Rural Minnesota lags behind the rest of the state, grants help close the gap

The Alexandria Echo reports

About 92% of Minnesota homes and businesses have internet service of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

But that percentage drops to 83% in rural Minnesota, the agency said. And time is running out to meet the state’s goal of ensuring those speeds for all Minnesotans by 2022.

And they give the local details…

In Douglas County, Alexandria, Osakis, Holmes City and much of the southwestern part of the county are considered to have good internet service, according to the state’s 2020 map of internet access. Most of the unserved areas are in the eastern third of the county, and along the Douglas-Otter Tail County line. Most of the underserved areas, meaning those that only reach the 2022 state goal, are along I-94 and in the northwestern part of the county.

To provide incentives to extend broadband to Minnesota’s hard-to-reach places, the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program has provided $126 million to fund more than 179 projects connecting more than 57,000 homes, businesses and farms, said Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison.

US poised to award $100B to SpaceX Starlink – will it help rural residents?

Telecompetitor reports…

The analysts estimate SpaceX’s total addressable U.S. market at full deployment at between 300,000 to 800,000 households, or less than 1% of the market.

It’s a particularly noteworthy number, considering that SpaceX is poised to receive nearly $900 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to cover some of the costs of bringing broadband to unserved rural areas. And considering that the total number of locations for which SpaceX was the winning RDOF bidder is 642,000.

Why do they have doubts?

MoffettNathanson’s estimate of SpaceX’s addressable market is based on several assumptions, which according to the researchers, are conservative. These include:

  • Although Starlink currently has about 1400 satellites deployed, the analysis is based on the nearly 12,000 satellites that the company expects to launch, approximately one third of which will cover the U.S.
  • Based on satellite inclines of 53 degrees, researchers estimate that only about 3% of Starlink’s satellites will be visible to U.S. customers at any given time.
  • According to SpaceX FCC filings, each satellite will have a capacity of 17-23 Gbps, but future developments could expand that. Therefore, the researchers assumed a doubling or tripling of per-satellite capacity.
  • The average broadband user consumes data at a constant rate of 2.2-2.7 Mbps during peak consumption hours, leading to researchers’ assumption that 4 Mbps of bandwidth per user would be needed to provide good quality of service today. The researchers forecast that requirement to increase to 10-18 Mbps per user in the next five years

One last factor…

SpaceX is charging customers $499 for a rooftop antenna, which according to news reports, cost the company $2,400, which suggests that the company is subsidizing each installation by nearly $2,000.

It seems like that $499 installation fee could increase at any time, which would make satellite much less affordable to deploy for the household. The authors also remind us that Starlink is in line to get $100 billion from the US government through an RDOF award.

Rural fiber penetration now stands at 23%

Telecompetitor reports

Rural fiber penetration now stands at 23%, according to a study conducted by Pivot Group (parent company of Telecompetitor) and sponsored by Innovative Systems.

In comparison to national numbers, market research firm RVA, LLC reported just over 20 million homes were connected to fiber in 2019, or 44% of homes passed.

Rural Broadband Access Technology Penetration (Source: 6th Annual Rural Video & Broadband Study)

EVENT April 28: Women Leading Broadband and Connectivity in Rural

An invitation from 100 Rural Women

Join us for our next webinar:  Wed, April 28th at 8:30 am CST “Women Leading Broadband and Connectivity in Rural”  Featuring Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Policy and Engagement at the Blandin Foundation and Tina May, Chief of Staff and Vice President at Land O’Lakes.

EVENT April 15: RuralRISE Broadband Tech

Looks like an interesting conference…

RuralRISE Broadband Tech will spotlight resources, programs & solutions for affordable broadband in Rural America.

About this Event

RuralRISE Tech will be hosting a virtual Rural Broadband Summit on April 15. This virtual event will focus on:

Topics will include:

• Overview of Rural Digital Divide

• Fireside Chat: Successful State Programs and Innovative Partnerships

• Fireside Chat: Role of cooperatives in Rural Deployment: Cooperatives have been present in rural communities for years, how the movement to broadband offerings can assist in getting broadband to rural America

• Anchor Institutions (Schools, Hospitals and Libraries role in Rural Broadband

• Regional Digital Inclusion Planning.

• Community leaders working in rural communities sharing their success in advancing digital equity – via tech literacy, device access and affordable internet options.

• Actionable session focused on helping rural communities plan new fiber networks.

• 5 – Minute Quick Pitches – examples across rural America.

• Followed by a Networking/Social Hour

 

Draft Schedule available online.

MN Legislators look at extends easements to rural electric cooperatives (HF686/SF1304)

The legislature is working on a bill that would make it easier for electric cooperatives to bring broadband to their customers and maybe beyond by allowing them to use existing easements – and rather than gather opt-in permission door to door to use easements for broadband, they could use the opt-out method by announcing it to customers in their newsletters with a deadline for customers to voice concerns. Thanks to MREA (MN Rural Electric Association) for sharing a recent article from a recent report with more details…

MINNESOTA’S ELECTRIC COOPERATIVES CAN BE A GREAT PARTNER IN BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE – BUT ONLY WITH A CHANGE IN STATE STATUTE

By Joyce Peppin, director, government affairs & general counsel

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges in the past year, including forcing school districts and business owners to figure out how to conduct operations on virtual platforms. That problem is exasperated in rural areas of the state that don’t have access to high-speed internet. Surprisingly, even a full year after the onset of the pandemic, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster, and another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.

Electric cooperatives could be a big part of the solution to bridge the digital divide – the technological gap between those with access to up-to-date technologies and those without access. Electric co-ops are located throughout Minnesota, and unlike any other for-profit business or governmental entity, they already have the infrastructure in place. They are uniquely positioned to bring broadband to corners of the state that are currently not served or underserved, but there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.

The problem is that for an electric co-op to deploy broadband (or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband), they must first get a new signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal change, MREA worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current easements for deploying broadband, so long as they give easement holders six months notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value. If the bill passes, co-ops would have more legal certainty that they would prevail in a lawsuit against trespass claims by landowner rights’ groups and would be more likely to help bring high-speed internet to the unserved or underserved.

While not every co-op will participate in deploying broadband, the passage of this bill will provide the state with another tool in the toolbox to bridge the digital divide. Please contact your legislators and ask them to support HF 686/SF 1304!

Senator Smith to chair Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee

Senator Smith reports

Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) announced that she has been named Chair of the Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee, which is tasked with overseeing many U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development programs, including the Rural Housing Service, and programs relating to facilities, utilities, loans, and renewable energy.

That puts her at a good table to discuss broadband as the site notes…

She also believes it’s important to invest more in Greater Minnesota, and with her leadership post on the Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee, she will keep working to expand access to broadband and better infrastructure.

Blandin signs on to letter urging OMB to delay definition of “metropolitan”

Yesterday Blandin Foundation joined a growing group of rural advocates in signing a letter strongly urging the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to delay changing the federal definition of “metropolitan.” Currently, Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) are defined as having a minimum population of 50,000 people. OMB has initiated a process to increase that minimum to 100,000 people.

This change would redefine non-metro, rural areas and have significant impacts on federal funding and program targeting for rural places and people.

Together with researchers, practitioners, nonprofit leaders, and advocates for rural economic and community development, we are strongly urging OMB to delay this change until its impact is fully understood. A robust and inclusive process is needed to identify all potential consequences for rural and rural-urban communities.

Wisconsin is using drones to bring broadband to students in Northwoods

People are so clever. I love the innovation here. It’s not a permanent fix but what a great way to reach people who currently don’t even have enough cell coverage to support students or workers trying to get online at home. I know there are areas in Minnesota that are in the same boat! Wisconsin Public Radio reports

Rural Northwoods students who lack reliable internet at home will soon be able to connect to their school networks via a drone-powered cellular signal.

A Wisconsin startup will be part of a state-funded pilot program in the Eagle River area that will test the use of drones as a way to expand internet connectivity into rural areas.

It’s a partnership between the new company Wisconsin Telelift and the Northland Pines School District. The drones will be fitted with cellphone towers, allowing students throughout the sprawling Northwoods district to get online, even in rural areas where cellphone service and broadband access are unavailable or unreliable.

It’s a real need in a district that is among the state’s largest geographically, spreading over 435 square miles in Vilas and Oneida counties.

As many as 15 percent of the district’s 1,340 students have no internet access at home, said Northland Pines administrator Scott Foster, and half of its students have unreliable connections that don’t always allow for streaming video and other tools used in educational software. The district provides Chromebooks to its students and portable hotspots to those who need them — but the hotspots can only work where there is a strong cellular signal. In much of the district, that’s just not the case.

OPPORTUNITY (April 21-22): Rural Assembly Everywhere: The Road to Repair

The Rural Assembly Everywhere is meeting in April…

Rural Assembly Everywhere returns April 20 & 21, to mark time together, to wrestle with questions about how we build a nation that serves all of us, and to respond to calls for unity and repair. Once again, we invite rural advocates and the rural-curious, listeners and leaders, neighbors and admirers, to participate in multiple days of programming that feature experts and poets, civic leaders and culture-bearers.
This is a moment to reevaluate how we perceive our neighbors and our relationships, to tend to one another in ways that unite rather than divide.

And they are looking for images of rural

We want to see your favorite places!

Share a video or photos of your favorite spot in your community

During Rural Assembly Everywhere, we want to see where you call home.
Share a video or photos of your favorite place in your community.
What location makes you smile?
Send us a video or photos and we may use them as part of Rural Assembly Everywhere.

It’s a great place to showcase the beauty of Minnesota – and maybe mention broadband, especially if you’re in a place where you could send a full length 4K video if you wanted. (I think they’d prefer shorter, but it’s nice to have the option!)

 

Swift County Monitor looks at broadband recommendations for Biden Administration

The Swift County Monitor News editor looks at What Biden Should Do For Rural America. They are based off recommendations of professors Lisa R. Pruit of California, Jessica A. Shoemaker of Nebraska, and Ann Eisenberg of the South Carolina, with a few edits and observations, to make them more meaningful for rural Minnesota. The first recommendation is better broadband…

High-speed internet for everyone

“The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access, and even a social life depend directly on broadband,” they write.

Some of us are fortunate in that our rural internet connections are very good. The vast majority of Stevens, Swift, and Big Stone counties have excellent broadband speeds of 100 MPS or better. Other counties in western Minnesota aren’t as fortunate and need improvement.
100 MPS+ Broadband Coverage
County     Percent
Stevens     97.1 %
Swift County     89.4 %
Big Stone     88.4 %
Chippewa     71.8 %
Pope     69.0 %
Grant     63.0 %
Traverse     47.9 %
If President Joe Biden and members of Congress want to improve rural America’s competitive edge, finance the expansion of high-speed internet.

What we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the remote working required by so many is that more people can live and work from rural America

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.