National Coalition works to expand rural e-connectivity

Posting the press release…

WASHINGTON, D.C. April 18, 2018: A coalition of stakeholders committed to the expansion of broadband services in rural America today launched the first in a series of workshops to focus attention on the wide-ranging challenges to achieving connectivity, and the opportunities improved e-connectivity could bring to the people and economies of the nation’s rural regions.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai joined executives from the five partner organizations 

–Farm Foundation, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), CoBank, and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC)–in kicking off the listening sessions by highlighting the importance of e-connectivity to all sectors of rural America.

The next listening session will be in June 2018 in Minnesota, with additional sessions to be completed over the next six months.

“Broadband is vital to the rural economy in what is now a highly interconnected global marketplace,” said Tom Halverson, President and CEO of CoBank. “We need leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington to work together to facilitate broadband investment and ensure that rural America remains competitive and strong.”

Achieving e-connectivity across rural America is not a simple task. “Actions needed to improve e-connectivity vary widely by community and region,” notes Farm Foundation President and CEO Constance Cullman. “These listening sessions will serve to highlight common issues, success stories to build strong broadband systems, and challenges that are yet to be met.”

Executives from regional telecommunications companies participated in the kickoff to provide perspectives on the broadband service issues. This panel included Levoy Knowles of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, Mel Coleman of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, and Ken Johnson, Administrator of Rural Development’s Rural Utilities Service.

“We are excited for the prospects of enhanced cooperation and coordination between USDA, the FCC, and private operators like those in NTCA’s membership–all of whom recognize the value of and critical need for sustainable broadband in rural America. In that spirit, it is an honor to have both USDA Secretary Perdue and FCC Chairman Pai offer remarks at today’s kickoff event,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “NTCA’s nearly 850 members connect many of America’s rural communities to the world with robust broadband, and we are pleased to participate in this collaborative effort to promote better access to rural broadband.”

Rural electric cooperatives are well aware of the needs of e-connectivity in their communities, and more than 100 electric cooperatives already are providing broadband service to their members. “The widening digital divide is a national crisis deserving of a national response,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of NRECA. “For decades, electric cooperatives have enhanced the quality of life throughout rural America. Now, many of those same electric co-ops are helping reinvigorate rural economies by bringing broadband to rural homes, businesses and farms. High costs to serve areas with low population density remain the biggest obstacle to expanded rural broadband access. An expanded combination of federal grant and loan funding through USDA is a critical step to connecting rural America.”

Stakeholders emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance broadband services in rural America. “Leveraging additional investment in rural broadband infrastructure will require a team effort,” said Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC. “Local partnerships can be a wonderful way to leverage resources, expertise and efficiencies to ensure that rural communities can fully participate in today’s 21st century economy.”

Microsoft’s recommendation to rural communities: leadership, vision and aspiration

The Daily Yonder recently ran an interesting interview with Karen Kocher from Microsoft, about how Microsoft would like to create intentional ways for technology to support rural economic and workforce development. It’s an interesting article- the end caught my attention because it mirrors a theme we saw emerge from our case study of five Minnesota communities doing well with broadband – they all had leadership and a vision for the future

First and foremost it’s really incumbent upon the community to have the leadership and the vision and the aspiration for itself. What are they hoping to be as the future unfolds and where do they see opportunity not only for the community at large but for individuals? Because we will have a solution that can help people develop the skill to ultimately be employable in some of these wonderful 21st century jobs, but that’s going to be just a subset of something far broader, this context that has to exist, which is really up to the community to help create. We see [Microsoft] aligning with communities that have those types of aspirations and those types of visions and so I’d start there. What is it they envision and do they envision being a place where these types of jobs would exist and people would thrive in those types of jobs? If so, then the likelihood is there’d be an opportunity for partnering and some real potential there.

Federal legislation on broadband – but how to fund it?

The Albert Lea Tribune recently ran an article that outlines the broadband portions of a recent law tat supports rural infrastructure. I’ve just pulled out the portions of the article that relate to broadband…

Last month, a bill was signed into law that would increase funding for rural broadband deployment and transportation infrastructure.

The legislation signed into law reportedly includes $600 million for rural broadband deployment. The signed legislation reportedly includes Klobuchar’s bills to connect communities across Minnesota and the United States with affordable internet access, including provisions based on  Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act legislation she introduced and her bill to encourage states to coordinate highway construction projects with broadband providers so broadband infrastructure can be installed at once.

“Our 21st century economy demands 21st century infrastructure, and that requires investments in roads, bridges, airports and rural broadband,” Klobuchar said. “This crucial funding will not only connect communities across our state physically but also digitally — bringing high speed internet to even more Minnesotans.

“The inclusion of my legislation to streamline development will reduce the costs of building new infrastructure and help expand wireless coverage in our rural areas, a necessity for our families and businesses.”

More info on broadband…

The bill also includes provisions Klobuchar introduced to reduce regulations and streamline the broadband deployment process, encourage collaboration between large and small carriers to bridge service gaps in rural areas and boost broadband infrastructure investments.

The legislation directs the Federal Communications Commission to conduct rulemaking on opportunities for large carriers to lease unused spectrum to rural and smaller carriers and encourage collaboration between companies to bridge service gaps in rural areas, and streamline broadband deployment on federal land to increase broadband infrastructure investments in rural communities near federal land.

Miller said it makes sense to install broadband during road construction projects so such roads do not have to be dug up twice.

“It’s a great concept,” she said. “It’s a great idea. If the world was a little more sustainable where we could plan for that money, I think it could work really, really well.”

And more…

Last May, Klobuchar — a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chairwoman of the Senate Broadband Caucus — and Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, introduced a bill to expand broadband deployment using accurate coverage maps.

Last April, Klobuchar and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, led a bipartisan group of 56 senators urging the Federal Communications Commission to continue advancing broadband deployment in rural communities.

In 2017, Klobuchar and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, introduced legislation to measure the economic impact broadband has on the U.S. economy. Klobuchar, Capito and Sens. Angus King, Heidi Heitkamp and John Boozman led 48 senators in urging the Trump administration to include broadband funding in any infrastructure initiative.

Miller said though sufficiently funding transportation is agreed by both major parties, there remains the need to have a sufficient funding source.

“The funny thing about transportation is all the Republicans, all the Democrats, whoever is the president, they all agree that we need a good, sound transportation network,” she said. “They all have great plans of what they want that transportation plan to look like — where we always fall apart is how are we going to fund it. How are we going to pay for it?”

Sen. Tina Smith Introduces Bill to Deploy Broadband to Unserved Rural and Tribal Communities

From Senator Smith’s office…

Senator’s Legislation Would Establish and Improve Upon the Department of Agriculture Community Connect Grant Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. [04/12/18]—Today, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) introduced legislation—the Community Connect Grant Program Act—to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program under law and make improvements to the grant program that makes funding available for broadband projects in tribal, low-income, and remote rural areas.

The USDA Community Connect program through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) helps fund broadband deployment into rural communities. In addition to authorizing the program and targeting areas that lack access across the nation, Sen. Smith’s bill would increase internet speed service under the program because she hears time and time again that this is a real concern for Minnesotans.

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century—it isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we’re going to build an economy that works for everyone,” said Sen. Smith. “It is absolutely necessary whether you’re a student working on homework, a business owner selling products, a farmer using modern equipment, or a person who is trying to access health care. My bill is a step forward and one of the many things we have to do in order to connect more Minnesotans and people across the nation with affordable, reliable internet service.”
The Community Connect Grant Program Act would:

  • Provide grants to construct, acquire, or lease facilities—including spectrum, land, or buildings—to deploy broadband service.
  • Modernize minimum speed service to coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission and keep pace with 21st Century needs.
  • Provide essential community facilities—like fire stations and public schools—with service for up to two years.
  • A portion of the grant funding may also be used to improve, expand, construct, or acquire a community center within the proposed service area to provide community access.
  • Avoid duplicating deployment efforts by not building over existing broadband networks, responsibly investing federal funding and taxpayer money.
  • Authorize funding for Community Connect grants at $50 million per fiscal year.

You can learn more about the Community Grant Program Act here.

Want millennials to move to your rural community? Get broadband

The Daily Yonder posts an article from Roberto Gallardo, Robert Bell and Norman Jacknis that takes a deep dive into demographic growth reports to find that millennials are willing to move to rural areas with broadband…

To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age – moving to cities where jobs and people are concentrated.  Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends. 

However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends. 

Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though is that (while other factors are having an impact, as well) any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.  

In other words, our data analysis suggests that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials. 

Mankato’s broadband event getting attention highlighting access and policy

The Mankato Free Press reports on Thursday’s broadband meeting in Mankato

The threat to rural Minnesota used to be measured mostly by the lack of good paying jobs needed to keep young people staying in or moving to small towns.

Bill Coleman says the presence or absence of dependable, speedy broadband service is now the key to rural Minnesota’s success or failure.

They highlight the connectivity in the area…

he state of area broadband service varies. The region in and around Blue Earth County is in relatively good shape compared to much of outstate and the country. But connectivity is still widely variable outside of larger cities in the area.

Some of the most dependable, fastest service delivered by underground fiber lines connected to homes and businesses is plentiful in Mankato, North Mankato, St. Peter and around New Ulm, due largely by investments from Consolidated Communications and New Ulm Telecom. Satellite services are readily available and used in many rural areas, but their dependability is affected by weather and the distance signals have to travel. Wireless service is also plentiful.

And highlight what’s happening at the legislature with the broadband grant appropriation…

Gov. Mark Dayton this session is proposing $30 million be approved by the Legislature for broadband expansion. Dayton said it would help 11,000 households, businesses and organizations get better service.

A few years ago, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband called for more than $200 million to ensure every Minnesotan can access the internet with speeds of at least 25 mega bits per second download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

About 88 percent of Minnesotans have that kind of access now, an improvement from the 56 percent of the state with broadband internet in 2011.

The GOP is looking at a broadband bill this year that would provide $20 million in grants instead of the governor’s $30 million proposal. Lawmakers passed a $35 million grant bill last year.

Connect Rural Broadband Summit in Region 9 – notes and archive

More than 80 people gathered today to talk about broadband in Region Nine. There were policymakers, providers, government officials, economic developers and others. The progression of the day included:

  1. Meet each other
  2. Learn about Broadband 101
  3. Hear from providers about what they have and what they need
  4. Talk to broadband users in the community (healthcare, education, economic development)
  5. Broadband success stories

Then everyone took the lessons they learned and created group priorities for efforts they would be ready, willing and able to take to encourage better broadband.

My notes are pretty complete and include the PPT from the 101 session. Continue reading