There’s still a digital divide between rural and urban/suburban

Pew Research reports

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of rural Americans say they have a broadband internet connection at home, up from about a third (35%) in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in fall 2016. Rural Americans are now 10 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband; in 2007, there was a 16-point gap between rural Americans (35%) and all U.S. adults (51%) on this question.

Mobile technology use among rural adults has also risen rapidly, with the share of those owning smartphones and tablets increasing sharply. Ownership of desktop or laptop computers, by contrast, has only slightly risen since 2008.

I was especially surprised at how few people (rural and non-rural) have only one device…

Rural adults also are less likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online: About three-in-ten adults who live in rural communities (29%) report that they own a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone, a home broadband connection and a tablet computer; by contrast, 40% of urban adults and 42% of suburban adults own all four of these devices.

I can’t imagine driving to a new place without Google map. I can’t image getting my work done without a laptop. Are these people missing out on mobile apps, are they trying to get “work” done on a smartphone (by work I mean writing reports, job applications, taxes, notes to teachers!) or are there tasks that I do daily that these folks aren’t doing? To be fair – not everyone needs Spotify when they walk but there are a host of apps (and old school computer applications) that make my life easier –that save me time and money.

But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and Pew’s final remark gives a glimpse at that…

Despite lower levels of technology ownership and use, only 36% of rural adults say that the government should provide subsidies to help low-income Americans purchase high-speed home internet service, compared with 50% of urban residents and 43% of suburbanites, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

SW Minnesota using fiber to attract people

KEYC Mankato reports on the SMBS upgrades in southwest Minnesota…

When you see communities like Jackson or Lakefield, it’s hard to believe that they have some of the fastest Internet available. It’s a recent system upgrade that has allowed the multiple municipalities owned South Minnesota Broadband Services to offer One gigabyte per second Internet.

That’s about 20 times faster than the fastest cable Internet connections.

“Jackson is very fortunate. This is something that a lot of people probably take for granted And don’t realize how lucky we are in greater Minnesota to have high capacity access,” said Jackson City Administrator Jennifer Bromeland.

“It’s just been so vitally important, and to be able to offer that in the communities of our size is just something else. It’s absolutely fabulous,” SMBS General Manager Travis Thies said.

Here’s why they do it…

“We have the fiber set up to many of our businesses and residents right now, so we have had this for a while and it’s helping or businesses to meet their goals I’m just helping us to keep people in Jackson and attract people to want to move to Jackson, ” said Bromeland.

Think of it as laying the groundwork. As time goes on, Internet demands will only increase. By offering high-speed Internet now it’s hoped that the businesses in these Minnesota communities will continue to grow and thrive as well as attract new business.

What do rural Minnesotans think? Broadband is essential!

Yesterday the Minnesota Farmers Union unveiled their report – What Do Rural People Think? It is the distillation of 14 conversations in 14 rural communities held between March 27 and April 6, 2017.

Here’s the quick summary (broadband is #3!)

Since the 2016 national, state, and local elections, there seems to be an ever-present question on the minds of policymakers, elected officials, the media, and organizations of all kinds: What do rural people think?

  • $43,429 per year is too much to pay for health insurance that you don’t use.

  • St. Paul politicians need to come out to rural Minnesota to listen to us about what works, and what doesn’t work, before they tell us what to do with our farms.  Rural people need to be consulted, not told.

  • Broadband Internet is an essential utility, like electricity.  It has to be affordable and available throughout all rural areas if we are going to survive and thrive.

  • Rural Minnesota does not deserve to be left behind on transportation, roads, bridges, healthcare, wages, and everything else.

  • We need to be able to pay rural health care workers more for their work in nursing homes, homes, and healthcare facilities. Right now, big box stores pay more than health care jobs can pay them. It’s our people being taken care of in those nursing homes.

  • Politicians need to really get out here and listen to us; not listen and tell; just listen and hear.

And here is what they say more specifically about broadband:

Broadband in rural Minnesota is an essential utility

High speed broadband internet is not a luxury for family farmers and rural communities.  Without it, farmers and communities cannot retain residents, or be a part of the world’s economy.  Additionally, without adequate internet, youth cannot compete with the rest of the country, to complete homework or education programs.  Farmers need it for everything ranging from working with FSA to communicating with state government to running their farm’s operations.  As more than one person indicated, broadband internet needs to be considered an essential utility, and significant state and federal funding is required in order to make it universally available.

With broadband rural Maine isn’t the end of the road, it’s the middle of the road

A post on Maine, how unusual for me. But a friend sent me info on Maine and it seemed like a good time to take a look at what someone else is doing. They have a nice video that talks about the benefits of broadband through stories – the family that could stay in their rural county because they can work online, the lobster company that’s growing with their new connection to the rest of the world, the older couple staying in their home with access to remote monitoring, better schools with interactive classrooms…

Like us in Minnesota, the Maine Legislature is talking about broadband. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences between what they want and what we have and/or are seeking in Minnesota. I’m only looking at the highest level but here’s what I see:

  • Maine wants a Maine Broadband Initiative – akin to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development. I know our OBD has made a difference not only in administering the Minnesota broadband grant program but also in working with community and providers to help initiative a smooth path for partnership, keeping policymakers informed of broadband needs and keeping an eye on what’s happening outside the state that can benefit the state. A broadband seat in state government keeps the conversation alive.
  • Maine’s Initiative Governing Board is akin to the MN Task Force – except their group sounds more like a working group, while Minnesota is advisory.
  • The Maine bill defines unserved as 25 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speed.  It defines high speed broadband as service providing at least 50 Mbps symmetrical service. Minnesota has gone with 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up goals for 2022 and 100/20 goals for 2026. I applaud their higher upload goals.
  • Maine is looking to move away from small grants to communities and focus on larger interventions. Minnesota focuses on grants to the local community. It will/would be interesting to see the benefits of each approach. In Minnesota I think the focus is on local because each community is so different in their assets and needs.
  • Finally in Maine is looking for $7 million in ongoing funds for the initiative – for planning and small infrastructure grants, data gathering, staffing and a $100 million bond for infrastructure. In Minnesota current numbers being discussed are $7 million from the House, $20 million from the Senate and $60 from the Governor’s Office for infrastructure grants and $250,000 annual for the OBD.

Rural broadband editorial from Duluth on cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans

The Duluth News Tribune recently posted an editorial from Jan Keough and her personal experience with satellite living north of Duluth…

My personal experiences with satellite tells me this may not be a universal answer. Cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans make satellite Internet less available and less useful in rural areas than wired services.

I live 20 miles north of Duluth. No wired Internet via DSL, cable, or fiber optic is available in our township. Internet is possible through fairly poor mobile (one cell tower with a weak signal), fixed wireless from the electric cooperative (tower), and satellite via two providers. I used to get Internet from one of those two providers but switched to fixed wireless largely because of cost and reliability. With satellite, the signal can be lost when ice and snow fall on the dish.

Both providers in our area offered plans with speeds of 25 megabits per second with data plans up to 50 gigabytes per month for $129 and $110, respectively. The service reaches us but is very expensive; and latency, upload speeds, and data plans are problematic.

Some friends had to deal with serious illness this past winter, with months of treatment and recovery from surgery. That meant more time working and convalescing from home and up to three people trying to access their satellite Internet at the same time to work via Skype, to connect with family, and to watch Internet movies. Simultaneous use slowed down everyone, and they ran through their “unlimited” monthly data plan halfway through the month; then the satellite service ramped down to effectively block a reasonable connection for a couple of weeks until the data plan renewed.

This situation is not unusual. Multiple users simultaneously using multiple Internet video or other intense systems is common for families with schoolchildren, at family gatherings, for small businesses, and at local community centers. Internet video is becoming very data-intensive, with high-definition video common for gaming and certain software, eating both speed and more and more data. The “Internet of things” is real. Home-based monitoring tools are now common in thermostats, refrigerators, pet minders, medical monitors and more. And that’s on top of telecommuting, video connectivity, music streaming, gaming and other data-intensive activities. Many people use the Internet to access television networks. While 25 megabits per second may be a sufficient speed now, it won’t be long (a year or so?) before it isn’t enough for personal and business use, and cost-effective data plans are inadequate.

Can satellite deliver 100 megabits per second at a reasonable cost by 2026, which is Minnesota’s border-to-border goal? Satellite Internet may bring fast broadband to rural areas, but it is very expensive and data plans are easily exceeded; satellite Internet at the higher speed and data plans are far more costly than offerings in urban areas.

Wired systems like DSL and, especially, fiber optic offer far more affordable access to broadband and can be scaled to vastly higher speeds to meet the needs of families and businesses well into the future.

Wired infrastructure is expensive to build, but so was rural electrification. Private-public funding (leveraged by Minnesota broadband grants) and technology partnerships are capable of bringing modern and scalable broadband Internet to everyone, even in rural areas.

With satellite Internet, rural folks are at a great disadvantage, especially where cost, uploads and latency matter. That’s in health care, education, and business operations, as examples. Satellite may not be the short- to medium-term panacea in rural areas.

Like electricity and roads, wired Internet is needed across our state to ensure that everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to thrive in our communities into the future.

Jan is active with the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative.

Frontier Communications Expands Broadband to 8,000 Additional Minnesota Households

Frontier announces expansion of service. I had emailed them about the speeds available – but I didn’t hear back. CAF requires a provider to offer at least 10 Mbps down and 1 up.

Frontier Communications Expands Broadband to 8,000 Additional Minnesota Households

Residents Gain Access to Leading-Edge Services

BURNSVILLE, Minn.–(BUSINESS WIRE)– Frontier Communications (NASDAQ: FTR) announced that it has made enhanced broadband service available to an additional 8,000 households in Minnesota. Frontier is leveraging the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program to bring broadband to approximately 3,900 households in CAF-eligible census blocks while expanding its overall service and reach to approximately 4,100 more households throughout Minnesota.

“Through ongoing network investments, Frontier is providing broadband and faster speeds to residents in our Minnesota service areas,” George Meskowski, Frontier Director of Operations said. “We have been aggressively deploying and upgrading our broadband service and look forward to serving more residents.”

The deployments are made possible through a combination of Frontier’s capital investment and the CAF. The FCC established the CAF in 2011 to facilitate broadband deployment to the millions of Americans living in rural areas without access to broadband infrastructure. As of 2016, Frontier began receiving approximately $27 million a year from the CAF to expand and upgrade the company’s network to 47,000 locations in Minnesota by the end of 2020.

The CAF program and investments by Frontier are enabling broadband access to previously unserved households, as well as improvements in speeds and services. Frontier offers simplified broadband offerings and bundled service packages that provide customers with choice and affordable options.

Broadband availability allows businesses and consumers to stay connected and take full advantage of online education, healthcare, and entertainment options. “Broadband connectivity is critical today, especially in more rural areas,” said Meskowski. “Through investment and ongoing enhancements, Frontier is helping to close America’s digital divide.”

About Frontier Communications

Frontier Communications Corporation (NASDAQ: FTR) is a leader in providing communications services to urban, suburban, and rural communities in 29 states. Frontier offers a variety of services to residential customers over its fiber-optic and copper networks, including video, high-speed internet, advanced voice, and Frontier Secure® digital protection solutions. Business Edge™ offers communications solutions to small, medium, and enterprise businesses. More information about Frontier is available at www.frontier.com.

Rural counties with the highest levels of broadband have the highest levels of income

Agri-Pluse is publishing a series of articles – “The seven things you should know before you write the next farm bill.” Last week their article on Rural Development touched on the importance of broadband – using a Minnesota example…

Bob Fox, a Minnesota farmer and Renville County commissioner says that businesses looking to plant roots in a rural community often ask about the quality of roads first and the speed of broadband, second.

“It just makes a world of difference in what you can do as a business person with that broadband speed,” he told Agri-Pulse. “We have to find a way to get broadband across all of the United States.”

A study conducted for Cornell University’s Community and Regional Development Institute underscores his point. It found that rural counties with the highest levels of broadband have the highest levels of income and education and lower levels of unemployment and poverty.

But according to the most recent Broadband Progress Report, 34 million Americans still lack access to broadband benchmark speeds. This baseline map (below) visualizes broadband access at the county level and identifies connectivity gaps — the lighter the color, the lower the percentage of households with broadband access.

They recognize that reaching those 34 million is tough work…

Building out high-speed broadband in rural areas is not easy or cheap, as Catherine Moyer, CEO of Pioneer Communications, pointed out during a recent Senate Agriculture Committee field hearing.

Pioneer is a local telecommunications provider located in southwestern Kansas, serving a 5,000 square mile area – roughly the size of Connecticut but with over three million fewer people than that state.

“We provide 21,000 total connections to wireline voice, high-speed broadband and video services over a network that utilizes a mix of fiber, copper and coax facilities,” Moyer testified. “On average, we have just over two subscribers per square mile. However, when considering that 81 percent of our customers live in our small population centers, the “density” of our rural subscribers per square mile drops to just under 0.5.

“Put another way, 81 percent of our customers reside in approximately 15 square miles, while the remaining 19 percent reside in the other 4,985 square miles.

One might ask why we serve these areas, she noted in her testimony. “We are the provider of last resort –in addition to legal obligations to serve these consumers and businesses who were left behind long ago when larger companies picked first where to serve. If Pioneer does not provide them now with service, there is no one else available to do so.”

They also recognize that broadband is one facet of rural development. There are many. Agri Pulse seems to be suggesting a united front for building better awareness…

While a wide array of Rural Development programs can offer many options for helping keep farmers on the land and rural businesses growing, this part of the farm bill is often not considered to be a high priority for national farm organizations. For commodity groups, it’s usually something that surfaces after the commodity, crop insurance, and conservation titles.

And even among its most stalwart advocates, congressional staff say that support for RD is often splintered in respective silos. For example, rural water advocates do a great job lobbying for water programs and the same is true with the rural electric cooperatives, advocating for low-interest loans. And organizations like NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association have been actively promoting expansion of broadband.

But during the last farm bill debate, rural advocates say there was not a strong enough coalition of all rural and farm groups “beating the drum” for a more comprehensive approach to job creation in rural areas.