EVENT Oct 21: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

From BroadbandUSA…

You are invited to join NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Practical Broadband Conversations Webinar 

 

Topic: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

Date:   Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Time:  2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET

Overview: The rapid shift to online learning can be a challenge for students, families, and educators – particularly in low-income, rural, and tribal communities. As the new school year begins, the longstanding issue of digital inclusion stands in sharp relief. Join BroadbandUSA on October 21st to learn how communities are helping students get connected, assisting parents and caregivers gain the skills to help their children navigate online learning environments, and transitioning educators to online teaching. This panel will explore the challenges that communities and schools are facing, their innovative solutions to keep students connected, and their plans to transition from short-term solutions to long-term sustainable programs.

Speakers:

  • Dr. Christine Diggs, Chief Technology Officer, Albemarle County Public Schools, VA
  • Michael Culp, Director of Information Technology Department, Albemarle County, VA
  • Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Director, Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, NM
  • Joshua Edmonds, Director of Digital Inclusion, City of Detroit, MI

Moderators:

  • Emy Tseng, Senior Program Specialist, BroadbandUSA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Please pre-register for the webinar using this registration link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Want to access past Practical Broadband Conversations webinars? Visit our webinar archives for past presentations, transcripts and audio recordings.

Sibley East Public Schools opts for in-person schools; poor broadband is one reason

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

A rural school district southwest of the Twin Cities has become the first to test the limits of the state’s guidelines for school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board of Sibley East Public Schools voted last month to shift from hybrid to in-person instruction for all students — rejecting the recommendations of the district’s superintendent, state education officials and the state’s virus-count metrics for reopening as the number of local cases rose. Board members said they were following the wishes of a majority of parents, who are struggling to balance work with their children’s complicated schedules, and trying to help students who can’t log on in areas with spotty broadband connections.

And…

Plus, pressure from the community was intensifying. Parents, many of whom commute more than an hour to jobs in the Twin Cities or work in factory jobs or in other positions where working from home isn’t an option, were struggling to balance their schedules with a hybrid school plan. Some areas of the district, which covers the cities of Arlington, Gaylord and Green Isle, lack the broadband connections needed for distance learning.

Sibley County ranks 49 (out 87) for broadband access with only 63 percent of the county have access to 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up; and only 74 percent having access to 25/3 access. I have talked to groups in several counties about their broadband coverage and most report that with multiple people working and/or taking classes online that 25/3 is not fast enough.

MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey: 85% would continue telehealth after COVID

Thanks to Teri Fritsma at Office of Rural Health & Primary Care for sharing their MN Health Care Provider COVID Survey. I’ve pulled out the stats that I thought seemed most broadband related. You can see that broadband has made telehealth easier in ways and COVID has accelerated adoption.

About the survey…

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, MDH designed a brief survey to learn more about the changes Minnesota’s health care providers are facing at work as they respond to the pandemic. The COVID Health Provider survey focuses on a handful of COVID-specific topics, including providers’ concerns, time spent working, use of telemedicine, and related topics.

Some highlights…

▪ Approximately 15 percent of providers reported that their primary work location was some sort of remote site (such as their home), where they consulted with patients via telemedicine. However, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health professionals far more likely than others to be working in a remote setting away from patients or clients. An estimated 57 percent of licensed professional counselors (including LPCs and LPCCs); 54 percent of social workers; and 58 percent of psychologists reported that they were working remotely.

▪ More than half of all providers reported that at least some of the care they provided was remote—either via telephone, email, or dedicated telemedicine equipment (or all three). Again, this varied greatly by profession, with mental health providers most likely to be providing care via telemedicine or telephone.

▪ More than 85 percent of all respondents who were using telemedicine said they thought they would continue to provide at least some care via telemedicine after the pandemic ended.

▪ Nearly two-thirds of all respondents reported that their work had changed in some way because of COVID-19—for example, taking on new responsibilities at work, backfilling for other employees, and/or managing patients’ and clients’ COVID-19-related concerns. ▪ An estimated 23 percent reported that their worksite had been “totally prepared” to respond to the pandemic.

licensed marriage and family therapists renew their licenses in the fall and therefore would not have had the opportunity to take the survey

Comments on telemedicine…

  • “Telemedicine can be very challenging for patients who need an interpreter.”
  • “Should be allowed going forward. It’s very helpful for elderly patients who have a difficult time getting to appointments.”
  • “I work in mental health and I think it works well. We have fewer no-shows, and clients generally like it. A lot of people are uncomfortable coming in to the office even without a pandemic.”
  • “It’s okay for follow-up or non-acute care, but it doesn’t work for evaluating new, acute problems.”
  • “It’s been a great tool for some patients, but some (non-tech savvy) don’t have the ability to use it.”
  • “Exacerbates existing inequities in health care.”
  • “Telemedicine works well for me for people who struggle with transportation issues in rural areas.”
  • “It works in the sense that I can still provide much-needed client care. But it doesn’t work in the sense that there’s inequality in clients being to access telemedicine.”
  • “We need to do more of it. It improves patients’ care and our professional lives.”
  • “Telemedicine has been integral in providing services to vulnerable and oppressed populations that face transportation issues, scheduling concerns, unforgiving work schedules, family demands, and poor organization due to a variety of factors. It behooves us as social workers to fight for this service to remain a widely-available platform for services that have typically been gatekept for those with flexible business hours, reliable transportation, and available childcare.”
  • “I have found telemedicine a great way to provide care especially for established patients with whom I am familiar. It is a bit more difficult for complex medical issues and for multiple concerns but I think my patients really appreciate the option. There are some things that we still need to see patients for.” “The CMS rules going forward are unclear.” “Works great.”

 

Koochiching County Chat: Broadband helps deal with COVID when affordable

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Koochiching County is looks unserved, but 68.8 percent of the population has access to speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. On the ground that means if you are in International Fall, you are served but get just three miles away and folks report they have trouble streaming Netflix. Fortunately most folks do live in town but for those who don’t there are some barriers. Affordability is another barrier exacerbated by COVID.

Koochiching County has been working on getting better broadband for a while. They are well organized and engaged through Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI); they are a Blandin Broadband Community. They have done innovative work in providing access in the homeless shelters. They have been active in getting residents to take the statewide speed test. Last year, Paul Bunyan Telephone was awarded a Border to Border grant that will help deploy FTTH to about half of the currently unserved households. But that project competition date is a year from now (2021). So while good news it doesn’t help today.

Today I got to speak with Jim Yount, Isaac Meyer, Ariana Daniel, Derek Foss, Jaci Nagle and Kathy LaFrance – all from social services, healthcare, the county and an IT business. Everyone recognized that broadband was a help; they mentioned that there were “holes in the service” where residents lack broadband access and some areas where cell coverage wasn’t good but that didn’t seem to be the major issue – affordability was. The County is especially concerned with affordability and making sure that access is equitable.

Ariana and Isaac both talked about strides to reach folks on the far end of the digital divide. Ariana is  Executive Director of Servants of Shelter. She noted that at the onset of the pandemic less than 25 percent of their guests had a device aside from their phone. That makes it difficult to go to school, work or fill out necessary paperwork to get assistance. So they have been working to get affordable laptops through KTI. They have also been working on training guests on how to use the devices and making sure they have access while on site.

People experiencing homelessness were especially vulnerable during the strict shut down due to COVID. When libraries closed many lost their connection to broadband, which meant a break in some services and often the loss of social connections. It increased the onus on shelter and housing providers.

Jaci talked about the business of the County. They had two days to shift everyone from onsite to remote work. They did it but it was precarious. They were successful because they were prepared. But such a shift was unchartered water. Same with Derek in the healthcare world. It was thanks to broadband and Webex that they were able to even put together an Emergency COVID Response team. Meeting remotely they were able to assess needs and come up with solutions. The solutions were made more difficult because the access is not ubiquitous. Swaths of the county, especially Western Koochiching are served by satellite only. Also worth nothing, Koochiching is a border county, so not much relief or connectivity coming from the North.

The COVID Response team came up with a mobile emergency network – a redundant network that could be used in a healthcare facility if there was an unexpected outage.

Making healthcare work remotely was not only a healthcare concern, but as Isaac pointed out an economic concern as healthcare is a local industry. Insurance waivers to promote telehealth have been a boon and there are hopes that they will continue even in a post-COVID world to help with mental health especially.

We spoke briefly about local business. It seems to be going well. They have actually seen an increase in new residential recruits to the area from out of state. The beautiful Northwoods and broadband have been a draw.

There are some difficulties now with getting devices and technology tools, but that is not limited to Koochiching. There are also challenges with training, especially with seniors. Koochiching is looking for a COVID-appropriate way to deploy intergenerational learning. (We’d all love to hear that!) They see that more of life has moved online Kootasca Social Services has seen online traffic triple and calls to 211 have also increased. But as Jaci noted, people have also gotten nicer. People are ready to help each other and everyone, most notably policymakers are recognizing the import of broadband, which everyone thinks will help drive resources to improve coverage throughout the county.

ConnectedMN Awards $2.1 Million to Orgs Serving Digital Access Needs of Minnesota Students

ConnectedMN reports…

To address digital inequities faced by students in Minnesota, Partnership for a ConnectedMN, a public-private partnership of private businesses, philanthropic entities and community leaders, today announced that it has awarded $2.1 million in grants to 23 nonprofits serving the connectivity needs of students and their families. ConnectedMN grants will support an estimated 154,000 students and families in urban and rural communities gain access to computing devices, critical support services and the internet.

ConnectedMN was founded by Best Buy, Comcast, Blandin Foundation, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota Business Partnership, in collaboration with the administration of Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan. In June, ConnectedMN announced that their goal was to bring technology and internet access to students most challenged by the sudden shift to online school, including Indigenous and students of color, as well as students from low-income families across urban and rural Minnesota.

The announcement was made at St Anne’s Place, which is part of Having Housing shelters in North Minneapolis. In the spirit of full disclosure, my worlds collided in the best way today when I got to cover broadband expansion and visit with my good friend Monica Nilsson, CEO of Having Housing. I have heard Monica talk about how hard it is for the kids at the shelter to go to school and do homework, especially during COVID. There may have been some camaraderie pre-COVID of everyone trying to work in the corner of the room by the window where you could get a signal – that is if you had a device. But with COVID, the kids are distanced and everyone needs a computer as most schools in Hennepin County are online or hybrid.

COVID is deepening the digital and opportunity gaps; today was a nice example of how we can try to stop that trends. Below Monica details what they are doing with labs, devices to check out and things like noise-cancelling headphones and laptop tables that help kids learn without barrier.

Grants have been awarded to:

  • Aeon Housing
  • Austin Aspires
  • Boys & Girls Club of Leech Lake
  • Centro Tyrone Guzman
  • CHANGE INC
  • East Central MN Education Cable Cooperative
  • FamilyMeans
  • Haven Housing
  • Itasca Area School Collaborative – Deer River ISD-317
  • Little Crow Tele-media Network
  • Local Initiatives Support Corporation – Duluth
  • Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy
  • MN Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs
  • Neighborhood House
  • New Vision Foundation
  • Northfield Healthy Community Initiative
  • NW Links -Region 1
  • PORT Group Home Inc
  • Project FINE – Winona Co.
  • Project for Pride in Living
  • ResourceWest
  • South Central Service Cooperative
  • Southwest West Central Services Coop

Crow Wing Power on broadband updates in Crow Wing, Morrison, Cass and Aitkin Counties

In their most recent newsletter, Crow Wing Power spoke with local providers about broadband upgrades and expansion in the area, often spurred by great need in COVID.

From CTC…

  • Kristi [Westbrock, CTC CEO] explained that in mid-March, the company scrambled to extend finer to where it was needed and where they could reasonably expand, so students could have access to Internet for distance learning. It’s estimated that their efforts in the Brainerd ISD 101 school district provided broadband access to approximately 200 families in the region and set up 50 hot spots where kid cluster could go to study.
  • In 2019, CTC received an $830,587 MN Border to Border grant from the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to expand services to build to Ft. Ripley, and other areas in Crow Wing and Morrison Counties. This allowed CTC to build to 399 homes in portions of St. Mathias and Fort Ripley Townships, as well.
  • “Most recently, CTC received CARES Act funding from both Crow Wing and Cass County to build broadband to unserved areas of Welton Road, County Rd 10, Border Lake, Little Pine Road and unserved areas in Lake Edward Township. The funds must be used by December 1 so these locations will have access to fiber Internet.

From Emily Cooperative Telephone Company…

  • Five hot spots were also installed throughout the communities, which are still available. Josh [ECTC CEO] said they are updating 100 homes in the Crosslake area to finer services and reviewing other areas for 2021. ECTC also received a MN DEED grant of $376,000 to build fiber services to the Esquagamah and Round Lake area in Aitkin County.

COVID-inspired free tutoring for Minnesota kids preK-8 through AmeriCorps Serve Minnesota

There’s a story behind this initiative –based on students’ need and AmeriCorps talented team and infrastructure. For busy parents who are juggling working and trying to facilitate teaching from home, I have something that might help. Remote tutoring that’s free. You don’t have to drive a kid anywhere or worry about exposure to COVID. You don’t have to pretend to understand how new math works. All you need is sufficient broadband…

Do you want to learn more about this new initiative to bring Reading Corps and Math Corps directly to families? Here’s how to works:

If you are a Minnesota family with a child in PreK – 8th grade, it’s easy to get started:

  1. Visit Reading Corps/Math Corps online for a personal consultation – it’s FREE! — minnesotareadingcorps.org/families
  2. Meet with a literacy or math expert to discuss the needs of your learner(s)

Based on the identified needs of your student, you’ll either:

  • Be matched with a reading/math specialist who will work with your learner(s)directly
    to provide skill building and practice (likely in a virtual setting) and/or
  • Receive resources and activities you can do at home to support learning

Schools across the country rely on Reading Corps and Math Corps to support students who need extra help. Our highly trained specialists focus on skill building and use research-based activities proven to work. For homework help and other assistance, please contact your child’s school.

Le Sueur County uses CARES funding for wireless towers in Tyrone Township

Le Sueur County News reports…

One of Le Sueur County’s top priorities for the year is to expand broadband into under-served areas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in planned and proposed broadband projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year through federal funds from the CARES Act.

Le Sueur County received $3.4 million from the federal government. One of the first projects approved with that money is a $140,000 proposal to bring high speed wireless internet to Tyrone Township in partnership with Netwave Broadband.

Netwave, a subsidiary of Access Networks Inc., brought a proposal to set up a 5G 900 Mhz wireless tower. The tower would provide 100 mb speeds for up to 218 homes in a 7-mile coverage radius from a tower off Hwy. 169 near the Cambria Processing Facility.

And here’s what it will look like to customers and the provider…

On the customer side, it would cost $299 for a basic one-time installation fee. Customers would be charged $99.99 per month for 100 mb of service in a three year contract. The $99 would only cover internet, but NetWave also has a phone service and is in the process of setting up television services.

In the deal, NetWave Broadband would take on most of the risk for keeping the wireless tower operational.

“All the risk as far as the tower maintenance, keeping everything afloat as far as tower rent, power, the responsibility is all on us,” said Steve Herman with NetWave Broadband. “We’re just asking for capital investment to provide service in the area and then we’ll take all management and everything over from that point.”

Senators Smith and Klobuchar join others to ask FCC to use E-Rate to connect students now

Senator Smith and Senator Klobuchar join a list of 30 senators sending a letter to ask the FCC to use e-rate to get students the broadband they need to distance learn if and when they need to do so…

As a new school year begins, students across the country are increasingly returning to virtual classrooms due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. 1 These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. 2 Without urgent action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we are deeply concerned that they will fall further behind in their studies. The current emergency demands that you take immediate action to help our nation’s most vulnerable children.

We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this “homework gap” without further delay. The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to start connecting students immediately.

Red the full letter

Lac qui Parle (LqP) County Chat: Broadband made COVID easier, and boosted interest in adoption

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Lac qui Parle (LqP) County is served. They rank third in terms of county coverage (99.57 percent)  at speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

The county is well served because the County and Farmers were awarded a $9.6 million ARRA award in August 2010. Pam Lehmann was the Director of the Economic Development Authority at the time and instrumental in that project. At the same time, they outfitted a small commuter van with computer and internet access. The Computer Commuter. Ten years ago it was all the rage and folks may remember it. It is still making the rounds, mostly helping seniors make better use of technology.

So it was fun to talk to her today about whether broadband has been help or hindrance in dealing with COVID. It’s a help!

Pam works with small businesses and does recruitment for healthcare. The effort to move businesses online has not been difficult. For some businesses it was a matter of choosing a higher tier service than they currently use but is fiber installed so the upgrade is easy.

Having broadband has made it possible for Pam to connect with state and federal funders quickly, which in turn has allowed the community to get COVID funding. What took a few hours to download and process would have taken days before the upgrade. Although as Pam says, it’s hard to remember because they take the connection for granted now.

Many businesses have allowed people to work from home. Business owners note greater productivity this year over last! For Mainstreet businesses, it’s been a matter of getting creative with offering new services – like a lunch to pick up instead of a meal at the café. Knowing that the business and the customer have great broadband has made that easier.

Great broadband has helped with recruitment too. The healthcare facilities have been hiring and have been holding all of the interviews online. It’s not the same as having someone come to town but, especially in the healthcare industry, you don’t want people coming from their hospital to fly to LqP to local hospitals; so adequate broadband for video interactions have been a potential life saver. And one of the big questions is recruitment is how to make the family and partners of employees happy. Increasingly they are finding that the partner of the healthcare professional can keep their old job and work online.

The schools has planned on in-person classes this year but when the middle school had a case of COVID and the high school flooded due to a construction incident, they are now (temporarily) online. They send no paper packs home. They all sign on. At Pam’s place, which is a farm, she has two adults working on laptops, two kids working on Chromebooks and half a dozen devices all going at the same time. No hiccups or slowdowns.

For healthcare it’s the change in reimbursement and other waivers that have made life easier. That and the impetus for many people to just start using Zoom and other technologies. The comfort level for using technology has increased since COVID but the means to use it has not.

Blandin funded computers help school (in Brainerd) transition to online when needed

I’ve been talking to counties about broadband and COVID. Most rural counties seem to be sending kids to school at least on a hybrid basis. (Often teaching online too for families who opted for that choice.) But they are all preparing for a quick change. The Brainerd Dispatch reports on what happened at Discovery Woods in Brainerd when they had to make a quick change…

Students at Discovery Woods in Brainerd will spend the next four weeks learning from home following confirmed diagnoses of two cases of COVID-19.

Leaders of the Montessori-inspired public charter school informed parents of the decision Tuesday, Sept. 15, to transition from a hybrid learning model to distance learning. Executive Director Kristi Crocker confirmed the cases and change to the learning model in an email Wednesday.

That transition was made a little easier with support from the Blandin Foundation

“We have even had TheShop (Brainerd Baxter’s Youth Center) reach out to let us know that through funding from the Blandin Foundation they are able to offer free desktop computer systems complete with mouse, keyboard, and monitor to families in need,” Crocker wrote. “It is that type of support that makes you realize why you live in the community you do.

Many kids in the Twin Cities are distance learning – tough for kids experiencing homelessness

I have been talking to folks in different counties about broadband and COVID. I think everyone I’ve talked to outside of the St Paul and Minneapolis has been using hybrid or full schedule in person classrooms. They are preparing for a change and most deal with families who opt for online only but most folks have kids in school at least part time.

That’s not the case in the Cities. My daughter in St Paul – all distance. Most of our neighbors – all distance. There are some exceptions. It’s hard all around but I think it’s hardest for the folks experiencing homelessness. MinnPost recently wrote about what’s happening to serve those in flux…

It’s the sort of resource barrier that districts are working to remove for many families. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools districts say they are checking in with their homeless and highly mobile families, to see if they still qualify for added services this year. But even that first step — simply connecting and sharing resources that are available, like hotspots — can be complicated, especially during a virtual-only start to the school year. Here’s a closer look at how both Twin Cities districts are supporting their homeless and highly mobile populations during distance learning at the outset of this school year.

Here is what they have been able to do…

Prior to the pandemic and resulting shift to distance learning, the St. Paul Public Schools district had already deployed a one-to-one iPad program, districtwide. District staff still had to troubleshoot internet access issues with families — and McInerney says she and her team have been helping deliver hotspots and devices to students who may be doubled up with other families in neighboring communities. But having that technology piece in place certainly made for a smoother transition.

In the Minneapolis district, students experiencing homelessness were among the hardest hit last spring. When schools shut down and all learning got pushed to a virtual format in March, Kinzley says her team identified about 1,600 students, out of about 1,900, without access to a computer or internet. “We had that gap to fill in a very short amount of time,” she said, noting engagement data dropped off initially and began to pick up again around week three, once more devices and hotspots had been distributed.

“We’re in a much better place this fall, but there are so many other barriers to engagement, beyond just making sure people have what they need,” she said.

Heading into the 2020-2021 school year, she and her team have been taking a pretty individualized approach, connecting with families to see how they can help remove barriers to distance learning. Sometimes that means sending a staff member out to a family, so they can borrow a cellphone, or arranging a cab so a parent can access registration or another school service. Beyond that, it’s more so a matter of getting word out about the various resources available to families — things like free school meal delivery for those unable to coordinate a curb-side pickup, and access to rental assistance through the Stable Homes, Stable Schools initiative, a partnership between the city, the district and other local entities.

St Cloud Times tells MN Legislature that broadband is key to rural success

In an editorial. St Cloud Times outlines the ways that broadband can help, especially during a pandemic…

We are a long way from learning all the lessons this pandemic has for us. But about this, there is no question: Access to reliable, high-speed data networks is the great equalizer. In these unprecedented times, it’s the difference between learning and earning — or not.

When the virus arrived in Minnesota, the workplace and the classroom changed in the blink of an eye. Decent internet service became the key tool for keeping workers productive, or even employed, and connected students to their teachers and classmates.

Less discussed but perhaps just as important was the internet’s ability to deliver services like a doctor visit online, a counseling session, a visit with an aging parent in a nursing home, a music performance or a virtual happy hour with coworkers. The network’s most tragic job has been connecting families to seriously ill or dying patients quarantined in hospitals.

But back to the economy.

As companies whose workforces were well-equipped for remote work sent their teams home, a defining factor of success became the speed and reliability of the data stream to their workers’ homes. As anyone who has lived through 6 months of video meetings knows, that speed and reliability leaves something to be desired, even in sizable communities.

They tell Minnesota policymakers to make it happen…

Minnesota has done good work. The state has even set a statutory broadband speed goal for all Minnesotans of 100 Mbps/20 Mbps by 2026. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband in 2018 recommended $70 million per biennium in ongoing funding to provide businesses and households across Minnesota to access minimum broadband internet at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program.

But the 2020-2021 biennium allocation was $40 million, the most to date but not enough to help local governments and the private sector level the digital playing field for all Minnesotans.

With the pandemic forcing a mass, if involuntary, proof-of-concept for remote work at scale, all that’s left to do is close the gaps in our rural broadband and demand that lawmakers in St. Paul help fund it.

Mankato Free Press asks MN Legislature to act quickly and decisively on broadband

Mankato Free Press posts an editorial imploring legislators to spend CARES money on rural broadband…

We would argue broadband funding to expand coverage in the short-term and long-term should be a priority. Thousands of Minnesota workers and students now work from home and broadband has become as necessary as electricity.

While broadband coverage has slowly been coming up to state standards in rural areas, there remain large parts of area counties that aren’t up to snuff.

Blue Earth, Brown, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Martin and Waseca counties have between 13 percent and 17 percent of households without broadband that meets the state standards of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Watonwan County (which has a large Hispanic population) has 20 percent without. Faribault County is the best with only 8 percent without high speed broadband.

These percentages of internet darkness are unconscionable for a modern society. And Democrats and Republicans need to step up and fill the gaps, which are not a problem in metro areas.

Sherburne County Chat: Broadband is OK, not a big hindrance nor a big help with COVID

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Sherburne County is a mixed bag of served, underserved and unserved. They rank 49th in terms of county coverage at speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

It’s surprising given their proximity to the Twin Cities but the market has driven deployment, which means densely populated areas are served and other areas aren’t. But in terms of COVID response, they have one advantage and that is good cell coverage (with limited hills), which means you can get households decent coverage with mobile hotspots. But mobile hotspots don’t build for the future.

I met today with Dan Weber and Bruce Messelt from County Administration, County Commissioner Raeanne Danielowski, County Commissioner Tim Dolan, and David Roedel from Public Works. I have to say that these guys are no broadband freshman. They have upperclassmen experience and knowledge. They are acutely aware of the state, federal and industry policies that make things go smoothly and make things hard.

Five years ago the county had a feasibility study done. Subsequently, they have received some MN Broadband grants; they have (or are) taking advantage of opportunities such as the State Telecommuter Forward program and the chance to use CARES funding for broadband. They have seen COVID dramatically increase the need for broadband and it are reignited a fire under the team.

They recognize that broadband deployment has largely been led by the providers and that has left some holes. They are looking for ways to work with providers, such as building out conduit as they do construction to make it easier and cheaper for providers to extend services.

Not only has COVID reignited the interest in deployment but across the county people have experienced forced adoption as schools, jobs and services move online. COVID has accelerated the pace of technology adoption but the acceleration hasn’t been unilateral so the County is still required to provide services online and offline for folks who don’t have technology. It’s a tricky and expensive position.

The move to telework has also been uneven. They are working on managing productivity and equity of/in access. Some jobs are easier to do online; some jobs and more difficult. The county has had success with virtual interviews, visitations and courtrooms. While field social workers are finding that they would like to visit their clients, maybe not always but sometimes. Also, not everyone in a department has access at home, which leads to different workloads based on broadband access, which can create an imbalance that isn’t fair and/or doesn’t produce what needs to get done. They are working on fair solutions that get the job done.

Somewhat related, some folks have access to broadband but choose not to get it or choose lower tier services. Sometimes that’s a budget issue, sometimes it’s a priority issue, sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of needs. Especially for people working for the county, there are questions about who should pay for household connectivity.

They are also learning that while five years ago, they were focused on getting broadband to the businesses, now they are finding that the businesses are often at home. So they are full circle to looking for ubiquitous coverage and realizing that the county/community will need to get involved in a public private partnership if they want to see areas that aren’t economically viable get access.

The good news is that Sherburne is the fastest growing county in population. While there was a slow down in 2008, growth has caught up and new development is happening. Broadband follows new development; and development follows broadband but as growth continues those paths seem to catch up to each other.

Finally, right now schools are using a hybrid model for education for sustained continuity. It offers some wiggle room if COVID numbers increase. But they also have students who elect an distance-only path. So the schools and teacher accommodate them. In the spring they had homes without access and without devices but they were better able provide for those students because mobile hotspots worked for all of the students. That has not been the case for other counties.

It seems like the situation in Sherburne is that everything is OK but it’s not good. The difficulty with that is that it’s easier to let OK go than to let a problem fester. Hotspots work for the students but again, it doesn’t build infrastructure. I think it was Commissioner Dolan who said that 25/3 just isn’t enough anymore. They need to change the metrics, they need to focus on coverage for homes and businesses.