Thank you to everyone who joined us for part 2 of our series on rural broadband in the time of COVID-19: “Has the Government’s Response Been Adequate.” For those of you who could not join or who would like to revisit the conversation you can find the recording as well as the complete transcript below.
Transcript: Rural Broadband in the Time of COVID-19, Part 2
Edyael Casaperalta: Okay. I guess we’re getting started. Welcome everyone. Hi. Welcome to the second rural conversation hosted by the National Rural Assembly and the Daily Yonder. My name is Edyael Casaperalta and I’m your moderator for this conversation. Today, we continue our discussion about rural broadband in the time of COVID, and today we’ll hear from policy experts about what’s being done to improve access for rural and native communities during this urgent moment, what’s being done by Congress and by the Federal Communications Commission, and what are the local efforts that they’re seeing. First, we will hear from panelists and then we will have an engaging conversation where we will take your questions.
So before we dive into this great conversation we’ve prepared for you today, we’re going to do a few housekeeping items and I’m going to… Oh yeah, share my screen with everyone. Let’s see. Share. So that should share it. Good. Adventures in technology and now, I just have to do a view that is actually… Slideshow. There we go. Ah, well you get the presenter’s view. So a few housekeeping items. So first you’re watching via YouTube and you’ll continue watching rural conversations via YouTube as well via the Daily Yonder YouTube page. You can send questions via the YouTube comments and you do need a YouTube login to be able to do that. Or you can also send us questions via Twitter using the #ruralconversations. We also want to hear what’s happening in your communities and to do that we’d like for you to use the hashtags #ruralbroadband and #covid19. We want to know what solutions you are seeing in your communities, what challenges you’re seeing to access internet service in rural and native communities.
Because we know that some folk don’t have access to live stream this conversation, we will make the recording available tomorrow on the Rural Assembly website and we also want to remind you that the Rural Assembly has a COVID-19 resource page with lots of great information about COVID-19 and its impact on rural communities and resources. And finally there’s a rural conversation survey that we’d love for you to take a few moments to answer. We want to learn what other topics you’d like to discuss in conversations like this one. And I’ll stop sharing this now. Great.
So now we’re just going to go back to our conversation that we have prepared and to dive in, to give a little background first. So the COVID-19 pandemic require all of us to continue our lives from home. To telework, to distance-learn and to obtain healthcare from our home. And in order to do that, we need internet service, we need broadband service. But as you’ve noticed, millions of people in the US do not have access to broadband. Last week we heard from panelists about how the lack of internet service is affecting rural and native communities, particularly during this pandemic and this week we will focus on solutions. We will discuss what Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have done to increase broadband access in response to the pandemic and what rural and native communities can do in the immediate, in the medium and in the long term to ensure that internet access is available in their communities.
Joining us in this conversation today we have a great group of panelists. We have Roberto Gallardo who’s the Assistant Director for the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University. We also have Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge. We’ll hear from Loris Taylor, CEO of Native Public Media and Irene Flannery, director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure and we will also hear from Beth O’Connor, Executive Director of the Virginia Rural Health Association. And again, I’m Edyael Casaperalta. I’m an attorney that serves underrepresented communities in telecommunications matters and I’m based in Denver. So now without further ado to hear from our panelists. So Mr. Gallardo, would you get us started?
Roberto Gallardo: Sure, Edyael. Hello everybody. Can you hear me okay? It’s always good to double check. Hello fellow virtual panelists. I am here in this lovely Canadian background, but I am in the guest bedroom. I would like to talk to you about, to set the stage for my colleagues to discuss the details of policies, some of the research that we’ve done that looks into rural and how it’s impacting thanks in part to this COVID situation. It is really shedding a very bright spotlight into this issue that we have been talking about for a while, at least those of us in my professional circle in Rural Assembly and others 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.
And so I will share with you some of the research we’ve done and some stats and a database that we developed to help communities better understand what it is they’re facing when it comes to mitigation strategies regarding COVID-19. To begin with, let me start by saying that broadband infrastructure, the data around this is very interesting because the only national data set we have is the 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. So I’m going to cite a couple of those. Keep in mind it overestimates coverage, but still it’s important because it jump-starts conversations that otherwise would be hard to initiate. So that’s what helps us tremendously in that respect.
So broadband infrastructure has been built. I’m going to talk about between 2014 and 2018. The trends are encouraging in a way where broadband in rural areas has been increasing. I’m going to look upward here a little bit to my other screen. However, there is a concept that again is being shown clearly today because of COVID, there is not digital parody and with digital parody 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.
So let me show that for example, while less than 2% 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 parody. What’s really interesting is for example, in 2014 one quarter of housing units in urban areas had access to fiber. That number jumped to almost 50% by 2018. In contrast, rural housing units, 10% had access in 2014 and by 2018 it was only 17.6%.
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 track 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 high vulnerable category are rural counties. So there’s a lot to be done. That’s the context we’re facing. I get calls from superintendents. I know you discussed schools into your last video panel, but it’s a situation that unfortunately has caught rural with the short end of the stick.
Edyael: Thank you for setting that context for us, Roberto. And I will sneak a little bit of info while we prepare for the next panelist. I want to pick up and introduce the conversation we’ll have with a little bit of background on some of the programs that are designed to address this gap in connectivity that Roberto just told us about. So let me share my screen again. Let’s see. Great. So 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 communications federal 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.
And so 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. So 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. And the panelists will go into more detail about these programs, but I just wanted to give a little bit of info. Lifeline helps qualify low income consumers pay for a 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 or eligible telecommunications carriers 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.
And before we go on to Jenna who’s going to talk to us about congressional action in response to COVID and broadband, I did want to mention a little bit of what the FCC is doing in response to COVID. So I’ve highlighted a few actions that the FCC has taken since the pandemic started. The main one being that the FCC launched the Keep Americans Connected pledge in which for 60 days, beginning in the middle of March, around their companies, 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.
So these are some of the actions that the FCC has taken. The FCC has also waived some rules from the Lifeline and the E-Rate program. The FCC has also granted emergency access to Spectrum for some providers to provide emergency service. And the FCC launched a COVID-19 telehealth program that Beth, one of our panelists, will also discuss. So I wanted to offer this as a background of what the FCC has done before COVID to close the digital divide and now during the pandemic in response to the lack of telecommunication services in some areas. But now we’ll go to Jenna who will talk to us about what Congress has done. Jenna?
Jenna: Yes. Thanks so much. Also, I’ll just give an advanced apology if my cat makes her way into the video. She just always wants to be a part of any Zoom meeting that I’m in. So my name is Jenna Levantoff. I’m a Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with us, we’re a DC based advocacy group and we promote freedom of expression, open internet, as well as access to affordable communications tools and really work hard to shape policy on behalf of consumers and the public interest. So with that goal in mind, we’ve been following what Congress has been doing on COVID and broadband really closely and have been involved in a lot of those conversations.
So the update about what funding for rural broadband has been included in legislation responding to the pandemic. So 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… Yeah, see the cat, she’s not going to let me do anything. To stop throttling, any sort of stuff like that that makes sure that broadband quality is sufficient.
So anyway, 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 public knowledge would say that it’s really important that Congress does more in forthcoming stimulus packages. So the first thing was Congress provided $100 million to the USDA for its reconnect program. So 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 and 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 is 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.
So the next thing that the Cares Act did, it provided $200 million to the FCC to support telehealth, which I think other panels are going to talk about. 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 sort of have the technical know-how to do that. Again, pretty small pool of money there. And then one of the final things that it did 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. I think a lot of folks on Capitol Hill are thinking that maybe in a fourth stimulus package, and just for terminology, a lot of you might be reading the news and seeing that there’s something that Congress is discussing right now. We’re calling that COVID 3.5. It’s a sort of interim COVID package, but an actual fourth or fifth package, there are some proposals that are floating around.
In particular, Congress is discussing about a billion dollars that would expand the Lifeline program that Edyael described earlier. It would provide subsidies to low income Americans and that subsidy would be more than the typical amount of lifeline subsidies. Typically that amount is $9 and 25 cents. This package would have a range of tiers depending on the speed available and what actually< possibly, I think there’s also provisions for maybe giving more money to tribal folks for connections. 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 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. So I think 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 market place. So all of that said, I mean 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 and have their cats on their Zoom videos. So, it’s a tricky issue I think because deployment is a longer term thing, right? Hotspots can be deployed relatively quickly. There’s some discussion in DC circles about using school and library connections as sort of backhaul to offer community members internet. That could be done maybe a little bit faster. But in general, it’s hard to know what we can do to get people connected now.
So this issue is almost more than just a short term stimulus thing. It’s certainly part of that and we need to do more to make sure that Americans are connected for that. But 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, the Congress is going to prioritize funding for broadband access and affordability. So, I’m happy to answer more questions about that in Q and A. But that’s the general gist of what’s been happening in Congress.
Edyael: Thanks Jenna. And with this background that both Roberto and Jenna have provided, Loris can you expand a little bit on what’s going on in native communities, what you’re seeing. So take it away while I set up your slide.
Loris Taylor: Good afternoon. I’m Loris Taylor, I’m the president and CEO of Native Public Media. I’ve been with the organization since 2004. We basically have two programs. One is to make sure that we secure broadcast licenses for tribes and tribal entities, and once we get those stations on air to keep them on air. Secondly, we have a very robust national and international communications and telecommunications policy program. So a little bit about Native Public Media. We have 59 radio stations licensed to local tribal governments and tribal entities and three television stations in the NPM family. We do everything AM, FM, full power, low power, non-commercial, educational and commercial stations and on analog and digital platforms. In 2016 Native Public Media published an emergency communications preparedness curriculum. We hosted our training two years before COVID-19, who knew that this would come into play. One of the things that we’ve learned throughout that process was that our native stations are not just essential. They’re classified as members of the first responder community.
So if you can imagine we’ve been just 24/7 working over time the last few weeks. One of the things that they do learn from this communications preparedness training is to make sure that one, they know how to analyze the hazard. Secondly, that they can do a community scan. Super important. Learning where people live, whether they have telephone, whether they have the internet, whether their street is unpaved or whether their streets even have a name. I come from a village of 100 people and none of the streets in where I live have names. So also the other thing they’ve learned to do is to map vulnerable populations. We all know that when a disaster is occurring, it doesn’t come in orderly package. It’s quite the opposite. It’s disorderly, there’s chaos involved, and this is where good training comes into play.
So we’ve been using Spectrum to bring broadcasts facilities to Indian country for a very, very long time. But it’s not enough. We have 578 American Indian tribes in Alaska native villages in the United States. So even having 59 radio stations and several television stations, it’s not enough to provide the information in an information centric disaster and crisis and every disaster is just like this. Let me tell you a little bit about what’s happening in terms of a 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% 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 were 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. So a little bit about what our broadcast facilities are covering right now in the absence of broadband and internet connectivity. So we’re basically really focused on four areas of information. We’re looking at information from hospitals, from law enforcement, from hazard management and from government. So for example, we know that hospitals serving reservations have set up specific protocols for testing as well as for how patients can be seen.
We’re spreading this information over our airwaves. Super important for people that may not even have a telephone. Radio is one way to get into these homes. We’re also covering government directives. You may not know, but then Navajo Nation has implemented a 57 hour weekend curfew that starts at 5:00 PM on Friday and ends on Monday at 6:00 AM. There are citations and fines attached to this curfew. And then for me as a Hopi nation person, our reservation is in the middle of the Navajo reservation. So there’s a lot of inner governmental activity as well that is being broadcast over the airwaves. So that as a Hopi person, if I’m traveling from Hopi through the Navajo reservation, I have to be aware that there’s a curfew in place, have my tribal ID on my person. So that if I’m stopped, I can say that I’m not a member of the Navajo Nation, I’m a Hopi nation person traveling through.
Then there are, of course other directives that we’re all familiar with, but the latest one that we’re covering now is regarding hazard management as we’re transitioning loved ones into their journey. Those that have left us, we’re learning about new protocols in terms of handling infectious bodies. So this has got huge cultural relevance to native Americans. So that kind of information very delicate is being broadcast over our airwaves. And then of course the big one where to get groceries, right? If you’re an hour and up to two hours away from the nearest grocery store. You want to know whether you should get in your car, travel those two hours, and get to the nearest town and make sure that those items are going to be available. We’re finding that many times the shelves are already empty. So there’s been a lot of bulk buying happening by people like myself hauling groceries out to the rural communities so the elders have food and the necessities that they need.
So one thing that’s quite apparent is that we’re wired to be connected to other human beings, to our environment, to the world. So let me just transition over to what’s happening from Native Public Media in terms of our policy. We know that in Americans… In this focus on getting Americans connected. 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 issue. 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. So recently we’ve urged the FCC to do a few things and I’ll try to cover this very quickly.
We’ve asked the FCC to encourage internet service providers to offer subsidized or free broad brand 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. You may not know, but 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 from native public media for the FCC to extend that window for another 12 months.
Edyael: Can we come back to these amazing recommendations when we do the broader discussion?
Loris: Absolutely. Let me just end by saying that just one more thing. Chairman Pai temporarily granted the use of 2.5 gigahertz to the Navajo Nation. We’re asking him to make this available to other tribes. With a quick wrap up, thank you so much.
Edyael: Thank you Loris. I think this is a great conversation about what can be done that will keep going back with everyone as well and thank you for starting us off with some of the amazing recommendations here. Now we want to hear from Irene Flannery. Irene, can you tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing with tribes and native communities and E-rate?
Irene Flannery: Sure. Hi, I am Irene Flannery. I am the director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure. AMERIND is a household name in Indian country. The company has been in existence since 1986 and was created to address the challenge that tribal members were having in obtaining insurance for their housing. So if you think of AMERIND, it’s… If you think of American Indian, that’s how the name was created. We are owned by 400 member tribes and at its core, AMERIND is an insurance company. We’re 100% tribally owned. We started out on the housing side and that’s still a core part of our business, but have expanded for the most part in the insurance realm. But about four years ago, the AMERIND board was looking at ways to give back to our members and looked at a number of different critical infrastructure. This including energy, roads, and broadband and decided that broadband really was the 21st century critical infrastructure.
So they created a division AMERIND Critical Infrastructure and two of us at AMERIND came from the Federal Communications Commission. Jeff Blackwell and myself. I spent 14 years at the commission, two different tours of duty. I had the honor of being on the original E-rate team back in 1996 there were two of us that wrote the rules for the commission. My last five years at the commission, when I went back, I served as the founding deputy chief of the FCC tribal office. The office of native affairs and policy. In between there I worked for USEC, the Universal Service Administrative Company. They administer $11 billion a year series of programs that Edyael did such a great job of introducing. So I’m going to focus on E-rate, which is one of those four programs. E-rate stands for education rate. It was one of the programs created as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and provides discounted telecommunications broadband and used to be voice, no more voice services to elementary and secondary schools and libraries.
It’s a program that that has… The discounts range from 20% to 90%. So it was always intended to provide additional funding to those schools and libraries in economically challenged communities. There is no special provision for tribal schools and libraries. Unlike Lifeline, as Lawrence mentioned, there is a tribal lifeline program. E-rate’s been a great program over the last 22 years. It’s dispersed 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 $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… and the commission as Edyael mentioned, 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. Reiterating its policy which has been in place for many, many years, but I think a lot of folks didn’t quite understand that.
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 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, so.
Edyael: Thank you for giving us a little bit more info on E-rate, Irene, and what the FCC can do. We’ll hope to get into more of that conversation. Coupling it with what Loris mentioned about the permissions that were granted to tribal colleges that are surely using E-rate funding. Or maybe not.
Irene: No colleges.
Edyael: Oh, that’s true is K to 12. That’s right. I was wrong. But now I like to hear from Beth O’Connor who will tell us a little bit about the telehealth programs of the FCC.
Beth O’Connor: Sure. Greetings. So as a background, the Virginia Rural Health Association is a nonprofit advocacy organization working to improve health and health care for the 2.5 million people who call rural Virginia their home. So 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 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 the risk to the face to face interaction. This is 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. So with that, 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, 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. So trying to figure out how all of that works.
Now in terms of funding to support telehealth implementation. Prior to COVID for several years, the FCC had the Universal Service Fund, which I think was referred to already a little bit. One program the under USF is the Health Care 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% of the costs of the service improvements. Concern with that, eligibility for the healthcare connect fund is limited to public and nonprofit providers in rural communities. There’s a few limited exceptions for urban hospitals that are part of a healthcare system with rural hospital sites and there’s also some very tiny exceptions for for-profit rural hospitals, but the application process is extremely burdensome and the first few years there were funds that went unclaimed because the applicants were not able to wade through the process. Now, many healthcare providers have joined consortiums and they pay someone else to complete the paperwork on their behalf. The best example of this, the Indiana Rural Health Association has several full time staff that all they do is fill out that healthcare connect fund paperwork on behalf of their members. So, that was the existing program at FCC.
Now with COVID, 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 of coronavirus pandemic.” So, this essentially limits the funds to three purposes. One is telecommunication services and broadband connectivity. So, voiceover IP, your basic Verizon or whoever broadband bill, those types of things. Two, information services, so things like remote patient monitoring platforms and services, store and forward services such as transfer of patient images and data to review by a physician, and platforms and services to provide video consultations such as software and other services to support the telehealth visits. And then the third purpose for the funds are connected devices and equipments. Tablets, smart phones, other connected devices.
For example, there are broadband enabled blood pressure cuffs and broadband enabled pulse monitors and broadband enabled scales. You can step on a scale, have the device send the information directly to your physician. And then, things like telemedicine kiosks and carts for use in hospitals and clinics. Big limitation with those devices is they have to be used for that direct broadband connection. So, you can’t say step on a scale, write the number down and call that number into your provider. It has to be that direct connection via broadband. 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 a 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 be able to improve visits remotely. A few eligibility limitations that people need to be aware of with those funds. First of all, the funds, again, can only be accessed by public and nonprofit providers. An independent rural health clinic or a for-profit rural hospital would not be able to use those funds.
And the other thing is the funds don’t cover any personnel, IT, administrative training costs, anything like that, and really tele-health. So, if your provider needs technical assistance to learn how to use your new equipment, if your office staff need training on how to do billing and coding in terms of telehealth, if you need to bring in technical assistance, it won’t cover any of that. It just covers the services and the equipment to use the services. Some other key points with the COVID funds, one is those funds are essentially first come first serve. I would encourage anybody if they’re interested to get their application in yesterday because once it’s gone, it’s gone, and $200 million is not going to go all that far. There is no application deadline where they wait to get X number in and then see who deserves it the most. They’re reviewing applications as they come in. The other part you need to know is this is not limited to rural providers. An urban clinic or an urban hospital that wanted to use the funds to say provide services to a low income community in their service area could do that. It’s strictly whoever needs it and can get their application in fastest.
Edyael: Right, and I think that’s a point I’d like to now start having a conversation with everyone about all of these programs essentially and the response from federal policymakers and Congress about what to do during COVID. Thank you so much Beth for breaking down that telehealth program for us. So, the question to go back to everyone, and feel free to chime in, this portion of the webinar, we want it to be as a fluid conversation as it can be while we’re all chiming from our own homes. And a reminder to people listening in, if you want to send in your questions, use the YouTube comments to send in your question or via Twitter. You can also use the hashtag rural conversations and we’re monitoring the questions that are coming in. And we’ve already gotten quite a few nuanced conversations about these programs. So, before we go into the more nuanced questions, I wanted to ask everyone. So, we’ve discussed Lifeline, E-Rate, tele-health, Rebecca talked to us about the disparity in internet access in rural and urban communities. So, how can we improve these programs? As Beth was wrapping up, she’s saying this telehealth program is not exclusive to rural, so how can we improve Lifeline, E-Rate, tele-health to ensure that rural communities and native communities are able to use these programs to connect those communities? And you guys can jump in or I can call on anybody.
Beth: Yeah, so for me, obviously if some of the funds was at least an earmark that a certain percentage went to rural communities, maybe an equal percentage of the population are rural, I think that would be a start in the right direction. I would personally like to see more go to rural, but I’m biased.
Irene: And I’m probably going to take a little bit of a different position just taking it from the tribal perspective, because the FCC in recent years has tried to restrict some of the programs that benefit tribal communities to those tribal communities in areas that it deems to be rural. The reality is that the federal government has a trust responsibility with all tribal nations, not just with those tribal nations that happened to be located in rural areas, which of course many of them are. But just obviously there are critical issues and access issues in many rural areas that maybe some urban areas don’t experience. But as far as tribal nations are concerned, the issue of access and lack of access and lack of affordable access exists whether a tribal nation is located in a rural area or an urban area. So, the FCC tried to restrict the tribal Lifeline program to those tribal communities in rural areas and was slapped down by the courts. And they’re now doing the same thing with the 2.5 gigahertz tribal priority window, that is restricted only to tribal nations that the FCC considers to be located in rural areas. And I think that’s a big missed opportunity.
Loris: And I think to Irene’s point, we say in Indian country that often the cows have more rights than human beings.
Loris: 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. The other thing that we need to do is take a look at Spectrum allocation. We are part of the United States, we’ve been fighting for broadband deployment and greater penetration for as long as I can remember. It’s time to make sure that the 2.5 gigahertz window is open right now, but it’s very narrow in who can apply for it. So, through the eligibility requirements, there are many tribes that are going to still be excluded. Those that are close to urban centers. This is really calling for the rural of the most rural. It’s a very tight circle.
All of Indian country needs broadband. All of Indian country needs additional Spectrum to do what they need to do. Everything ranging from tele-health to the new innovations that are taking place where we’re not even participating because we’re being excluded. I think the other is that we need to make sure that we are adhering to the letter of the law. Lifeline, the universal service reform has to be universal and ubiquitous. That means that every single American in the US should have that right and that privilege. And finally, 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. The fact that the Navajo nation is using 2.5 gigahertz right now to provide broadband, that has to be made permanent, permanent solutions. There’s already an avenue for the FCC to work with tribes and that’s through tribal consultation.
Edyael: Thank you, Loris. And I want to pick up on two threats that all of you mentioned. So, first I know Lifeline. Jenna, you had said that Congress is looking at some improving Lifeline proposals. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that could contribute?
Jenna: Yeah, so some things I’m not allowed to share yet. That’s how Congress works, but what I think has been made available to the public already is the Lifeline proposal for COVID would have different tiers of access. So, you could access Lifeline at a 25 through speed or at a 100 speed and then the benefit would increase according with that speed. And one of the bigger changes that it would make is it would get rid of the ETC process, the Eligible Telecom Carrier, at least for this interim broadband benefit, so that individuals could use their Lifeline benefit with a number of carriers and not just the traditional ones that they’ve been using. And I think the thinking behind that is that it makes it faster to help people get connected. So, that’s some of the changes that are being considered for future COVID stimulus packages.
And also, just I want to add on quickly to the last question. 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. We could do a whole separate webinar on the problems with the data that we have right now, but 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. And so, there’s all sorts of other data points that we need to start collecting in order to start formulating better policies all around.
Edyael: Yeah, thank you. And before we lose the thread on that, I do want us to explain a little bit more of what that means. So, currently the FCC has opened the window where rural tribal licenses to that five Spectrum that are available over rural and tribal lands. A tribe or a specific entity can come and claim that license and that license will allow them to build wireless internet networks. And so, that’s the measure that both Loris and Irene have discussed. And take us back a little bit as to why you’re bringing that up right now, both Loris and Irene?
Irene: Well, first of all, it’s an incredibly unique opportunity. My last time at the commission, I was there from 2008 to 2016 and in I believe it was 2011, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking on expanding access to Spectrum over tribal lands. That rule making proceeding is still open. Nothing has ever happened. There were some very radical proposals and some more short term proposals, but up until now the commission really hasn’t taken a position on expanding access to Spectrum over tribal lands. So, this opportunity is incredibly unique. The FCC doesn’t… So, usually just by way of background, the FCC auctions licenses for Spectrum. They can go for tens of thousands of dollars. In this opportunity, the window is open for tribal nations to apply for the 2.5 gigahertz licenses that are available over their lands, if they’re tribal and if they’re rural, at no cost. The license is free.
Now, of course, there are build out requirements and you’ll have to spend some money to build out a network. But the reality is this window is open for a finite period of time. And as Laura said, extending the window is critically important. A number of members of Congress have been making that pitch. Commissioner Rosenworcel has mentioned that as well, in line with many of the other steps the FCC is taking to give folks a better opportunity. Because if tribes don’t apply for these licenses, they’re going to go to auction and somebody is going to pay a lot of money and it’s not going to be a tribe. It’s going to be a commercial provider that comes and probably doesn’t provide a good quality of service. So, it’s both a unique opportunity, it’s an economic development opportunity. It’s a bankable asset and it will put in the control of a tribal nation the build out of its own wireless network using the Spectrum license. It’s just a really unique opportunity and we don’t know whether it will ever or in the foreseeable future come again.
Edyael: Thanks. And I want to start asking the questions that are coming in via social media for panelists and one of them talking about what are the opportunities that are right now available for projects to deploy broadband in rural and native communities? So, if you guys can chime in with examples of efforts that you’ve seen that have worked to build broadband in rural and native areas?
Loris: Well, I think that first, clear examples are bringing broadband down into the Grand Canyon Hualipi 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. And I think the ingenuity is already there, it’s just that we need the Spectrum to be actually allocated. And to Irene’s point, the fact that tribal governments are operating on a very limited basis right now, it makes no sense to have the window for 2.5 gigahertz to close on August 3rd, 2020. That’s like tomorrow. There are a lot of things that tribes have to do internally to make sure that they qualify for that Spectrum, and so adding an additional 12 months is where we need help and making sure that people that are our allies out there can perhaps encourage Congress and the FCC to make sure that that happens.
Irene: If I could just build on something that Laura said, when Kimball used to work for me. So, we worked on those 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% 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. So, 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 that Loris mentioned and that we’ve been working with and in conjunction with Kimball as well, and the efforts of the Santa Fe Indian School has been taking, all of this money is going into the infrastructure in the ground that tribal communities now own.
Edyael: And Irene, a follow up question on E-rate that somebody asked on YouTube is does E-rate exclude preschools since it’s K to 12?
Irene: That is a question, and it is a state by state determination. So, in the Communications Act, Congress left it to the states to define elementary education. So, in states where elementary education is defined at starting at pre-K, head starts and preschools are eligible. In states in which elementary ed is defined as beginning at kindergarten, unfortunately, Pre-K and Head Start programs are not eligible. There is a resource and I can provide you that information, Edyael, and we can get it up. On USF’s website, they maintain a list, state by state as to whether Pre-K … And in some states juvenile detention facilities are eligible and some adult learning facilities are also eligible.
Edyael: Yeah, do send us that so we can share it with the audience and on the Rural Assembly website. I want to bring in a point that’s been made earlier and bring in Roberto to discuss it. So we would discuss that to really deploy services where in the most efficient manner and that actually connects rural communities, we want to understand what’s available, right? Where there is broadband service, which currently is defined I think by 23 megabits down and three megabits up. And so Roberto since you’re our data guy in this conversation, what do you think the FCC needs to be doing to really understand the access to broadband in rural and native communities? What data tips do you want to offer?
Roberto: Yeah, sure. Jenna mentioned the improvement data bill that passed earlier this year. 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 20th 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, we have to do surveys with homes and cross check that with what the FCC is telling you. We also have found that it can be 25 three or ten one, however you define it is there.
It’s the quality of that service. Meaning, do you get the speed and the broadband that you need for your particular whatever situation? We did a study in Indiana and we found 93% said, “Yeah, I have access.” Two thirds of them though were not satisfied with that access. So there’s a different level there and that data unfortunately does not exist. As Jenny mentioned, cost, we don’t know about cost. And so the cost in urban … In all areas really, but mostly in urban inner city neighborhoods, it’s affordability. We’re flying in the dark. So first and foremost, let’s try and gather … try different methods, more 21st century methods to gather data, perhaps and crosscheck what already exists.
Edyael: Excellent. Thank you. And we’ve actually again, receiving a lot of questions that go to whether there are efforts in other agencies beyond the FCC and USDA. So somebody is asking, does the department forestry have any initiatives? Does the department of interior have any initiatives that would support a broadband deployment? Can you guys chime in with ideas about that?
Beth: So the USDA actually has several sources of funding to support telehealth services and broadband connectivity. I haven’t tried to go after those fund yet. So I don’t know exactly how that works. But I believe that those are loan programs, but those loans can be forgiven.
Loris: So 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 inter agency cooperation between the 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 inter agency cooperation because most times we’re barking at the FCC, but we know that the answers are from the other departments as well.
Edyael: Great. In that spirit as well, we received a question talking about specific efforts for cooperatives and municipalities, and if there are challenges that those entities are facing to be able to meet broadband deployment. Do you guys have any ideas on that?
WHO: Yeah, so certainly one partnership that I think people need to think about with the Healthcare Connect Fund again, the funds will pay up to 65% of those service improvements. The other 35% can come from anywhere. So 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%, those have created some fabulous public private partnerships, because obviously paying 35% for a high speed line into your community, is a whole lot cheaper than the full cost.
Edyael: Roberto, you were chiming in, interested?
Roberto: Yeah, I was just going to say, it’s no news to anybody that’s watching us or in this panel that to truly ensure that our rural communities have adequate broadband, will require all hands on deck, and this takes in and of itself a tremendous amount of awareness and capacity building at the local level. And so we do not need to lose that, because it is critical that everybody pitches in. This is not a one party solution situation, it is very complex, and it’ll require multiple technologies that will require multiple parties, whatever. It’s all hands on deck. That concept of all hands on deck may not be possible, if the awareness is not there.
Jenna: 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, injuring … Excuse me, that everyone has access to broadband. So I think that’s another important thing to consider.
Edyael: Yeah, thank you so much for bringing up the fact that a lot of States don’t allow municipalities or … to chime in and to enhance competition to internet access. And I think personally I see the to that five window as one of those barriers that has been lifted for tribes to be able to build their own networks themselves. As Irene was mentioning, now the tribal entity that wants the license doesn’t have to bed in a very expensive auction for the spectrum license. And so I see it in relation to local efforts to be able to build for localities, for tribes to build their own networks, now that this barrier has been removed.
But hopefully it doesn’t end just in August 3rd. So with that … The call that Roberto really brought forth of like this is all hands on deck, right? We are having this conversation because not everyone has internet service and it hurts. It shows. The lack of investment has shown and so now we’re trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we provide service in the immediate moment to make sure people stay connected?” But I want to post this one last question to all of you, about this as Roberto pointed out, it means also thinking about all of the efforts that we should take as broadband advocates as members of our own native communities in the middle and long term.
So I want you to give us your pitch for one policy that you want advocates to champion or that you want people to really pay attention to, not because it’s going to create connection in the immediate, but because it’s something that we need to plan to so that we’re not in the situation when the next pandemic hits, because it likely will. So what is your pitch for the policy that advocates of rural and native communities should look out for, to make sure that internet service is deployed in our communities?
Loris: Right now I would say that for Indian country, my one pitch, if everybody can get on the horn, is to urge the FCC to allow all tribes to use 2.5 gigahertz right now. Today. Yup.
Edyael: Thanks Loris. Anybody want to follow up with her one pitch, or should I call on names?
Beth: Well, my pitch is more of a personal action than it is a policy statement. Roberto mentioned the need to do some crowdsourcing. I would absolutely encourage everyone to download the TestIT app. TestIT is something of promoted by the National Association of Counties, we’ll list a few others. This is something 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 in at 10:00 AM checking it, 1:00 PM, 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.
Roberto: I think I’m next. My final pitch would be a focus on quality, not quantity. What I mean with this is many networks that are being funded today, more than likely will be obsolete in 10 years when they’re done building. It’s time to look and drive our cars our communities through our windshield and not our rear view mirror. I think that it’s very, very important that we are aware and plan and fund networks that will be able to sustain the demand, by the time they’re done. And unfortunately we’re looking through our rear view mirror, and then I don’t think that’ll lead us anywhere positive for rural and urban. So that would be my one pitch.
Jenna: It’s very hard for me to pick just one as the DC of policy person on this webinar. I think I’m going to go back to really collecting better data about where broadband isn’t as available, how much that broadband costs and how well it works. I think without that information, we’re just not in a position to know what we need to do moving forward. Then there’s more wonky recommendations I could make about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and how it’s not giving funding to areas that are receiving, because I’m sneaking into here. 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 and so, also working to make sure that the FCC gives funding where it’s going to be helpful for deployment in addition to collecting better data.
Irene: And last but not least, as a former educator, I taught elementary school before law school. Education is near and dear to my heart, which is one of the reasons that E-rate is near and dear to my heart. So my ask would be take a serious look at E-rate, not just stop gap measures, but a serious look at E-rate, because this pandemic is not going to end necessarily. I think education has fundamentally changed and will change going forward. So we need to be prepared. So what can we do to ensure that students can learn, no matter where they are. They can learn at school, they can learn at home, and what can we do to strengthen and leverage the E-rate program to make sure that children can learn, and community members can learn no matter where they are.
Edyael: Yeah. Well thank you so much panelists for this amazing recommendations and for your sharing with us your expertise on this pretty wonky set of issues. We asked you to come prepared to dive into some obscure programs to the rest of the country. You all are broadband experts, so you know them inside and out and to help us figure out how to move forward as advocates that want to ensure that rural and native communities are connected. And as Roberto put it well, not looking through our rear view mirror, not even to parallel park, right? But to really look forward and make sure that the networks we build meet the expectations of people once they are built.
Thank you so much for participating, for joining us in the second conversation, the National Rural Assembly and the Daily Yonder hosted the second rural conversations, but they’re preparing more conversations for all of you listeners and everyone that’s joined us today. We will make the recording available for this panel tomorrow on the Rural Assembly website, and we want to hear from you what other conversations are you interested in? What other topics are you interested in, in exploring in terms of rural communities and COVID and beyond.
So go to the Rural Assembly website and give us feedback in that survey. I also want to say that the recommendations and the insight that the panelists today shared with us, is going to be shared with everyone who joined and with the Rural Assembly and the Daily Yonder. So keep checking back in and thank you so much guys for joining us. We really appreciate your expertise and insights and encouragement. So take care. Thanks all.