OPPORTUNITY: Statewide Telecommuting Survey from UMN Extension

University of Minnesota is working on research related to telecommuting. Their work is important in helping us understand what we need and want in Minnesota to make best use of broadband. Help them help all of us by taking their survey…

“Have you wondered about Minnesota employers’ and workers’ experience of telecommuting before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic? The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is wondering the same, which is why MnDOT is partnering with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center on a research project to find out! And now, the project needs your help.

Make your and your organization’s experience count by completing the worker survey and the employer survey. Forward the survey links to your colleagues and friends, so their voices can be heard, too! All these contributions are vital to the project and much appreciated.

Mayo’s video visits up 5000 percent but how does that impact Rochester’s local economy?

The Post Bulletin reports

“We’re currently touching, caring for more patients on a given day now than they were pre-pandemic when you add in telemedicine activities, plus the patients coming on site for care here,” said Dr. Steve Ommen, a cardiologist and the medical director for experience products for Mayo Clinic’s Center for Digital Health.

Video visits skyrocketed more than 5,000% from 278 visits in February 2020 to 16,532 in December at Mayo Clinic-Rochester. Phone telemedicine visits also soared from 169 to 7,590 in the same timeframe, peaking at 24,670 visits in April 2020.

A looming question remains: How will this affect Rochester’s economy when much of the downtown and the largest private-public economic partnership in state history has been built with the presumption that many of Mayo’s patients will be visiting the city in person?

Sounds like the local economic developers aren’t too worried…

Holly Masek, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance, said her team hasn’t specifically studied how telehealth use could affect the downtown. The general consensus is that there are enough patients traveling to Rochester for extended stays and more specialized care that businesses will not see a significant decrease in income because of telemedicine use.

There are pluses and minuses with remote working too…

Fewer Mayo Clinic employees are working downtown than before the pandemic, though telemedicine certainly can’t be pinpointed as the sole cause of this shift.

“Approximately 2,900 staff who were previously based in downtown Rochester will now work off campus a majority of the time,” Mayo Clinic spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said to the Post Bulletin’s Jeff Kiger in early July. “This number evolved as Mayo Clinic continued to assess the workforce beyond the initial group of non-clinical administrative staff.”

The number went up from the 1,500 figure Mayo Clinic reported in October 2020.

It looks like the Mayo, more than the city, will need to look at the impact…

Preliminary studies from other healthcare institutions across the country provide a picture into how telemedicine use affects revenue. An April 2021 study by the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of Pennsylvania found that the adoption of telemedicine services resulted in just a -.8% hit to the department’s revenue.

“Given that the nation’s health systems are operating on thin margins amid rising payment and cost pressures, the findings of our study underscore the need for thoughtful examination to ensure telemedicine is used and supported effectively and sustainably,” read the study.

Legislative changes makes it easier to offer and afford telehealth…

Legislation passed in June 2021 as part of the Health and Human Services bill made these changes part of law, not just part of the emergency powers declaration.

For Mayo Clinic campuses in Arizona and Florida, the number of patients receiving care via telemedicine may differ. Arizona recently passed similar protections to Minnesota, while Florida rolled back telehealth regulations passed during the pandemic.

Even if Mayo Clinic’s bottom line isn’t greatly affected by telemedicine use, the patient’s pocketbook may be.

A 2014 study found that the average estimated cost of a telehealth visit is $40 to $50 compared to average cost of $136 to $175 for in-person acute care.

Minnesota legislation regulates the cost of telemedicine services to not surpass what the in-person cost would be.

Fiber Broadband Association Announces New Industry Research Advisory Program to Quantify and Qualify Impact of Fiber Broadband on People, Places and Communities

Fiber 2021 Connect is happening this week and with it come exciting announcements from the Fiber Broadband Association, including their New Industry Research Advisory Program…

Today at Fiber Connect 2021, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) announced it has created the Research Advisory Program, a new independent research organization led by former Gartner Principal Analyst Deborah Kish to quantify and qualify the economic, societal and community impact of fiber broadband in the U.S. and Latin America. The FBA launched three new white papers including The Market Has Spoken, The Future of Work and Fiber is the Fundamental Technology for 21st Century Communications with plans for additional original survey-based research and qualitative summaries, partner-based research, technical analysis and member-sponsored white papers.

“Fiber is the foundation of the 21st century digital economy. This decade brings unprecedented opportunity for investment, deployment and technology innovation as fiber networks bring more for homes, business, people and a wide array of advanced devices into the Gigabit Economy,” said Gary Bolton, President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. “Fiber broadband has proven to have an immediate and long-lasting impact on communities across North America and the Fiber Broadband Association, with its broad membership mix of operators, vendors, integrators and communities, is well positioned to deliver the resources and information the industry needs to make informed decisions.”

The research will be centered with the FBA’s Technical Community, leveraging some of the FBA’s member companies’ brightest technical minds to examine the critical issues the fiber industry faces today as it looks to provide robust broadband services to all Americans. It will also look to partner with other industry groups, as the FBA did with The Future of Work white paper created in partnership with the Fiber Council Global Alliance and the Starlink: RDOF Assessment developed in partnership with NCTA, for survey-based original quantitative-based research.

Since inaugurating the program, the FBA Research Advisory Program has delivered its first slate of original research, technical white papers, market summaries and educational webinars. These include:

“I’ve been fortunate to watch several markets develop and grow in my role as a senior research analyst and the current opportunity is unprecedented in terms of its potential impact on people’s lives today and for generations to come,” said Deborah Kish, Vice President of research and director of the Fiber Advisory Research Program. “The research we have underway will not only deliver the facts, figures and insight the industry needs to move forward in a way that creates true digital equity for everyone but provide actionable advice for our all our members.”

For more information about the FBA’s Fiber Advisory Program, or to inquire about becoming involved in the program as part of a technical peer review program, sponsoring or partnering new research, please contact Deborah Kish.

Common Cause’s new report on the politics of the Digital Divide

Common Cause has taken a deep dive info Broadband Gatekeepers: How ISP Lobbying and Political Influence Shapes the Digital Divide. They look into a few recommendations:

  • Broadband Reforms
  • Lobbying Disclosure Reforms
  • Campaign Finance Reforms
  • Shareholder Corporate Accountability

With a general observation…

Broadband connectivity is vitally important to a functioning 21st-century democracy. But the private sector has failed to deliver universal broadband deployment, with the 15 ISPs and trade associations studied in this report spending more than $100 million every year on lobbying and elections, prioritizing profits over people. As a result, millions of households, particularly in marginalized communities, lack access to affordable, high-speed broadband and continue to face significant barriers to getting online.

We can and must do better. For 50 years, Common Cause has worked on systemic reforms to build a better democracy. The digital divide makes clear that Common Cause’s core programmatic work is needed now more than ever, both to pass legislation that increases access to affordable high-speed broadband and to reform our lobbying and campaign finance laws that allow ISPs and their trade associations to wield such disproportionate political power.

And I’m just going to include more info on the broadband reforms, with the addition of a table that outlines corporate lobbying and political expenditures by the largest 15 national providers…

Political spending by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and other major ISPs has profoundly shaped the contours of the digital divide. But the fight is not over. There are a number of steps our elected officials can take to give power back to the people and begin to close the digital divide.

Congress should pass the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which takes significant steps to address all aspects of the digital divide, including broadband access, affordability, and digital equity.181 Passing this landmark legislation will enable millions of households to participate in our democracy and economy, thus leveling the playing field and helping to connect households ISPs have ignored or underinvested in for years.

Congress should also support the FCC to strengthen Lifeline and digital inclusion initiatives to ensure that all communities, particularly those who are underserved, have access to affordable, reliable, high-quality communications services. In 2020, Congress passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which the FCC rolled out in March of this year.182 The program provides a $50 monthly discount for eligible low-income households ($75 for those on Tribal lands) to purchase a broadband connection.183 The program is an important emergency re[1]sponse by Congress that made clear that affordable connectivity is a top priority. However, the program is only temporary and will end once the funding is depleted.184 The temporary nature of the program makes it even more urgent for the FCC to reform the Universal Service Fund to ensure a sustainable source of funding to support low-income affordability and adoption and incorporate safeguards to ensure ISP accountability, consumer protection, and program eligibility. While Universal Service Fund reform is critical, supplementary support through the Emergency Broadband Benefit and other funding mechanisms dedicated to low-income affordability are important to enact in the interim. Congress should also support permanent funding for digital inclusion activities, such as digital literacy trainings and access to connected devices that help households successfully adopt broadband.185 A sustainable Lifeline subsidy and a digital inclusion plan will ensure that no one is left behind in the use of connectivity to participate in our democracy and economy.

Lawmakers and regulators must also take steps to restore net neutrality and the FCC’s authority over broadband. The repeal of net neutrality and the abdication of the FCC’s authority over broadband during the Trump administration paved the way for large ISPs to engage in discriminatory practices that prioritize their profits over the public interest.186 In the last four years, we have seen broadband prices increase,187 a lack of transparent billing practices,188 and reports of mobile carriers selling their customers’ real-time location data.189 A credible net neutrality framework must ensure that the FCC is an empowered advocate for people that can hold ISPs accountable for discriminatory practices.

 

Access to broadband isn’t just a rural issue!

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has highlighted McKinsey & Company’s recent survey of 25,000 Americans about their view of the future, the pandemic and their identity. The Twin Cities overall surveyed in slightly better shape that other areas but there was a disparity gap…

The racial disparities are particularly stark. Only 29% of Blacks in the Twin Cities region believe that most people can find good jobs — many fewer than among Black Americans as a whole (40%) or compared with their fellow Minnesotans (46%). Moreover, 56% of Blacks in the Twin Cities say their race hurt their job prospects, a level 15 percentage points higher than the national average and the highest of any city surveyed. Blacks and Hispanics in the Twin Cities were also much more likely to have lost income over the course of the pandemic; Blacks in particular were feeling much more vulnerable economically. Both groups cite affordable health insurance as a significant barrier to their well-being at much higher rates than the U.S. average.

Broadband was listed as a tool that could help lift people to a better place…

Across race, gender, income and education, COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequalities; it would be a shame if the emerging recovery resulted in more of the same. Improving racial and social equity is a national concern, but there is wide scope for local action. In the Twin Cities, many businesses have pledged to do more, and indeed the private sector here has a long track record of constructive civic action. But how? The survey offers some hints.

Looking specifically at Black Minnesotans, more than half said that lack of experience, training or education was a barrier to changing jobs — 23 points more than the national average; 57% were interested in training programs or acquiring new skills. They were much more likely than other Black Americans — and three times as likely as their white neighbors — to cite a lack of financial services as a problem, and also considerably more likely to say they cannot afford internet access. Providing training, expanding access to broadband and offering affordable financial services — these are all things where the private sector can lead.

Broadband levels the playing field whether you’re in Grand Portage or North Minneapolis.

Emergency Broadband Benefit has enrolled just 1 in 12 eligible households

The Benton Institute is keeping an eye on Emergency Broadband Benefit…

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission released data on how many households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a program created by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program offers eligible households a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband service. The data, available through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) which administers the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, shows that over 3 million households have signed up for the new program. The downloadable spreadsheet shows that 3,125,066 households have enrolled for the benefit.

A close look at the data reveals some highlights:

  • The first wave of data indicates that, thus far, the Emergency Broadband Benefit has enrolled about one in twelve eligible households.
    • Analysis of 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) indicates that 31.7 million households are eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program. Data on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) shows that 4.3 million more households used SNAP in 2021 than in 2019. This suggests that 36 million households are Emergency Broadband Benefit-eligible (using Lifeline qualification as a guide).
  • Places where wireline broadband adoption rates are low have exhibited above-average rates of households signing up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
    • Puerto Rico and New Orleans stand out as places with high rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment, along with cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia – all of which have high rates of poverty and residential segregation.

Research on Hiring Technologies of Large Hourly Employers

Upturn has an interesting study on the impact of digital expectations on hiring of hourly employees…

Most workers in the United States depend on hourly wages to support themselves and their families. To apply for these jobs, especially at the entry level, job seekers commonly fill out online applications. Online applications for hourly work can be daunting and inscrutable. Candidates — many of whom are young people, people of color, and people with disabilities — may end up filling out dozens of applications, while receiving no responses from employers.

This report provides new empirical research about the technologies that applicants for low-wage hourly jobs encounter each day. We submitted online applications to 15 large, hourly employers in the Washington, D.C. metro area, scrutinizing each process. We observed a blend of algorithmic hiring systems and traditional selection procedures. Many employers used an Applicant Tracking System to administer a range of selection procedures, including screening questions and psychometric tests. We augmented this research with expert interviews, legal research, and a review of industry white papers to offer a more comprehensive analysis.

We offer the following findings and related policy recommendations:

  1. It is simply impossible to fully assess employers’ digital hiring practices from the outside. Even the most careful research has limits. It is critical that regulators, employers, vendors, and others proactively assess their hiring selection procedures to ensure that all applicants are treated fairly.
  2. The current U.S. legal framework is woefully insufficient to protect applicants. Federal oversight is far too passive, and employers lack incentives to critically evaluate their hiring processes. Regulators must be more proactive in their research and investigations, and modernize guidelines on the discriminatory effects of hiring selection procedures.
  3. Major employers are using traditional selection procedures at scale — including troubling personality tests — even as they adopt new hiring technologies. Some test questions lacked any apparent connection to the essential functions of the jobs for which we applied, and they raised a range of discrimination concerns. Employers should seek to measure essential job skills, and discontinue the use of assessments that fail to do so.
  4. Employers rarely give candidates meaningful feedback during the application process. In our analysis, we received minimal feedback from employers — about the purpose of selection procedures, details of reasonable accommodations, or the final disposition of our applications. Employers can and should be required to offer more, so applicants can improve their prospects and vindicate their legal rights.

 

OPPORTUNITY: Consumer Reports is asking for your home broadband speed and cost

Consumer Reports is launching a new initiative, Broadband Together

Consumer Reports today is launching a first-of-its-kind project to uncover what people really pay  — and what they are really getting — for their internet service. With the support of local and national partner organizations, CR is asking thousands of consumers to share their monthly internet bills at broadbandtogether.org so CR can analyze the cost, quality, and speeds that are being delivered to people in communities across the U.S., and to better understand the factors that affect price and why consumers pay different rates for the same service.

The findings from this major initiative will help CR in its effort to press internet service providers and government officials to deliver greater access to fair, affordable, reliable internet services. In a recent CR survey, 76 percent of Americans say that internet service is as important as electricity and running water in today’s world, and 86% say they rely on the internet at least five days a week.

New research shows: household of four requires 131/73 Mbps of bandwidth

Telecom Review reports

Research commissioned by the FBA and presented in the white paper indicates that in 2021, a household of four requires 131/73 Mbps of bandwidth and will grow to 2,141/2,044 Mbps by 2030. This makes today’s definition of broadband speeds unusable, as the FCC currently defines broadband as a mere 25/3 Mbps for Americans and 50/10 Mbps for Canadians. These antiquated definitions of broadband affect the rural populations of North America the most. FBA’s research found that 62% of the most rural areas have the lowest performing broadband with speeds for the lowest quantile at 4/1 Mbps.

To eliminate the rural digital divide, the white paper suggests attention and investment should be placed on the most effective rural broadband infrastructure. The research presents that, without exception, there is no communications medium nearly as effective or future proof as fiber optics. Fiber’s transmission capacity can be increased almost infinitely as needed to supply any level of bandwidth. Fiber is immune to electrical interference and requires fewer powered nodes, enabling it to serve as the most consistent and reliable technology option. Additionally, the cost to operate a fiber-to-the-home system is lower than other broadband methods.

“The investment in fiber networks in rural areas to close the digital divide has never been more important. Not only does fiber provide the necessary infrastructure needed for communities to work, learn, shop and play from home, it has the added benefit of creating jobs and fueling the economy in these rural parts of North America,” said Deborah Kish, Vice President of Research and Marketing at the Fiber Broadband Association. “As the federal government makes plans to spend billions of dollars towards America’s digital infrastructure, deploying fiber proves to be the soundest and cost-effective investment.”

Broadband alone isn’t enough – students need laptops

Through the pandemic, I saw lots of generous vendors and schools get hotspots into the hands on people and families who needed them, especially to access broadband for homework. The big question (asked by Brain Whitacre and Amanda Higgins) is whether hotspots alone are enough to make a difference or might laptops have been the special sauce to get students to do homework. It turns out they may have been onto something!

Here’s the abstract from the report

Much has been made about the “homework gap” that exists between students who have access to the Internet and those that do not. Policy-makers increasingly recognize the connectivity aspect of this issue but typically fail to acknowledge the importance of computer ownership. We use a small-scale randomized controlled trial (n=18) to test whether the provision of Internet access by itself — or in conjunction with a laptop computer — improves educational outcomes of alternative high-school students in the U.S. Our results suggest that the combination of Internet access and computer ownership is more effective than Internet access alone for positive educational outcomes.

They had a small sample but for folks in the field and their sample precedes the pandemic (2017/2018(, I think this is a practical assumption. Here’s their conclusion…

The results of this small randomized controlled trial suggest that simply providing alternative high-school students with Internet access is not enough to have a meaningful impact on student performance over the course of a semester. Rather, a combination of Internet access (hotspots) and tools to take advantage of that access (laptops) are more effective at generating improvements in scholastic achievement. The group assigned both of these devices was the only one to show measurable increases in the number of credits earned, and to display a positive trend in GPA (although not statistically significant). We also highlight the significantly higher proportion of Internet time spent on homework for this group (Figure 2); those in the hotspot-only group spent roughly the same percentage of Internet time devoted to homework as did the control (around 30 percent).

And a few of the graphs outlining the specifics:

How to create The Minds We Need

The Minds We Need is a paper/movement/plan to help America be better and prepare for the future for everyone. It focuses on inclusion, innovation and competition. Here are their top recommendations…

To ensure inclusion, drive innovation, enhance competitiveness, and equalize opportunity we must:

  • Connect every community college, every minority serving institution, and every college and university, including all urban, rural, and tribal institutions to a world-class and secure R&E infrastructure, with particular attention to institutions that have been chronically underserved;
  • Engage and empower every student and researcher everywhere with the opportunity to join collaborative environments of the future, because we cannot know where the next Edison, Carver, Curie, McClintock, Einstein, or Katherine Johnson will come from; and
  • Ensure American competitiveness and leadership by investing holistically in national R&E infrastructure as a sustainable system.

Because the investment in R&E is coming I don’t mention much, I wanted to add their notes on that topic…

Our plan calls for a $4.989 Billion one-time investment to expand the nation’s research and education infrastructure, to be completed in three phases, extending R&E leading-edge capabilities to every community college, minority serving institution, college and university, enabling innovation while ensuring every college student is connected into an advanced digital fabric.

Awards in all categories should be prioritized to nonprofit R&E networks, tribal, and/or across all community colleges, minority serving institutions, colleges and universities, and university research-affiliated organizations that can then form partnerships, as appropriate, with private sector companies to implement the programs, with a goal of engaging our nation’s diverse system of 3,900 accredited, degree-granting higher education institutions.

EFF makes the case for symmetrical, high speed internet

The Electronic Frontier Foundation makes the case for symmetrical, high speed internet…

Congress is about to make critical decisions about the future of internet access and speed in the United States. It has a potentially once-in-a-lifetime amount of funding to spend on broadband infrastructure, and at the heart of this debate is the minimum speed requirement for taxpayer-funded internet. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the granularity of this debate, but ultimately it boils down to this: cable companies want a definition that requires them to do and give less. One that will not meet our needs in the future. And if Congress goes ahead with their definition—100 Mbps of download and 20 of upload (100/20 Mbps)—instead of what we need—100 Mbps of download and 100 Mbps of upload (100/100 Mbps)—we will be left behind.

In order to explain exactly why these two definitions mean so much, and how truly different they are, we’ll evaluate each using five basic questions below. But the too long, didn’t read version is this: in essence, building a 100/20 Mbps infrastructure can be done with existing cable infrastructure, the kind already operated by companies such as Comcast and Charter, as well as with wireless. But raising the upload requirement to 100 Mbps—and requiring 100/100 Mbps symmetrical services—can only be done with the deployment of fiber infrastructure. And that number, while requiring fiber, doesn’t represent the fiber’s full capacity, which makes it better suited to a future of internet demand. With that said, let’s get into specifics.

The questions they use:

  1. Which Definition Will Meet Our Projected Needs in 2026 and Beyond?
  2. Which Definition Will Increase Upload Speeds Most Cost-Effectively?
  3. Which Definition Will Deliver Gigabit Speeds?
  4. Which Definition Will Give Americans an Affordable Option That Meets Their Needs Over Time?
  5. Which Definition Makes the U.S. Globally Competitive?

I won’t do the deep dive into each question – but I will look at the first…

Which Definition Will Meet Our Projected Needs in 2026 and Beyond?

Since the 1980s, consumer usage of the internet has grown by 21% on average every single year. Policymakers should bake into their assumption that 2026 internet usage will be greater than 2021 usage. Fiber has capacity decades ahead of projected growth, which is why it is future-proof. Moreover, high-speed wireless internet will likewise end up depending on fiber, because high-bandwidth wireless towers must have equally high-bandwidth wired connections to the internet backbone.

In terms of predicted needs in 2026, OpenVault finds that today’s average use is 207 Mbps/16 Mbps. If we apply 21% annual growth, that will mean 2026 usage will be over 500Mbps down and 40Mbps up. But another crucial detail is that the upload and download needs aren’t growing at the same speeds. Upload, which the average consumer used much less than download, is growing much faster. This is because we are all growing to use and depend on services that upload data much more. The pandemic underscored this, as people moved to remote socializing, remote learning, remote work, telehealth, and many other services that require high upload speeds and capacity. And even as we emerge from the pandemic, those models are not going to go away.

Essentially, the pandemic jumped our upload needs ahead of schedule, but it does not represent an aberration. If anything, it proved the viability of remote services. And our internet infrastructure must reflect that need, not the needs of the past.

Comparing State’s Broadband Plans – MN checks all of the boxes

Pew Research has created a table and map that tracks the broadband tools in each state, including the following:

  • Office: A centralized office for broadband projects.
  • Agency: State agency(ies) involved in broadband projects.
  • Task force: A formalized team—often involving multiple agencies and sectors—dedicated to broadband issues.
  • Broadband fund: A funding mechanism(s).
  • Broadband goal: The result that the state’s broadband program is working to achieve.
  • Broadband plan: A document that defines objectives, and the actions to be taken to reach them.
  • Broadband map: A mapping effort underway to identify where broadband is and isn’t.

Minnesota has all of them.

 

The digital divide is still there and it still hurting Americans with lower incomes

Pew Research reports

Roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (24%) say they don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). And a majority of Americans with lower incomes are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Americans with higher household incomes are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly six-in-ten adults living in households earning $100,000 or more a year (63%) report having home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 23% of those living in lower-income households.

Conversely, 13% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not have access to any of these technologies at home, while only 1% of adults from households making $100,000 or more a year report a similar lack of access.

Another statistic that I think will keep the opportunity gap widening – the share of lower income Americans who rely on their smartphone has doubled since 2013.

This reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens. For example, smartphone owners with lower incomes were especially likely to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

It reminds me of a woman who showed up to one of my classes on how to build a website – with only her smartphone. Yes, it can be done but it takes much longer and it’s much more difficult. And you know if she’s using the phone for a website, she’s using it for payroll and taxes. That takes a lot of perseverance than most business owners, workers or students are required to bring to the table.

IEDC report on how economic developers are expanding broadband access

The IEDC has written a guidebook of sort to help economic developers promote better broadband. As they say…

In response to the market’s failure to provide universal, affordable, reliable access, public networks and publicly facilitated solutions continue to grow. Economic developers play important roles in planning and  implementing these solutions, which this paper shows in three main sections:

  • A broadband “crash course” – key things to know about how broadband works
  • An overview of different communities’ strategic approaches and technical solutions
  • Actions economic development organizations are taking to expand access

And…

Five in‐epth case studies are included showing how economic development organizations have played a  central role in improving broadband access in their communities. Those roles include:

  • Convening stakeholders,
  • Gathering data,
  • Engaging in strategic planning,
  • Helping evaluate solutions, and
  • Helping secure financing for solutions.

This is a great tool if you’re in a position where you have to sell the idea of broadband. If you’ve been doing this for a while, the story won’t be new but the stats are. Here are just a few:

  • In 2021, major corporations, including Ford in Michigan and Target in Minnesota, have said they are giving up significant office space because of their changing workplace practices.
  • 51% of respondents said their corporate clients are now considering moving their business operations
  • A joint study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Amazon found that in Virginia alone, universal broadband would mean at least $2.24 billion increased annual sales, $1.29 billion annual value added, 9,415 added jobs, and $452.4 million in annual wages.

The report also, as indicated goes into the nuts and bolt of broadband, such as…

  • Why satellite access doesn’t substitute for fixed access
  • Why 5g isn’t the answer to better community access
  • The digital divide: Who doesn’t have internet and why?

They even draw a few examples from Minnesota, especially Chisago County…

Chisago County, Minn. Case highlights:

  • Solution involved collaboration with incumbent ISP
  • Public funding layered on private investment got higher-quality service
  • Help from a rural community foundation
  • Role of survey data and citizen involvement

Minnesota has a couple of advantages when it comes to expanding broadband service. One of those is a longstanding commitment by the state to the goal of universal broadband access for residents (at speeds of 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026). The other is the Blandin Foundation, which, as part of its vision to create healthy, inclusive rural communities in the state, has focused for years on helping expand broadband access.

In 2015, Chisago County, located roughly an hour north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, began its broadband efforts in earnest. The work was spearheaded by the Chisago County Housing & Redevelopment Authority – Economic Development Authority (HRA-EDA) and its executive director, Nancy Hoffman. (Hoffman previously worked on broadband access in another rural Minnesota county and also has served as chair of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition.)

Chisago County was accepted into the Blandin Broadband Communities program, an intensive, two-year process in which rural communities define their technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use, and access technical assistance and resources to meet their goals. Each community also has the opportunity to apply to the foundation for a $75,000 matching grant for locally developed projects.

Led by a local steering committee, in 2016, one of the first actions was to survey county residents about their current broadband access, whether they would subscribe to better service and for what they would use it (such surveys are useful both to determine demand and to use in grant applications). The results found that 94 percent of residents would subscribe to better broadband service for uses that included improved quality of life, education, telecommuting and starting a business. Seventy-six percent of Chisago County working residents commute out of the county, so part of the goal from the HRA-EDA’s perspective was to give people the opportunity to work, shop and stay closer to home by telecommuting or starting their own business. The study also showed that numerous homebased businesses paid too much for poor service or had to find other locations to upload or download files.

Once the county had data on unserved/underserved areas and potential demand for improved service, the technical solution became the question. The steering committee began by talking to incumbent providers (of which there were seven in the county, including telephone and cable providers CenturyLink and Frontier).

They found a willing partner in CenturyLink, which had received federal Connect America Funds (CAF II) that it planned to use to upgrade service in half of Sunrise Township using DSL technology; CAF II speed requirements are just 10/1 Mbp. (Frontier served the other half of the town and declined to participate). To secure faster, more reliable service, the township proposed to invest local funding, combined with a grant from the state’s Border to Border Broadband grant program, to prompt CenturyLink to build a fiber-to-the-home network that met (at minimum) the state speed goals of 100/20 Mbps.

A petition signed by 50 percent of the residents in favor of the project helped spur Sunrise Township to action. The township raised the funds by bonding through a subordinated service district, assessed by parcel, rather than property value. After seeing Sunrise Township’s success, other communities began pursuing similar strategies to improve service. Fish Lake Township, also in Chisago County, has since completed a project in which it raised funds for the local share by issuing tax abatement bonds (property owners are assessed by value). Nessel Township followed suit the next year with the same financing model. The cost savings by having high-speed Internet much outweighed the additional cost the residents pay, which is about $100 a year or $10 a month.

Takeaways:

  • Get the right people together. Don’t worry about titles. Bring in people who get things done.
  • Cultivate personal passions. Harness the energy of where the group wants to go. Don’t fight it.
  • Show people they’re not alone. Work on building relationships of mutual trust. Relationships will carry the work forward.
  • Show successes early and often. Break down the project into bite-size pieces that the community can grab hold of and achieve. Celebrate the successes to re-energize before starting on the next piece. Sources: Interview with Nancy Hoffman; Blandin Broadband Communities Program, Blandin Foundation

And a few other mentions…

  • [Federal covid-19 relief funds] Many states and communities used CARES Act funds for infrastructure projects (which had to be used by the end of 2020, limiting flexibility). Itasca County, Minnesota, committed $293,000 in CARES funds to complete four projects in the county. The city of Chesapeake, Va., used it to fast-track the engineering design for a 170-mile fiber backbone that will connect over 200 sites and lay a foundation for gigabit broadband.
  • The Cargill Foundation, Blandin Foundation, Bush Foundation, and numerous other foundations and businesses based in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region donated $2.35 million in grants to the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity (MBCRE) and Partnership for a ConnectedMN to address digital inequities that affect many Minnesota students. Grants fund the distribution of laptops, fiber internet installation, training for digital literacy, and more