Recognizing that rural connectivity doesn’t equal urban connectivity

The Center for Rural Policy and Development looks at the need for broadband in the time of pandemic and the difference in rural, town and urban broadband connections…

In rural areas, having a subscription to an internet service doesn’t equal a quality connection. Counties outside of the seven-county metro have a noticeably lower percentage of households with access to broadband or, in some cases, any internet at all. Figure 1 provides the average percentage of households by internet connection type by county group. The more rural a county is, the more likely it is to have a significantly lower percentage of households with an internet subscription. In fact, Minnesota’s most rural counties can have a percentage of households with an internet subscription that is 10 to 20 percentage points less than entirely urban areas.

The percentage of households who are subscribed to a broadband service decreases significantly as a county becomes more rural. In addition, the percentage of households relying on their cell phone data plan or dial-up connection increases with rural-ness. Data: U.S. Census Bureau, ACS 5-year (2013-2017).

What I find fascinating is the perentage (low as it is) of dial-up connectivity!

The article goes on to detail good works by local and national providers in improving access in Minnesota – a fleshed out version of what I’ve been tracking on the blog too – super helpful if you want to know exactly what folks are offering.

The internet superhighway isn’t going to shut down but your last mile might falter – especially uploading!

Internet infrastructure is getting a workout these days. According to a recent article in Vox, internet traffic in the US is up 18 percent from Jan 1 to Mar 22, 2020. But as the article points out, we are unlikely to break the internet…

The internet itself is an incredibly robust and resilient network that was specifically designed to adapt to huge spikes in traffic just like the one we’re living through. The platforms and apps that make the internet useful, however, are less tested. So the good news is, America’s internet is better prepared for this pandemic than you think. The bad news is that Mark Zuckerberg and others are worried that their platforms might not be able to handle this. Lucky for you, many experts think that everything will be fine.

In fact, overall performance hasn’t suffered…

Even still, so far it looks like performance hasn’t noticeably suffered. Ookla recently published a dataset that shows the mean download speed in the US on March 22 was actually about the same as it was on December 15. In the past few days, it has been trending down slightly, but we’re talking 10 megabits per second of difference. Just for context, the average download speed for fixed broadband in the US is about 140 Mbps, so that variation is pretty insignificant.

That’s good but it turns out that what we experience at home might not reflect this not-much-change status…

The “last mile” is where you might start running into some problems right now. It’s the part of the internet infrastructure that consumer-facing ISPs like Spectrum or Comcast control. If there’s going to be a bottleneck for traffic anywhere, there’s a good chance it’s either going to be along the last mile or even inside your home.

Let’s start with what could go wrong on the last mile. If you work for a big company, there’s a good chance that your office internet is a fiber connection that theoretically has unlimited bandwidth. Your work computer might even get gigabit speeds for downloads and uploads, which is plenty fast enough to have a high quality Zoom call.

The situation at your home is different, however. Most residential broadband connections link the larger internet, which is fiber-based, to your home through an aging cable infrastructure. This cable system was designed to carry TV signals into your home, not carry information out of it. That’s why, if you’ve got a cable connection and run a speed test, you’ll see a huge difference between your faster download speeds and your slower upload speeds.

“I think that if there is going to be one place that we do see bottlenecks, especially in the US or other markets that are primarily served by cable operators, it’s going to be in that upload capacity,” Prince said.

Upload capacity is key to video conferencing services. So if your Zoom meetings aren’t going so well, you might be maxing out what your old infrastructure can handle. But if you’ve got a fiber connection, you should ask your ISP about getting symmetrical upload and download speeds. Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are a couple of ISPs that offer this.

Now, even if we assume you have unlimited bandwidth, you still might run into problems at home. Network congestion is an obvious consequence of increased usage, and that can lead to latency, which is the amount of time it takes for a packet of information to get from its source (a server) to its destination (your computer). A stuttering or out-of-sync video chat, for example, is a sure sign of high latency, which means that packets of data are probably getting backed up along the way. This might be because those packets have to travel through multiple routers before arriving at the one in your house, and due to congestion, each of those stops slows it down by a few milliseconds. In keeping with the highway metaphor, think about cars trying to get off a highway at a crowded exist. So even though you may think you have plenty of bandwidth and should therefore have fast internet, there’s a chance your connection just feels slow because high congestion is causing latency issues.

“The thing that I’m more concerned about with the load on the internet that we’re seeing right now is not that it’s going to stop working or even that we’re going to get low quality videos,” Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode. “What I am worried about is that we’re going to see higher and higher latencies from these queues building up in the network, making it harder to do things like video conferencing.”

If you think you’re experiencing latency problems, the first thing to do is check how many devices are connected to your network. If you’re streaming Netflix on your smart TV, someone else in your house is streaming video gameplay on Twitch, and someone else is having a FaceTime conversation at the same time, you might have a problem. More connected devices doing high-bandwidth tasks typically means more congestion on your home network, and, therefore higher latency.

These latency issues can happen at either side of the connection. While big internet companies like Amazon and Facebook have sophisticated server setups that route and reroute traffic in real time, smaller operations can easily get strained by a surge in traffic. Sherry offered the example of her local library website grinding to a halt in the early days of the pandemic as the entire neighborhood tried to check out books at the same time. So if you’re dealing with smaller websites like these, you might just have to be patient.

I’ve often heard people say, download is for consumers and upload is for producers. The Minnesota broadband speed goal (100 Mbps down and 20 up by 2026) is an example of assuming greater consumption. I remember when they talked about the discrepancy, many people noted that the upload they selected was asymmetrical abut that 20 Mbps should suffice for most users. It will be interesting to see, if/as we spend more time online – working, learning and keeping ourselves entertained, whether that 20 Mbps still seem sufficient.

How prepared are MN Counties to shift workers to remote work?

Roberto Gallardo and Richard Florida recently looked at how prepared US counties were to shift workers to online work…

Our analysis looked at how America’s more than 3,000 counties are able to implement remote work in terms of two key variables—how limited their digital connectivity is (including access to internet and devices) and those that have a higher share of workers employed in industries and occupations least amenable to remote work.

Nearly forty percent of counties had moderate to high vulnerability to remote work (27.7% moderate and 10.6% high vulnerability) compared to more than 60 percent which had lower vulnerability (34.3% low vulnerability, 27.4% of no vulnerability).

The counties that are best positioned for success with remote work are more urban, have larger economies, more educated workers, and higher incomes. Conversely, those that are most vulnerable are smaller, more rural, suffer from high rates of unemployment and have less educated workers.

They sliced and diced the number a variety of ways; one striking table shows the disproportionate percentage of counties that are highly vulnerable and conversely the low percentage of counties that are not vulnerable.

And of course I was interested in how Minnesota counties fared. Turns out no Minnesota counties were listed with High vulnerability. I have listed the low and medium counties below. (If your county isn’t listed you are not listed as vulnerable. Nice job!)

Low:

  1. Aitkin
  2. Anoka
  3. Becker
  4. Benton
  5. Brown
  6. Chisago
  7. Clearwater
  8. Cottonwood
  9. Douglas
  10. Faribault
  11. Freeborn
  12. Isanti
  13. Jackson
  14. Kanabec
  15. Kittson
  16. Koochiching
  17. Le Sueur
  18. McLeod
  19. Marshall
  20. Meeker
  21. Morrison
  22. Mower
  23. Nobles
  24. Norman
  25. Pennington
  26. Pope
  27. Red Lake
  28. Redwood
  29. Renville
  30. Sherburne
  31. Sibley
  32. Steele
  33. Traverse
  34. Waseca
  35. Wright

Moderate Vulnerability:

  1. Lake of the Woods
  2. Mahnomen – ranks 87 for access to broadband at speeds of 100/20
  3. Mille Lacs
  4. Pine – ranks 81 for access to broadband at speeds of 100/20
  5. Roseau
  6. Todd – ranks 79 for access to broadband at speeds of 100/20
  7. Wadena
  8. Watonwan

For the “medium” vulnerable counties I also checked with how they ranked with access to broadband at the 2026 speed goals (100/20). Access to broadband is a factor but you can see it’s not the only factor in making a county vulnerable to a pandemic and/or future. There’s also value in creating a culture that uses and assumes broadband access.

FCC is working on revised broadband mapping – MN is pilot state

BroadbandBreakfast reports…

Andy Spurgeon, chief of Operations at NTIA’s “BroadbandUSA” brand, discussed how NTIA’s revived mapping efforts will work.

He emphasized leveraging FCC data that already exists. His team was specifically “asked not to duplicate the results of the FCC,” referring to the roundly-criticized Form 477 Data that overreports the number of Americans with access to broadband.

What sets apart NTIA’s National Broadband Availability Map apart from other government broadband maps is that NBAM comprises technology that actually makes maps, he said, as opposed to existing as a digital data heap.

NTIA will pursue in its mapping strategy through pilot states that form representative models. States such as Minnesota, Utah, and California provide NBAM with the data it needs to refine the FCC’s Form 477 Data.

The BroadbandUSA Team has had one year to implement its work since it was funded with $8 million in 2019.

Andy Spurgeon presented at the MN Broadband conference last fall (Oct 2019):

Home broadband access makes a marked difference to students – study shows

Thanks to Doug Dawson for highlighting the Michigan State University’s Quello Center’s definitive study on the impact of lack of broadband on students…

The study showed significant performance differences for students with and without home broadband. Students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics including digital skills, homework completion and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18 while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.

  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.

  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.

  • The study showed that students with no Internet at home often had no alternative access to broadband. 35% of students with no broadband also didn’t have a computer at home. 34% of students had no access to alternate sources of broadband such as a library, church, community center, or homes of a neighbor or relative.

One of the most important findings was that there is a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s almost too hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband. Digital skills not only involves competence in working with technology, but also is manifested by the ability to work efficiently, to communicate effectively with others, and managing and evaluation information.

It’s hard to think beyond coronavirus right now – but I try to think of the positive long term impact that this disruption can have on society. One of the silver linings, I have mentioned repeatedly is the immediate and acute need for broadband to all areas if students are going to learn at all, if people are going to thrive economically, if we are going to provide healthcare access – from screening for coronavirus to mental health. And here is, as Doug days, definitive proof that it will make for more effective students going forward.

Minnesota broadband access ranking in US states?20

Broadband Now released their Best and Worst states scored by Internet coverage, speed and price access. Minnesota comes in at number 20.

Here are the details:

  • Terrestrial Broadband Access: 89.6% (Using speeds of 25/3 in recent research)
  • Wired Low-Priced Plan Access: 15.1% (Threshold of low-price was $60/month)
  • Average Speed Test: 161.4 Mbps

Minnesota lifted as leaders in recent report: How States Are Expanding Broadband Access

Today Pew Research released their latest report – How States Are Expanding Broadband Access. They looked at state to see what’s working and what’s not. They recognize that there are no magic bullets but found five practices that seemed to work well:

  • Stakeholder outreach and engagement.
  • Policy framework.
  • Planning and capacity building.
  • Funding and operations.
  • Program evaluation and evolution.

They also look at a few states that they found to be notable: Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. (Yay Minnesota!)

The pull our a few lessons that they attribute to Minnesota:

  • Key takeaway: Partners can be valuable advocates and sources of support for broadband programs.
  • Key takeaway: Setting a forward-looking goal and rallying everyone around it brings focus to a program and ensures that all stakeholders are working toward the same target.
  • Key takeaway: Setting a forward-looking goal focuses state investment on infrastructure that will continue to meet future needs.

And a little bit about what they say about Minnesota and partnership…

Strong, collaborative relationships between stakeholders are the cornerstone of Minnesota’s efforts to expand broadband access. “It is talking to people and understanding what they need … and trying to reflect their voice in the policy and programs,” said MacKenzie, the former executive director of the Office of Broadband Development.49 Minnesota has built these relationships through formal and informal engagement.

The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, formed in 2011, provides a forum for stakeholders to study and discuss issues related to broadband.50 Its 15 members represent communities, businesses, local governments, educational institutions, health care facilities, tribes, and ISPs.51 As former Chairwoman Margaret Anderson Kelliher noted, “There is value in having an outside group that is not exclusively elected and appointed officials but has more of a perspective of a public view.”52 The task force releases an annual report outlining policy recommendations for the governor and Legislature, and its work has helped to advance the state’s broadband policy. (For more on Minnesota’s broadband policy, see the “Policy framework” section below.)

The nonprofit Blandin Foundation has been an important partner for Minnesota’s broadband program. The group has worked on broadband efforts since 2007,53 including engaging communities across the state on connectivity issues. It also provides grants and technical assistance to support broadband planning and adoption efforts, including helping communities write successful applications for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program.54 (For more on Minnesota’s grant program, see the “Funding and operations” section below.)

Blandin also amplifies the voice of rural communities through the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, which it formed with the Office of Broadband Development in 2015 to “strengthen rural people’s capacity to be their own voice.”55 The coalition brings together local governments and community groups, business and philanthropic partners, and others from rural areas across the state that are interested in broadband development.56 And it lobbies the Legislature to support broadband expansion efforts, including funding for the Office of Broadband Development and the Border-to-Border grant program.

Of course I like the nod to the Blandin Foundation but I also like the example of the public private partnerships that have really pushed Minnesota to leader position. Bernadine Joselyn always says, you have to do it yourself but you can’t do it alone. The Pew Report backs up that idea.