Dear rural wireless customer – you’re fired!

I love hot weather – but maybe as a Minnesotan I’m not ready for 90 degrees in mid-September because things are making me crabby. For example the fact that Verizon is cutting off 20,000 rural cell customers in states like Maine, Michigan, North Dakota and Montana because they spend too much time roaming. The Rural Blog gives a quick description of the situation…

Verizon is disconnecting wireless service to rural users in several states, including Maine and Montana, saying they use too much data to make service profitable. The issue centers on Verizon’s LTE in Rural America program, which Verizon say has brought coverage to more nearly 2.4 million people since its inception in 2010. Verizon partners with 21 small rural carriers around the country and pays them when its customers end up roaming off Verizon’s cell network and onto the rural carriers’ network. The affected customers have Verizon’s “unlimited” data plan, but don’t live in Verizon’s native service area. Verizon may be losing money on these perpetually roaming customers, Jon Brodkin reported for Ars Technica in June, when Verizon first began cutting off rural customers.

As a private company, Verizon can do what it wants. (Although Stop the Cap outlines the specifics of the services procured and now cut off in some of the states listed. Part of the frustration is that local partners – sometimes public partners – built infrastructure to entice Verizon to their areas and now Verizon is walking away.)

But this is a reminder that we need to reconsider broadband and telephone (cell or landline) standing as utilities!

There has been a push to deregulate VoIP in Minnesota – or more specifically recognize that all telephone calls are quickly transferred to IP (Internet Protocol) so in practice it’s a push to deregulate POTS (plain old telephone service). The push is an attempt to level the playing field because traditional phone companies are held to a pretty stringent standard and are expected to compete with wireless providers, who are not. No doubt, it isn’t fair.

But I think seeing this action from Verizon indicates that lowering the bar leaves consumers unprotected. Maybe the answer is that we level the playing field on higher ground!

Talking about the attempt to deregulate phone service (in April 2017) Representative Sheldon Johnson and Senator Simonson said the following…

First, under the bill there will no longer be a right to have phone service. It is expensive and unprofitable to serve rural customers and maintain infrastructure. Companies will invest their money in densely populated, more profitable urban areas and disinvest in maintenance of the network in rural, more expensive-to-serve, less profitable areas. Rural consumers will experience decreasing service quality and more outages as the system is allowed to deteriorate and resources are moved elsewhere.

Second, existing protections against charging exorbitant connection or reconnection charges would be gone. If the bill becomes law, phone companies can shut you off for no reason even if you always pay their bill on time or without notice if you are late. Companies can shut off customers simply because they are too expensive to serve and not sufficiently profitable. Who are these customers? They are older Minnesotans, people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, and people who live in Greater Minnesota.

Third, AT&T and Comcast tell legislators that deregulation will produce more competition, lower prices, better service, more jobs, and broadband for everyone. Beware of would-be deregulated telecommunications companies bearing “gifts.”

Their second point sounds prophetic now – if you add “cell” to “phone companies”. Communication (broadband and phone) is a lifeline. Perhaps more policymakers need to look at it from that lens.

Broadband Update in Yellow Medicine Broadband: partner, plan, local investment

The Yellow Medicine County Board met to discuss their broadband plan – investment, grant applications and partners in a plan to being providing fiber service to the county. Sounds like they have a willing partner and community investment. They are hoping for a Minnesota broadband grant – and I’d say that’s the linchpin here in the project. They are asking good questions. The Independent reported on the meeting.

Scope of work…

Two methods were being looked at, Konechne said. First, to build fiber into the entire area or building a hybrid model with fiber to towns and branch off of that.

In the rural area, YMC is looking at a potential of 1,862 customers.

“That includes a large pile of homes and a handful of businesses without internet service,” Dawson said. He and Konechne went into the details of the 52-mile width of land to cover, he called it the backbone. It adds up to about 955 miles of rods, weaving down township roads because there seems to be a household down each one, he said.

The investment…

They are looking at delivering the service on poles, like telephone wires.

The next steps for the county to consider were half done, the consultants said, because the first step was to find a partner for the project. Which, depending on getting a grant, the board had made that agreement at the last meeting.

The YMC Board approved a $4 million broadband agreement with Farmers Mutual Telephone Cooperative (FMTC) in August pending the cooperative receiving a grant to cover half of the costs for the project.

The details…

The grant would only cover about 49 percent of the project FMTC had asked the county to loan it the other 51 percent if the grant came through. The county could bond the funds at a minimum of $4 million with the repayments coming from FMTC.

Isaackson then brought up a coverage glitch. The project is to service the central and northeast portion of the county, not the southeast where he lives.

“How are we covered?” he asked.

Heglund said that the county was looking at Arvig to cover that area since it is already in parts of the southeast end of the county.

“They have five to 10 years to complete the project,” she said.

Some specifics…

“Fiber to towers will enhance MVTV service,” Antony said.

“The 52-mile backbone does hit a lot of their spots,” Konechne said. A successful combination is high elevation (towers) and solid backbone (fiber).

The second step is to find the other half of the financing for the unserved area. Another partner to help with that would be ideal.

Repaying a loan was weighing on Greg Isaackson’s mind. Isaackson, from Cottonwood, is the treasurer for MVTV. He wanted to know what happens if the annual payment on the bonded amount doesn’t get paid.

“The fiber is collateral,” Heglund said. “We’d have to find another partner.”

She went on to explain that there would be precautions up front. The county has to get at least a 63 percent take rate (subscribers). Farmers Mutual Cooperative would have to show it financials, that it can make these payments, before the deal went through.

Brookings looks at broadband access and use – rural areas are falling behind!

Brookings Institute is looking at broadband access and adoption…

As federal, state, and local policymakers pursue universal access to in-home broadband, neighborhood-level indicators confer multiple advantages. First, broadband infrastructure is not deployed equally within regions, municipalities, and rural counties. Identifying these gaps can help target policies to boost availability. Second, understanding how neighborhood-level subscription varies will enable policymakers and practitioners to more effectively target their limited resources to boost adoption among populations and neighborhoods most in need. (In this analysis, neighborhoods are approximated by census tracts. For more information on this and other methodological details, please download the full report.)

It’s interesting and important work. There a lot to unpack in the report – so much that I am doing two posts on it. This morning I’ll look at what we can glean for rural areas and this afternoon I’ll look at what they say about the Twin Cities. I just think two bites are better than a big gulp.

Much of the data used in the report comes from 2015. They use 10/1 (10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps) to measure access through most of the report, which is a definition the FCC has used (certainly it’s the definition they use for most CAF 2 requirements although they do go as low as 4/1). This is frustrating because a lot of lip service is paid to the 25/3 definition but my frustration is with the FCC, not this report. In fact I think this report does a good job of illustrating what a difference a definition makes…

This distinction is especially important at a time when the FCC is talking about lowering the definition of broadband – so more people “will have access”. That sounds an awful lot like two plus two is five. We can call lower speeds broadband but if you can’t Skype with the potential employer – it’s not enough.

Brookings calls out the urban-rural divide specifically…

And a statistic that does not bode well for the future of rural areas…

When seven out of ten teachers assign homework that requires broadband – these kids are losing out and/or they are going about the learning process without a tool that most of us would consider essential to our work and life. They will be behind their urban/wired counterparts when it comes to college assignments or job seeking.

And how many are at risk? Two Thirds of rural residents!

But the report isn’t just about framing the issue. It is a primer for policy makers and those who want to influence policy makers. And here is the image I find most powerful. It details the local government responsibility/regulation. If you are a community – these are your trump cards – based on your geography and seat at the table.

IRL Podcast looks at rural broadband – great resource to share with someone who doesn’t get it

I just got a heads up on IRL’s podcast on rural broadband – All Access Pass.  Here’s the description from their website…

What is life like without fast Internet, and how does life change once a person has it? Should Internet access be a right, rather than a luxury? Veronica Belmont explores these questions as she talks to people about joining the digital economy. Inspiring stories of access are surfaced by members of a small Minnesota community and by a Syrian refugee who found hope in Amsterdam.

So there’s a nice nod to RS Fiber and their “Just Do It” approach to rural broadband. Love to see those guys get recognition because – just do it sounds easy but it wasn’t.

But mostly I really enjoy this podcast because it looks at rural broadband as a new topic. So this is one to share with the policymaker or the city cousin that doesn’t get it. The one who thinks everyone has broadband or that it’s only for Netflix or that you’re just too cheap to pay for a better connection

Three investments for improving upward mobility in rural areas: people, technology and family planning

Brookings recently reported on recent research Rural dreams: Upward mobility in America’s countryside, which looks at which rural areas best led to inter-generational upward mobility…

Certain rural counties have some of the highest mobility rates in the country, while others are “mobility traps,” where children born to disadvantaged circumstances are extremely unlikely to get ahead.

Taking a deeper look at these rural areas, the authors find that counties that had the highest rates of upward mobility also had (among other things):

  • higher out-migration rates, particularly among youth and young adults,

  • higher quality K-12 education,

  • improved measures of family stability,

  • and stronger local labor markets.

And what can be done to improve upward mobility…

The paper lists three arenas that seem particularly promising for bolstering opportunity in rural America.

  1. Invest in human capital development. Improving K-12 quality in distressed areas will improve young residents’ life prospects and preparedness for adulthood.

  2. Ensure rural communities are equipped with basic 21stcentury infrastructure. Technology such as broadband will enable families and schools in these areas to better connect to distant economies and opportunities.

  3. Invest in family planning.Rural residents are less likely to have access to affordable and quality health care, which makes intentional parenthood all the more difficult.

A key word here is investment.

MinnPost asks about the Rural-Urban divide – reader asks about broadband

Last week MinnPost looked at the Urban divide…

Some differences are cultural, or a matter of perception. But as data suggest, there are also real differences between urban and rural Minnesotans, to a degree, who they are, and the jobs they work. There are also real similarities: on the whole, Minnesotans are pretty well-off economically and face a lot of the same challenges.

The article mentions population division…

More than half of the people in Minnesota live in the 7-county metro, which is around 3,000 square miles or less than 3.5 percent of the land covered by the state.

Age difference…

The median age in Twin Cities counties tends to be in the 30s, while in some counties in northeastern Minnesota around 50.

Population trends…

In Minnesota, denser areas are becoming more dense, and sparsely populated areas are becoming denser less quickly or losing population altogether.

Jobs…

Country Minnesotans do work in a different industry mix than city Minnesotans. City dwellers are far more likely to work in professional and scientific fields, and financial, insurance and real estate fields than people in Greater Minnesota. Small town and rural-dwellers are more likely to work in natural resources jobs and construction jobs.

Income…

People in cities make more money, too: the average full-time, year-round worker in an urban area makes nearly $51,000, more than $10,000 more than people in rural areas, small and big towns.

And issues…

A report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato notes the importance  of remembering that with problems common across the state — lack of affordable child care, transportation funding needs and a looming workforce shortage, to name a few — the solutions sometimes have to be different.

The article doesn’t mention broadband – but a commenter does…

Rather than throw more money at roads that people don’t need, how about putting money into high speed internet service? Governor Dayton has long championed this avenue without a lot of support from the legislature, who typically cut the budget and slide the money into road construction instead. Judging from the article above, I can only assume this is because the representative’s buddies in small towns have construction companies and they employ a lot of people when a road is being built. By contrast, internet utilities are few and far between, are owned by just a few people, and you don’t need a ton of people to do the installation.

So it’s not as attractive in the short term as it’s not a big jobs bill.

But looking at the long term, high speed internet is exactly what Minnesota needs. These days there aren’t a lot of businesses or jobs that don’t use a lot of bandwidth, from CAD drawings to marketing material to EDI (electronic data interface) orders. If you want a business to succeed in a small town and compete in new markets, they need to be able to reach those additional markets and service them. In this day and age, you’re not going to accomplish that using mail any more than you would via Pony Express.

From an employee point of view, fast internet helps them reach jobs no matter where they are at. The firm I work for is based in downtown Minneapolis, but we have employees who work from home in Mankato, Hutchinson, North Dakota, Phoenix, and other points across the United States. Having high speed access at both ends lets us hire technical people no matter where they may live.

If people can work from anywhere, then they can live anywhere too. And those salaries are spent in their community, boosting local merchants, schools, and and the greater area’s economy.