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Todd Foje: Can High-Speed Broadband Finally Bridge the Gap Between Rural and Urban Communities?

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Photo of Todd Foje, CEO of Great Plains Communications, provided by the author

What makes one community flourish while another one struggles? Lack of jobs and essential amenities are often cited as reasons why people move on from rural and midsized communities. In our connected world today, access to technology is a difference-maker.

In 2020 and beyond, high-speed broadband-driven services are becoming a catalyst for growth by providing digital opportunities, regardless of location. We’re seeing rural communities pursuing broadband as a way to ensure businesses and residents have access to services comparable to those found in larger cities, without having to travel great distances.

Broadband driven services and amenities make a difference

Telehealth services. Long-distance clinical healthcare enabled by high-speed broadband networks allows rural hospitals and medical centers the ability to provide more advanced services without requiring travel to larger urban areas. For example, Sidney Regional Medical Center (SRMC), a critical access hospital in Sidney, Nebraska serving a seven-county area, struggled with less-than-ideal connectivity. As a result, SRMC updated its internet services to a dedicated fiber line that connects all its facilities, with one data center.

Today SRMC offers access to acute and critical care, a 24-hour emergency room, physicians’ clinic, walk-in clinic, surgical services, home health and hospice, extended care, assisted living, and more. Ultimately, there will be remote sites in small communities around Sidney where patients will be able to connect with a primary healthcare provider or a specialist via video conferencing.

Community banks. Known for focusing on the needs of the community where the bank is located, funds for rural-area banks typically come from the local people and businesses. Community banking is referred to as “relationship banking” versus the “transactional banking” model of large nationwide banks and newer 100% digital neobanks. Broadband connectivity and high-speed internet access allow these local institutions to compete with the larger nationwide banks by offering mobile banking and other online services.

Education. These days, students at all levels rely on digital learning and having fast and reliable internet is critical for students and staff. A wide variety of online programs such as “Skype a Scientist” and “Canvas,” a cloud-based education platform, offer resources that may not be available locally.

For Chadron State College, the only four-year, regionally accredited college in the western half of Nebraska, a 500 Megabit per second (Mbps) ethernet connection to a data center in Omaha expands their learning territory, enabling bachelors and master’s degrees through affordable and accessible online courses. What’s unique for a college the size of Chadron State is that athletic and performance arts facilities are connected to the college fiber backbone so live musical performances, sports events and even graduation ceremonies can be webcast. Faraway family members and friends can watch live campus events through Chadron’s statewide TV program and feel like they’re in the audience.

Bridging the digital divide

Of course, the costs to deploying fiber in rural areas are significant. Fortunately, in some cases government support is available.

To help provide quality high-speed internet services for unserved rural Nebraska residents, broadband deployment support for rural communities such as Herman, Neb., has made the difference. With funding from the Nebraska Universal Service Fund, GPC recently deployed 60 miles of fiber in rural areas outside of the town of Herman, resulting in fiber-to-the-home internet services to approximately 100 rural households.

The digital divide between rural and urban communities will continue to shrink as we bring high-speed broadband, particularly fiber broadband, to more and more areas across the United States, empowering individuals, businesses and institutions – regardless of their location.

About the author:

Todd Foje is the CEO of Great Plains Communications. A native of Jefferson, Iowa, he now resides in Omaha, Nebraska. As a certified public accountant and attorney, he has a BSBA degree from Creighton University, a Juris Doctor degree from George Washington University and a Masters of Law in Taxation (LLM) degree from Georgetown University.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

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Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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