes. My grandpa used to say – first you gotta wanna – as in, you can learn anything but first you gotta wanna.

That framed my read of the next report by the Rural Health Information Hub on Informal Caregiving and Technology in Rural America. In short, the report talks about how using technology can make your life easier if you are a caregiver – especially if you are an unpaid caregiver with a full time job and maybe some kids. In other words, if you’re caring for a parent or other loved one.

They point out three ways that technology can help:

  • “An ‘Intelligent Family Care Assistant’ to help with day-to-day caregiving by helping to coordinate the family’s tasks in the context of the family’s other activities.”
  • “‘Wearable technologies’ — devices worn on or placed in the body, with sensors and/or human interfaces — to help monitor a person’s health and overall condition.”
  • “Technologies that provide better connections between family caregivers and health professionals, enabling them to work more effectively as a team in providing care.”

I suspect most readers will grasp the advantages of those tools without help. And if you want another great use of technology, you can look back on my article on Virtual Realty in Cannon Falls.)

There are several hiccups in the deployment. Lack of broadband is one – but imagine using these tele-caring applications to reach a demographic that was slow to get broadband before. We’re building demand.

Lack of skill is another. I’ve done digital literacy training for decades. Learning to use a computer for the first time when you’re older is hard. It’s an entirely next experience – it would be like me trying to use a sewing machine or oven! Also you don’t hear or see as well as certain ages and learning gets slower. BUT the incentive is high to stay in your own home to make life easier for you kids or other loved ones caring for you. We’re building demand and increasing local skills.

There are some policy constraints too. The report outlines the NACRHHS Recommendations on Supportive Services and Caregiving:

  1. “The Committee recommends the Secretary create a comprehensive resource on the aging and long-term services and supports available to older adults in rural areas.”
  2. “The Committee recommends the Secretary continue to expand flexibility in Medicare telehealth billing and provide a comprehensive resource of telehealth offerings in rural areas.”
  3. “The Committee recommends the Secretary ensure the promotion and encouragement of age-friendly concepts within rural health grant programs.”
  4. “The Committee recommends the Secretary explore the entry of Medicare Advantage Dual-Eligible Special Needs Plans into rural areas, identify potential barriers, and work with states to adopt policies that encourage or expand the reach of these plans to rural beneficiaries.”

There’s work to be done but tele-caring is a reward that most families would (or will eventually) appreciate. The report does a nice job with statistics and a few stories.


Supply and demand for broadband in rural areas and what can help make the business case work: Gov Report

Congressional Research Service recently published a report (Demand for Broadband in Rural Areas: Implications for Universal Access) that looks at the challenges of expanding or upgrading broadband in rural areas. The report includes lots of good number and research but at a really high level there are some of their points:

  • Rural areas are expensive to serve (because distance and lower population density make networks expensive) and the cost to deploy may surpass expected return on investment (ROI).
  • Rural areas tend to populations that are older, less educated and earn less money – each characteristic makes them less likely to be broadband (or generally tech) users. So even when there is broadband the adoption rates are lower.
  • Even in areas where the adoption is high and deployment costs are lower (so town centers) the potential for ROI is lower than in an urban setting.

These ideas aren’t new – but they are well documented in the report. The next section of the report looks at what the Federal government is doing to offset these challenges. I’m going to try to outline the options they mention. Most are funds that go to the provider, I’ve tried to note where that’s not the case:

  • Rural Utilities Service Programs
    • the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program
    • Community Connect Grant Program
    • ReConnect Program
  • Universal Service Fund Programs
    • High Cost program (has morphed in the Connect America Fund although this report doesn’t go into that)
    • Lifeline program (funds offset cost to end users)
    • Schools and Libraries program and Rural Health Care program (schools, libraries and healthcare facilities apply directly)

There’s a quick and interesting discussion of FCC’s broadband definition. Key here is using legacy infrastructure to help define future needs. It’s practical but is it like asking your barber if you need a haircut?…

The 25/3 Mbps threshold is meaningful in both technical and policy terms, because the legacy copper-based connections utilized by some broadband providers would likely require significant upgrades in order to meet higher thresholds

The rest of the report looks at what Congress can do moving forward to make best use of resources:

  • Oversight or Legislation Addressing the Lifeline Program
  • Research on How the Costs of Broadband-Enabled Services Affect Rural Broadband Demand
  • Broadband-Focused Education and Outreach Grants
  • Incentivizing Adoption via the Terms of Federal Infrastructure Buildout Programs
  • Oversight of FCC Section 706 Process

EVENT: Broadband Day on the Hill – March 12, 2020

The MN Rural Broadband Coalition reports…

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition is proud to announce its Day on the Hill will take place on Thursday, March 12, 2020, at the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul.
Join your fellow broadband advocates from across the state for our Day on the Hill event! The Day on the Hill provides you with a unique opportunity to travel to St. Paul for a day of broadband advocacy and networking with colleagues and legislators.
The Day on the Hill is a great chance for you to speak with legislators directly about why increased access to broadband will improve the lives of Minnesotans.
Mark Your Calendars!  A full description of the day’s events and registration details will be sent to members in the coming weeks.

Senators urge FCC to prioritize rural broadband before 5G

The Benton Institute reports…

Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), James Lankford (R-OK), Jon Tester (D-MT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and John Kennedy (R-LA) sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai urging the FCC to focus their efforts on providing reliable broadband to rural communities before expanding 5G coverage, as indicated by the announcement of the FCC’s 5G Fund.

While we commend the Federal Communications Commission for acknowledging that critical fact, we have some serious reservations about the recently announced 5G Fund and the decision to focus these limited mobile broadband deployment dollars on the promise of a 5G future when many places in our states still lack 4G service or do not have any service at all. To stand any chance of connecting rural Americans, the FCC needs a more accurate method of data collection, a strong challenge process, and a funding process that includes terrain factors to ensure that the hardest to serve places can compete for limited funding.

5G is a topic that people outside of work ask me about frequently. In the Twin Cities, we got a crash course in 5G leading up to the Super Bowl two years ago. But as I’ve reported in the past, 5G isn’t a likely solution for rural areas with great distance and lower population density. One societal problem with investing in 5G before fixing the rural broadband issue is that we deepen the digital divide.

Senator Westrom talks to high school seniors in Campbell about broadband

The Whapeton Daily News reports…

Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom visited Campbell-Tintah School to meet with staff and students for small group discussions on Friday, Jan. 10.

The senior class had the opportunity to meet with legislator to share stories of what their experience has been growing up in a small community. They shared the challenges they have faced and also the many benefits they get from being in a closely-knit community where everyone looks out for each other.

Broadband came up…

What are some things the state can do to keep the younger generation interested in staying in smaller, more rural communities?

“One is rural broadband and that’s why I have been such a strong proponent of rural broadband grants. The state (in past years) has developed a matching grant in rural areas to pay one time, upfront, half the cost to expand rural broadband or areas that didn’t have it, in communities and farm places. And there is still such a need for more rural broadband,” Westrom said.

The senator also championed pushing industries such as agriculture processing and more technology in the area to bring in more jobs.