A snapshot from the livestream conversation on Rural Broadband.
During this livestream conversation, a panel of policy experts came together to share their thoughts on what's being done to improve access to rural broadband in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gather a handful of policy experts together in a video chat room to talk about the state of rural broadband and you’ll cover a lot of ground. Last week’s second livestream conversation co-hosted by the Daily Yonder and the Rural Assembly was chock full of information about policy proposals and funding programs that exist to help rural communities stay connected.

Reflecting on the current challenges imposed by Covid-19, the online panel once again offered both sobering perspectives and notes of progress, from Indian Country to Capitol Hill and many places in between. For every deep dive on policy specifics, the conversation also brought forward familiar appeals to fundamental principles.

“[The internet] has to be free and open and available to everyone, everywhere, every time,” said Loris Taylor, CEO of Native Public Media, which licenses 59 radio stations and three television stations in tribal communities across the country. “I think Covid-19 is definitely pointing at that.”

A snapshot from the livestream conversation on Rural Broadband.

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Livestream Conversation Offers First-Hand Accounts of Broadband Challenges During Coronavirus Pandemic

If you missed the livestream conversation, you can go back and watch it at your convenience, on the Daily Yonder’s YouTube channel or through the embedded video above.

To help break down the conversation, we’ve also provided highlights from the transcript below. For those who aren’t able to watch the complete video, these highlights make it easy to scan through some of the salient segments of the conversation, including:

  • What the data shows – and doesn’t show – about rural communities’ capacity for remote work and distance learning, and how that affects their vulnerability to Covid-19.
  • Where rural broadband fits into the CARES Act and other congressional legislation related to Covid-19.
  • How telehealth efforts are evolving in response to coronavirus.
  • And what Indian Country has been experiencing throughout the pandemic.

The panelists also shared their ideas for what policies would improve rural broadband access, plus some success stories and opportunities they’ve seen so far in their work.

The complete, unedited transcript and more information about the panelists is available on the Rural Assembly website. Stay tuned to the Rural Assembly and the Daily Yonder’s YouTube channel in the coming weeks for more co-hosted conversations like this two-part panel on rural broadband (Editor’s Note: the Rural Assembly is a program of the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies, publisher of the Daily Yonder).

Setting the Stage – The Data and Policy Context

Robert Gallardo, Assistant Director of the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University: … this Covid situation, it is really shedding a very bright spotlight into this issue that we have been talking about for a while … that the connectivity is not where it needs to be at from the rural side of things. Unfortunately, this is our test and I’m afraid we’re not going to do very well. … broadband infrastructure, the data around this is very interesting because the only national data set we have is the [Federal Communications Commission] (FCC) Form 477, and before you throw tomatoes to your computer screen, I’m only the messenger, but it’s the only thing we have. … Keep in mind it overestimates coverage, but still it’s important because it jump-starts conversations that otherwise would be hard to initiate.

… Broadband infrastructure has been built. … between 2014 and 2018, the trends are encouraging in a way where broadband in rural areas has been increasing … However, there is a concept that again is being shown clearly today because of Covid; there is not digital parity and with digital parity we refer to the same level of connectivity between urban and rural. That needs to be a level playing field and it’s not the case. … For example, while less than two percent of housing units in urban areas had access to only one provider, a third of rural housing units had access to only one provider. So that’s a huge discrepancy there, for example, that clearly highlights the lack of digital parity. … in 2014 one quarter of housing units in urban areas had access to fiber. That number jumped to almost 50 percent by 2018. In contrast, rural housing units, 10 percent had access in 2014 and by 2018 it was only 17.6 percent.

So there are investments being done, but the level is really not where it needs to be, which brings me to my next point, which is the Covid situation. We developed a map that you can go and see at the census tract level. We identified those communities that are more vulnerable to not implementing mitigation strategies like e-learning and remote work. How did we calculate that? We looked at connectivity issues, but also at the percent of the workforce that is employed in jobs that are not remote work friendly. And guess what? Two thirds of counties that are in the highly vulnerable category are rural counties. So there’s a lot to be done. That’s the context we’re facing. … it’s a situation that unfortunately has caught rural with the short end of the stick.

Edyael Casaperalta, Moderator: As Roberto was saying, there’s always existed this lack of parity in telecommunications between rural and urban areas and from the beginning of our federal communications laws in 1934, the FCC was created precisely to address a lack of access in more rural and remote areas. And so we embrace this principle called universal service, the idea that all Americans would have access to communications services. … in 1996, we formalized this principle and created the Universal Service Fund to fund how we would deploy universal service to everyone in the United States. There are four programs that the FCC relies on and that our government relies on to make sure that the digital divide is closed. And those programs are the Lifeline program, E-Rate, Rural Health Care and High Cost. … Lifeline helps qualified low-income consumers pay for phone and internet service. E-Rate funds internet access in schools and libraries. Rural Health Care funds voice and broadband service for healthcare facilities in rural areas. And the High Cost program, it’s a group of 11 separate funds that subsidize telecommunications companies … to offer phone and broadband service in rural areas. So these are the main ways in which the FCC and the federal government try to close the digital divide.

… The FCC has taken [a few actions] since the pandemic started. The main one being … the Keep Americans Connected pledge … For 60 days, beginning in the middle of March … telecommunications providers agreed to not terminate service to residents or businesses because they couldn’t pay. They also agreed that they would waive any late fees that a resident or a business accrued as a result of Covid and that they would open their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. … The FCC has also waived some rules from the Lifeline and the E-Rate program … [and] granted emergency access to spectrum for some providers to provide emergency service. And the FCC launched a Covid-19 telehealth program.

Rural Broadband in the Congressional Response to Covid-19

Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge: Congress has passed, right now, three coronavirus stimulus packages, and the third one was the CARES Act. And that’s the only one that actually addressed rural broadband at all. That said, it did relatively little to address rural broadband. It completely disregarded broadband subsidies for low-income Americans. It provided a pittance to deploy broadband where there isn’t any, it didn’t include requirements for broadband providers to drop data caps or stop charging overage fees, to stop throttling, any sort of stuff … that makes sure that broadband quality is sufficient.

… Congress, what they did so far, isn’t enough. But I will still go over what it did do. It did four primary things that are tangentially related to getting rural Americans connected and … it’s really important that Congress does more in forthcoming stimulus packages. So, the first thing was Congress provided $100 million to the [United States Department of Agriculture] (USDA) for its Reconnect Program. That’s an already existing program. It helps fund broadband deployment in rural areas. It works sort of alongside FCC programs that do the same thing. I will note though, this $100 million deployment for broadband takes time. It’s going to require oftentimes a build-out of new infrastructure … so it’s one of those things where these funds aren’t necessarily going to get rural Americans connected during the peak of the crisis. I also just want to note, in terms of amounts, the FCC has actually said in the past that it’s going to take about $80 billion to connect everyone in the country. So this $100 million is just a really small fraction of that.

… the next thing that the CARES Act did, it provided $200 million to the FCC to support telehealth … but that money is being used right now to help healthcare providers fund their telecommunication services and offer telehealth options. The bill also included $50 million in grants to the Institute of Museum and Library Services in part that can be used to purchase internet accessible devices and provide support in connecting to the internet for those that don’t have the technical know-how to do that. Again, pretty small pool of money there. And then one of the final things … was it allotted about $30 billion to states and that money can be used by schools for a whole long list of purposes, one of which is to support online learning. So in theory that money can be used to help students get connected or to get devices. But again, it’s worth noting, there’s really no guarantee that the money is going to be used for that purpose. It’s one of many options and it’s kind of up to individual states as to how it’s spent.

So not a lot has happened so far. There’s more proposals that are in the works. … In particular, Congress is discussing about a billion dollars that would expand the Lifeline program. … It would provide subsidies to low-income Americans and that subsidy would be more than the typical amount of Lifeline subsidies. … Also, Congresswoman Grace Meng, she’s introduced a bill that would provide $2 billion for the E-Rate program and that would allow schools and libraries to purchase hotspots to connect students and community members. That was introduced yesterday and we anticipate that the Senate will introduce companion legislation soon. Also, Senator [Amy] Klobuchar, she has a $2 billion proposal that would give funding to small carriers to support them offering free and discounted internet to their subscribers. … a lot of small internet providers are concerned that their customers can no longer pay them and this bill was intended to help those small providers stay afloat during the Covid crisis and ensure that there’s more competition in the marketplace.

All of that said … at the moment there aren’t really any proposals for larger packages that are going to make a huge dent in deploying broadband to the areas that need it. Particularly in the short-term crisis where people are forced to stay at home. … So, it’s a tricky issue I think because deployment is a longer-term thing, right? Hotspots can be deployed relatively quickly. … But in general, it’s hard to know what we can do to get people connected now. … this issue is more than just a short-term stimulus thing. … we don’t want to be in a place should the next pandemic come that there’s still millions of people out there that don’t have connections to broadband. So I hope moving forward, whether it’s in a Covid package or not, Congress is going to prioritize funding for broadband access and affordability.

A Window Into Indian Country

Loris Taylor, president and CEO of Native Public Media (NPM): Let me tell you a little bit about what’s happening in terms of Covid-19 across Indian country. As of yesterday for the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest tribes in the United States, they reported 1,321 positive cases and 43 deaths. Comparatively to other States, they’re up there in the top five which is not good for Indian country. Zia Pueblo in New Mexico, which is one of our smaller tribes with a population of 900, reported 31 positive cases. There’s a real fear among native Americans that some tribes could become extinct due to Covid-19. I’m praying and hoping that that’s not even possible, but the reality is that help is very slow in getting out to Indian country, which is very remote and isolated in many places.

In Arizona, 62 percent of all the positive cases are tribal and according to Indian Country Today, $50 billion in economic activity will be lost in Indian country because of Covid-19. So one thing that we know for sure is that people are dying and they’re suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And where infrastructure is limited, the anxiety is even more pronounced. We normally refer to these areas as news deserts and zero gig communities. That’s Indian country. It’s like we’re the poster children of not being connected.

… We’re spreading this information over our airwaves. [It’s] super important for people that may not even have a telephone, radio is one way to get into these homes. … One thing that’s quite apparent is that we’re wired to be connected to other human beings, to our environment, to the world…. Northern Arizona University in Arizona, for example, has set up a parking lot hotspot across tribal communities. On the Hopi Reservation, we’re lucky to have one. My grandson who used it the other day experienced some high latency issues. Also, they only had one mobile handheld, so he did his homework and then his sister followed. That’s four hours right there for the parent to be in some parking lot with their kids. Not very ideal.

… We’ve asked the FCC to encourage internet service providers to offer subsidized or free broadband to native radio and television stations, to tribal governments, first responders, some hospitals on reservations. We’ve asked them to increase broadband speeds and provide unlimited voice calling and text messaging for our Lifeline customers. … The subsidy that native Americans used to receive from Lifeline was lowered. We’re now asking them to go back the other way, ramp it up. We’re asking for a suspension of all fixed and mobile broadband data caps and usage overage charges. We’re asking them to deploy more spectrum. Right now the 2.5 gigahertz window is still open for tribes, but here’s the thing, tribal governments are shut down. Only the essential departments are in service and so we’ve also asked … for the FCC to extend that window for another 12 months. … [FCC] Chairman Ajit Pai temporarily granted the use of 2.5 gigahertz to the Navajo Nation. We’re asking him to make this available to other tribes.

Connecting Rural Schools and Libraries

Irene Flannery, Director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure: E-Rate’s been a great program over the last 22 years. It’s disbursed upwards of $60 billion a year to bring broadband infrastructure to schools and libraries. But it’s a cumbersome program. It’s done great things. It’s made a lot of progress. But we still today, here in 2020, find tribal schools and libraries still behind the digital divide, in spite of a $60 billion infusion of federal money to bring that level of connectivity to schools and libraries. It’s getting better. We’re working with a number of tribal communities in helping to bring in particular broadband fiber infrastructure. But it’s time to take… the FCC has taken some kind of remedial measures in response to Covid, including extending the filing window for the upcoming funding year for E-Rate, which is great … to allow schools and libraries to permit the community to access their Wi-Fi signal, and that’s great.

Those are wonderful things, but we all know that in rural America and across Indian country, driving to the school, driving to the library, sitting in the parking lot is good if there’s nothing else. But there’s no reason it should be that way. There’s no reason that folks living in Indian country and folks living in rural America [should] have to leave their homes and sit in a car outside of school or library in order to do the things that we take for granted, being able to do homework from home … and so if there’s a silver lining to all of this, I think maybe this crisis, this pandemic, is bringing these issues to the forefront. And saying, look, there is no reason that people living in certain parts of our country are dealing with third-world connectivity, essentially.

In my mind, it’s time for the commission to think big and it’s possible within their statutory authority to expand… We need to think about… E-Rate is funding all of these networks and they’re on 24/7. They’re on all the time. It doesn’t matter. Once you’ve paid for that connectivity, it’s going to be on all the time. Why not take bigger steps to expand and leverage that connectivity directly to students at home? It can be done. It takes a lot of creative thinking and the commission can either do it within their existing statutory authority or they can forebear from some of the congressional requirements.

What About Broadband and Rural Healthcare?

Beth O’Connor, Executive Director of the Virginia Rural Health Association: … previously, telehealth was primarily seen as a way to allow rural patients access to specialists in urban areas. A patient would come in to a rural hospital [or] clinic and connect remotely with the specialist in the big urban center. But now with Covid, telehealth is being used for primary care visits. The patient can stay at home and connect to their primary care provider via the internet. That way we don’t have to risk the face-to-face interaction. This has generated both a lot of interest from patients and providers and a lot of confusion for those who’ve never used telehealth before. We had many patients and many providers say, “Nope, I’m not interested in using that telehealth stuff. That’s not for me. I want to talk to people face-to-face.” Now all of a sudden they’re very interested in telehealth. So we’re having a lot of interest for it that didn’t exist before, with mixed results.

… quite a few of the rural hospitals had been using telehealth previously, but this is something fairly new for our smaller entities. Just last week, [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] (CMS) issued guidance for rural health clinics and community health centers on using telehealth. With those guidelines, providers are working to determine how to structure those remote visits in a manner that will still allow them to be reimbursed. It used to be, to be reimbursed, the patient had to come to the clinic or the hospital and then connect remotely to that urban site. They weren’t allowed to be paid via Medicaid or Medicare visiting the patient home that way.

… in terms of funding to support telehealth implementation, prior to Covid, for several years, the FCC had the Universal Service Fund. One program under USF is the Healthcare Connect Fund; this helps public and nonprofit healthcare providers pay for broadband upgrades. Under the program, healthcare entities would have internet service providers bid on service improvements, such as laying fiber to a hospital or clinic, and then the funds would cover up to 65 percent of the costs of the service improvements. … eligibility for the Healthcare Connect Fund is limited to public and nonprofit providers in rural communities.

… Now with Covid, [the] FCC has $200 million available to help hospitals and clinics to provide services to patients in their homes. They use the funds as limited, and I’m going to quote here, “purchase telecommunications, information services and connected devices necessary to provide telehealth services to patients in response to the current coronavirus pandemic.” … All of those services assume that the patient, and the clinic for that matter, has broadband connectivity. For someone like me who doesn’t have broadband at home, I have very poor cell phone service that works some days and it doesn’t work other days. I would not be able to use those services. So, none of these funds can improve the service that already exists. It can just help people use those broadband services to … improve visits remotely.

On Improving Rural Broadband Policy

Loris Taylor: Make sure that we start with policymaking. First of all, we need to make the internet a utility. It has to be free and open and available to everyone, everywhere, every time. And I think Covid-19 is definitely pointing at that. … All of Indian country needs broadband. All of Indian country needs additional spectrum to do what they need to do. Everything ranging from telehealth to the new innovations that are taking place where we’re not even participating because we’re being excluded. … and … we need to make sure that there’s investment. We can have good policy, we can have good programs and good ideas, but the funding needs to be there so that the deployment actually takes place. I’m happy that we’re having the hotspots initiated across the country, it’s very necessary right now, but it’s a band-aid. It really is. It’s going to be there short-term. It’ll be lifted and it’ll go away.

Jenna Leventoff: … Dollars are great, and I think this was mentioned earlier, but without good data about where those dollars need to go we can’t make smart policy decisions. So, Congress took action, they passed the Broadband Data Act this year and that requires the FCC to collect better data than it has been. … It would make data collection a little bit more granular, would give us a better sense of where there is and isn’t broadband. But there’s still ways that the FCC can improve even upon what it’s being told to do in the Broadband Data Act. It’s important that we start understanding the price that people are paying and know if people can afford broadband. It’s important to start collecting data about outages and know if our networks are reliable. If you have service, but it goes out all the time, it’s not serving anybody. There’s all sorts of other data points that we need to start collecting in order to start formulating better policies.

Roberto Gallardo: … the improvement data bill … that’ll help. But it’s very interesting to me that we’re in 2020 and we’re still relying on a method to collect data that’s so twentieth century. I think that we could attempt to do some crowdsourcing. I think that a lot of valuable data could be gathered that way. In my work at the local level … we have to do surveys with homes and crosscheck that with what the FCC is telling you. We also have found that it can be 25/3 or 10/1 [speed], however you define it … it’s the quality of that service. Meaning, do you get the speed and the broadband that you need for your particular situation? We did a study in Indiana and we found 93 percent said, “Yeah, I have access.” Two thirds of them though were not satisfied with that access. … So first and foremost, let’s try and gather … try different methods, more twenty-first century methods to gather data, perhaps and crosscheck what already exists.

Beth O’Connor: … I would absolutely encourage everyone to download the TestIT app. TestIT is something promoted by the National Association of Counties. … This is an app you can download on your phone, on your iPad, whatever, and test the speed where you are. I’d encourage everyone to download that, and then use it everywhere. Check it in your kitchen, check it in your basement, check it in the front of the room, check it in the back of the room, check it at 10:00 a.m. check it at 1:00 p.m., check it at work, check at your neighbors, check it everywhere. Every time you run the speed test on that app, that data goes back to a central location, and helps them map where the needs are.

Loris Taylor: … I just want to add that for Indian country, we submitted testimony from Native Public Media to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee asking that there be more interagency cooperation between the [United States Department of Agriculture] (USDA), the FCC, the Department of Interior, Indian Health Service. All these agencies have a role in how much broadband can be connected to Indian country, but sometimes the dialogue is not there. They’re working in isolation from one another. And we need some national advisory that can direct this interagency cooperation because most times we’re barking at the FCC, but we know that the answers are from the other departments as well.

Jenna Leventoff: … there’s more wonky recommendations I could make about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund … because they’re not giving money to areas that are receiving Department of Agriculture funds or state funding, and it’s expensive to build these networks. Oftentimes multiple sources of funding are going to be needed. … Another barrier is that a lot of states, even though municipal broadband is a great way of getting broadband to places that otherwise wouldn’t have it, and making that broadband more affordable and increasing competition, a lot of states have laws that either restrict or outright ban municipal broadband. That’s impeding … that everyone has access to broadband. … that’s another important thing to consider.

On Opportunities and Success Stories in Rural Broadband

Loris Taylor: … [one] clear example is bringing broadband down into the Grand Canyon Hualapai community. There’s also a project in New Mexico under Kimball Sekaquaptewa where she is coordinating an effort between several tribes, which is not easy when you’re working across jurisdictions. But what I can say is that there has to be more innovation like that for first mile, middle mile and last mile efforts.

Irene Flannery: … Kimball used to work for me. We worked on … two tribally-owned fiber networks that are now up and running and operational using E-Rate money. So, there’s a network that connects the Jemez and Zia Pueblos here in New Mexico, and then another separate network that connects four Pueblos going just north of Albuquerque up to Santa Fe. So, the Santa Ana Pueblo, San Philippe, Santa Domingo and Cochiti. These were each roughly $4 million projects, 95 percent of which was paid for by the E-Rate program. There is another Pueblo community that we are working with that just broke ground on a similar network, using over $2 million worth of E-Rate money. And these are fiber networks and this is fiber that the tribes own. They own it, they operate it, and they can take steps to leverage that connectivity to their communities.

So, E-Rate’s not the only vehicle, but it’s one that’s there. It’s a lot of money. It’s $4 billion a year and they’re subsidies … they’re not grants, they’re not loans, there’s nothing to pay back. It’s a subsidy program. So, for communities like the Pueblo communities … and the efforts of the Santa Fe Indian School … all of this money is going into the infrastructure in the ground that tribal communities now own.

Beth O’Connor: … certainly one partnership that I think people need to think about, with the Healthcare Connect Fund – again, the funds will pay up to 65 percent of those service improvements, the other 35 percent can come from anywhere – for example, if a hospital wants to lay a trunk right to their front door in terms of fiber, and the local chamber of commerce wants to be able to tap into that trunk or a local industrial site or a school or a library or whoever, and they want to pitch in that 35 percent. Those [cases] have created some fabulous public-private partnerships, because obviously paying 35 percent for a high-speed line into your community, is a whole lot cheaper than the full cost.

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