Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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$32 Million Awarded to Broadband Projects Across Minnesota
More than $34.6 million in COVID relief funds were awarded in August to 15 Minnesota cities and counties across the state as part of the Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG-CV). The grant program was created to support Minnesota’s COVID-19 response efforts with the help of a special allocation of Community Development Block Grant funds from the CARES Act fund.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) administered the grants which can be used for projects like housing assistance and commercial rehabilitation, but the majority of the funding - approximately $32 million - will be used for broadband projects.
“The pandemic has made clear how vital broadband is to the lives of Minnesotans and to the economic vitality of our state,” said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove in a DEED press release. “These grants will help communities fund broadband and other important projects as we write the next chapter of our economy.”
Aitkin County, receiving the largest grant of $4.8 million, submitted an application to work with the Mille Lac Energy Cooperative on a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project that would pass approximately 565 homes across seven communities, six of which don’t even have access to 10/1 Megabit per second (Mbps). The application projected it would take approximately 93 miles of fiber and $9,000 per passing location. In its application, the county shared that while the median household income across Minnesota is $71,300, the median across these communities is $45,990, demonstrating that there is a clear issue of infrastructure and access, but also affordability. As part of its application, Aitkin County and MLEC announced the latter would include a low-cost plan to help address the digital divide:
Maryland Commits $300 Million to Expand Broadband
With $3.9 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act on its way to Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan and state legislative leaders have agreed to seize the moment, allocating $300 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion initiatives across the state.
The biggest bulk of the money – $97 million – will go towards funding the building of physical infrastructure with $45 million earmarked specifically for municipal broadband grants.
“The question isn’t how much it’ll cost to bridge the digital divide, the question is how much will it cost if we don’t act right now,” State Senate President Bill Ferguson said at a press conference when the funding was announced.
The bipartisan budget agreement was hailed by Gov. Hogan, a Republican, as an example for the nation demonstrating how “people from different parties can still come together, that we can put the people’s priorities first, and that we can deliver real, bipartisan, common sense solutions to the serious problems that face us.”
One “serious problem” in Maryland, according to a recent Abell Foundation report, is that 23 percent of Maryland households (520,000) do not have a wireline home Internet connection, 40 percent (or 206,000) of which are Black households.
Much of that comes from a lack of affordability and other barriers to adoption. To deal with those challenges, the budget agreement also includes $45 million to subsidize monthly Internet service costs for qualifying families and $30 million to pay for Internet-connected devices for financially eligible households. It also includes an additional $4 million for a new University System of Maryland program to support training and developing curriculum to bridge the digital divide as well as $2 million for digital navigator programs.
Federal Government Devotes Billions to Internet Access: A Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding
In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.
It’s also worth emphasizing that 18 states still put localities at a disadvantage when it comes to spending anticipated funding effectively by preserving laws that interfere with community investment in broadband infrastructure. Much of this money could also be funneled for other purposes due to a lack of good plans and community engagement.
The amount of funding flowing into communities is unprecedented. Localities should prepare to spend funds on needed, futureproof infrastructure. This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime investment in Internet infrastructure and communities who develop a clear, actionable plan and are as ready as possible once the money starts flowing will prosper.
If you’re a homeowner looking for assistance paying your Internet bill…look to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
If you’re an HBCU or Minority-serving institution looking to expand Internet access to your students, or if you’re a minority business enterprise or nonprofit organization in the surrounding community...look to the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
if you’re a Tribal government, Tribal organization, or Tribal college or university, including native Hawaiian organizations, education programs and native corporations…look to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
If you’re a city interested in partaking in a public-private partnership…look to the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
If you’re a school or library whose main concern is obtaining remote Internet access devices...look to the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Federal Aid Directly To States, Counties, Localities and Territories
Going Wireless for Students and Seniors in Tucson
When Collin Boyce, the City of Tucson’s Chief Information Officer, was a young boy, he left his native island country of Trinidad and Tobago with his mother and three brothers and moved to Brooklyn, New York.
“We were poor but what my mother did for us in the summertime is send us to computer camps. And because of those camps three of us are in the IT industry today and the one we call the black sheep of the family is a neurosurgeon,” Boyce said.
He was joking about his neurosurgeon brother of course. But was dead serious about how being introduced to computer technology as a young kid led him into IT work and why it means so much to him to help build Tucson’s new municipal wireless network to provide Internet connectivity for low-income school students and seniors.
“This effort is an opportunity to give back what my mother gave me,” he said.
Tucson has hundreds of miles of fiber connecting the city’s municipal buildings. But, unlike a city like Chattanooga, which operates one of the premier Fiber-to-the-Home networks in the nation allowing America’s first Gig City to provide free high-speed Internet access to 12,000 low-income students in Chattanooga throughout the ongoing pandemic, Tucson has not built a fully fiber-optic municipal broadband network.
As the COVID crisis swept across Arizona and forced students to attend school remotely last spring, Boyce began to look for a way to ensure that the thousands of students who didn’t have Internet access at home wouldn’t be left behind. In a city with a population of about 530,000, an estimated 30 percent of city residents, or about 150,000 Tucsonans, don’t subscribe to wireline broadband, Boyce said.
Standing Up a New Network
“We needed to stand up some wireless technology,” he told us this week.
Fiber Network is "Game-Changer" in "Backwater" Massachusetts Town
Leyden is located in one of the most rural parts of northwestern Massachusetts, along the edge of the Berkshires tucked away in the valleys of the Green River bordering Vermont.
Though it is only 47 miles north of Springfield and 96 miles west of Boston, this town of about 800 residents is one of only a handful of municipalities in the entire Commonwealth that does not have any state routes running through it, similar to the islands of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard off the southeast coast of Massachusetts.
And while Leyden is not a geographical island, it has been a digital outpost barren of broadband. That is until now - with the birth of Leyden Broadband as the town is nearly done with the construction of a 35-mile Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
From DSL ‘Backwater’ to Fiber Haven
“Without any major routes here, we get very little ancillary traffic through town. It’s kept us below the radar. We’ve always been a lightly populated hill town that doesn’t really offer a financial reward for the big telecom companies to come in with high-speed broadband,” Andy Killeen, chair of the Leyden Municipal Light Plant and volunteer head of the town’s fledgling Broadband Department, told us this week.
“Folks were running DSL but that worked pretty poorly. We are not close to the copper (DSL) hubs, which means you could pretty much handle email, but that was about it,” said Killeen, who owns and operates a home safety and security business in the nearby town of Greenfield.
The DSL days are over for residents in this 18-square mile town. Leyden may be a “kind of backwater town,” as Killeen put it, but the townspeople are Leydenites; not Luddites.
“We’ve gone from industry-trailing Internet [access] speeds to top-end network connectivity with gigabit speed that rivals anything you can get in Boston,” Killeen said, looking out of his living room window at the nearby mountain range as a bird streaked across the winter sky, his son cozied up next to him streaming a Disney Plus movie in 4K.
Staying Ahead of the Curve in Conway, Arkansas
Conway is right in the middle – in the middle of Arkansas with its utility company, Conway Corp, in the middle of beefing up its broadband network.
In this city of 66,000 – home to the information technology company Acxiom Corporation and three colleges – residents and businesses have long relied on Conway Corp for more than just electricity since the utility first launched its cable and Internet service in 1997.
Conway Corp, which has been Conway’s electric utility for the past 90 years, has a unique relationship with the city’s government. “We are different in the way we are set up as compared to many other municipal networks. We are set up as a non-profit. We lease the network and operate it on behalf of the city,” explained Conway Corp Chief Marketing Officer Crystal Kemp.
At the heart of the utility’s network management has been the on-going work to stay ahead of the curve.
Prepared for the Pandemic
“When we launched Internet services in 1997, upstream capacity wasn’t a concern and systems were built with the average homes (and) businesses per geographic area, or node, at 500. Today those numbers are less than 95 per node. That’s been achieved through physical changes in the network and changes in our engineering practices,” Conway Corp’s Chief Technology Officer Jason Hansen told us last week.
Upgrades to the Hybrid-Fiber-Coax (HFC) network began to take shape in 2019 with the deployment of DOCSIS 3.1, allowing Conway Corp to double its downstream capacity. They also began upgrading equipment that paved the way for expanded use of the RF (Radio Frequency) spectrum to boost the network’s bandwidth. As of December 2020, about 50 percent of the upstream upgrade work had been completed with the remainder expected to be finished by the summer of 2021.
A Call in Vermont to Assemble A Broadband Corps
A new report out by CTC Technology and Energy and Rural Innovation Strategies, commissioned by the state of Vermont, gives us one of the clearest and most detailed pictures so far of the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on our attempts to live and work remotely.
The “Covid-19 Responses Telecommunications Recovery Plan” [pdf], presented to the state in December 2020, includes both a comprehensive survey of conditions after a half-year of social distancing and intermittent lockdowns as well as recommendations for addressing immediate needs. But it offers solutions that provide a path forward by making sure that dollars spent now are in service to the state’s long-term goals of getting everyone in the Green Mountain State on fast, affordable wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 100/100 Megabits per second (Mbps).
The report brings together network performance assessments from every level of government across the state over the last six months, pairs it with survey responses from citizens, libraries, hospitals, businesses, regional development corporations, and Communications Union Districts (CUDs), and offers analysis based on conditions for moving forward.
“Covid-19 has laid bare the challenges of lack of universal broadband in Vermont,” the report says, with “inequities in the availability and affordability of broadband create further inequities in areas such as education, telehealth, and the ability to work from home.” It offers a wealth of findings:
Le Sueur County, MN Hitting on All Cylinders
Over the last three years, Le Sueur County, Minnesota has assembled a task force of citizens, local officials, and business leaders which have succeeded in dramatically improving broadband for thousands of residents who previously had poor or no connectivity. In doing so, they’ve also forged relationships, inventoried local resources, and created a model which is likely to see the landscape go from one where nearly all residents in the county were under- or unserved by basic broadband at the beginning of 2018 to one where the vast majority of the community will have access at 100/20 Mbps in the next couple years. And if efforts continue to succeed, it’s possible we might see full fiber coverage in Le Sueur by the end of the decade, making it one of the most connected counties in the state.
Le Sueur is located ninety miles southwest of Saint Paul, and had just under 29,000 residents and 11,000 households in 2019. There are 11 whole or partial cities in the county, of which Le Center and Montgomery are the largest at around 2,500 people each. The remaining communities sit between 200 and a 1,000 residents. More than a thousand farms dot the landscape, and agriculture, along with some tourism and resort development centered on the lake communities, comprise the bulk of the county’s economic picture.
Broadband infrastructure outside of the population centers in Le Sueur is generally poor, which was a problem for residents, for businesses, and for farmers looking to remain competitive and modernize operations: “the lack of this service means students have trouble completing schoolwork and seeking future opportunity, small businesses have trouble connecting with customers and vendors, farmers have less efficient operations, home sales and development lags, and options for telemedicine are closed.”
Read this Op Ed: Broadband would close NC’s digital divide; Big Telecom is blocking it
Paul Meyer, the Executive Director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, has a new piece out outlining clearly and concisely what anyone living in or familiar with the state of broadband in North Carolina is thinking: the connectivity problems shown in such stark detail by the ongoing pandemic are nothing new, and the entities to blame are the huge out-of-state monopoly Internet Service Providers like Charter Spectrum and AT&T.
Both companies, and AT&T in particular, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last ten years to reduce competition across the state so that they can extract as much profit from North Carolina's communities as possible. Since the passage of HB 129 in 2011, no new municipal networks have been built in the state.
Meyer outlines the consequences of this reality, with residents and businesses alike stuck on old, slow, expensive connections that service providers have no incentive to upgrade in a broken marketplace.
Read the whole piece here, but see some excerpts below:
It has simply become unacceptable and unconscionable that a handful of companies stand in the way of allowing this to happen almost a decade after banding together to block municipalities from building and operating their own systems, and proclaiming as they did so that they would address the digital divide in the state.
Building Better Broadband Underscores Joe Biden’s Top Policy Initiatives
This piece was authored by Jericho Casper from Broadband Breakfast.
The digital divide afflicting the United States has become even more apparent throughout the pandemic, repositioning the issue of universal broadband access to the forefront of many Washington policy agendas, including that of President-elect Joe Biden.
The Biden presidential campaign’s website early on included a plan for rural America that highlighted how the COVID-19 crisis deepened many of the challenges that were already confronting Americans, including “lack of access to health care, unreliable broadband, and the chronic under funding of public schools.”
The plan further states that “Americans everywhere need universal, reliable, affordable, and high-speed Internet access to do their jobs, participate equally in remote school learning and stay connected” and promises to “expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.”
Biden’s Top Four Priorities Convey an Urgent Need for Advanced Infrastructure
Of the challenges facing the incoming administration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, it seems clear that universal broadband is critical to each of them.
Biden’s campaign website specifically lists universal broadband as a priority in bolstering economic recovery, fighting climate change, and advancing racial economic equity. Universal access to broadband also underscores the fourth top policy initiative listed on the Biden campaign website, battling COVID-19, although the incoming administration fails to link broadband as a precondition for this priority.
As a presidential candidate, Biden called broadband a tool to put Americans to work during a visit to Hermantown, Minnesota.
The campaign’s plan for economic recovery specifically links the country’s financial recovery to mobilizing American work forces in the construction of “modern, sustainable infrastructure” and “sustainable engines of growth,” connecting universal broadband to building a clean energy economy, addressing the climate crisis, and creating millions of “good-paying, union jobs.”