Notes from the Coalition meeting: visit from Sen Smith, Speed test and Legislative Update

Much of the MN Broadband Coalition meeting is general meeting stuff – funding, budget and future. I won’t say much about that except to note that they are always open to new members. There were a few topics that I think are of greater interest to a wider audience; starting with a visit from Senator Tina Smith:

Here are some of the other topics:

  • MN Statewide speed test: The Coalition is spearheading the effort to get folks to take the state speed test. I have covered this several times so I won’t duplicate. YOU can learn more here or take the speed test here. (And if you haven’t you should!)
  • Legislative Update: The PowerPoint slide provides greater detail. In short, there were no added grants funds approved through the session or special sessions. Funding seems unlikely in future special sessions.
  • Senator Smith was asked how to help policymakers prioritize broadband – she said that, no one will say broadband is a bad idea. It’s a matter of making it a priority. That’s why having a broadband czar would be helpful – one person to drive the cause helps. COVID19 has certainly helped shine a light as well.
  • American Connection Project: The Broadband Coalition is part of the American Connection Project. (Again, I have written about this in the past, so I won’t duplicate efforts.)
  • Broadband connects America: The Coalition is considering joining the Broadband Connects America group.

I suspect the Coalition will also send out notes from today and I will share them when they do.

2020 version of ILSR’s Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom

The Institute for Local Self Reliance first published their Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom in 2018. They have updated it annually since then and have recently posted the 2020 edition. They took a look at the big national providers: Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier and  Windstream.

ILSR focuses on local community autonomy or at least control so they have a perspective. They do a good job collecting and analyzing data. Here are their conclusions…

The broadband market is broken. Comcast and Charter maintain an absolute monopoly over at least 47 million people and millions more only have slower and less reliable DSL as a “competitive” choice. Some 52 million households (about 132 million people) subscribe to these cable companies, whereas the five largest telecom companies combined have far fewer subscribers — only around 30 million households (about 75 million people). The big telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America — their DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds — despite many billions spent over years of federal subsidies and many state grant programs.

These are our key findings with potential for more research:

Real Competition Drives Investment

The telecom companies have invested in Fiber-to-the-Home in areas where they face competition, which are generally more urban areas. The advent of Google Fiber in 2011 further increased the competition in urban markets.55 Efforts to increase investment from the largest firms in more rural areas have largely failed. Though states have varied regulations, the same trend results in every state — investment by the large ISPs is correlated to competition rather than the regulatory environment. This reality does not suggest that competition between a cable monopoly and a telephone monopoly is sufficient for high-quality Internet access, but it clearly helps to ensure connections at the minimum definition of broadband.

Big Cable Companies Dominate

Cable networks are capable of delivering high-speed broadband to everyone within their service area, a legacy of the local franchising requirements that often required universal service or at least service to all areas with a specified density of housing.56 More than half of the states have since removed local authority to negotiate such provisions but they bear some responsibility for the far-reaching cable networks. In the years since we published the first edition of this report in 2018, the large cable companies have continued to gain broadband subscribers while the major telephone companies lose market share. By the end of 2019, the cable industry as a whole had 67 percent of the broadband market.57 The FCC statistics suggest Charter and Comcast face more competition than they did in our last report, but we suspect competition has only touched some homes in many of the new census blocks that appear to have a choice in providers now.

Big Cable and Telecom Focus on Urban Markets

The big cable and telecom companies fight over urban customers, not rural customers. More than 98 percent of the urban population (about 259 million people) have access to broadband, according to the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, which analyzed data from December 2018.58 About 4 million urban residents, however, remain without broadband access. In rural areas, less than 78 percent of the population (50 million people) have broadband access, leaving more than 14 million rural residents without highspeed Internet access per the FCC but as many as 42 million according to another analysis.59

DEED Commissioner says “high-speed internet access isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity”

Duluth News Tribune posts letter from DEED Commissioner Steve Grove on the impact of COVID-19…

One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that reliable high-speed internet access isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Business owners and families alike have relied on access for everything from meetings to distance learning. Not having broadband access isn’t only an inconvenience; it can reduce a person’s ability to work and hamper a student’s learning. DEED’s Border to Border Broadband Program grants are targeted toward nonmetro Minnesota communities where broadband infrastructure is not at the level needed to support economic opportunity. Since 2014, the Border to Border Broadband Program has invested $108 million across Minnesota through 140 projects, which have connected nearly 50,000 homes, businesses, farms, and community institutions. Those who’ve benefited have included 10,426 Northeastern Minnesotans.

I’m looking forward to my upcoming visit to Duluth as part of a series of visits in an economic-recovery listening tour. During this critical time, I’m honored to work with Minnesota’s business and community leaders to serve our fellow Minnesotans. I look forward to hearing what we can do better — together.

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation ask people in South MN to take the MN Broadband speed test

Owatonna”s People’s Press reports…

outhern Minnesota Initiative Foundation is seeking input from community members in southern Minnesota to help define where broadband service is available and what speeds people are receiving. SMIF is partnering with the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, among other partners, on this Minnesota Speed Test Initiative by asking people in its 20-county region to take a one-minute test.

The pandemic has highlighted how important access to broadband is for every Minnesotan now that more people are working, learning and receiving care from home. “There is no doubt that the lack of broadband in rural Minnesota hampers telework, distance learning and telehealth,” said Vince Robinson, Chair of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition.

The speed test can be taken with any device that has an internet or cellular connection and takes less than one minute to complete. No personal information will be collected. For people who are unable to access the internet at all, please call 715-222-2824 to take the test. The test can be found at mnruralbroadbandcoalition.com/speedtest.

Providers not thrilled with changes to FCC maps that could more accurately portray coverage

Ars Technica reports…

AT&T and T-Mobile are fighting a Federal Communications Commission plan to require drive tests that would verify whether the mobile carriers’ coverage claims are accurate.

The carriers’ objections came in response to the FCC seeking comment on a plan to improve the nation’s inadequate broadband maps. Besides submitting more accurate coverage maps, the FCC plan would require carriers to do a statistically significant amount of drive testing.

Providers had different reasons:

  • AT&T objected to the proposed drive-testing requirement in a filing to the FCC on Tuesday this week, saying that annual “drive testing is not the proper solution for verifying nationwide coverage maps” and that there is “potential difficulty in determining how to formulate a statistically valid sample for areas given the terrain variability nationwide.”
  • T-Mobile said, “A blanket requirement to perform regular on-the-ground testing will force providers to spend millions of dollars each year on tests, resources that would be better spent investing in our network and deployment in rural America.”
  • Verizon had objected to the possibility of a nationwide drive-test requirement in a September 2019 filing, saying that “Verizon conducts drive tests in a more targeted manner to calibrate its propagation model and to confirm the accuracy of the model.”

Looks like the FCC is sticking with 25/3 as definition of broadband

Telecompetitor reports…

The FCC is seeking input on how it should prepare its 2021 annual broadband deployment report. The report, which is intended to determine whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, traditionally generates controversy, and 2021 is likely to be no exception – particularly considering that the FCC is proposing few changes to the methodology and definitions used in the 2020 report.

The most controversial element of the proposed plan is likely to be the minimum broadband speed definition. In a notice of inquiry (NOI) adopted earlier this month and made public yesterday, the commission recommends retaining the definition that has been used for several years – 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream – and to continue to gather information about one lower and three higher speed levels.

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued that the minimum level should be at least 100 Mbps and upstream speeds should be reconsidered. She also recommended measuring the availability of gigabit speed service.

Hears a pet peeve of mine…

Speed levels measured would include: 10/1 Mbps, 25/3 Mbps, 50/5 Mbps, 100/10 Mbps and 250/25 Mbps.

If you measure 10/1, people will think that’s broadband. By “people” I mean the federal government. There is money still out there to fund networks to 10/1. At that speed, it would be difficult to have one kid participate in online school. It would be difficult to have one person work from home. You might be able to watch Netflix but it would be difficult to interactive or be productive online. To a lesser degree, the same is true about 25/3.

Ten years ago, the National Broadband Plan aimed at 100 million homes with 100/50 Mbps by 2020. What’s amazing is that our upload goal has actually decreased since then – by half! (For the homes outside of that 100 million, there was a goal of 4/1.) Recently I wrote about how Minnesota should rethink their speed goals. I’m going to share the same FCC chart here that I shared there.

It tells a story, especially in COVID-post-COVID America. Any home with four users or devices at a time doing moderate or high use – required “more than 25 Mbps”. It doesn’t even address upload.

 

Senator Klobuchar recognizes need for ubiquitous broadband

KAAL News reports on Senator Amy Klobuchar’s comments on broadband with Axios co-founder Mike Allen…

“I have met with virtually superintendents all over my state and they say, which is about the state average, 10 to 15 percent of their students really can’t access learning right now. They couldn’t this spring and they’re not going to be able to in the fall,” Senator Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar is hoping improved infrastructure in the future could mean more access to internet for people from different social and economic backgrounds.

Kentucky Judge offers tips for getting folks to take a Broadband Speed Test – after seeing amazing results in his county

On Monday (Aug 17), Judge Joe Pat Covington of Georgetown Kentucky sent the following message to constituents…

Scott County Broadband Speed Test
We realize during this unprecedented time, the need for reliable, affordable internet service in all parts of our community is more important than ever.  Scott County Fiscal Court is working with a company called GEO Partners LLC to address this need.  We need your help to test the broadband speed and access throughout all parts of Scott County.

We are calling on all community members, including those with students in grades K-12 and citizens working from home, to complete a one-minute speed test.  The test can be done from any device connected to your broadband internet signal in your home.  Your participation is very important!  Please complete the internet speed test by 5:00pm on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

Make sure your device is connected to your broadband service and no one in your household is streaming video or gaming at the time you conduct the test.  Disconnect from VPN if you use it to work from home.  For those individuals without broadband internet access in your home, the only thing you will have to do is enter the address of the home with no available service.

Take a one-minute speed test to help all of Scott County get reliable internet access.

CLICK HERE [NOTE: for speed readers like myself that’s a link to Kentucky’s speed test – here’s the Minnesota speed test]

He was hoping for 2,000 responses, although some guesswork went into that number. When I spoke to him a couple hours ago, they were at 3448. Wow! (IAbove is a map of their results from an earlier day.)

Scott County Kentucky is partnering with GEO Partners to do a countywide speed test – similar to Minnesota’s partnership with GEO Partners to do a statewide test.

(Sidenote: GEO Partners is hoping to create the national active and evolving statistically valid citizen broadband map! Which would be a cool counter to the FCC maps.)

I was so impressed with Kenticky’s numbers I had to ask for tips. It turns out Joe, now a judge, used to be a school principal, which explains a lot. Here are some of the things they have done:

  • Sent a mass test and email through the schools (with an easy link)
  • Used all of their social medis channels and outlets
  • Got some local TV coverage
  • Built upon the dire need in much of the county. People are hungry for broadband

I know some communities in Minnesota have tried these things; maybe others have not. Either way, I thought Kentucky’s story might inspire Minnesotans to push again. Make it your plan for the weekend – get two new people to take the Minnesota speed test. The greater the input, the greater the decision making.

And for folks working in the broadband world, Joe’s plan after this is to continue working with GEO Partners and once he gets the results and the analysis, he’s going to be looking for federal funding. Maybe we can help Minnesota help Kentucky if there are any grant writing readers looking for an opportunity.

 

Senators Tina Smith, Amy Klobuchar push bipartisan effort to improve financial stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers in Next COVID Relief Package

From Senator Smith’s office…

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) are pushing Senate leaders to add their bipartisan plan to help stabilize the finances of the nation’s rural electric cooperatives and rural broadband providers in the next coronavirus relief package.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senators pressed their Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which would make it possible for rural electric cooperatives and telecommunications providers to refinance their Rural Utilities Service (RUS) debt at lower interest rates. By taking advantage of current lower interest rates, these rural cooperatives and businesses would be able to better manage cash-flow, invest in rural communities, and pass savings on to customers. The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of Senators who back the measure.

Sens. Smith and Hoeven say that this bill would also spur stronger recovery from the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural cooperatives and businesses have struggled due to a decline in electrical consumption from industrial sources and an increase in unpaid bills from customers who have faced financial hardship.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached every corner of our country, creating financial hardship for communities and businesses in almost every sector of our economy,” wrote the Senators. “Rural areas have not been spared, and the crisis has highlighted existing disparities in things like broadband that have made recovery an even larger challenge. At the same time, many member-owned cooperatives and broadband providers have struggled financially as a result of the economic downturn related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Allowing borrowers to refinance their RUS loans at the current lower interest rates would enable a stronger recovery by providing rural cooperatives and businesses flexibility in managing their cash flow. Some estimates have predicted that this move could save businesses millions per year in debt payments, allowing these companies to invest in electric infrastructure or rural broadband networks in their communities, and pass savings on directly to customers. These investments would be especially vital as rural communities work to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.”

In addition to Sens. Smith and Hoeven, the letter was signed by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sen. Smith has been working to get relief to rural electric coops during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Sens. Smith and Hoeven led a bipartisan group of Senators in urging the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to support rural electric cooperatives and ensure their access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  When Sen. Smith heard that Minnesota cooperatives were at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they received grants to expand broadband or recover from a disaster, she wanted to reverse that. The key government spending package that was signed into law last year included her bipartisan bill with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to ensure co-ops can retain their tax exemptions when they receive government grants.

You can read a copy of the letter here.

What Should We Ask in our Next Internet Use Survey?

I wanted to share the following from an NTIA email to data users. If you have some thoughts, you should tell them…

For more than 25 years, NTIA has been surveying the American public about its computer and Internet use, in partnership with the Census Bureau. Our most recent NTIA Internet Use Survey went into the field in November 2019, with more than 50 questions administered to approximately 50,000 households across the United States. In anticipation of conducting future surveys, NTIA is seeking recommendations from the public about how we can improve our survey and make it as relevant as possible. Are there questions we previously asked that should be changed or deleted? Are there any questions that we should be adding? We want to hear from you. | Read the complete blog post >>

By submitting your ideas for our next set of questions, you can help ensure that our survey is keeping up with evolving technologies and any new policy challenges that arise. After digesting your comments, NTIA will draft a revised survey instrument to use in the future. Beginning this fall, experts from the Census Bureau will conduct cognitive testing of our draft survey, which will help us learn what questions may cause confusion or elicit inaccurate responses. You can find more information and instructions for submitting your comments in the official Request for Comments. | Read the Request for Comments >>

In the meantime, we will continue to analyze the results of our November 2019 survey. In our initial post on the results, we shared that seniors and other demographic groups reported encouraging increases in Internet use, and that Americans in general were using a larger and more varied range of devices.

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable with Christopher Mitchell of MuniNets (ILSR)

In today’s Blandin Community Leadership Roundtable, Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) presented and discussed local community ownership models being implemented across the country as a way to bring the highest speed, lowest cost Internet services to their citizens.  He also talked about the network as a community asset to promote economic development and digital equity initiatives.  Scott County was cited as a model for economic development in using its network assets to attract data hungry companies.  Chattanooga TN was recognized for using its network to provide broadband services to all of its citizens during the pandemic.  We learned about how Dakota County is continuously seeking partnerships with other providers to expand and fortify its network.

Next week, in the final episode of this series, we will focus on what Minnesota local units of government are doing with CARES funding to further broadband access and adoption.  Barbara Droher Kline, Le Sueur County’s Blandin Broadband Communities leader, will showcase how Le Sueur County is using its broadband planning efforts to allocate county funds and amplify Blandin funding.

EVENT Aug 26: Minnesota Broadband Coalition Virtual Meeting

From the MN Broadband Coalition…

Minnestoa Broadband Coalition Virtual Meeting

Wednesday, August 26, 2020
3:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Agenda Below
Meeting Information
WebEx Meeting Link
Meeting number: 126 534 6360
Password: 4tESBNXGz33 (48372694 from phones and video systems)
Join by video system
Dial 1265346360@webex.com
You can also dial 173.243.2.68 and enter your meeting number.
Join by phone
+1-408-418-9388 United States Toll
Access code: 126 534 6360
Agenda:
Welcome and Introductions
Approval of June 2, 2020 Minutes
Financial Report (Vince Robinson)
Fundraising and New Membership
Legislative Update, Special Sessions (Nathan Zacharias)
American Connection Project Update (Nathan Zacharias)
Broadband Connects America, Requested MRBC to Join
Minnesota Speed Test Initiative (Nathan Zacharias)
Looking Forward to 2021 Work Plan and Budget
Additional Business
Adjourn

MN Broadband Conference Special Session Announcement: NTCA on federal policy updates

I’ve mentioned that we’re trying lots of different things with the Fall Broadband conference, spurred by the decision to go entirely online. This has opened up the opportunity for “special sessions” such as the one I can announce today…

We’re very excited to mid-conference session lead by Molly O’Leary, director of government affairs, NTCA, and advocates in Congress and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to influence legislative and regulatory policy on behalf of NTCA members. (And I have to note Molly’s Minnesota connections! She worked in the U.S. Senate as a policy advisor to Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn) on telecommunications, appropriations and native affairs. She previously served as a legislative aide to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) for his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

Join Molly and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association to discuss federal broadband regulatory and legislative updates, including the Federal Communications Commission Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program. Learn about upcoming federal investments in broadband deployment and the importance of federal coordination and future proof networks. Connect with Minnesota’s small, community-based broadband operators and learn how those providers can be a resource and partner with municipalities and counties looking to expand or build networks.

Registration open soon!

Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable AUg 18 with Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

An invitation from the Blandin Foundation…

Join Blandin Foundation on Zoom Tuesday morning at 9:00 am for our Broadband Roundtable conversation. This week, Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org) will lead a discussion about public engagement in broadband network development.

You can register for this and future Roundtables here.

Borrowing from the ILSR website, here’s a quick introduction to Chris, although many readers will already know him…

Want to know how MN is doing with broadband? Ask WI

Sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves clearly. Often a good way to assess how we’re doing is to listen in as our neighbors talk about us. Thanks to the Wausau Pilot & Review, we can do that. They are talking about ways to improve broadband in rural Wisconsin.  Minnesota comes up…

The Wisconsin government has done relatively little to help. From 2013-2019, the state funded about $20 million in grants for expansion of broadband, an amount experts say is less than negligible. In a similar time period, Minnesota shelled out more than $108 million in broadband expansion grants, and providers had to match those grants with another $146 million, said Eric Lightner, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

That’s a total of $255 million for broadband expansion in Minnesota, more than 10 times greater than Wisconsin’s investment. Now, about 16 percent of rural households in Minnesota lack access to high speed internet, Lightner said.

They talk about the frustration at the State level, where it seems politics may be standing in the way of getting things done and they offer some steps a community can take at the municipal, state and federal level to improve access. The very abridged version sounds things we hear about in Minnesota: look at local investment in infrastructure, contact your legislator to demand more and improve maps.