USDA Invests $11 Million in Broadband for Rural Minnesota and Iowa Communities

I already posted details on the CTC project, but here’s the general info on the USDA money coming into Minnesota (and Iowa)…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.”

Harmony Telephone Company will use a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) in northern Iowa will use a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant to provide broadband service to underserved households, farms and businesses in Mitchell County. This will be accomplished by directly accessing a fiber trunk line that runs through the heart of Mitchell, Iowa, and up to the border of Minnesota, allowing OMU to increase its service area bandwidth. The funded service area includes 151 households spread over 20 square miles.

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) will use a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in Minnesota’s famed ‘Iron Range.’ CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative, and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County.

Background:

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

In December 2019, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced USDA will be making available an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding in 2020. USDA will make available up to $200 million for grants, up to $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans. The application window for this round of funding will open Jan. 31, 2020. Applications for all funding products will be accepted in the same application window, which will close no later than March 16, 2020.

A full description of 2020 ReConnect Pilot Program funding is available on page 67913 of the Dec. 12, 2019, Federal Register (PDF, 336 KB). To learn more about eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force. To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Democrat Presidential candidates’ view on rural broadband

Agri Pulse reports…

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

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

The article outlines the increase priority level for broadband…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He proposes spending $80 billion to expand rural broadband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They point out three ways that technology can help:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Senator Westrom talks to high school seniors in Campbell about broadband

The Whapeton Daily News reports…

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

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

Broadband came up…

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

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

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

 

Paul Bunyan Introduces GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 Technology

Fun news from Paul Bunyan Communications

The world’s most powerful Wi-Fi is now available locally, Paul Bunyan Communications announced today.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 technology is now available to all locations within the GigaZone.

GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi leverages the all-fiber optic network of the GigaZone to deliver gigabit speeds wirelessly throughout a home or business with coverage up to 3x greater than Wi-Fi 5.  The GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi 6 router also provides increased data capacity and significant improvements in latency – up to 75% lower for gaming and video streaming.

“Our cooperative leads the way when bringing the latest in communication technology to the region and we are proud to be the first to offer Wi-Fi 6 technology to our customers.  We can all see that the number of internet connected devices in our homes is increasing and it’s important that our membership has the very best broadband experience possible.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi is faster, stronger, and includes more security features than ever before,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

In addition to the increased speed, security, and coverage, GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi also provides peace of mind.  The cooperative installs and maintains the GigaZone Blast router and our local technical support team is right here to help keep it working worry free throughout the year.

As the Internet provider with the largest and fastest all-fiber optic network in the region, our cooperative is providing wired Internet service at very high speed.  That speed, however, can be dramatically impacted by a wireless router. Older routers may not be able to handle the higher speed Internet you are receiving.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi ensures you are getting the best possible wireless connections in your home or business.

“Wi-Fi technology has evolved rapidly and not only will Wi-Fi 6 technology provide more speed and reach farther but it also improves performance when there are multiple devices connected to the network” said Leo Anderson Jr., Paul Bunyan Communications Technology Experience Manager. “Even better for our membership, it’s low cost.  You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a router to get the best Wi-Fi available!”

GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 can be added to GigaZone Internet service for only $5 per month and all new GigaZone customers can get GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi free for the first 6 months.

I wanted to add a quick note that WiFi 6 is unrelated to 5G. WiFi 6 relates to the network you might have in your house stemming from the broadband connection to your home (or business). 5G is a cellular network; it is the network your phone might automatically pick up to work, as opposed to times when you might sign into a WiFi network – like on a plane or at a conference.

Probably you knew that – but sometimes it gets confusing.

Cooperatives excel at rural broadband – how can we help?

The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILRS) has updated their report on the growing role of cooperatives bringing better broadband to rural areas – including a map of showing where cooperatives provider fiber service…

You can see that cooperatives are really making a difference in the Midwest. In fact, here are the top five states with cooperative fiber coverage…

ISLR and others have made the case for cooperative providers before. The very quick high level look is that cooperatives’ stakeholders are their customers so they are at least as interested in providing them with service and improving the community as making a profit. And they are more patient with return on investment than many for-profit providers.

The report does highlight some recommendations to better support cooperatives – here’s an abridged version…

Federal and state governments must recognize that cooperatives are one of the best tools for ubiquitous, rural, high-speed Internet access.

  1. Design funding programs with cooperatives in mind.

  2. Encourage cooperatives by removing barriers and encouraging partnerships.

  3. If you live in a rural area, talk to your neighbors, co-op manager, and board members about the potential for Internet networks. Successful cooperative projects are community-led projects. About 70 percent of electric cooperatives have less than 10 percent average turnout for their board member elections.

  4. Make it clear that rural connectivity is about more than entertainment. Farmers, programmers, and entrepreneurs all need high-speed Internet access. Rural connectivity also supports needed research.

North Dakota ranks number 2 for internet access

It’s always good to know what the neighbors are up to, the Bismark Tribune reports…

North Dakota officials argue that the state has done well in the internet age. Duane Schell, the state’s chief technology officer, cited an internet database that he said shows 100% of North Dakota residents have “access to mobile broadband,” which means they can tap into the internet wirelessly. And 90%, he said, have access to one-gigabit broadband, a particularly fast service . A May report from the state’s information technology department shows North Dakota was recently listed second in the country for “internet access” (as of this month, it was ranked 11th, with Minnesota ninth and South Dakota 43rd).

Schell said North Dakota’s high spot on the list has to do partly with local providers working hard to take advantage of federal programs to help expand North Dakota’s network. The state’s geography helps, too; North Dakota is a comparatively easy state to link up to the internet – flat or rolling fields in many areas.

The article makes a case for the importance of broadband, but also notes that even at 90 percent coverage (which the article states may be optimistic) coverage is not ubiquitous and that’s an issue…

But for the remaining 10% of the population that struggles to connect with fixed high-speed internet, Schell sympathizes.

“Obviously that is not a good situation to be in,” he said. “We don’t have a massive population that are affected this way, but for those that don’t have it, it’s a massive – ‘inconvenience’ is probably too soft of a word, but it’s definitely an impact on their life. Our society today is definitely a connected society.”

The issue is the ROI for a commercial provider in some sparsely populated areas…

Part of the problem, Schell said, is in rural areas around major North Dakota communities.

“There’s a common provider that exists in those regions, and that provider has not been as aggressive in those federal programs as the rural telcos have,” he said. “The rest of the story is … (in) some of our most rural and remote areas. As a provider, (telecommunications companies) are out there to make a living. In some of these rural and remote areas, the business case (to expand) has become exceedingly challenging.”