A look at broadband needs in rural MN: Walnut Grove, Redwood County and Pine County

MN Public Radio takes a look at broadband on the frontlines in rural Minnesota. In Walnut Grove…

The 31-year-old crop insurance adjuster works on a computer set up in his living room, but sometimes he has to travel to the library in a neighboring town for a steady internet connection. Other times, he uses a mobile hot spot. He gets by, Malmberg said, and others he knows, work with less.

“Up until four years ago, I think, my parents had dial-up,” he said. “They basically have dial-up still. They have 3.5 megabits per second is their [download] speed. No Netflix, no Amazon Prime. Only email, and the occasional YouTube video.”

In Redwood County…

“Internet is now as necessary as electricity and water,” said Briana Mumme, Redwood County economic development coordinator. “I mean, like these are just part of how we do life. You just have to have access to it.”

About 90 percent of households have a computer statewide, according to the Blandin Foundation, and 81 percent have a laptop; 76 percent have a smartphone and 59 percent have a tablet. But, there are many areas in Minnesota, Mumme said, where access to high-speed internet is limited and working remotely and distance learning have run into problems, which was the case for one college student she knows who moved back home during the pandemic.

“In order for him to attend school, he literally had to drive to his grandparents house, back into town where the bandwidth was bigger or more robust,” she said. “So he could actually do school.”

In Pine County…

Other rural counties are also competing for better broadband and have seen the shift in how their communities are viewing the necessity for it. Lezlie Sauter, Pine County economic development coordinator, said COVID-19 revealed a lot of disparities where better internet access was needed in northern Minnesota.

“I think that the pandemic opened up our eyes to, ‘we have to be able to pivot and do work online,’ ” Sauter said. “I don’t think our community was prepared for it. I think some people were, but most of us viewed the internet and broadband as a luxury and it’s something we use to stream video and Netflix and all those things. But, we did not see how important it would be to keep conducting business.”

Wisconsin looks at failed history of federal funding for broadband

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel does a nice job detailing the illustrious history of federal funding for broadband over the past few Administrations. The title of the article says it all…

With poor data, deficient requirements and little oversight, massive public spending still hasn’t solved the rural internet access problem

There isn’t a lot new in the summary but it’s a good and succinct account, starting with the stories of people who have been waiting for decades for the federal funds to trickle down to deploy broadband to their homes and including lots of good details, facts and figures. They boil the issue to a few high level points: inadequate mapping of the problem and minimal requirements and even less administration.

The need…

The Federal Communications Commission has said that nationwide around 14 million people lack access to broadband, also known as high-speed internet. However, the firm Broadband Now, which helps consumers find service, estimates it’s closer to 42 million. And although Microsoft Corp. doesn’t have the ability to measure everyone’s actual internet connection, the tech giant says approximately 120 million Americans aren’t using the internet at true broadband speeds of at least 25-megabit-per-second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads — a further indication of how many people have been left behind.

The attempts so far…

None of the efforts under any of the administrations succeeded, and some of the reasons were fairly straightforward. The data on who has broadband  — and who doesn’t  — has been flawed. Some of the upgrades quickly became obsolete. There’s been limited accountability.

“We have given away $40 billion in the last 10 years … and haven’t solved the problem,” said Tom Wheeler, who was FCC chairman in Obama’s administration. “I always thought the definition of insanity was doing things the same way over and over and believing that, somehow, something will change.”

And so the digital divide, which some say has become a chasm, remains.

And the funders having little to say about who gets service…

Under the Connect America Fund requirements, grant recipients had a great deal of latitude in where they deployed upgrades. They were allowed, for example, to bypass thinly populated sections of rural counties and make up the difference in other CAF II-eligible areas that had more customers.

It’s really hurt places like Price County, according to Hallstrand, who says the government subsidies should be used to cover the areas most in need of better service before the money’s spent in other places.

“That’s how rural America gets broadband,” he said.

In one rural Wisconsin county after another, Connect America Fund II has left a trail of skepticism and frustration. Many communities have initiated their own broadband expansion projects, seeking state grants and local partnerships, because they haven’t seen much help from the federal government and big-name service providers.

Mankato Free Press on rural wins in Legislature

Mankato Free Press outlines the impacts of 2021 Legislative session on rural Minnesota…

Outstate Minnesota was not forgotten in the final decisions of the Minnesota Legislature as investments will flow into child care, broadband, meat packing and some regulations will be eased for farmers.

The specifics on broadband…

Broadband efforts also found widespread bipartisan support as the Legislature approved some $70 million in broadband funding for projects over the next two years. While that is only moderately higher than the last two years and the needs are said to be near $200 million, the initial funding will likely be followed with years of higher funding as federal COVID funds come through the pipeline.

Significant areas of outstate Minnesota have no or very poor broadband coverage making running a business difficult and leaving some school kids going to McDonald’s to connect to Wi-Fi.

White House says Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework invests $65 billion

The White House reports

Today, despite the fact that rural and Tribal communities across the country are asset-rich, they make up a disproportionate number of persistent poverty communities. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework invests in rural and Tribal communities, creating jobs in rural America and wealth that stays in rural America. The Framework delivers 100% broadband coverage, rebuilds crumbling infrastructure like roads and bridges, eliminates lead pipes and service lines, builds resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, and puts Americans to work cleaning up pollution that has impacted fossil fuel communities in rural America.

In addition to being the largest-long term investment in our infrastructure in nearly a century – four times the infrastructure investment in the 2009 Recovery Act – the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework is a generational investment in rural America.

Here’s what they say about broadband…

Provide high speed internet to every home. More than 35 percent of rural Americans and Tribal communities lack wired access to broadband at acceptable speeds. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework invests $65 billion, including through USDA rural broadband programs, to make high-speed internet available to all Americans, bring down high-speed internet prices across the board, and provide technical assistance to communities seeking to expand broadband. With the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, the Federal government made a historic investment in bringing electricity to nearly every home and farm in America, and millions of families and our economy reaped the benefits. Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to accelerate precision agriculture, to participate equally in school learning and health care, and to stay connected.

New research shows: household of four requires 131/73 Mbps of bandwidth

Telecom Review reports

Research commissioned by the FBA and presented in the white paper indicates that in 2021, a household of four requires 131/73 Mbps of bandwidth and will grow to 2,141/2,044 Mbps by 2030. This makes today’s definition of broadband speeds unusable, as the FCC currently defines broadband as a mere 25/3 Mbps for Americans and 50/10 Mbps for Canadians. These antiquated definitions of broadband affect the rural populations of North America the most. FBA’s research found that 62% of the most rural areas have the lowest performing broadband with speeds for the lowest quantile at 4/1 Mbps.

To eliminate the rural digital divide, the white paper suggests attention and investment should be placed on the most effective rural broadband infrastructure. The research presents that, without exception, there is no communications medium nearly as effective or future proof as fiber optics. Fiber’s transmission capacity can be increased almost infinitely as needed to supply any level of bandwidth. Fiber is immune to electrical interference and requires fewer powered nodes, enabling it to serve as the most consistent and reliable technology option. Additionally, the cost to operate a fiber-to-the-home system is lower than other broadband methods.

“The investment in fiber networks in rural areas to close the digital divide has never been more important. Not only does fiber provide the necessary infrastructure needed for communities to work, learn, shop and play from home, it has the added benefit of creating jobs and fueling the economy in these rural parts of North America,” said Deborah Kish, Vice President of Research and Marketing at the Fiber Broadband Association. “As the federal government makes plans to spend billions of dollars towards America’s digital infrastructure, deploying fiber proves to be the soundest and cost-effective investment.”

Land O’Lakes leading corporate call out for better broadband

The Farmer writes about the role of Land O’Lakes in improving rural broadband. I’ve written about this program in the past, but always good to see word spread…

While federal and state broadband investments surge and fade, there is one supporter is carrying the banner for rural interconnectivity.

Leadership at the farmer-owned co-op Land O’Lakes has voiced concern about the digital divide for several years. More than a year ago, it started the American Connection Project (ACP), which encompasses a three-point mission: lobbying for interconnectivity, providing free Wi-Fi in rural areas and training young adults to help rural communities navigate broadband implementation and stimulate economic development.

“We started working on ACP prior to Covid,” says Tina May, Land O’Lakes vice president of rural services. “We’ve been working on it for over two years. The reason? It’s about access in rural communities. Covid showed us it is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity in every community, every house and every farm.”

They get into some of the details.

The bigger picture with rural broadband access for all encompasses economic development and revitalization of rural communities. That’s where ACP’s American Connection Corps comes into play. The American Connection Corps, funded by 20 organizations, is providing two-year fellowships for 53 young professionals in 12 states, including Minnesota, to work on coordinating local, state and federal resources for broadband access. The fellows also will focus on expanding digital literacy and connecting young people within their community to spur business and nonprofit activity.

“The pandemic showed us that if there is broadband available, you can do your job anywhere,” May says. ACC will announce in late July who the new fellows are and where they will be located. Six will be assigned in Minnesota.

“The fellows will get robust training, as the scope of their work will be difficult,” she adds. “I’m excited to see what they can do.”

EVENTS: 100 rural MN gatherings, 100 rural MN communities.

From our friends at 100 Rural Women…

Join us this summer as we will be “traveling” (virtually) across the state of Minnesota by region during the summer of 2021. Overall we will hold 30 meetings across Minnesota in an effort to create connections, explore existing formal and informal networks of rural women and discuss what leadership looks like for women. Our goal is to ignite action in community, leadership, civic engagement, and rural entrepreneurship, while simultaneously identifying opportunities and connecting local women to each other.

Click here to Sign up for a gathering

I’m hoping folks will join and make sure that broadband is a hot topic!

Quarantine rules help spread telehealth options for rural moms-to-be in Bemidji

The Bemidji Pioneer reports

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be how it sped up a change in prenatal care that could improve outcomes for rural mothers and babies.

Dr. Johnna Nynas, an OB/GYN physician at Sanford Health in Bemidji, discussed her hospital’s move to offering virtual visits during the past year.

“We started laying the groundwork a couple of years ago,” said Nynas. “We looked at implementing a virtual visit option that provided patients with some equipment to monitor their pregnancies at home, including a blood pressure cuff, and then a Doppler, so they can listen to their baby at home. But what really thrust us to the forefront and accelerated the timeline was the COVID pandemic.”

Technical and legal challenges involved the interface between patients at home and their medical records. But with the onset of the pandemic, Nynas said, “there were rapid changes in Congress that made it much easier for health care organizations to initiate telehealth.”

They need better broadband…

There are still barriers that need to be addressed, such as broadband and cellular access in rural areas and for lower-income families. And there are days when the technology doesn’t work as well as others, and doctors have to make do with voice-only telephone visits.

Still, Nynas said, virtual visits will likely continue even after COVID-19 fades from public awareness.

There is a need…

The disparity is real. Nynas quoted shocking statistics: 23 percent of American women live in rural areas, but only 6% of OB/GYNs practice in rural areas. “That’s the challenge that we’re up against,” she said.

The benefit of prenatal care is also real, even for women whose pregnancies are considered low-risk. “It’s better to connect with prenatal care and get that care when and however you can,” said Nynas, “because getting no prenatal care is definitely correlated with worse outcomes.”

At the same time, the costs of running a labor and delivery unit while performing fewer deliveries are widening the gap between rural patients and the care they need. “That’s where being able to offer services remotely can be a really helpful thing,” she said.

Telehealth is here to stay in rural Minnesota

WCCO TV reports

WCCO found the successes and the future of the practice for some patients in outstate Minnesota.

A former firefighter and medic, it was a bad fall after retirement that put Bart Cedergren in a wheelchair.

He lives up north with his wife. The three doctor visits a month could take much of the day, but are now done in a fraction of the time because they’re all online.

“Telemedicine I think is the wave of the future,” Cedergren said. “The only thing we go in for these days are basically lab.”

Family Nurse Practitioner Janelle Terhaar now dedicates one full office day a week in Long Prairie to her telehealth patients.

“We went from maybe having one or two a month to now we’re maybe having steady patients every day,” Terhaar said.

From parents with a sick child, behavioral health, and an older population, Terhaar says patient profiles come from all over and that even web cams don’t lie.

Rural areas need broadband to attract rural workers

New York Times reports

“How do you get young people to want to move back into these rural areas when they feel like they’re moving back into a time frame of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, the company’s founder and chief executive.

Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is restricting their economic growth. But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, at the same time that President Biden’s infrastructure plan — which includes $100 billion to improve broadband access — has raised hope that the problem might finally be addressed.

“It creates jobs connecting every American with high-speed internet, including 35 percent of the rural America that still doesn’t have it,” Mr. Biden said of his plan in an address to Congress last month. “This is going to help our kids and our businesses succeed in the 21st-century economy.”

Mr. Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure to include investments in child care, health care and other priorities beyond the concrete-and-steel projects that the word normally calls to mind. But ensuring internet access is broadly popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62 percent of Republicans.

Businesses, too, have consistently supported broadband investment. Major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have all released policy recommendations in the last year calling for federal spending to help close the “digital divide.”

Defining broadband is an issue…

Quantifying that divide, and its economic cost, is difficult, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 m.p.s. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 m.p.s. And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server.

The definition matters in terms of getting government support to improve access, but the definition doesn’t matter to the consumer. All that matters to the consumer is that it works…

According to the F.C.C.’s definition, most of Marion County has high-speed access to the internet. But residents report that service is slow and unreliable. And with only one provider serving much of the county, customers have little leverage to demand better service.

The area needs more workers, but new workers, especially younger workers, will not move to an areas without broadband…

Local leaders have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers — but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Women leading in Rural Broadband Connectivity: Notes and Video

This morning, 100 Rural Women hosted a conversion on rural broadband. It was a full (virtual) room of women who live on the frontlines of rural Minnesota. There was a discussion between Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Policy and Engagement at the Blandin Foundation and Tina May, Chief of Staff and Vice President at Land O’Lakes moderated by Benya Kraus from Lead for America.

We learned a lot about the new American Connection Corps. We had an honest discussion on why Minnesota doesn’t have ubiquitous broadband yet. We talked about why access to broadband is an issue that impacts women. (For example, Moms were 68.8 percent more likely to take leave from jobs during the pandemic than fathers.)
And we got a taste of Women’s March MN’s Time to Action events, where members learn about an issue and take time to act.

Land O’Lakes unveils American Connection Corps

I was just on a call with 100 Rural Women (will share on that soon) and heard from Tina May and Benya Kraus more about this awesome program from Land O’Lakes

Land O’Lakes, Inc. today announced the formation of a new program for young leaders aimed at a boots-on-the-ground effort to boost local internet connectivity and the benefits it provides. The program, the American Connection Corps, will be led in conjunction with Lead for America (LFA) and funded through the support of Heartland Forward and 19 additional partner organizations. Applications open today for a two-year, full-time paid fellowship. Fifty Fellows will serve in local public-serving institutions in their hometowns and will be empowered to serve as community leaders focused specifically on connectivity.
“Millions of families are operating day-to-day with a lack of basic infrastructure — adequate broadband access — that has become a necessity in today’s world and, frankly, a fundamental right. Action cannot wait,” said Beth Ford, Land O’Lakes, Inc. president and chief executive officer. “Through our years-long work on broadband advocacy and conversations with our farmers, our customers and so many others, we’ve seen and heard firsthand how critical digital infrastructure is to the success of communities and businesses across America. From everyday life to prospering in a global economy, investing and focusing on this issue now will pay dividends.”
Through their proven Homecomers model, LFA will run the American Connection Corps as a separate track under their broad Fellows program. LFA will select, train and place leaders in two-year, full-time paid fellowships with local institutions (e.g. local governments, nonprofits, community foundations) to tackle tough challenges facing the community, strengthen their hometown’s civic infrastructure and join a new generation of transformational community leaders.
“Our work has shown that we can change the narrative that success means leaving home for good, and instead that young leaders can create meaningful impact in their hometowns,” commented Benya Kraus, co-founder of LFA.
“We are excited to put true grassroots – person-to-person outreach — in communities across the heartland to connect their residents to high-speed internet and ensure everyone can enjoy full access to essential online services,” said Angie Cooper, chief program officer for Heartland Forward, a leading partner on the American Connection Corps initiative.
Ford continued, “This program would not be happening without the support of organizations joining with us; I’m so grateful to these partners who also recognize that together, we can take bold steps now to help solve these challenges, to help create the future and to benefit us all in our ever-connected world.”
The American Connection Corps is launching with funding from 20 partner organizations, including: Heartland Forward, CoBank, Tractor Supply Company, Microsoft, Mayo Clinic, Ariel Investments, Scoular, CHS, Zoetis, Tillamook, Accenture, University of Minnesota, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Midwest Dairy, Purdue University, Partners for Education, CentraCare, Common Sense Media and University of Illinois Extension.
Individuals interested in applying for the program are encouraged to visit Lead for America’s website and select the American Connection Corps track. The deadline to apply is May 15, 2021. The inaugural class of Fellows will be announced in early June 2021.

“I will keep Starlink as long as its the only broadband option available to me”

CNBC reports

Starlink is the company’s capital-intensive project to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, known in the space industry as a constellation, designed to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.

SpaceX launched the “Better than Nothing Beta” program for the public in October, and the majority of users CNBC surveyed received invitations to join between November and February. The service is priced at $99 a month in the U.S. under the beta, with a $499 upfront cost for the equipment customers need to connect to the satellites – plus taxes, shipping, and any accessories needed to mount the antenna.

CNBC’s surveyed users on total cost, the installation process, what they thought of SpaceX’s equipment, internet speed, reliability of the service, what their service alternatives were, their experience with customer service, any concerns they had, and their overall impressions.

It sounds like people were OK with the price as it seemed to compare to what they had paid before. Feedback on installation was more diverse, based on the customer’s past experience with rooftop installations. The speeds sound like they were as promised…

SpaceX told the Federal Communications Commission in February that Starlink’s internet service is “exceeding” 100 megabits per second download speeds, 20 megabits per second upload speeds, and latency “at or below 31 milliseconds.” Latency is the amount of delay in an internet network, defining how much time it takes a signal to travel back and forth from a destination. Latency and download speeds are key measures for an internet service provider.

The company’s report to the FCC matched with what users told CNBC, who reported download speeds ranging between 60 Mbps to 150 mbps – with some even reporting peak speeds near 200. Latency also matched expectations, as most users reported latency of about 30 milliseconds – with some in the low 20 milliseconds.

It was interesting to hear what customers had before this beta test…

Users reported a wide variety of prior services that they had before Starlink, ranging from other satellite broadband companies to low-speed wired networks to cellular hotspots – and some with no prior service at all.

Starlink users most commonly switched for one of three reasons: Price, speed and data restrictions (also known as “caps”).

And what one customer said after the beta test…

I will keep Starlink as long as its the only broadband option available to me.

I think that sentiment says a lot about the service. It is a great option for people who don’t have other options but drawbacks are the cost and it’s not futureproof. Also, investing public funding into Starlink is not an investment in futureproof technology.

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.