Don’t despair, look at what we are learning through COVID, like the importance of broadband

The West Central Tribune today posts a pep talk on getting through the pandemic our best selves…

Like an end-of-summer, little kids’ tee-ball game, this pandemic seems to be dragging on forever. We are so done. But rather than folding up the camp chairs early — and giving up on wearing masks, distancing, and other simple actions we vigilantly and selflessly can take to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors — let’s recommit to taking this moment as seriously as its 159,000 U.S. deaths and counting. Let’s recommit to banding together, rather than sowing division, to beat this thing.

And let’s pause to consider all that COVID-19 is teaching us, including the need to rally around and support local private businesses; to attract more economic activity in our community in order to expand, diversify, and strengthen our tax base; to insist that our government bodies operate with urgency; and to expand high-speed internet so it’s accessible to everyone.

And a big part of that is recognizing and fixing the issue of broadband…

There perhaps has been no need more exposed by COVID-19 than the need to broaden broadband. With so many Minnesotans working from home, attending classes and meetings from home, and shopping from home, reliable, high-speed, truly border-to-border broadband is as critical in 2020 as electrification and indoor plumbing were 100 years ago. While great strides have been made by both state and federal governments, politics too often has been put ahead of appropriate funding, and an estimated 14% to 17% of nonmetro Minnesotans are still without internet access or the speeds needed for videoconferencing and other school and business activities.

A quick look at CARES tech spending in MN

MinnPost recently published an article on how (in general) rural counties are spending CARES money. People have been asking me about CARES, in part I think because broadband seems like an acceptable use for the funding and the application/distribution process has a quick turnaround. I know Dakota County and Crow Wing County were talking about CARES for technology. The MinnPost article revealed a few more…

 

  • In Alexandria, most of the $1.05 million the city received in CARES Act money will be spent on technology upgrades for employees to work from home and to better record and stream council meetings and other city business. “Currently we can’t easily or with any quality, connect the mayor and council to the public through video,” said city spokeswoman Sara Stadtherr.
  • In all, a draft plan for Moorhead’s $3.28 million would spend $1.28 million on city expenses like election support, public building improvements, telework equipment, public housing upgrades and public safety staff salaries.
  • Nick Leonard, deputy administrator of Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota, said he expects the bulk of their $7.21 million will be used on grants for small businesses and nonprofits. While the county has incurred plenty of expenses, Leonard said the county board wants the money largely to flow back into the community. A draft plan, which Leonard said was just a “starting point” for the board, earmarked $4 million for the business grant program and $1.5 million for housing food and financial assistance. Other cash was reserved for education, high-speed internet projects, public safety expenses and more.

MPR asks: Will telemedicine be the new norm in Minnesota?

Angela Davis  (MPR News) hosted a whole show on telemedicine this week with three guests:

  • Joel Beiswenger is the president and CEO of Tri-County Health Care in Wadena, Minn.
  • Joshua Stein is a child adolescent psychiatrist and the clinical director of the Prairie Care’s Brooklyn Park medical office.
  • Annie Ideker is a family medicine physician at the HealthPartners Clinic in Arden Hills, Minn., and helped train more than 2,000 clinicians on telemedicine.

They start with a brief history of what has been happening in Minnesota (especially rural MN) in terms of telehealth. For those of us who have been involved with health and broadband – I will repeat the shout out that Joel Beiswenger gave to Maureen Ideker for her work in the field.

Telehealth is a balance of medicine, technology, practice and policy. So many things go into the mix. But especially in rural Minnesota, getting that to work out will save time and money for patients and often healthcare facilities as well.

Dr Joshua brings up the increased comfort level, especially for kids, in moving mental health issues online. Kids, this will surprise no parents, are pretty comfortable talking via technology. There are some exceptions but on the whole the kids are very comfortable.

Amazing to hear how quickly people could transition to telehealth during the pandemic. Turns out that for many visits, Dr Ideker points out, patients have been interested in continuting telehealth visits even after their healthcare facilitity has opened.

They report that 30 percent of office visits have shifted online post-quarantine; 70-80 percent of mental health visits remain online even after offices have opened.

You can listen to the whole show. There were some interesting topics

  • the impact of telehealth on people with limited English language skills.
  • The access is only as good as the broadband
  • Dealing with online-meeting overload
  • Needing to be alone for in-person meetings

Telehealth can curb STIs in MN

Red Lake Nation News reports…

Today, the Minnesota Department of Health announced that Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) rates continue to increase. Notably, the data shows a 23 percent increase in syphilis from 2018-19. Planned Parenthood has launched at-home STI testing kits to respond to this urgent public health need.

Combined with telehealth consultation, at-home STI testing kits allow patients to safely and conveniently test themselves from the privacy and safety of their home. After a patient consults with a provider via telehealth, the patient is mailed a testing kit, complete with directions for sample collection and return shipping supplies. Patients have 30 days to mail their sample to the testing lab. If there is a positive test, or if follow-up care is needed, patients are contacted by the Planned Parenthood care team for treatment options.

Telehealth consultations and follow-up, combined with at-home STI testing, can help mitigate the significant barriers to care posed by COVID-19 and help slow the anticipated growth of STIs through the pandemic and beyond.

Beyond the convenience factor here (so important during a pandemic) I think the potential for anonymity will encourage people to get tested. and treated and hopefully will curb the increases in cases.

On Senate Floor, Klobuchar Highlights Need to Keep Families Connected During the Pandemic and Invest in Broadband

Senator Klobuchar speaks about the need for broadband…

Here are

On the Senate Floor, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) spoke about the impact that the lack of access to broadband is having on Americans during the coronavirus pandemic– particularly students and low-income families – and the critical need to bring high-speed internet to every family, regardless of their zip code. 

“Access to broadband, as I just noted, has become more critical now than ever as schools and workplaces are closed in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus where teachers, many with pre-existing conditions simply cannot put themselves at risk. And where we know going forward that we will continue to have a substantial number of kids learning remotely. As I said, even before the pandemic one study found that about 42 million Americans nationwide lacked access to broadband, reports have also found that only 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Latino households, and 63 percent of rural households have broadband at home of the quality that would allow them to work and to conduct their business and to participate in school and telecommuting and health care…,”Klobuchar said in her remarks.

“In rural areas of my state, about 16 percent of households lack access to broadband even at baseline speeds. That means we have one hundred forty four thousand households that don’t have access to the Internet. One of the saddest stories I remember was a household on one of our tribal areas that got and paid for their own high speed Internet and the parents looked out the window and saw all these kids in their lawn. And that’s because they were trying to get that access to the internet at that one household to be able to do their homework. That was a story from Leech Lake Reservation…”

I’ve always believed that when we invest in broadband, we invest in opportunity for every American. If we could bring electricity to everyone’s home in the smallest farms, in the middle of areas with very little population, we can do this in the modern era. Otherwise we are going to continue to have — Have and Have Nots. It shouldn’t depend on your zip code, whether or not your kid can learn to read. It shouldn’t depend on where your zip code is to figure out what their homework is the next day. All Americans should have access to high speed internet. This pandemic has put a big magnifying glass on what was a problem for many, many years and it’s time to act now.”

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, Klobuchar has long championed closing the digital divide and expanding access to the internet. 

In July, Klobuchar introduced TheAccessible, Affordable Internet for All Actwith Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) following introduction in the House of Representatives by Majority Whip James Clyburn and the Rural Broadband Task Force. The bill will invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. The bill passed the House as part of the House comprehensive infrastructure package in July. 

In May, Klobuchar and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Rosen introduced theSupporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Actto help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students. 

The legislation has gained support from over 60 organizations and in a letter released by Higher Learning Advocates and 59 partner organizations, the group called on Congress to include the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act in the next relief package.  

In March, Klobuchar and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. TheKeeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

In April, Klobuchar and Cramer and Representatives Peter Welch and Roger Marshall led a bipartisan, bicameral letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to include dedicated funding to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families in any future legislation in response to the pandemic.

Also, in March, Klobuchar and Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Peters, and John Thune’s (R-SD) bipartisan legislation to improve the FCC’s broadband coverage maps was signed into law. The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act would require the FCC to collect more granular data from fixed, wireless, and satellite broadband providers, strengthen the accuracy of data from mobile broadband providers, consider a process to ensure data is reliable, and create a process for state, local, and Tribal governments to challenge the FCC maps’ accuracy.

Klobuchar has also urged the FCC to take action to ensure students have access to the internet so they can continue learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. In March, Klobuchar led a letter with Senators Peters and Jon Tester (D-MT) urging the FCC to ensure that all K-12 students have internet access and can continue learning from home as schools nationwide are closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also asked the FCC to create a searchable web portal to help consumers locate existing resources to help them connect to the internet.

In April, Klobucharjoined a letter led by Senator Markey with 32 Democratic Senators to Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Schumer, and House Minority Leader McCarthy expressing disappointment in the lack of broadband funding for distance learning in the third coronavirus relief package and urging them to include at least $2 billion for E-rate funding for schools and libraries. Klobuchar joined another letter led by Markey with 18 Democratic Senators to Leader McConnell and Commerce Committee Chairman Wicker requesting $2 billion for E-rate funding in the third relief package.

In March, Klobuchar joined a letter led by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) with 12 other Democratic Senators to Leader McConnell and Leader Schumer urging them to include funding in the third relief package to support expanding digital distance learning—including for devices for children to access the internet and complete their schoolwork online—and closing the homework gap.

Transcript of remarks as delivered below and video available HERE. (or below)

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Chisago County chat: broadband has been a help and hindrance in pandemic planning

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), you can see that Chisago County has very uneven access to broadband. Many areas (including some of the green area) have fiber to the home; while other areas (in pink) are completely unserved lacking broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps up and 3 down. According to the OBD, 84.34 percent of the county has access to 25/3 or better.

As part of the annual county broadband profiles I’ll be doing later this fall, I am trying to touch base with a few counties to see what it feels like on the frontlines of the county. Big thanks to Nancy Hoffman, Sara Peterson and Dan Omdahl from Chisago County for meeting with me today to talk about their experience – specifically in terms of whether their broadband connections have been a help and a hindrance in pandemic preparation.

Nancy and Sara work for the Housing & Redevelopment Authority – Economic Development Authority (HRA-EDA). Dan works for Boston Scientific. Normally, he would go to the office but has been mainly working from home since the start of COVID. Both Sara and Dan have kids in school.

I was struck immediately when Dan explained that his service “while sounds pretty good” at 25 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, really wasn’t enough now that his son was on Zoom for classes much of the day while both he and his wife worked from home. I think many people are finding that to be the answer. The MN broadband speed goal is 25/3 by 2022 but COVID has accelerated and exacerbated the need for faster speeds. Dan explains that the asymmetrical was fine when downloading or watching videos was a main activity online but now that people need to work, we need symmetrical connectivity.

Dan also noted that his speeds at home are as good as they are because they are close to the node. Meaning they are near the place where broadband come via fiber into the community and is then redistributed via DSL to the houses. The speeds are greatly reduced based on distance from the node. So a few houses away, they will not see speeds of 25/1. Part of Dan’s frustration is that federal funding (CAF 2) recently went into upgrading the fiber, but that doesn’t help much when the last mile is DSL.

Nancy and Sara are both able to work remotely. They miss the personal contact but the office has recently moved to SharePoint and because they have connectivity at home, devices they need and the office software infrastructure, they can get their jobs done. Their clients, which include many small businesses, are not always as lucky. There has been a push to get businesses to start selling online or moving transactions online when possible but they need the connectivity, skills and devices to make it happen. You can look back to the map to see where that probably works better than other areas. I did some e-marketing consulting with a dozen or so businesses and I know I met in person with two because they did not have adequate broadband to support a Zoom call.

School is another issue. Sara said that it works. Her daughter can get her work done; it’s not best case scenario but it’s working. Dan’s son has missed classes due to outages at their home. Apparently they have been down 9 times since the pandemic hit – only for a couple of hours, but that mans classes get missed. He mentioned that he has neighbors who have been down for much longer.

The community is looking at perhaps opening a satellite local for students (and maybe others) to work. They have hotspots and devices to give to kids who need them but even the hotspots don’t work in all areas of the county. Chisago has been innovative in getting better broadband to the county and they continue to strive for more but for now – it is county with two tales. One story for folks with broadband and a different one for those without. Dan has been working to improve connectivity in Franconia. They did a survey last year and have been following up with people more recently. Turns out they have already heard from people who have moved rather than try to thrive with inadequate broadband.

There were some silver linings. Dan likes not going into the Cities for work every day. Sara likes the efficiency and Nancy notes the cost saving in gas alone.

*I am looking to connect with different counties and tribal communities for similar chats. (Learn more.) Please let me know if you are interested.

 

Iron Range Schools and families are focusing on broadband

WDIO highlights the actions of the schools on the Iron Range to make sure their students have the technology they need for school, whether in the classroom or at home…

“We have gotten hold of 150 hotspots that are ready to distribute and we will have those available for students who have difficulty connecting to the internet,” said Noel Schmidt, the superintendent for Rock Ridge Public Schools.

Steve Giorgi, the executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) said over the spring they worked with school districts to survey students on their internet connection and said results were alarming.

“I think a lot of districts were unaware because when talking to the students, students report that they’re connected when they actually only have a cell phone,” said Giorgi. “Truly to accomplish distance learning you need a broadband internet connection.”

Giorgi also said they are in talks with schools now to offer temporary solutions for students by using wireless connections for a better service. For a long term solution, they had a meeting with a consultant Monday to look at different locations on the range for broadband expansion.

“We looked at 13 different locations on the Iron Range that are potential targets for broadband expansion. They’re underserved so they qualify for both state border to border grants and federal grants,” said Giorgi.

There’s also a lot happening house to house…

Families in the area are also doing their part to address the issue. Amna Hanson of Esko said she is about 10 houses away from being able to have broad band internet and can’t get the cable company out in her area.

“I have been in contact with the state agencies to see if I can get their assistance. Also I am waiting to see if the franchise agreement for our area requires them to service us. I am also in the process of starting a petition,” said Hanson.

Shantyll Carlson of Duluth said she had to pay a lot to offer quality internet access to her children who are in second and sixth grade.

“We just had to upgrade and pay four times more than what we were paying so that both my kids could do schoolwork at the same time without lag,” said Carlson.

Tessa Lasky who lives about 15 minutes outside of Cloquet said they currently have to use hotspot on their cell phones through AT&T.

“We have the highest hotspot package on our cell phones, which is still limited when talking about doing online schooling five days per week,” said Lasky.

Partnership for ConnectedMN – edu tech grant applications are available online

In June I shared the news on…

a public-private partnership of philanthropic and business leaders from across Minnesota that aims to meet the technology and connectivity needs of families with school-aged children. Partnership for a ConnectedMN is led by Best Buy, Comcast, Blandin Foundation, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota Business Partnership, in collaboration with the State of Minnesota.

Today I’m pleased to share that those organizations have just unveiled applications for funding to help get children and families online.

Their goals are

  • Students in high-need communities have tech devices, ensuring more equitable access to educational resources – now and in the future
  • Young people in both rural and urban communities have solutions to the lack of reliable, affordable broadband access
  • Students and providers have the tools to connect and engage around school, physical and mental health and future career pathways

You can get the RFP and FAQs online – and remember deadlines…

KEY DATES
Applications will be due Tuesday, September 1, 2020 by 3 pm
Decisions will be made by Monday, September 14, 2020.
Funds will be distributed by the end of September.

If you want to learn more – you are welcome to join the Blandin Broadband Leadership Roundtable on Partnership for a Connected MN conversation tomorrow at 9am.

Lake Shore City to seek bids from providers to extend broadband (Cass County)

Pine and Lakes Echo Journal reports…

Continuing work started three years ago to provide better internet service in underserved areas, the Lake Shore City Council agreed Monday, July 27, to seek bids from providers for improved broadband in the city.

Council member John Terwilliger cast the only “no” vote. After hearing from Pequot Lakes School Board member Susan Mathison-Young during the meeting, which everyone attended online via Zoom, Terwilliger said the city should table any action for a month to wait for more information to be gathered regarding programs available to help improve broadband access.

Other council members agreed the city could seek proposals from broadband providers while exploring other programs at the same time.

City Administrator Teri Hastings said COVID-19 funds the city receives could be used toward broadband services. The first step, she said, is to get an idea of what it would take to build out areas of Lake Shore that are currently underserved. The city planned to seek bids from CTC, TDS and Charter Communications, internet providers in the Lake Shore area.

Hastings also said Sylvan Township is receiving additional money from Cass County for broadband.

“So there are some options out there to help improve broadband for the community,” Hastings said.

Mathison-Young said areas underserved by broadband is a problem throughout the state, not just in Lake Shore. She said 28% of all Minnesota students have internet issues, and businesses and groups are working with state government to bring broadband to those rural students who are underserved.

She advised the council to wait to seek bids from providers until more information is gathered about programs designed to help with this issue. Also, she said Thursday, July 30, the state will have a better idea of what schooling will look like this fall with an announcement by Gov. Tim Walz.

“If some is digital curriculum, which is a strong possibility, this has to be ready to go,” she said.

 

Which students are left behind when learning goes online? Spoiler alert, there’s no spoiler

As every parent, teacher and student in Minnesota waits to hear later today from Governor Walz about how the State recommends schools handling pandemic learning this fall, I think it’s helpful to look at who is left behind when/if we move education online.

Online education is tough enough when all of the tech pieces are there; lack of computer and broadband makes is almost insurmountable. Only last year, report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis finds Minnesota is one of the worst states in the country for education achievement gaps. We need to find ways to make that gap more narrow and shallow. Proving access to adequate technology is a small, but necessary step because as the report below shows, technology does not currently help to close that gap. And the irony is, it could.

Here’s the status as Future Ready Schools reports…

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a near-total shutdown of the U.S. school system, forcing more than 55 million students to transition to home-based remote learning practically overnight. In most cases, that meant logging in to online classes and accessing lessons and assignments through a home internet connection.

Sadly, that was not an option for children in one out of three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households. Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.”

According to an analysis of data from the 2018 American Community Survey conducted for the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the National Indian Education Association, millions of households with children under the age of 18 years lack two essential elements for online learning: (1) high-speed home internet service and (2) a computer.

Here’s what they found in Minnesota:

Percentage of Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 19%
Number of Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 264,334

Minnesota By Income

Percentage of Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 40%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Less Than $25,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 50,660
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $25,000 and $50,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 66,298
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 24%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $50,000 and $75,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,869
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 15%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Between $75,000 and $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 74,704
Percentage of Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 9%
Number of Children in Households with Annual Income Greater Than $150,000 Without High-Speed Home Internet 27,803

Minnesota By Race

Percentage of White Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of White Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 184,337
Percentage of Asian Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 14%
Number of Asian Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 12,461
Percentage of Black Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 27%
Number of Black Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 44,036
Percentage of Latino Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 35%
Number of Latino Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 30,226
Percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 37%
Number of American Indian/Alaska Native Children Without High-Speed Home Internet 9,655

Minnesota By Location

Percentage of Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 29%
Number of Children in Nonmetro “Rural” Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 79,087
Percentage of Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 17%
Number of Children in Metro Households Without High-Speed Home Internet 182,209

 

Crow Wing County puts $1.5M of CARES funds into broadband & CTC

The Brainerd Dispatch reports…

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, July 28, approved a plan to distribute dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. After $1.5 million expected to be applied toward reimbursing the county’s expenses, the program includes $3 million toward grants for businesses, $1.5 million for broadband expansion and $1 million for nonprofits grants. An additional $1 million could be shifted to any of those categories, depending on need.

Sounds like folks were OK with broadband but some discussion on the details…

CARES Act fund will also support three broadband expansion projects in the county: for Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who asked for the latter project to be included, said Tuesday officials with the township were willing to commit their own CARES Act funds to the broadband expansion.

County Administrator Tim Houle said last week applying these funds toward broadband expansion would not only better equip residents for the new realities of virtual communication, it would be an investment outlasting the pandemic. With social distancing playing a major role in the response, the demand to connect virtually for distance learning or telework has increased dramatically.

The funding will go to CTC telecommunications company, which will also receive funds to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi access points throughout the community to aid in distance learning efforts and COVID-related broadband installations completed from March to May. CTC CEO Kristi Westbrock said Monday they were in the process of surveying customers to determine how many of those new installations were directly related to needs associated with telework, distance learning or telemedicine.

The measure passed 4-1 with Commissioner Doug Houge opposed. Houge voted against the package because he said he didn’t think it was fair to offer CARES Act dollars only to CTC, when he thought other providers would be interested in pursuing broadband projects in the county.

“We’ve got, how many, four or five providers up there that I know would have projects if this is a definite allowable use of these dollars,” Houge said. “I think it’s only fair that we give them the opportunity to utilize those if they’re comfortable that it’s an allowable use. It just seems like we’re pushing this through without all of the information.”

There was some question as to whether applying CARES Act funding to broadband expansion would be an allowed use of those dollars. Westbrock previously said she’d done the legwork to help ensure it would pass an audit and committed to paying the money back if it became necessary, although there was no official word giving it the OK.

Houle said the contingency dollars could potentially be used for other companies’ broadband projects.

“There is still the potential to do some additional project work and … consistent with what the board’s action, or discussion I should say, was yesterday, I am reaching out to the other telecommunications companies,” he said. “ … What I’m suggesting is, that door’s not closed yet. It’s a pretty tight timeframe. It has to be in the ground by Dec. 1st.”

Houge said with $1.5 million set aside for CTC alone and $1 million in the contingency fund, the other companies would receive much smaller amounts if it was determined to be an allowable use. He said he agreed with all the other aspects of the CARES Act funding program, but was concerned the board was making a decision too quickly on the broadband piece.

Franzen said she thought Houle was doing a good job contacting providers and noted CTC was the only company stating it would pay back funds if the use was not allowed. Houge reiterated he thought that point should be nailed down.

“Well, I think this is a great opportunity,” Franzen said.

“I’m not saying it isn’t a great opportunity, I’m saying let’s make it fair to all the providers,” Houge replied.

“It is,” Franzen said.

“I don’t believe it is,” Houge replied.

Chairman Paul Koering suggested he’d postpone the matter until the next county board meeting. Houge said he still wanted to move forward on the other items. Franzen made a motion to approve the plan, which was seconded by Commissioner Steve Barrows.

Klobuchar Highlights Need to Address Challenges in Rural America During Pandemic

From Senator Klobuchar, her speech on the needs of rural America, including the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act…

— Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) spoke on the Senate Floor to address the impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on rural America—and the need to help our rural communities withstand this public health crisis and the resulting economic uncertainty. 

We must take immediate action to provide critical support that rural areas need…areas that may not have easy access to hospitals…may have smaller hospitals. That’s why that issue of funding for state and local governments as long as we make sure that the rural areas are able to share in this funding as well is so important,” Klobuchar said in her remarks.

“The rural hospitals, the equipment…all of this. And that is beyond what we all know already, and that is the food supply change, our nutrition program. We certainly don’t want a situation where you can’t get homegrown American food, just as we have learned with the supply chains of medical equipment you can’t always get the swabs that you need for so many of our testings and the like.

“We want to maintain not just some romantic vision of the past, our rural areas, we want to maintain them for America. It’s for having that food that’s ours and having it made in America so we’re not dependent on foreign food…It’s for having our own energy supply which can be varied and vast…It’s about having our own technology and developing the next new idea and the next new iPhone. We’re not going to be able to do that if we shut out a big swatch of our country. That’s not going to work. We actually want to encourage the development in rural America. That’s what I think we need to do.” 

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Klobuchar has worked hard to ensure our rural economy is strong and rural communities have the tools they need to spur innovation, create jobs and opportunities, and confront the challenges posed by crises like COVID-19.

In May, following a request from Klobuchar, the Administration provided flexibility for doctors who assist in the fight against coronavirus. A request was made in April by Klobuchar, along with Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK), Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), and Brad Schneider (D-IL). Without a waiver of these restrictions, doctors in the Conrad 30 program who provide care in crisis locations, even remotely, would be putting their immigration status in jeopardy.

Klobuchar has advocated for many years for the Conrad 30 program, which allows doctors to stay in the United States without having to return home if they agree to practice in an underserved, often rural, area for three years. The “30” refers to the number of doctors per state that can participate in the program.

Earlier this month, Senator Klobuchar introduced The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act,which Klobuchar introduced earlier today in the Senate, which wouldill invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care, and business opportunities. 

In May, Klobuchar and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced theSupporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Actto help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students. 

In March 2020, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. TheKeeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

For years, Klobuchar has been a leader in the fight to strengthen the RFS to support American jobs and decrease dependence on foreign oil. Klobuchar has led several letters urging the Administration to cease issuing small refinery waivers and reject changes to the RFS that would upend stability and predictability for farmers and rural communities. 

In June, Klobuchar led a bipartisan letter joined by Smith, with Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reject petitions for Small Refinery Exemptions (SREs) under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for past compliance years.

In December 2019, Klobuchar led a public comment letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing concern over the proposed supplemental rule establishing the Renewable Fuel Standard’s (RFS) 2020 Renewable Volume Obligations and 2021 Biomass-Based Diesel Volumes. The senators argued that the proposed rule—which determines how much biofuel is required to be blended into our transportation fuel supply on an annual basis—fails to adequately account for the waivers, including those given to big oil companies. In October 2019, Klobuchar sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking the agency to document the impact of small refinery waivers on farm income, commodity prices, and renewable fuel usage.

At a Senate Agriculture hearing in June, Klobuchar highlighted the urgent need to help farmers identify conservation techniques that would have the greatest benefit for the climate and farmers’ bottom lines.

As a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Klobuchar successfully pushed for key climate provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill, including provisions to increase acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by 3 million acres, invest in renewable energy programs including the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), protect native prairies by fixing a loophole in the “Sodsaver” program, and improve the use of conservation data so that farmers are able to make better choices about conservation practices that benefit their yields and the environment – based on her Agriculture Data Act with Senator Thune.  

Transcript of remarks as delivered below and video available HERE.

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COVID Funding available at city and county level in Minnesota

The broadband connection here may be tenuous but you have to be online to see the list – and the list may include possible funding for broadband. (Ironic, huh the people who need it most might not see it!) I did want to share this info from the MN Chamber of Commerce because I suspect the info is valuable to many readers…

Businesses around Minnesota need assistance to withstand the challenges of COVID-19. Many cities and counties throughout the state have grant or loan programs available to businesses, so their local economies can compete and thrive. The Minnesota Chamber’s Grow Minnesota! Partnership has compiled a list of available funding at the city and county level.

Find your community on this list, and apply for valuable resources to keep your company operating. If you don’t see your community on this list, email growminnesota@mnchamber.com, and Grow Minnesota! Partnership staff will get back to you with details about your area.

Visit the site to see the list.

So about schools and distance learning and broadband – WCCO is asking

It’s the best of times, worst of times when broadband is hitting the mainstream media. I’m sorry for the problem, but glad that people (even outside served areas) are recognizing the inequity and difficulties: WCCO TV reports…

We’ll learn later this week what school will look like for Minnesota students this fall. No matter what’s announced on Thursday, districts are again preparing for internet service to again be an important piece. Connection problems plagued some areas in Greater Minnesota this past spring.

Telehealth hubs bridge the gap for patients without access to computers, broadband and/or skills to access online help

MinnPost reports…

When COVID-19 hit Minnesota this spring, most health care providers made the shift to telehealth as a way to safely see their patients without risk of spreading the virus. While this approach works for people who are well connected through smartphones, computers and tablets, Joncas said a large number of her clients at the St. Paul Opportunity Center (and its sister program in Minneapolis) live on the edge of the virtual world, making accessing health care via telehealth nearly impossible.

Online is convenient and a life saver for folks who are connected but it’s leaving many people falling farther behind, especially anyone experiencing poverty or homelessness…

“When we’d say, ‘I see you missed your appointment. Let’s get another appointment set up on your phone,’ it usually didn’t work,” she said. “Many of these guys didn’t have phones to begin with. Or, if they did have a phone, their payments were erratic so their service was off and on. Or they had limited data and didn’t want to use it up.”

And when you’re living arrangements are not ideal privacy can be an issue…

And clients who did have a working smartphone weren’t all that keen on giving telehealth a try, Joncas said. Shelter living is famous for its lack of privacy, so virtually visiting with a health care provider in spaces already occupied by other people felt unappealing.

Then M Health Fairview offered an option…

The email went on to explain that M Health Fairview had already set up telehealth hubs — or private rooms outfitted with high-definition computers where patients could safely have remote visits with mental- and chemical-health counselors — at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital just a few blocks away. Would Catholic Charities be interested in setting up a similar hub at the Opportunity Center?

“From there it was pretty easy,” Joncas said. The St. Paul Opportunity Center actually had a number of private consultation rooms that usually are used by case managers during client meetings. The rooms were too small for two people to practice social distancing, so they’d been standing empty for months.

SO they set up space…

When M Health Fairview set up the first telehealth hubs at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the idea was to mimic the usual patient experience as much as possible. The two hub rooms are located near the hospital’s outpatient mental health and addiction clinic, where many patients were used to seeing their provider pre-pandemic.

Staff at the hospital helps walk patients through the virtual visits, showing them to the hub rooms, explaining how to use the equipment and connecting them with their doctors. Levine added that there are plans to expand hub services to other M Health Fairview clinics, where a “skeleton staff” outfitted in PPE would check in patients, and help get their appointment started. “For the most part the process is extremely simple,” he said. “Hopefully for most people it doesn’t feel too far off from an in-person visit.”

Scheduling a telehealth hub appointment should be as easy as scheduling an in-person appointment. “When people call in to schedule an appointment with a provider, our central intake team asks them questions about if they can use a phone or a computer for a video visit or if they have a private place to be able to talk,” Levine said. “If they aren’t able to do any of those they are offered to go to the telehub location.”

They are looking to grow the number of hubs…

Levine said that M Health Fairview is making tentative plans to expand the telehealth hubs to other locations close to communities that could benefit the most from using them.

“The hope would be that we could start putting some of the hubs in strategic locations for people who don’t have a safe place to talk or the equipment they need to handle a call. Because many people have limited transportation, these places will be in areas that they can get to easily with public transportation.”

It would be nice to see some of these in rural areas. I have seen computer kiosks or labs in mini-buses, laundromats, manufactured home communities, campgrounds and more. They need is at least as great in rural areas. There are starting points. It would be great to see!