Looking for tools to grow a vibrant rural community? Blandin can help!

The Blandin Foundation has started a new blog – Groundwork! And here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. Here’s an intro to the blog, from the blog…

Real change starts with groundwork.

That’s why we’re launching this blog, a collection of stories, perspectives and tools to help leaders, like you, design and claim your community’s future.

I invite you to use the tools offered in GroundWork to explore new possibilities, test existing thinking and rejuvenate your community work.

We see your passion and commitment. We see your hard work. And we proudly stand with you as you reach across boundaries and build lasting connections to strengthen the places we call home.

You are the leaders we’ve been waiting for!

Kathy Annette, President & CEO

Small Business and Broadband Congressional Field Hearing in Scandia

Today, the Subcommittee on Contracting and Infrastructure Connecting Families, Connecting Businesses Connecting America met in Scandia to talk about Small Businesses and Their Limitations without Reliable Access to Rural Broadband.

I tried to livestream but the cell coverage wasn’t enough to keep the video going and there was no wifi access. I’m going to upload what I captured as a demonstration of need. I was using my phone. The meeting was more than an hour long. The video archive is 11 (noncontiguous) minutes long because that’s when the cell coverage was adequate to livestream.

I did try to take good notes. (Below.) Local folks talked about the need for better broadband. At the end of the meeting, an audience member jumped up to talk about Scandia’s work trying to get better broadband. While the four testifiers had great examples of why rural areas need broadband to survive – this woman gave voice to the need for access at speeds of 100/100 Mbps! I was able to capture her in full. (The difference between livestream and record – although tough to record 60+ minute meeting on a phone.)

Intro from Chair Golden

Congressman Stauber – thanks people for testifying and to elected showing up.

Small Business Committee works in a bipartisan way to get things done. In 2018, 85% owned a cell phone and 98% used the Internet. Small business needs reliable and affordable access. Small businesses that use technology are three times more likely to create jobs and make a profit. 24 million Americans lack access to broadband. In MN 400,000 people lack access to broadband – most in rural areas. 99.9 percent of urban Americans have access to broadband. 68% of rural Americans have access.

Large telecoms have no interest in serving rural areas. So smaller providers have been stepping up – but they need government support. They need more help. And that will likely happen in an upcoming infrastructure bill.

Testifiers:

Adam Arts, real estate agent in Blaine

People run to the government for everything – but some things fall through the cracks like internet access . Internet is no longer a luxury. Lack of access to a common denominator for failure. I have kids who went to high school. One graduated in 2009 – and the Internet has not changed since then. Kids are frustrated. They cannot engage and excel. We need to put our kids in a position to win.

As a business owner, I need broadband. 9 out of 10 times, people ask about internet access first when buying a house. People will buy a smaller home for more money to get broadband. I can’t upload pictures from my house. Downtown (North Branch) is OK but anything outside that area is hurting. Our industry revolves around the electronic signature.

Negative impact builds. Lack of broadband will have an impact on business and family – means rural communities are in decline. It’s a reason that some towns are shrinking.

Housing in the Twin Cities in too expensive for many people. Housing is affordable in rural areas but without broadband no one will buy.

We have a remote vehicle in Mars, but I can’t get broadband in North Branch.

Mark Johnson, ECMECC

Small business are the life blood of small communities. People need broadband to communication. Businesses need an educated workforce.

People are less likely to move to an area without broadband. Education suffers without home access to broadband.

Business in our area need to downtown for video conference calls. They can’t do that from offices in the outskirts.

We live in a digital world. Learning takes place in and out of schools. We can’t leave 20 percent of our students behind because they don’t have broadband. We have some districts where that percentage is closer to 50.

We do have mobile wifi for students. Chromebooks have been most impactful for our district.

MN partnership for collaborative curriculum is digital open resources for grades 3-12. Made available to schools at no cost. They have the potential to replace textbooks – where people have broadband access.

Schools find ways to make due – mobile wifi, wifi on buses – but those solutions only work where there’s cell coverage. It’s hard to have e-learning days (aka snow days) – when teachers and students cannot access broadband. So schools in some districts cannot take advantage of e-learning days.

We need real broadband to make rural living viable.

Greg Carlson, Cambridge Presbyterian Homes (Eldercare)

Everyone wants to be home – from Elvis to Dorothy Gage – with broadband people can live longer in their homes. We can reduce acute care with remote monitoring, regular screening and online health management tools. It leads to better patient outcomes.

10 percent of health is driven by our health system – it’s real where we live, what we do and our genes.

There’s great potential in mental health and addiction services. But we need the infrastructure in place. We can monitor everything from room temperature to how often the fridge has been opened. Alerts can be set up when patterns are broken.

Physicians need broadband access for their job – including at home. They need to access and maintain medical records.

Mark P, Bulltear Industry (custom machining)

I train folks how to use CNC machines – including many with disabilities. After a spinal injury on the job, I learned to take my machining background to online engineering. The internet allowed this to happen. We built and sold online.

Unlimited potential for growth. We stumble through our day with limited broadband. We pay $300/month for 10/10. We have a monopoly provider. We have dropped calls. We have to reboot our modem at work and home continuously. I thought I was alone until I talked to our neighbors. They have the same trouble.

I’ve seen businesses close for lack of broadband – or move.

Communication between people makes communities. We compete with the world now. In many ways business is cleaner, smarter and better. We need faster internet to do it We need to download training videos and upload customer videos.

Questions:

Q What speed would you like to have?
If we were starting now, we wouldn’t do it here. You use more bandwidth as you grow. We need increased broadband like we need land to grow.

Q Will you stay here?
My heart is here so we’ll stay here.

Q: Is there a workforce shortage?
Yes!!

Q: Do people leave the area?
Last year North Branch worked with the Design Team. We went to the school to talk to kids. We asked – what would keep you here? They said – affordable housing and opportunity and that’s not there without the Internet. And you need opportunity for spouses. It directly impacts the real estate industry.

Q: What are differences that are connected vs schools that aren’t?
Most schools have 1-to-1 initiatives – and that becomes their hub for learning. That’s not possible without broadband. You need to work with the lowest common denominator. Where they have broadband, they can do flipped learning. SO the student watches a video at home and class time is spent doing the work .

Q: What broadband speed do you need?
The FCC says broadband is 25/3. It’s the upload speed that’s an issue – especially for healthcare and education.

Q: Tell us about the importance of connecting with family online esp for seniors?
Again 10 percent of our health involves the medical industry – 90 percent is quality of life. Staying connected keeps people happy and healthy. Older adults shy away from technology, until they realize it’s a connection to others.

Q: “When my wife was deployed, access via Skype for me and our kids was essential.” Stauber.

Q: So you wouldn’t start a business here if you started now?
We moved here to raise kids. We moved for affordability. We’re in a different boat now. We need broadband to flourish. We couldn’t do what we do with lesser broadband.

Q: In real estate, people ask about broadband connectivity?
People don’t want the house if they can’t get internet access. It’s not an option for kids, or adults. It’s not even an issue of price.

Congresswoman Craig: I grew up in rural areas. I know how hard it can be. We have a cabin and have often had to cut weekends short so that kids could do homework with internet access.

Q: Moving healthcare to an outcomes based system requires broadband. Talk about that.
Addiction issues, issues with police, mental health – the need to intervene is critical. For example, a person might go to treatment and come home to no support. Being online provides an opportunity for remote support. The likelihood for transgressions is greater without broadband.
In the schools we have mental health issues. Counselors in rural schools are shared between buildings and towns. Online counseling could reduce travel time. And kids with access at home have that opportunity for support that doesn’t existing for those who don’t.

Q: What else would help a business in rural MN?
We’re in a rural area between the TCs and Hudson. The only thing holding us back is an OK from the county and broadband.

Q: When we get broadband to everyone it will unleash an new entrepreneurial wave.

Congressman Hagedorn – my small town has changed. IN the last 6-7 years low commodity cost has hurt and diminishing need for people as agriculture gets automated. Rural areas have taken a hit. If we don’t’ have people, nothing else matters. We can’t attract people without infrastructure. It’s a quality of life issue.

Q: What speeds do you need for telehealth?
The CAF programs built to 10/1 – that doesn’t do much. It won’t allow for a video conversation.

Q: We need better mental health care for vets – seems like telehealth could help.
If you’re a vet, you need to go to the care facility. That can be a long drive. Telehealth would flip the paradigm. We need services where people are at.

Golden: The FCC mapping doesn’t paint the picture. Even the idea of 25/3 is not consistent. I know for me I can get that at midnight but not during the day. We need consistent and reliable broadband.

Stauber: Making sure that rural business matters. At some point, the government decided that everyone would get US mail. At some point every mailbox mattered. We need to make the investment.

U of M rural-urban expert notes broadband funding as a statewide win

Tim Lindberg, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Morris, talks about the recent MN legislative session from through the lens of a urban-rural divide. He mentions broadband as a win for both sides…

In other cases, rural and urban lawmakers worked together to pass legislation that affects the whole state, such as funding for Local Government Aid (LGA) provided to cities throughout Minnesota, efforts to continue expanding broadband access in rural Minnesota and a fee imposed on opioid manufacturers that will pay for treatment services. The urban-rural divide, rather than just being a story of Republicans versus Democrats, is more nuanced.

Lindberg looks at the future of the geographic divide and political parties…

Given the continued growth of the Twin Cities metro and the stagnation or even decline of many rural counties, this means that redrawn districts will increasingly have urban or suburban areas within them, which will likely help Democrats. It will also likely further the ideological and partisan gap between those who represent rural areas and those who represent urban areas. This phenomenon is occurring in many Midwestern states, including those President Trump narrowly won in 2016.

The rural-urban divide will matter greatly in 2020, but it is not yet clear which party might benefit the most from it.

It will be interesting to see who benefits but it makes bipartisan support for broadband funding even more important – especially since the funding was one-time, not ongoing. It’s likely to come up again, until the state has ubiquitous broadband coverage and bipartisan support increases the odds.

Congressmen Peterson & Mulllin introduce bill to expand rural access to broadband

The Claremore Progress reports…

Today, Congressmen Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and Collin Peterson (D-MN) introduced the Rural Broadband Network Advancement (RBNA) Act, which would invest in expanding broadband access in rural areas.

The RBNA Act establishes a new program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would collect Network User Fees from edge providers (Netflix, AmazonVideo, etc.) based on the data transported over the last mile of networks. User fees would then be invested by the rural broadband providers to help build, maintain and operate robust broadband networks in high cost rural areas. All rural broadband providers would be eligible for the program if they provide broadband access in high cost rural areas to fewer than 100,000 customers within a state and provide the speeds required by the FCC. Click here to read the bill.

Peterson added…

“Access to rural broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s important for ensuring folks can compete and connect on a global scale,” said Peterson. “I’ve been fighting for years to ensure rural America has the same kind of access as those living in our urban areas.”

Bipartisan act introduced: Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act of 2019

Capito reports…

Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act to help close the rural-urban digital divide and expand access to broadband in rural parts of West Virginia, New Hampshire, and across the country.
The bipartisan Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act of 2019 directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a national standard for determining whether mobile and broadband services in rural areas are “reasonably comparable” to service provided in urban areas. The bill will help ensure that there is equitable wireless and broadband service in rural and urban areas, which has long be undefined.
“As we work to close the digital divide across the country, setting a national standard is important in order to measure progress,” Senator Capito said. “I’m proud to sponsor this bill because by requiring the FCC to set that standard, we can better identify how we can build out broadband quicker and more effectively across rural areas like West Virginia.”

This is an opportunity to level the playing field for rural areas. Right now there is a difference between what’s available in urban and rural areas with wireless (5G especially) and wireline solutions. I hope they will look at cost differences as well as speeds.

A Case for Rural Broadband: $47–$65 billion annually in additional gross benefit

The Benton Foundation does a nice summary of a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (A Case for Rural Broadband: Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies).

The give a high level Return on Investment…

This latest chapter in the Trump Administration’s American Broadband Initiative finds that the deployment of broadband networks and adoption of new agricultural technologies could result in approximately $47–$65 billion annually in additional gross benefit for the U.S. economy.

They also noted…

If broadband infrastructure and digital technologies at scale were available at a level that meets estimated producer demand, the U.S. economy could realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18 percent of total agriculture production. Of that 18 percent, more than one-third is dependent on broadband, equivalent to at least $18 billion in annual economic benefits that only high-speed, reliable Internet can provide.

They talk about farms without…

The report details how unreliable broadband service undermines scaling adoption of precision agriculture:

  • Some farmers dedicate significant time and effort to find workarounds to insufficient Internet service, which takes time away from managing their businesses and serving their customers.
  • Some precision agriculture technologies function with basic Internet connections, so even slow speeds are better than no connections at all. But many require a more reliable and high-speed Internet connection as a minimum requirement.
  • Without access to online learning and peer sharing platforms, farmers are less likely to succeed with technology implementation, having wasted money, time, and effort without realizing complete benefits.

And note next steps for the USDA…

This “coordinated action” must focus on six key priorities:

  1. Tailor deployment of Internet infrastructure to communities.
  2. Incentivize development of innovative technologies and solutions, both for scaling connectivity and improving agricultural production.
  3. Create the conditions that allow, encourage, and reward innovation, including identifying the statutory or regulatory obstacles that hinder new, innovative providers.
  4. Coordinate across public programs to effectively use taxpayer funds and develop new partnerships.
  5. Build capability to scale adoption and realize value.
  6. Clarify and emphasize the importance of rural connectivity to all consumers of agriculture commodities.

5G – the good, the bad, and the things we hear again and again

Last Friday I happened to catch NPR’s Science Friday’s segment on The Future of 5G. If 5G is still a mystery to you – it’s absolutely worth listening to the program. It starts with a 101 and then delves into potential security risks and what 5G means for rural areas. They also talk about 5G as a marketing term. Some providers talk about 5G Evolution, which isn’t yet 5G but is more like 4G+.

Minneapolis is a 5G shining star – I’d go on a limb to say that hosting the Superbowl last year put us on that map. 5G is great for high speed connectivity in small spaces. So if you want everyone in a packed stadium to be able to stream a football game from their awesome seats to friends back home – 5G is your friend. The MN Broadband Task Force heard all about the upgrades last February; policy changes like small cell equipment regulation helped.

Rural areas will have a tougher time getting on the 5G stage – in part because distance is not your friend with 5G. It takes a lot more equipment to support 5G than it does 4G. I think I heard 9 times the equipment. Someone can please correct me if I’m wrong. That kind of infrastructure is expensive and in rural areas it’s hard to make it up in volume. Mainstreet publications, such as Fortune, have pointed out that to be ready, rural areas need more fiber.

Last week, FCC Chair Pai and President Trump announced federal programs intended to help the US “win the race to 5G.” Specifically they mentioned the following:

President Trump’s historic tax cuts and deregulatory actions have created incentives for the wireless industry to invest in 5G technology.

To ensure rural America is not left behind, the FCC aims to create a new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will extend high-speed broadband to 4 million homes and small businesses.

The Benton Foundation has taken on the claims of the latest announcement…

An FCC fact sheet claims the $20.4 billion will be distributed in rural America over the next ten years. “It will provide funding through a reverse auction to service providers that will deploy infrastructure that will provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in parts of the country most in need of connectivity.” Chairman Pai claims, “The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund represents the FCC’s single biggest step yet to close the digital divide.”

Details of the plan began to emerge in the days after the White House event. We learned that the funding would come from essentially extending and rebranding the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program. …

CAF is the program aimed at connecting rural and remote areas that are expensive to reach. The Obama-era FCC created CAF to support broadband instead of just traditional voice phone service. CAF II currently makes around $2 billion in insubsidies available for telecommunications providers each year. CAF II is scheduled to end in 2020.

The crux of Chairman Pai’s announcement is that he is proposing to extend CAF’s current $2 billion per year for another ten years.

One of the issues that I can see for folks on the frontlines is that while they are extending the speed minimum, it still won’t keep pace with urban counterparts…

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would establish a minimum speed threshold of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads (25/3), as opposed to the current 10/1 Mbps. Wigfield also said the new program would be “technology neutral” and “open to all qualified providers,” but specifics about eligibility will depend on an FCC rulemaking not yet launched.

By comparison, the MN speed goals for 2022 are 25/3 and for 2026 are 100/20. So yes, the new speeds are faster – they are still not at pace of growth in other areas.

Reaction has been…

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, characterized the proposal as “more of a rebranding than a new project,” although she was careful to note that details about it are still unclear. “I don’t think it’s significantly different,” she said. But the proposal was still welcomed. “We’re always happy when more money can go into rural communities,” Socia added. “And we’re really pleased to see them upping the speed.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said, “This is really just like slapping ‘new and improved!’ on the same package.”

Feld also said repurposing USF funds as proposed could prove legally problematic because the FCC decided in the 2017 net neutrality repeal to re-reclassify broadband as a Title I information service rather than a Title II telecommunications service. “It is hard to see how you can do this given that broadband is a Title I information service and USF is restricted to Title II telecommunications.”