What are WI and IA doing about broadband? Governors are pledging $200M and $450M

Sometimes it’s helpful to see what the neighbors are doing. It looks like both Wisconsin and Iowa are thinking about boosting their broadband investment – and both cite COVID as a reason for at least emphasizing the issues in rural areas.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports

The governor [Tony Evers] said he would propose nearly $200 million in broadband funding in his 2021-23 state budget, five times the amount included in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 budgets combined.

His 2019 budget allocated $54 million for broadband expansion in the form of grants to service providers, the largest amount in state history, and the $200 million would nearly quadruple that spending.

“We feel confident that the budget will be in good shape and balanced, and that we will be able to move forward with a few initiatives, one of them being broadband,” Evers said in an interview.

KCRG (ACB9in Iowa) reports

In Governor Kim Reynolds Condition of the State Address Tuesday, she pledged $450 million to be spent on expanding high-speed internet.

Reynolds said the pandemic proved how hard it was for rural communities to get access to quality internet services.

“The past year we have learned that we need better internet for virtual learning, and for those of us who have had to work from home,” said Carole Hebl of rural Oxford.

Rural communities shouldn’t settle for temporary broadband fixes

Wisconsin State Farmer is looking at the role for satellite in bridging the digital divide. They talk to a rural resident who has it and is much happier than he was without it and they talk about the investment that the federal government (via RDOF) is about to make in satellite. They also talked to Bernadine Joselyn who warned that satellite is just a piece of the puzzle…

More likely, it will take multiple technologies to bridge the digital abyss — including some not so cosmic such as transmitters mounted on barn silos. Even powerlines strung along country roads could someday be used for internet access.

Still, rural communities shouldn’t settle for temporary fixes, says Bernadine Joselyn with the Blandin Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota nonprofit that’s helped rural Minnesotans gain broadband access.

“We encourage communities to be ambitious in choosing their partners. They ought to be looking for a marriage partner, not a prom date,” Joselyn said.

Minnesota has set high goals. By 2026, it aims to make speeds of at least 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads available to all homes and businesses. Wisconsin has a goal of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 for uploads in the next few years, in line with the current definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission.

It will take much more public investment to reach those goals, according to Joselyn, even though Wisconsin state government has spent about $49 million on rural broadband in the last six years and Minnesota $84 million.

“For Wisconsin to really make strides, you need a bigger fund. The other problem is affordability. It’s a huge barrier for many people,” Joselyn said.

NTCA report surveys rural broadband providers: aiming for fiber

NTCA reports on their members’ current and future broadband

To gauge the deployment rates of advanced services by its member companies, for nearly two decades NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) has conducted its Broadband/Internet Availability Survey. NTCA is a national association representing nearly 850 rural rate-of-return regulated telecommunications providers in 45 states.
All NTCA members are small network operators that are “rural telephone companies” as defined in the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. All of NTCA’s
members are full service local exchange carriers and broadband service providers. Respondents to this
year’s survey report an average of 3,978 residential and 456 business fixed broadband connections in service.

It’s a look at how the non-national, local folks are doing. I look at these numbers and think about the Minnesota broadband goals of 25/3 by 2022 and 100/20 by 2026. I also think about the comparative goals – the ones that say Minnesota is aiming to be a broadband leader and I wonder if those speeds goals will still get us there.

And interesting to see the adoption spikes in the last year – likely due to increased need with the pandemic restrictions.

 

COVID is good excuse for farmers to go online to access mental health assistance – but not always the best reason

Ag Week reports on tele-mental health for farmers…

Along with farmer-specific helplines, farmers across the country can now seek help for mental stress through virtual counseling and online training, according to interviews with health professionals.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to receive help virtually. According to a June report from the American Psychological Association, about 75% of clinicians were only treating patients remotely.

But the telehealth options for farmers have little to do with the pandemic. Instead, experts said, teletherapy can make mental health services more accessible and more confidential for farmers.

They don’t have to travel potentially long distances to receive help. Nor do they have to risk being seen at therapy, because there is a stigma of mental health issues in the farming community.

Minnesota has set up a hotline…

Several Midwestern states — including Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa — also have a hotline or helpline specifically for farmers.

Services are available by phone and broadband…

Monica McConkey, a counselor in Minnesota, is also doing many of her sessions virtually, but she said most of her clients prefer speaking on the phone rather than via Zoom or Facetime.

McConkey agreed that virtual counseling is easier for those who typically have to travel long distances to access care, especially in the fall when people are harvesting. She also said some people feel more protected on a virtual platform compared to in-person counseling.

“If emotional things do come up, they’re not sitting face-to-face with people,” McConkey said. “We know a lot of our farmers, even just showing the emotion of crying is really hard for them when there are other people present.”

When internet connections become spotty, a familiar experience in rural areas, people can call on the phone, McConkey said.

Broadband is issue for rural and urban – but it’s affordability vs access

Public News Service reports on urban/rural divide in Minnesota. Broadband comes up…

When it comes to additional challenges, Wolter noted broadband internet access still is a key problem in rural areas, especially due to infrastructure gaps. But she said affordably is a problem that’s occurring all over.
“Low-income households, or even just lower-income households, are much less likely to have internet access,” Wolter stated.
According to the report, in households with income of $20,000 or less, nearly half in all Greater Minnesota regions and 40% in the Twin Cities have no internet subscription at home. Wolter added that’s a major obstacle at a time when many students are doing distance learning because of the pandemic.

Harmony Telephone Company gets broadband grant for northern Iowa counties

I know it’s Iowa, but broadband expansion near Minnesota is likely to help the neighboring MN counties too, indirectly if not directly. The Post Bulletin reports…

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Harmony Telephone Co. will receive $9.7 million to help expand rural broadband coverage.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

Harmony Telephone Co. will use a $4.8 million ReConnect grant and a $4.8 million ReConnect loan to install a fiber network that will connect 1,579 people, 96 farms and 31 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Howard and Chickasaw counties in Iowa.

Harmony Telephone Co. COO Jill Huffman said providing broadband access in rural areas is challenging due to the expense of infrastructure.

“This award will provide opportunities to help households, farms and businesses thrive. Rural residents will have the broadband speed necessary for working and learning from home that their counterparts in urban areas have had,” Huffman explained.

Fastest and slowest rural broadband? MN not on either list

Good news or bad news? I’m not sure but SatelliteInternet recently posted the fastest and slowest broadband connections in rural America and Minnesota doesn’t make either list.

This site looks a lot like a commercial so I take much of what it says with a grain of salt but there are a number of provider options, including speeds and pridces in detail, which is nice for comparison to what you’re being offered in your community by these and other providers. They even outline the pros and cons of different services.

And they outline the issue…

According to the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, 22.3% of rural Americans don’t have access to internet download speeds of at least 25 Mbps (which is the recommended speed for working from home and online schooling).4,5 And the numbers are even worse on Tribal lands, where 32.1% of Americans don’t have access to internet speeds of 25 Mbps.5

Yet in metropolitan areas, only 1.5% of Americans lack access to these same speeds.5 Rural America’s lackluster internet speeds contribute to the homework gap and a lower percentage of college graduates when compared to Americans living in metropolitan areas.

They outline their methodology, which I think it interesting as we look at statewide speed testing in Minnesota…

Our data comes from speed tests taken on HighSpeedInternet.com. We examined results from more than one million US speed tests to find the fastest and slowest average rural internet speeds.

We defined a “rural” city as a community with a population of less than 10,000 people that is geographically removed from an urban city, which we qualified as meaning it’s at least an hour drive away from the nearest major city. We also filtered out locations with fewer than 50 speed test results to ensure accurate representation of the city’s average speed. In all, we ranked and researched nearly 600 rural cities in the US.

CoBank reports that Rural Broadband Valuations Remain High

CoBank recently released a report that indicates that rural broadband is a good investment. Here’s a two minute video that explains why.

As Jeff Johnston points out this is a time when folks are looking to acquire rural broadband companies including WISPS (wireless internet service providers). It’s good news for communities so long as the acquiring company is intersted in investment after the acquisition.

MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey: 85% would continue telehealth after COVID

Thanks to Teri Fritsma at Office of Rural Health & Primary Care for sharing their MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey. I’ve pulled out the stats that I thought seemed most broadband related. You can see that broadband has made telehealth easier in ways and COVID has accelerated adoption.

About the survey…

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, MDH designed a brief survey to learn more about the changes Minnesota’s health care providers are facing at work as they respond to the pandemic. The COVID Health Provider survey focuses on a handful of COVID-specific topics, including providers’ concerns, time spent working, use of telemedicine, and related topics.

Some highlights…

▪ Approximately 15 percent of providers reported that their primary work location was some sort of remote site (such as their home), where they consulted with patients via telemedicine. However, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health professionals far more likely than others to be working in a remote setting away from patients or clients. An estimated 57 percent of licensed professional counselors (including LPCs and LPCCs); 54 percent of social workers; and 58 percent of psychologists reported that they were working remotely.

▪ More than half of all providers reported that at least some of the care they provided was remote—either via telephone, email, or dedicated telemedicine equipment (or all three). Again, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health providers most likely to be providing care via telemedicine or telephone.

▪ More than 85 percent of all respondents who were using telemedicine said they thought they would continue to provide at least some care via telemedicine after the pandemic ended.

▪ Nearly two-thirds of all respondents reported that their work had changed in some way because of COVID-19—for example, taking on new responsibilities at work, backfilling for other employees, and/or managing patients’ and clients’ COVID-19-related concerns. ▪ An estimated 23 percent reported that their worksite had been “totally prepared” to respond to the pandemic.

licensed marriage and family therapists renew their licenses in the fall and therefore would not have had the opportunity to take the survey

Comments on telemedicine…

  • “Telemedicine can be very challenging for patients who need an interpreter.”
  • “Should be allowed going forward. It’s very helpful for elderly patients who have a difficult time getting to appointments.”
  • “I work in mental health and I think it works well. We have fewer no-shows, and clients generally like it. A lot of people are uncomfortable coming in to the office even without a pandemic.”
  • “It’s okay for follow-up or non-acute care, but it doesn’t work for evaluating new, acute problems.”
  • “It’s been a great tool for some patients, but some (non-tech savvy) don’t have the ability to use it.”
  • “Exacerbates existing inequities in health care.”
  • “Telemedicine works well for me for people who struggle with transportation issues in rural areas.”
  • “It works in the sense that I can still provide much-needed client care. But it doesn’t work in the sense that there’s inequality in clients being to access telemedicine.”
  • “We need to do more of it. It improves patients’ care and our professional lives.”
  • “Telemedicine has been integral in providing services to vulnerable and oppressed populations that face transportation issues, scheduling concerns, unforgiving work schedules, family demands, and poor organization due to a variety of factors. It behooves us as social workers to fight for this service to remain a widely-available platform for services that have typically been gatekept for those with flexible business hours, reliable transportation, and available childcare.”
  • “I have found telemedicine a great way to provide care especially for established patients with whom I am familiar. It is a bit more difficult for complex medical issues and for multiple concerns but I think my patients really appreciate the option. There are some things that we still need to see patients for.” “The CMS rules going forward are unclear.” “Works great.”

 

Senator Klobuchar promotes better broadband in Farmfest forum

The Land (out of Mankato) reports…

Senator Amy Klobuchar spoke as part of the Farmfest virtual “Current State of the Ag Economy” panel on Aug. 4. Presenting from her senate office in Washington D.C., Klobuchar proudly touted that she is one of the most-senior members of the Senate Ag Committee. That being her focus, she explained there’s a concerted effort to get some additional funding for ag in the senate.

She emphasized the need for expanded broadband…

Klobuchar believes not enough attention has been paid to the needs of rural areas and the vital role they play in sustaining this nation. “It gives us a really strong case to make, about why it’s so important that we have producers and growers in our own country.”

Klobuchar believes it’s not only the farm bill which is critical to our rural areas, but access to high speed internet as well. “Not only do we need a strong farm bill, but expanded broadband coverage. Kids in parts of rural America don’t have access to virtual learning right now due to the lack of high-speed broadband in areas. There’s a story in southern Minnesota of a kid taking her biology exam in a liquor store parking lot because it was the only place she could get that high speed. We’re working really hard to get some added funding in this next package when it comes to broadband,” Klobuchar said.

What can you do with a drone? Ask Wisconsin

I thought this was interesting. I live in a city. This summer I have seen more drones than usual, often at protests or rallies. I was delighted to hear of some times in rural Wisconsin where drones saved time, money and lives. GovTech reports…

Within the first three or four months of the purchase, Bushey’s department received a call from a resident who couldn’t find her husband. Evidence suggested the man was in a particular part of the lake. A drone was launched, and after two minutes of flight time, the police found the husband.

Bushey shared another drowning story to illustrate the efficiency of drone technology. In 2016, someone had drowned in an unknown portion of the lake. With six people and 90 minutes of time, the department located the victim.

In contrast, Bushey recently offered a drone as a resource during a search for an intoxicated man who had fallen into the lake. The offer was declined, and it took five hours for a team of 13 agencies from Wisconsin and Illinois to find the person without the drone.

Bushey cited other recent episodes in which drone technology has made a difference in Linn. One incident involved a man who attempted suicide by overdose. A drone found the man who, according to a doctor, would have died in another hour. In another case, an older individual was discovered lying down in a pasture in the middle of the night. For Bushey, these examples more than demonstrate that drones have proven their value to Linn.

“There’s not really a dollar value [on people’s lives],” he said.

Wisconsin is looking at the Minnesota Model – regrets not investing in the past

SWNews out of Wisconsin asks readers if they are Stuck with Lousy Internet? They report…

If you live in rural Wisconsin, you know how bad the internet service can be. More than 40 percent of rural residents lack access to high speed internet, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. Nationally, about 31 percent of rural households lack access. Actual percentages might even be higher due to poor FCC mapping, experts say. More on that later.

And use Minnesota as an example of what they wish they had done…

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

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

The pandemic has increased the need…

Adding more urgency to the issue is the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many to work and study from home 100 percent of the time.

“This has become five times more important now than it was before,” said Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor emeritus at UW-Madison, “and it was really important before.”

Trump Administration Seeks Applications for Capacity Building and Planning Grants in Rural Communities

From the USDA…

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting applications to help rural communities enhance capacity for broadband access; preserve cultural and historic structures; and support the development of transportation, housing, and recreational spaces.

USDA is making $1 million in grants available under the Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge (RPIC). Eligible recipients may use the grants to develop multi-jurisdictional plans to benefit cities or towns with 50,000 residents or less. Organizations may use funds to develop actionable plans, convene partners, identify community needs and implement priorities to build rural prosperity.

Public or private groups, organizations, or institutions that demonstrate experience in providing placemaking technical assistance to rural communities are eligible to apply.

USDA encourages applicants to develop projects and plans that provide measurable results to help create livable communities; encourage partnerships; contribute to long-term community investment; and support community resiliency, social stability and collective identity.

USDA seeks to partner with one organization each located in the northeast, southern, midwestern and western regions of the United States. The maximum grant award is $250,000. Applicants must provide a 15 percent match in funding. Eligible placemaking plans will provide assistance to rural communities for two years.

Electronic applications must be submitted via grants.gov and a copy of the submission must be emailed to RD.Innovation@usda.gov by midnight Eastern Standard Time on Sept. 10, 2020. For more information, contact Angela.Callie@usda.govor call (202) 568-9738.

USDA encourages applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB).

For people considering a move to a rural area … Broadband is even more important than politics.

Recon Analytics recently published an article, Broadband 2020: how the pandemic changed usage and priorities that is recommended reading for any rural community looking to attract new people.

They start out with the notion that now that as teleworking or telecommuting becomes a greaer norm more people are looking at moving…

A slight majority (50.9%) of Americans that can telecommute are contemplating moving to a smaller city or town as the pandemic has prompted many Americans to reevaluate their priorities and living conditions.

They highlight the reasons that people won’t move…

Clearly, a community can’t do much about the first part – a pay cut. But broadband and healthcare are things a community can change. It takes money, planning, a provider – well most readers will know exactly what it takes, but knowing how many people are looking to move and that broadband and healthcare are qualifiers to choosing a community, highlights both broadband and healthcare costs as investments.

Another important factor, is the definition of broadband…

Where does your community stand with broadband access? The MN County broadband maps came out earlier this summer – so you can find out, which means potential residents can find out too. Will your community make the cut? I’ve talked to enough communities to know that often the answer is that part of the community is well served and parts are not.

When it comes down to it – the research is even more drastic when you get to the household level…

While the lack of widely available broadband is a significant hurdle for cities and towns to attract new residents, it is almost outright disqualifying for housing options: 77.5% of respondents would not move to a place, like a house or apartment, that does not have broadband.

Which students are left behind when learning goes online? Spoiler alert, there’s no spoiler

As every parent, teacher and student in Minnesota waits to hear later today from Governor Walz about how the State recommends schools handling pandemic learning this fall, I think it’s helpful to look at who is left behind when/if we move education online.

Online education is tough enough when all of the tech pieces are there; lack of computer and broadband makes is almost insurmountable. Only last year, report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis finds Minnesota is one of the worst states in the country for education achievement gaps. We need to find ways to make that gap more narrow and shallow. Proving access to adequate technology is a small, but necessary step because as the report below shows, technology does not currently help to close that gap. And the irony is, it could.

Here’s the status as Future Ready Schools reports…

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a near-total shutdown of the U.S. school system, forcing more than 55 million students to transition to home-based remote learning practically overnight. In most cases, that meant logging in to online classes and accessing lessons and assignments through a home internet connection.

Sadly, that was not an option for children in one out of three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households. Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.”

According to an analysis of data from the 2018 American Community Survey conducted for the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Indian Education Association, millions of households with children under the age of 18 years lack two essential elements for online learning: (1) high-speed home internet service and (2) a computer.

Here’s what they found in Minnesota:

Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 19%
Number of Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 264,334

Minnesota By Income

Percentage of Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 40%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 50,660
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 66,298
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 24%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,869
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 15%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 74,704
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 9%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 27,803

Minnesota By Race

Percentage of White Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of White Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 184,337
Percentage of Asian Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 14%
Number of Asian Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 12,461
Percentage of Black Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 27%
Number of Black Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,036
Percentage of Latino Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 35%
Number of Latino Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 30,226
Percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 37%
Number of American Indian/Alaska Native Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 9,655

Minnesota By Location

Percentage of Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 79,087
Percentage of Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of Children in Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 182,209