US Farm Bill may mean more broadband funding in the future

Fierce Telecom reports…

Congress already allocated $65 billion for broadband in 2021 via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), but as negotiations over the 2023 Farm Bill get underway some are angling for even more cash to boost rural broadband.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation covering agricultural and food programs that is revisited every five years or so. The last Farm Bill was passed in late 2018, meaning it is up for renewal in the back half of 2023.

Though you might not immediately associate internet infrastructure with agriculture, rural broadband programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been a part of the Farm Bill since 2002. The ReConnect Program is probably the best-known of these, but the USDA also oversees the Telecommunications Infrastructure Program, Rural Broadband Program (RBP), Community Connect Grant Program (CCGP), and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program (DLTP).

Annual appropriations for the last three – $350 million for the RBP, $50 million for the CCGP and $75 million to $82 million for the DLTP – were included in the 2018 bill and are set to expire on September 30 of this year. The ReConnect Program has received funding sporadically through separate legislation, including $2 billion from the IIJA in 2021. But the Congressional Research Service noted Congress could consider a longer-term funding mechanism for ReConnect in its 2023 Farm Bill.

Why is computer ownership less in rural areas? How can it improve?

Digitunity is a national organization working to close technology gaps. They recently published a report (Rural Communities & Digital Device Ownership: Barriers & Opportunities) on device ownership in rural areas. They looked at three important factors that speak to the need and hampered solution to low computer ownership:

  • Current ownership and rural demographics that do not match up with computer ownership
  • Fewer options for getting refurbished computers or discount devices (even due to ACP)
  • Fewer organizations offering help connect users to computers

The challenge for households?

If universal computer ownership is the goal, this “status quo” means rural communities face an uphill battle. There are a larger percentage of households to reach and a larger number of miles to cover to reach them.

The challenge for business support?

Rural locations typically have fewer options for supplying devices than more urban areas. Local businesses are often an important source of previously used computers. They feature heavily in donation efforts for many device drives (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, 2021).

The challenge for nonprofit/community support?

Technology-focused nonprofit spending is especially low in rural locations, with $40 spent by an urban nonprofit for each $1 spent by a rural nonprofit (Neuhoff & Dunckelman, 2011). Other studies found that organizational capacity is lacking in rural nonprofits (Walters, 2020). Part of this may be due to significantly more square miles being covered per organization (Neuhoff & Dunckelman, 2011).

Recommendations?

  1. Build on What You Have

Rural areas tend to have a higher percentage of lower-income and elderly individuals, and less robust nonprofits and libraries to engage with them. However, other support

networks also exist in rural America, such as religious organizations, book or quilting clubs, or farm cooperatives that often work with these exact demographics.

  1. Develop Rural-Urban Linkages

Distance to urban areas with device refurbishers or computer repair businesses is

another rural disadvantage. However, once a relationship is established, opportunities

exist for mutual benefit (Mayer et al., 2016).

Rural Communities perspective on national broadband imperative

The Rural Communities and the National Broadband Imperative 2022 is a post-pandemic primer on rural broadband. Much of it will not be new to readers. But it is a nice look at all aspects of rural broadband (including citations) on every aspect of broadband in rural areas – from how it’s used and needed to how and why there are issues. It’s a useful tool if you are talking to folks who have not been entrenched in broadband for years.

Useful to everyone is the final recommendations:

Create a rural broadband information clearinghouse: Create an easy to locate, accessible resource clearinghouse that centralizes solutions, data, and information for rural communities to leverage and develop broadband solutions for their own community. In a recent report, GAO59 noted: Federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping, with more than 100 programs administered by 15 agencies. Many programs have broadband as their main purpose, and several overlap because they can be used for the purpose of broadband deployment. This overlapping can lead to the risk of unintended duplication of federal funding support and confusion. An effective clearinghouse will reduce the administrative burdens of rural communities seeking to build out their broadband networks. A Clearinghouse will also assist in ensuring that communities understand funding availability,

Reduce regulatory impediments: Eliminate and reduce unnecessary rules and regulations around broadband deployment. Broadband policies should improve the availability of affordable broadband services in rural areas, including the underserved and unserved areas in rural America. In addition to reducing Federal regulatory issues, local communities and public policy individuals need to reduce state and local impediments. To do this effectively, unnecessary red tape should be eliminated.

Identify and leverage local rural technology champions: Consultation and inclusion of rural community members is paramount to the success of the roll out of rural broadband. It is imperative that all levels of policy conversations around broadband include the input of people living and working in those rural communities. Obtaining buy-in from local communities assists with adoption and affordability.

Leverage technology as an enabler and not an end: Broadband solutions will need to be tailored to specific community needs. Policies should remain technology-neutral to allow for current and future deployment. Funding should be available for technologies that provide acceptable broadband service and is readily available to meet the future needs of rural communities. However, it is essential to include that funding applicants and/or partners must have a proven track record, including the financial and technical capacity to build, manage, and operate a sustainable network.

Mapping for rural communities: Mapping on a house-by-house, location-by[1]location basis is important to understand where broadband internet service is available and to show where broadband issues and connectivity are lacking. There are examples of states and other agencies taking on the responsibility of determining the availability of coverage in their areas. These local or statewide programs assist with ascertaining a valid coverage map/ plan. The BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment)Program60 will announce available funding following the FCC’s public release of its Broadband DATA Maps 61, and give applicants 180 days to apply to the fund. The FCC has announced that its Broadband DATA Maps will be released in November 2022. The identification of underserved and unserved areas will assist in closing the digital divide and deployment.

Affordable access: Providers should be encouraged to offer programs for adoption addressing broadband affordability for the consumers. Providers should be made aware of and encouraged to participate in the existing and future federal broadband affordability programs. If possible, states should have consistent eligibility criteria with federal affordability programs, enabling providers to quickly address affordability and make all available options known to rural and remote communities.

Leverage local anchor institutions and other partners: Anchor institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals, medical or healthcare providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education can be leveraged for greater adoption. Programs providing broadband to anchor institutions should be taken into consideration. Anchor institutions often have high-capacity fiber connections that can provide a jumping-off point to facilitate broadband connectivity to the surrounding residential and business community.62 Rural broadband policies must include creative and non-traditional partnerships. Support for broadband deployment and adoption will need to include local partnerships that help drive programs to deploy broadband cost-effectively.

Increase digital literacy: Increasing availability doesn’t guarantee adoption. Consider having local rural organizations drive adoption by developing programs specifically geared toward specific demographics (i.e., aging, immigrants, etc.). For successful adoption by rural community members, the daunting world of cell phones and the internet must be shown to be helpful in everyday life. Early literacy programs assist with this as more and more educational, healthcare, and business opportunities are only available online. Funding should be available for literacy training, ensuring consumers have the equipment and information they need to get online.

Middle Mile: The term “middle-mile infrastructure” means any broadband infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end-user location, including an anchor institution; (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ).63 Approving the funding for middle-mile infrastructure reduces the cost of rural community members while simultaneously ensuring that the anchor institutions which are essential to rural life have broadband. Federal and state regulations can greatly impact connecting the middle-mile with the last-mile assists in providing affordable broadband services to unserved areas.

Workforce development: Rural broadband offers significant opportunities to live and work in rural communities, creating and maintaining jobs that sometimes pay higher than local wages. Additionally, rural broadband will require a trained workforce to deploy broadband in each state, creating job opportunities in rural and remote communities. Policy should include workforce development training to successfully and correctly deploy broadband.

Change matching grant requirements for rural communities: Many funding programs often require matching funds that rural communities simply do not have. To deploy grant funding, change requirements for matching funds to accommodate the funding challenges that rural communities will face.

State framework: Policies should provide a framework for states to determine the application process in a fair and straightforward manner. There should not be a blanket prioritization and strategies for states, each state is unique, and the counties within each state may vary considerably in broadband availability, population, geography, or demographics. This is especially true for very rural counties, which may not have any or very limited broadband. As more and more states establish a broadband office, it is essential for local, state, and federal programs and resources to understand the challenges and opportunities that successful broadband deployment can bring to rural America. The BEAD Program64 provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

North Dakota gets grant for telehealth counseling for farmers

The Post Bulletin reports

A federal grant undergirds “Farm to Farm Services” — a counseling partnership with North Dakota State University that delivers “telehealth” aimed at farmers and ranchers struggling with mental or emotional health issues.

Sean Brotherson, an NDSU Extension family life specialist, said the program is offering a range of needed help.

“We all know that — for example — suicide rates and rates of stress-related physical and mental health concerns for folks working in agriculture are much higher than any of us would like to see,” he said. North Dakota’s suicide rate increased 57% over the past 20 years, and farmers are part of that.

The program’s telehealth sessions are used by about 40 to 50 clients a month through Farm to Farm, a branded program of Together Counseling, a group of therapists. Clients can be a range of individuals, from youths to adults.

I know it’s North Dakota but the statistics (suicide rate increased 57% over the past 20 years) are staggering and I can’t imagine things are that different for farmers in Minnesota. The article includes a video that makes the program seem very appealing to potential patients.

Should we change the definition of rural?

Fierce Telecom reports…

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small warned changing the definition of what counts as “rural” broadband could negatively impact programs like the agency’s ReConnect initiative, resulting in a greater disparity between available funding and requests than already exists today.

The comments from Torres Small came during a Congressional hearing on Thursday in response to a call from Congressman Jimmy Panetta for the federal government to adopt a single definition of the word. He noted the federal government currently has more than a dozen different definitions for what counts as rural, and pressed for unification around a single, more inclusive standard.

“The complexity of those definitions can lead to wasted time for our local leaders who are seeking…funds for these types of programs,” Panetta said, noting eligibility for ReConnect and other funding sources is based on whether or not an area is considered rural.

One issue is that rural, suburban and urban are all subjective and comparative. And populations change. The hope often is that broadband will encourage population and commercial growth for an area.

Digital Divide Index show readiness for impacts of COVID quarantines: Most MN counties ready but not all

Back in 2017, Roberto Gallardo was one of the keynote speaker at a Minnesota Broadband conference. He found a way to formulate a Digital Divide Index for each county in Minnesota based on a range of data point especially organized in two categories broadband adoption/infrastructure and socioeconomic factors. He’s done it again looking at county-level data across the United States. The map below will give you an idea of how Minnesota compares. (The brighter the color, the brighter the digital equity outlook.)

We can also see a marked urban/rural divide as he points out…

These groups were then utilized to analyze a host of other variables to better understand this issue. Figure 1 shows a map of U.S. counties by DDI groups. Of the 1,031 counties with a low digital divide, 747 or 72% were considered urban (population living in urban areas 2 was more than 50%). On the other hand, of the 1,063 counties with a high digital divide, only 187 or 17.5% were urban.

Roberto looks at a number of aspects that touch on the digital divide; one that struck me was workforce situations – especially given that the data used was from 2020. It really highlights the divide between those who were ready, willing and able to work online during the early stage of the pandemic and those who weren’t.

Digital divide may not be the only issue in these areas but it’s definitely an exacerbating factor…

The digital divide is holding back counties from participating fully in the digital economy. Again, it is not clear if this would have been the case regardless of the digital divide, but nonetheless it is placing communities at a disadvantage. As shown, counties with a high digital divide lost jobs between 2010 and 2020 while counties with a low digital divide saw an 11 percent increase. Likewise, the share of occupations requiring high digital skills was larger in counties with a low digital divide. Lastly, microbusiness density and activity were also lower in counties with a high digital divide. However, regarding microbusiness activity, the issue seems to be more about sophisticated online presence rather than infrastructure and number of businesses online.

Wondering how your county did – check the list below. Only two counties were in the danger area: Aitkin and Mahnomen. Looking at how they rank in terms of access, Aitkin 79 and Mahnomen is 61.

Name  
Aitkin County High
Anoka County Low
Becker County Low
Beltrami County Low
Benton County Low
Big Stone County Moderate
Blue Earth County Low
Brown County Low
Carlton County Moderate
Carver County Low
Cass County Moderate
Chippewa County Moderate
Chisago County Low
Clay County Low
Clearwater County Moderate
Cook County Moderate
Cottonwood County Moderate
Crow Wing County Low
Dakota County Low
Dodge County Low
Douglas County Low
Faribault County Moderate
Fillmore County Low
Freeborn County Moderate
Goodhue County Low
Grant County Moderate
Hennepin County Low
Houston County Low
Hubbard County Low
Isanti County Low
Itasca County Moderate
Jackson County Low
Kanabec County Moderate
Kandiyohi County Low
Kittson County Moderate
Koochiching County Moderate
Lac qui Parle County Moderate
Lake County Moderate
Lake of the Woods County Moderate
Le Sueur County Low
Lincoln County Moderate
Lyon County Low
Mahnomen County High
Marshall County Moderate
Martin County Moderate
McLeod County Low
Meeker County Low
Mille Lacs County Moderate
Morrison County Moderate
Mower County Moderate
Murray County Moderate
Nicollet County Low
Nobles County Moderate
Norman County Moderate
Olmsted County Low
Otter Tail County Moderate
Pennington County Low
Pine County Moderate
Pipestone County Moderate
Polk County Low
Pope County Moderate
Ramsey County Low
Red Lake County Moderate
Redwood County Moderate
Renville County Moderate
Rice County Low
Rock County Low
Roseau County Low
Scott County Low
Sherburne County Low
Sibley County Low
St. Louis County Moderate
Stearns County Low
Steele County Low
Stevens County Low
Swift County Moderate
Todd County Moderate
Traverse County Moderate
Wabasha County Low
Wadena County Moderate
Waseca County Low
Washington County Low
Watonwan County Moderate
Wilkin County Moderate
Winona County Low
Wright County Low
Yellow Medicine County Moderate

RESOURCE: Accelerate: A Community Broadband Planning Program

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society shares…

This week, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society released a new guidebook for communities that want to create their own broadband vision and goals and pursue the best possible broadband solutions for their area.

Accelerate: A Community Broadband Planning Program a collaboration of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and Blandin Foundation. Blandin originally designed the Accelerate Program for Minnesota, creating many of the tools shared in this guidebook. The Benton Institute is implementing the Accelerate Program in Illinois and other states with the support of Heartland Forward and its Connecting the Heartland initiative.

Guidebook author Bill Coleman provides an intro to the publication at https://www.benton.org/blog/helping-communities-prepare-broadband-opportunity

Find the new publication at https://www.benton.org/publications/Accelerate

The FCC looks at increasing broadband speed goals for rural fund areas

The FCC reports

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to seek comment on a proposal to provide additional universal service support to certain rural carriers in exchange for increasing deployment to more locations at higher speeds.  The proposal would make changes to the Alternative Connect America Cost Model (A-CAM) program, with the goal of achieving widespread deployment of faster 100/20 Mbps broadband service throughout the rural areas served by rural carriers currently receiving A-CAM support.

The ACAM Broadband Coalition submitted a proposal to create an Enhanced A-CAM program, which is the impetus for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today.  Enhanced A-CAM, as proposed, would raise the broadband speeds required by the A-CAM programs to those generally required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, while minimizing duplicative support across different federal broadband programs.  The Notice also proposes targeted modifications to the high-cost program rules to improve efficiency and efficacy in the program, including further streamlining of the annual reporting rules.

The Notice seeks comment on whether and how the Commission could:

 

  • Offer additional A-CAM support in exchange for increased broadband deployment obligations to additional locations and at higher speeds under an Enhanced A-CAM program.
  • Use the new Broadband DATA Act maps to determine any new deployment obligations.
  • Calculate support for an Enhanced A-CAM program, including whether the existing A-CAM framework continues to be appropriate.
  • Align specific proposals with Congressional intent, as well as programs at other agencies.
  • Improve the administration of the high-cost program and better safeguard the Universal Service Fund.

FCC decides not to cut USF support

Fierce Telecom reports…

Rural broadband providers breathed a sigh of relief this week, after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would waive steep cuts to Universal Service Fund (USF) support which were set to take effect in July.

In an order formalizing the waiver, the FCC said it determined “current circumstances pose significant burdens on legacy carriers, which would be exacerbated should there be a significant reduction in support, at a time when they are facing insufficient cash flow and increased expenses.”

Commissioner Brendan Carr in a statement pointed specifically to inflation as a key source of pressure for small, rural operators. “The dollars they need to extend their networks and connect Americans are not going nearly as far today as they did a short while ago. So, today’s decision makes eminent sense,” he said.

The cuts in question would have reduced the support rural operators receive from two USF programs: Connect America Fund Broadband Loop Support and High Cost Loop Support. Both are subject to a budget control mechanism implemented in 2016 which is designed to systematically lower the monthly per-line subsidy operators receive over the course of several years.

Farmers Bureau looks at broadband as a necessity, not a luxury

American Farm Bureau Federation  has a chat that focuses on rural broadband being a necessity, not a luxury. Here’s their high level description…

The American Connection Project’s goal is to bridge the rural digital divide. We discuss the importance of broadband access to rural America and the vital role it plays in supporting and sustaining those communities around the country with Patrick Garry, an American Connection Corps Fellow, and Bruce Tiffany, a Minnesota Farmer and Lead for Minnesota Board Member.

They talk about role of broadband in maintaining safety and stability especially on farms.

Community Conversation in Chisago County with Ben Winchester

Last week I attended a great session in Lindstrom Minnesota (Chicago County) where Ben Winchester was keynote. Here’s the official description of the event …

MN rural sociologist Ben Winchester presents his “Rewriting the Rural Narrative” keynote speech at Chisago Lakes Performing Arts Center in Lindstrom, MN. Prefaced by Chisago Lakes Chamber Exec Director Katie Malchow and her description of local Blandin Foundation grant programs, Ben leads the audience through a fascinating dose of rural reality, unveiling all the media and anecdotal misinformation that gives rural Minnesota a bad rap. Speech followed by a panel discussion with 3 local newcomers and what it’s like to move out to the Chisago Lakes area. Video by Jack Doepke, Chisago Lakes Public TV.

[at the speaker’s request, this video may be taken down in 30 days – so late April 2022]

Ben is always an engaging speaker. He has more statistics than Carter’s got pills, he’s on the frontlines and he is able to make connections clear. His mission last week seemed to be to remind attendees that rural areas are not dying. As he said, how can rural areas be dying and yet, it’s so hard to find a house to buy in a small town?

The rural/urban/suburban population numbers get skewed because once a town grows too much – it slips into a new category. So the biggish small town suddenly becomes suburban or metro.

Rural folks have to help change the narrative that rural is dying. Recognize that your town isn’t in the middle or nowhere – especially with broadband – you’re suddenly in the middle of everywhere. On tactic is to think regionally, not hyper-locally. Your hometown may include you’re the towns of your home, school, work and hobbies.

Ben’s talk is inspiration and it’s fun to hear from the panel of transplants to Chisago County too.

From no telehealth visits to 3,500 per day within weeks at Essentia (Baxter MN)

Duluth News Tribune reports on telehealth at local at Essentia in Baxter…

Prior to March 2020, Essentia reported it had never conducted a virtual visit. But in a robust response to the pandemic, the health care provider was performing more than 3,500 per day within weeks. Two years later, they had about 645,000 telehealth visits.

The article goes on to give a nice glimpse of what that looks like for different patients. For folks with substance use disorders, depression and anxiety…

Staff at Essentia Health’s clinic in Baxter, Minnesota, said they were initially working with their technology services to add telehealth for patients who had substance use disorders, depression and anxiety. The goal was to disrupt their lives as little as possible while working with them to improve their health and their lives.

Then the pandemic hit and those telehealth visits expanded exponentially as a way to reduce exposure to the virus. The Baxter facility went from two rooms for virtual visits to six in the family practice clinic. Patients across the board are able to schedule virtual visits, or video appointments, and speak directly to their doctor using computers, tablets or smartphones.

For Nutritionists …

Nutritionists could see what people had to work with at home. Those who were working from home, with children at home or other family to care for, could still connect for a needed appointment. Older residents didn’t have to make the trip or feel they had to find someone to take them to an appointment. Those who may have had trouble getting time off from work could still do a check-in and consult with their primary care provider.

Senator Smith Introduces Bill to Increase Rural Broadband Access

Fox21 reports

Minnesota Senator Tina Smith is continuing her push to make high speed internet access available to everyone.

She joined three other Senators in introducing a bipartisan bill this month that would focus Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program funds to communities in greatest need to establish broadband services.

“The federal government is investing billions of dollars in expanding broadband,” says Senator Smith.  “Working with local communities and local telecoms, and we want to make sure that those dollars are being coordinated and getting out where they need to go as best as possible.  And honestly that is not happening right now.  This is something we have to work on, and that’s a big part of what I want to get accomplished.”

Smith says thousands across the state would see an improvement to their everyday lives, allowing them to work and attend school from home, and compares this effort to rural electrification done a century ago.

“We said every American needs to be able to turn the lights on and have electric power,” says Senator Smith, “and the same is true today when it comes to broadband access.”

The bill also focuses on preventing federal funds from overbuilding the broadband network as new lines and hotspots are established.

Broadband funding makes MinnPost top rural issues list

MinnPost reports

Looking back, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the most memorable developments in Greater Minnesota in 2021.

Broadband makes the list…

3. Cash came rolling in for child care and broadband

Between state COVID-19 relief money, the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan stimulus package and a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden, a lot of government money has flowed this year to help with issues caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including for things like hospital capacity and rent assistance.
While many things critical to Greater Minnesota have received money over the last year, broadband infrastructure and child care are among two of the more important. Minnesota stands to get at least $170 million for subsidizing construction of broadband infrastructure from Minnesota’s share of the ARP and the federal infrastructure bill. That would be more money than the state spent since 2014 in its own broadband grant program. The state could potentially be in line for $280 million or more for high-speed internet.

Survey of Rural Broadband providers show half of collective customer base can get Gig service

The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) surveys their members (850 rural rate-of-return regulated telecommunications providers in 44 states) annually. You can learn a lot from the results. I was focused on recognizing how many independent rural telcos have grown into full service FTTH providers. Especially as the MN Broadband Task Force looks at how to get better broadband to the far corners of the state, this survey is a reminder that is can be done. That lots of providers are doing this – we just need to support the ones that are making the connections for the future!

For example, it’s great to see the download and upload speed averages. More than half of the customers can get gig access down or up; while less than 4 percent are stuck with 10 Mbps down and less than 9 percent stuck with 3 Mbps up. A critical mass is being reached, which means we can start to set expectations higher.

With respect to downstream service availability, on average, respondents reported that the following percentages of their customer base can receive maximum speeds of:

  • Greater than/equal to 1 Gig: 55.4%
  • Greater than/equal to 100 Mbps but less than 1 Gig: 20.2%
  • Greater than/equal to 25 Mbps but less than 100 Mbps: 10.6%
  • Greater than/equal to 10 Mbps but less than 25 Mbps: 10.1%
  • Less than 10 Mbps: 3.7%

With respect to upstream service availability, respondents indicated the following percentages of their customer base can receive, on average, maximum speeds of:

  • Greater than/equal to 1 Gig: 52.3%
  • Greater than/equal to 100 Mbps but less than 1 Gig: 21.3%
  • Greater than/equal to 20 Mbps but less than 100 Mbps: 6.4%
  • Greater than/equal to 10 Mbps but less than 20 Mbps: 5.2%
  • Greater than/equal to 3 Mbps but less than 10 Mbps: 6.2%
  • Less than 3 Mbps: 8.5%

So the next question is – how can we help the providers that want to extend fiber? As the graphic below indicates, cost is still the major barrier and the public sector is poised to help dole out unprecedented funds in the upcoming years.

The next step is looking at adoption to ensure that demand will meet growing supplies…