Working from home saves money and time – but requires broadband on the Iron Range

The Hibbing Daily Tribune published an article from Aaron Brown about working from home. Aaron wrote about the difference working from home has made…

I’ve worked from home about two days a week most of my career. After COVID-19 hit, my employer learned that a surprising amount of work could be done remotely. Not all of it, of course, but more than we might have thought possible.

Awkwardly at first, most of my coworkers adapted to online meetings and working from home. I bought a lawn mower from a local dealer over the phone. An executive from a Fortune 500 company told me about overseeing a billion dollar loan program while keeping an eye on his ice fishing tip-up. A lot of this was just the realization of what was already possible all along.

Then we crunched the numbers. In April my family purchased no more than a half tank of gas for each of our two vehicles. Even when we added a few more trips in May we spent a tenth our normal gas budget. The savings were tangible.

It was the added time that we felt most of all: at least an extra hour each day. Whether driving into a big city or a small town on the Iron Range, all commuters understand the cost — financially, mentally, and physically — of drive time.

And he wrote about what you need to work from home…

For one thing, this means high speed internet and the service infrastructure to support creative work and associated technology. Here, this region has won small victories in recent years. Yet significant work remains unfinished.

A week before last the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools announced an effort to survey needs for high speed internet in rural parts of Itasca and Koochiching counties. They’ve already been doing this in St. Louis County. Coupled with previous efforts by the state Border to Border Broadband initiative, this is the ground level work that leads to expanded broadband access.

MN one of 39 state attorneys general urging Congress to fund broadband

The Benton Institute reports...

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D-CO) led a bipartisan coalition of 39 attorneys general in urging Congress to help ensure that all Americans have the home internet connectivity necessary to participate in telemedicine, teleschooling, and telework as part of any legislation that provides relief and recovery resources related to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter sent to congressional leaders, the attorneys general urge Congress to:

  • Provide state, territorial, and local governments with adequate funding expressly dedicated to ensuring that all students and patients, especially senior citizens who are at risk, have adequate internet-enabled technology to participate equally in online learning and telemedicine.
  • Increase funding to the Federal Communications Commission Universal Service Fund, which provides funding to rural and low-income areas, healthcare providers, and educators.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is on the list.

After the Fact: what are the 21 million who aren’t online doing during the pandemic

Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew’s broadband research initiative, explains who’s not online and shares what some states and communities are doing to bridge connectivity gaps in this recent podcast.

She talks about the need for understanding broadband need and mapping, when it comes to distributing funds to make broadband happen, especially in rural areas.

We’re talking about multiple areas, multiple departments in government who handle possible solutions and affordability.

The problem of home access is highlighted now that people can’t go to libraries, schools, fast food restaurants and other public places to access broadband to get work their work and homework done.

Minnesota leaders from Austin to Mankato discuss COVID and need for better broadband

Channel 6 News reports…

District congressional candidate Dan Feehan hosted a virtual round table with state leaders to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on small communities.

Broadband was on the table…

Other issues detailed the importance of broadband in rural communities and the limited resources for students due to closures. Blue Earth County Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said students have had to go into town to the libraries that are closed and sit outside just to be able to complete assignments.

The discussion included leaders from all over Minnesota from Austin to Mankato and the communities in between. Though they shared different issues they all agreed that change is needed.

OPPORTUNITY: $1.5 Billion in New Grant Funding Available from Economic Development Administration for Broadband & Other Projects

CTC Technology & Energy report

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act added $1.5 billion to an existing grant program of the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration’s (EDA).

This is a significant opportunity, both because of the size of the allocation and its breadth of eligibility. The grants are available to local and state governments, non-profits, and other non-commercial entities that have a compelling case for using infrastructure projects (including broadband initiatives) to ameliorate the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.

This is also an opportunity that demands quick action. EDA will receive applications and make awards on a rolling basis, so applicants with projects in advanced planning stages (and even those with a strong concept and an ability to quickly develop a project plan) should move rapidly to submit their applications.

Broadband Projects That Will Help Address Coronavirus Challenges Are Eligible

The EDA’s significant funding allocation—announced in an addendum to EDA’s notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) on May 7th—can be used for broadband projects (in addition to other types of projects) that will strengthen economic resilience, diversify the economy and workforce, or support recovery in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. (Examples of successful past projects can be found on EDA’s website—though we anticipate the new funding to be awarded to a broader range of broadband projects.)

Pandemic exacerbates and shines a light on inequity in Minnesota

MinnPost recently ran an editorial from Jane Leonard and Dane Smith from Growth & Justice on need for equity in Minnesota – a need that didn’t start with the coronavirus pandemic but the pandemic is pushing the inequity to the headlines. Here one example from the article…

An April 11 Star Tribune front-page story (“Spotty broadband, rural toll”) revealed a family on Minnesota’s Iron Range coping with COVID-19 by driving 15 miles to a McDonald’s parking lot and connecting to high-speed Wi-Fi there so that kids could do online homework and mom could do basic household business. Given the emerging importance of telehealth, rural regional leaders in the article emphasized once again that high-speed broadband in Greater Minnesota must now be considered basic public infrastructure, a matter of regional equity, and no longer an optional luxury.

They mention other inequities but of course broadband what interests me here. The mention the inequities in the context of a solution. For several years now, Growth & Justice has been working on a statewide blueprint to reduce inequities, unite Minnesota and lift us all up…

One of the featured recommendations in the Blueprint squarely addresses the rural broadband disparity and the urban “digital divide.’’ The report explains in detail how Minnesotans without high-speed internet can’t run their businesses, do their jobs, attend school, seek medical help, or function as consumers. The Blueprint proposes an ambitious multiyear state investment over at least a decade to ensure that construction proceeds regardless of location or market strength. In the COVID aftermath, robust and affordable anywhere-for-anyone broadband will continue to be central to the recovery and continued operations of our communities, economy and society at large.

COVID can be our crucible of long-term change for the better, if we choose. And our Minnesota Equity Blueprint could be the first draft of that new socioeconomic contract for a more inclusive, equitable and secure prosperity across the North Star State.

Dakota Language gets new life with Zoom

MN Public Radio reports…

These days, Dakota — the native language of the Prairie Island Indian Community — isn’t widely spoken.

But the tribe is trying to change that and the pandemic has offered them an unusual opportunity to do so: by bringing language classes online, they’ve been able to reach more members than ever before.

In person classes have typically attracted a handful of people, said tribe communications manager Rayanna Lennes.

Using technology like Zoom to teach live classes, and archiving them online, gives far-flung tribal members an opportunity to reconnect with their language — and each other.

I love this. The loss of a language is huge loss to the culture and to see how technology is bringing it back is amazing.

Senator Tina Smith promotes telehealth during coronavirus pandemic

KTOE reports

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in telehealth services for both physical and behavioral health. U.S. Senator Tina Smith has introduced legislation that would help better fund these practices:

“We’ve seen an over thousand-fold increase in the use of telehealth. Before the outbreak, we were just looking at around 11-hundred telehealth visits per day in Minnesota. And by late April that was up to 15,000 telehealth visits a day.”

The bill also ensures providers are getting fully reimbursed by the insurance companies for their telehealth services.

Broadband HEROES act – a recap from Benton Institute

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest posts a weekly recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. This week it’s all about HEROES. I thought I’d post a super-abridged version – but the full story (easy, quick to read) is just a click away

On May 12, House Democrats unveiled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. “We are presenting a plan to do what is necessary to address the corona crisis,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she announced the legislation. Since more people are relying on home broadband service than ever before — after all, broadband puts the “distance” in social distancing — the HEROS Act includes many provisions to get a lot more people in the U.S. connected and safe.

Provisions include:

  • Emergency Benefit for Broadband Service
  • Expediting Buildout of Rural Broadband Networks
  • Supporting Distance Education
  • Broadband for Healthcare
  • Helping the Federal Government Work from Home
  • Prison Phone Justice
  • Spectrum for First Responders

What’s expected?

As we go to press, the House of Representatives plans to vote on the HEROES Act later today and the measure is likely to pass. Prospects in the Senate are not as good. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said there is no “urgency.” The Senate will wait until after Memorial Day to consider COVID response options. Republicans are wary of another round of aid and Sen. McConnell declared the Democratic proposal a grab bag of “pet priorities.” He said it is not something that “deals with reality.”

The reality for voters, however, may be in the numbers: 85,000 deaths, nearly 1.5 million cases, and, of course, nearly 37 million people filing for unemployment insurance.

 

Federal COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act

I knew this would be of interest to many readers. From U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland

The Problem: Lack of access to broadband networks has left approximately 1.5 million people living on tribal
lands without access to basic healthcare public safety, and educational services. Due to the increased
necessity of wireless services during this national crisis, lack of connectivity in Indian Country has left Tribes
further behind in the digital divide resulting in devastating impacts of coronavirus on reservations.
These alarming rates are unacceptable during a national emergency. Regardless of where you live, everyone
should have equal access to wireless broadband networks to access to life-saving health care, public safety,
and educational opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Background: Indian reservations are some of the most digitally disconnected areas in the world, with
broadband and wireless penetration rates lower than some third-world countries. Even though the United
States ranks above the world average for fixed broadband services, only 65 percent of Native Americans
living on tribal lands have access to broadband compared to 92 percent of Americans living off-reservation
lands.
The Government Accountability Office found that health information technology systems at the Indian Health
Service (IHS) rank as the Federal Government’s third-highest need for agency system modernization since 50
percent of Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities depend on outdated circuit connections, resulting in slower
response times than any other health facility system in the United States. Additionally, the Bureau of Indian
Education’s (BIE) recent estimates collected from 142 BIE schools have reported that a wide range of students
— up to 95 percent in some cases — don’t have access to broadband at home due to Indian Tribes’
geographically isolated locations and data cap limitations.
COVID-19 Designation of Immediate Special Authority of Spectrum for Tribes’ Emergency Response in Indian
Country Act directs the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wirelesses Telecommunications Bureau
to grant Tribes emergency temporary authority of available spectrum to efficiently support wireless
broadband networks over Tribal lands and Hawaiian Homelands. This will allow Tribes to immediately deploy
wireless services so Native Americans can access basic life-saving resources like anyone else. Specifically, this
bill aims to deploy wireless networks in Indian Country by granting:
• Emergency special temporary authority of available spectrum to efficiently support wireless services
• Grants $300 million to USDA’s Community Facility Grant Program for immediate deployment of
broadband networks, repairs to damaged infrastructure, and technical assistance
• Extends Emergency Special Temporary Authority of spectrum on tribal lands to operate for 6 months

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Tower MN

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. Tower is the smallest community that has been a Blandin Broadband Community. It’s fun to hear about what they are doing and how they are building greater demand for broadband.

The local public school has a slick new computer lab. Public buildings have computers for public use. Great ideas and they have done a lot to help education local residents to the need. Unfortunately, the pandemic has clearly had an impact on access to those computers. WiFi hotspots in the campgrounds are being used more than usual – as people are able to get access there, which helps them work and learn.

People are feeling the pain without access at home. There was a gentleman who couldn’t access telehealth with his connection at home so he had to go into the hospital for a dermatology appointment. Another opted to use a smartphone and cell access over home broadband for Zoom calls because it was unreliable. And reports on kids unable to learn online from home.

Partial transcript added May 27:

Tower

May 14, 2020

44:54 – “It’s exciting, we’ve had the St. Louis County Community Dev. Dir. step in last time and for them to be in touch with the process and understand the direction we’re going…how this work can help us leverage other State and Fed funding…really clicked for St. Louis Co. I think we’re going in a good direction.”

52.36 minutes – “Working with PCs for people…they’re a great bunch. Fun to work with and they fill the need. It was a really positive experience.”

54.19 – “…now that it’s out there (broadband), there is a lot more understanding of it and a need for it.”  “We had no idea how you even go about this, and what a wonderful learning experience it’s been for us. I will not hesitate to take on another project on like this.”

55:11 – “…it’s been very positive all the way around. We had those hurdles at the beginning…we’ll keep at it!”

57:56 – “…we couldn’t have done it without the whole steering committee….Richard has been a great asset, and Pastor Doug, too…And it goes without saying, Kate and John!”

1:02:17: “I’ve seen four of them now (Leadership Webinars). I follow Ann’s blog regularly…It’s great work. She keeps you abreast of everything as far as state government and grant possibilities. She does a great job.”

1:11:40 “We are so lucky to have you guys come into our lives!”

” We don’t really have an ability to get any other internet here right now.”

1:14:39 “Mine would be way back in November of 2018 when Bill first came to Tower and put a presentation on there. From then forward, there was so many people I’ve met that said they’d move here but they don’t have the connectivity. I met a fishing guy that has a website…that said he’d move here permanently, and so would a couple of his friends, if there was connectivity. I met an architect, who is semi-retired who lives in the cities; he won’t move here because he can’t get connectivity. But he would if he could. The other day a friend of mine had to go to the dermatologist and it was going to be virtual, but he couldn’t connect. So, they had to cancel the appointment and he had to go down during COVID to the hospital, and he didn’t like that too much. But he went down and had to have it done there.”

Sen Klobuchar Highlights Urgent Need for Internet Connectivity during Pandemic at Senate Commerce Committee Hearing

Thanks to Senator Klobuchar’s staff for the notes…

Today, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) highlighted he urgent need to connect all Americans–especially students and seniors–to high-speed internet at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the state of broadband during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In her questioning, Klobuchar highlighted how students rely on the internet to learn from home and outlined how legislation she introduced with Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND), the Keeping Critical Connections Act, would establish a temporary fund at the Federal Communications Commission to help small broadband providers continue to provide internet services for students and low-income families during the pandemic.

“All over the country, kids are being asked to learn from home and parents are being asked to teach them. The disparities are large when some don’t even have access to the internet,” Klobuchar said at the hearing.

“We have the story out of Minnesota with one of our Tribal communities. One household was able to pay for high-speed internet and all the kids gathered in their front yard to do their homework. We can’t have that continue.”

Two witnesses at the hearing, Gene Kimmelman, Senior Advisor at Public Knowledge and Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, expressed strong support for Klobuchar’s legislation and highlighted how essential it is for broadband companies to keep Americans connected during this crisis. Klobuchar also highlighted legislation she introduced this week with Senators Hirono, Peters, and Rosen, the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act–to help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, Klobuchar highlighted that protecting seniors during this coronavirus outbreak does not have to come at the expense of their access to quality health care and maintaining ties to family and friends and how legislation she introduced with Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act, makes federal funding available to expand telehealth and virtual services at nursing facilities so that seniors remain connected to their health care providers and communities when in-person visits are limited.

Watch Senator Klobuchar’s remarks HERE at the Commerce Committee.

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 has led efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable populations, including students and seniors, are connected to the internet during this public health crisis. This week, Klobuchar introduced legislation to help ensure that college and university students with the greatest financial needs can access high-speed internet during the coronavirus pandemic. The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act 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.

Last month, Klobuchar led a bicameral letter with Senator Durbin and Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), along with over 140 members urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help ensure the millions of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid are informed of their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program.

In March 2020, Klobuchar and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The Keeping 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 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

She also joined a letter led by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) 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 last month with 18 Democratic Senators to Leader McConnell and Commerce Committee Chairman Wicker requesting $2 billion for E-rate funding in the third relief package.

Klobuchar has also urged the FCC to take action to ensure students have internet access so they can continue learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. In March, Klobuchar led a letter with Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) 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. Klobuchar also 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.

Optum telehealth claims up from 2 percent to 33 percent

I know it’s only one provider but an increase from 2 to 33 percent in less than a month is pretty substantial. An Optum press release indicates…

Early claims data indicates a significant shift in the use of telehealth for behavioral health care. Normally, about 2% of all behavioral health claims Optum receives are for a telehealth visit. By the end of March, approximately 33% of all behavioral health claims for Optum members were for a telehealth visit. The most recent claims data indicates that the proportion of telehealth visits continues to sharply increase.

Broadband is nonprofit silver lining at a dark time

Minneapolis Star Tribunev reports…

Minnesota nonprofits lost an estimated $1 billion in revenue in April because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of fundraising events and reductions or closures of other revenue-generating programs.

But the news isn’t all bad…

One silver lining of the crisis: It’s prompting nonprofits to develop new skills, to collaborate in new ways, and to diversify revenue sources. One organization that had studied telehealth delivery for four years figured out how to launch a program in just four days because of the crisis, Pratt said.

One-on-one connections to better distance education

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Three weeks into distance learning, Lisa Terrell worried that her first-grade daughter Iris might not be able to stick it out in the Spanish immersion program at Minnetonka Public Schools.

Iris needed casual Spanish conversation, her mother said, and it wasn’t happening in this new online world. Then, more one-on-one reading sessions opened up, and Iris was back on track.

“It was a game changer,” Terrell said.

The key, as it turned out, was that personal connection — even when accomplished virtually. A Star Tribune survey of parents shows that the more frequent the live video sessions between staff and students, the greater their satisfaction with their children’s learning.

Nearly 3 in 4 parents whose children had daily live conferencing rated their experience with distance learning as a 4 or a 5 on a 1-to-5 scale, according to the survey that ran in April and drew more than 500 responses.

Other stats of note…

Only one-quarter of parents, for example, reported that video conferencing was occurring on a daily basis.

And…

Minneapolis Public Schools reported on April 10 that about 30% of its 33,838 students were not engaged in distance learning that day, with about 4,200 awaiting delivery of devices or learning materials.

Because I was a teacher, because I am a parent I think about this a lot. Kids need broadband and devices and the that’s mentioned in this article…

Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged recently that the state needed to do more to ease the inequities that come with online learning, among them a lack of broadband access in rural areas and student access to digital devices.

But teachers the time to learn to use the new tools. Talking about it with my daughter in high school she misses class participation and can’t stand the busywork. For better or for worse, they have the summer to work on it.