How MN’s Paul Bunyan’s made broadband possible for many students

Love to share this remark from the letter to the editor from Kenneth Perreault, District Technology Coordinator for Red Lake Schools in the Bemidji Pioneer

When we found out that our students may not be back anytime soon, I gave Paul Bunyan a call and asked if they could help in any way. Within minutes we came up with a plan in conjunction with the tribe to place wireless outside of all our major buildings including some community centers. This allows for people who need internet to drive into our parking lots, connect with one click and they have internet access they may not have had before.

This was all accomplished in record speed; for a company going through this crisis just like the rest of us, they have stepped up in a major way to help support our communities. To Paul Bunyan we send you our sincerest thanks. You are truly a company made of community and serving the community

Recognizing that rural connectivity doesn’t equal urban connectivity

The Center for Rural Policy and Development looks at the need for broadband in the time of pandemic and the difference in rural, town and urban broadband connections…

In rural areas, having a subscription to an internet service doesn’t equal a quality connection. Counties outside of the seven-county metro have a noticeably lower percentage of households with access to broadband or, in some cases, any internet at all. Figure 1 provides the average percentage of households by internet connection type by county group. The more rural a county is, the more likely it is to have a significantly lower percentage of households with an internet subscription. In fact, Minnesota’s most rural counties can have a percentage of households with an internet subscription that is 10 to 20 percentage points less than entirely urban areas.

The percentage of households who are subscribed to a broadband service decreases significantly as a county becomes more rural. In addition, the percentage of households relying on their cell phone data plan or dial-up connection increases with rural-ness. Data: U.S. Census Bureau, ACS 5-year (2013-2017).

What I find fascinating is the perentage (low as it is) of dial-up connectivity!

The article goes on to detail good works by local and national providers in improving access in Minnesota – a fleshed out version of what I’ve been tracking on the blog too – super helpful if you want to know exactly what folks are offering.

What are local communities doing to get infrastructure to kids for online learning?

MinnPost reports on what’s happening with schools moving to remote and/or online education, in terms of capacity for local households…

Households that lack a reliable internet connection — or any connection, at all — pose an added challenge to distance learning. Rural districts have long lobbied state lawmakers to help close gaps in broadband availability that disproportionately impact their communities. Now, faced with an unprecedented ask — to prepare distance learning plans to allow students to complete their studies from home as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, if need be — rural districts are troubleshooting ways to immediately expand internet access to all student households.

This Friday marks the end of a statewide eight-day school closure that Gov. Tim Walz announced as part of an executive order earlier this month, giving school administrators, teachers and staff a student-free chunk of time to work out the details involved in delivering lessons remotely in the event of an extended school closure — a possibility that’s sounding more and more likely.

 

They take a look at what’s happening in school districts across the state. In Blue Earth…

Fletcher says her district surveyed families a couple of years ago and found that about 95 percent of its families self-reported some type of internet access, whether through broadband, fiber, or a mobile hotspot. The district also purchased a batch of mobile hotspots to check out to families in need.

In recent years, the local internet company BEVCOMM has done a good job of expanding its footprint, she adds. And it has stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis by offering districts a $3,000 donation to support the purchase of additional Wi-Fi hotspots for distribution, and by offering discounted broadband rates to low-income families.

“We purchased an additional 10 mobile hotspots,” Fletcher said, noting they’ll “be distributed to families that still do not have internet access.”

On the Iron Range…

School districts located across the Iron Range are looking to expand internet access to families currently without through the purchase and distribution of hotspot devices as well, says Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

In preparation to support online work as they roll out distance learning plans (potentially starting next week), the Hibbing Public Schools district purchased 500 hotspot devices from AT&T, he says.

In other communities, school leaders he’s in communication with say they’re looking at ways to strengthen the bandwidth at sites that are already connected — like banks and grocery stores — to create a hotspot around those facilities.

And the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools district had already outfitted its school buses with WiFi, prior to the pandemic, he says. They might consider parking their buses in various locations “to create hotspots that way.”

In Warroad…

For students in the Warroad Public Schools district, access to a device doesn’t pose a barrier to online distance learning. Two years ago, the district invested in becoming a one-to-one district.

But as more and more businesses ask their employees to work remotely, following social distancing guidance from state leaders and public health experts, Superintendent Shawn Yates says he and his team are staying mindful of the fact that “there’s only so much bandwidth” to go around.

“To that end, we’re trying to adjust a little bit, as far as our [distance learning] plan,” he said. “So we’re not doing a great deal of live streaming of lessons. In other words, there’s not a particular time that a teacher will be online hosting some kind of a chat with direct delivery to our students.”

In Foley…

Paul Neubauer, superintendent of Foley Public Schools, says he and his educators have explored the flipped lesson option — where a teacher records a lesson that’s downloaded to a device for a student to watch later on — as well. But if students still aren’t allowed to come on site, even if it’s just to wipe old lessons off of their device and download new ones, this workaround becomes a bit more cumbersome, he says.

Technically, Foley isn’t a one-to-one district. But so far the school has been able to equip nearly 200 families with a laptop for students’ use at home. For now, the district is prioritizing students in grades 4-12. If possible, they’ll extend the device distribution to younger students a bit later.

In Westbrook-Walnut Grove…

In the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools district, Superintendent Loy Woelber says they’re planning for monthly packets to be used to deliver distance learning at the elementary level.

Older students in one school community are operating at a one-to-one device capacity. For their classmates in the two other school communities served by his consolidated district, he thinks they’ll be able to get at least one device into the homes of each family with school-aged children that’s currently lacking a device to work on at home.

Even after taking measures to eliminate or reduce the hardware barriers to online learning, he’s concerned about things like weak connections — the sort of thing that’s already made conference calls with staff that needed to stay home this week hard to understand — and students relying on cellphones to complete their school work on.

 

Klobuchar, Smith, Cramer, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Sustain Rural Broadband Connectivity During Coronavirus Pandemic

Introducing the Keeping Critical Connections Act…

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), along with Tina Smith (D-MN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Doug Jones (D-AL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Barrasso (R-WY), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Todd Young (R-IN), and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act to help small broadband providers ensure rural broadband connectivity for students and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Access to high speed internet is critical for students and their families during the coronavirus outbreak,” Klobuchar said. “The Keeping Critical Connections Act would help small broadband providers continue offering free or discounted broadband services to families and students in rural areas to ensure they remain connected to school, work, and their communities during this period of economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“The federal government asked this essential industry to keep providing assistance to people during COVID—19, and they answered the call,” Cramer said. “The least we can do is make sure they are made whole when this pandemic is over.”

The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the FCC under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades—during the pandemic for low-income families who could not afford to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. The bill is endorsed by NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association, WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, and the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND).

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century. It isn’t just nice to have, it’s necessary—especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” Smith said. “Students who are finishing up their school year at home need to be able to connect to online classes. Employees who are working from home are counting on broadband to help them do their jobs. And folks are relying on the internet to help them access care through telehealth, which is also made possible by amazing health care workers. I’m glad to work in a bipartisan way to help Minnesotans stay connected during this time.”

Representatives Peter Welch (D-VT-AL) and Roger Marshall (R-KS-01) are introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“With millions of people required to stay home and students across the country learning from home, broadband access is essential,” Welch said. “Small providers get it – the service they provide is a lifeline to parents and children who need to learn, work, and stay connected with loved ones during these difficult times. This bill ensures small providers can continue to provide their essential service during and after this crisis. We should pass this bipartisan bill immediately.”

“Now more than ever we’re seeing how important it is to have access to a fast and reliable broadband connection,” Marshall said. “With the closure of Kansas schools along with more and more people adopting teleworking procedures, our rural telecommunications providers are working around the clock to ensure students, communities, and businesses have reliable internet access, no matter where they live. This bill will provide assistance to small companies trying to address the unique rural telecommunications needs posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and ensure that all Americans can remain connected during this difficult time.”

NPR’s Marketplace looks at broadband with Chris Mitchell at Institute for Local Self Reliance

You know broadband is bubbling up as a real solution when you hear about it on Public Radio. Today Marketplace featured Minnesota’s own Chris Mitchell talking about what it would take to get everyone online in light of the call to stay home to defend against COVID-19.

Chris mentions that people are signing up for connections in record numbers and providers need to find a way to meet those needs to help keep them at home…

Yes, that appears to be the case. I think this is even more important, because many ISPs — from the biggest companies to small, local companies — are finding ways of doing 60-day or 90-day free periods for low-income families to get signed up. I think that’s really important for families that right now might be having to leave their home in order to go to a community Wi-Fi spot. We don’t want people to leave the home unless it’s essential, so if we can get people connected in the home, that would be the ideal situation.

But they also talk about communities without broadband – how can we get broadband to communities faster? Chris answers…

One of the things we definitely need to do is to let communities deal with this in their own ways. There are many states that currently limit the ability of local governments to build their own networks. We really need to see those limits go away so that communities are free to expand internet access as rapidly as they can.

And recommends that in the mid-term states can streamline the process by getting rid of policies that slow it down…

The first is that the states themselves could change the laws. There are 19 states that limit local authority to build networks, partner with local companies, and they could decide tomorrow to get rid of those limitations. The other option would be for the federal government to strike them down in some manner. Congress could do that directly, or it could condition aid of certain kinds to those states to say, “If you’re going to limit broadband investment in your state, then we’re not going to give you federal dollars to expand the networks.” This is something that really gets to me, because we’ve spent billions of dollars on networks that are obsolete, and in fact, we still are through the remainder of 2020 writing checks to big companies that are delivering very slow DSL that does not qualify as broadband. Those big companies have all had their shot, and it’s time to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to expanding internet access.

AT&T Creates $10 Million Fund to Support Parents, Teachers & Students Throughout COVID-19 School Closures

Here is how AT&T responds to COVID-19…

AT&T is creating a Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund to give parents, students and teachers tools they need for at-home learning. The fund also will provide resources to maintain meaningful connections and bonding opportunities for those isolated from family and friends.

“Our country is grappling with an unprecedented challenge,” said Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T Inc. “Now more than ever before, connecting people with the resources they need to maintain a sense of normalcy is paramount. For students and teachers, that means creating the best digital learning environment. For families, that means simply staying connected to loved ones. Over the coming weeks and months, we’re committed to standing alongside the communities where we live and work, as we navigate through this trying time.”

The $10 million Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund is launching today with its first contribution of $1 million to Khan Academy. This collaboration will improve and expand online learning resources to meet growing demand from parents, teachers and students, including those who rely on free resources and need Khan Academy the most. It will also support the development of new resources designed specifically for COVID-19 school closures.

Available in more than 40 languages, Khan Academy offers educational practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empowers students to study at home. Khan Academy also offers free tools for teachers and parents to help them track student progress. Learn more at KhanAcademy.org.

With an estimated 47 million students now learning from home in the U.S. alone, Khan Academy is meeting a critical need. Our collaboration comes alongside a $1 million contribution from Google.org for this online learning initiative, as we both commit to support distance learning.

“AT&T and Google.org have been committed supporters of Khan Academy,” said Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. “We’re grateful that they’re helping us respond quickly to school closures so everyone can keep learning at home.”

As circumstances surrounding COVID-19 change daily, so too does the impact on our communities. To best allocate resources from the Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund, we’re working alongside families, educators and community leaders to understand the challenges they will face in the days and weeks to come.

“These donations are important because they will help students and families maintain some normalcy as our communities respond to the outbreak of this virus,” said Sindy M. Benavides, chief executive officer, League of United Latin American Citizens. “It is important that people are able to continue their education as they cope with this rapidly changing environment. We thank AT&T for acting swiftly and for their leadership.”

“Members of our communities face many challenges amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and they need the ability to continue to learn and bond,” said Marc Morial, president, National Urban League. “Everyone is in this together.  We are proud to see companies like AT&T helping provide their resources so that people can continue their education and connect with their families and friends.”

Keeping Communities Connected

AT&T recognizes that staying in touch with your family, friends, school and work has never been more important.  To provide further support, AT&T announced:

Unlimited AT&T Home Internet – All AT&T consumer home internet wireline customers, as well as Fixed Wireless Internet, can use unlimited internet data.  Additionally, we will continue to offer internet access for qualifying limited income households at $10 per month through our Access from AT&T program. We’ve expanded eligibility to Access from AT&T to households participating in the National School Lunch Program and Head Start. Additionally, we’re offering new Access from AT&T customers two months of free service.

MinnPost looks at what broadband providers are doing to facilitate life ongoing online during a pandemic

MinnPost takes a look at what broadband providers are doing to keep us online during the coronavirus pandemic slow down. They start with an introduction to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge

What is called the Keep Americans Connected Pledge promises to not terminate internet service to residential or small business customers because of failure to pay for reasons connected to the crisis. It also calls on providers to waive late fees and open any wifi hotspots to all users.

The article looks at specifics of a few providers…

Jill Hornbacher, the director of external communications for Comcast in the Twin Cities, said the company is pausing its data caps and offering its Xfinity wifi hotspots free for everyone. And since it is also a cable provider, it has added news content as well as providing grade-level education programs for parents with students at home.

The company is also increasing access to its lowest cost internet service, Internet Essentials, which has been available to low-income users for $9.95 a month. New customers will receive 60 days of service without charge; the company is also increasing speeds for all customers on the plan.

Xfinity’s Internet Essentials plan also comes with a modem, access to hotspots and a basic laptop computer for $150. …

Other providers have increased service offerings as well, including MediacomSpectrum/Charter CommunicationsMidcoCenturyLink and Arvig Multiwav. 

Anna Boroff, executive director of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association, said all members of the trade group are following the FCC pledge and many are offering help to low-income users and to families trying to access e-learning during school closures.

I’m also working on a list of what local providers across the state are doing. If you know of any other deals, please let me know.