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USDA's rural broadband plan met with criticism, concerns

Slow speeds, bad coverage and expensive service.

These are just some of the concerns contained in nearly 300 public comments on Rural Broadband Pilot Program proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a review by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

The proposal follows a promise to farmers by President Donald Trump in January 2017 to deliver a faster, more reliable internet to rural areas.

The President followed the promise with an executive order to spur a broadband expansion in regions of the U.S. where connectivity is spotty at best.

But little has been done since. The public comments that began in July contain at least 3,600 references to criticism of the standards, including that speeds would not be fast enough and that it focused on speed and not bandwidth.

Stilley Bryon of Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative Inc. in Albion, Iowa, commented about the need for greater minimum speeds.

“(Rural Utilities Service) should consider input from communities, consumers, large and small businesses, and local leaders on the level of service or broadband speed they deem as sufficient for their community and their satisfaction with existing service,” said Bryon. “25/3 Mbps should be the absolute minimum build speed, but we feel that it should be 50/10 Mbps as a standard for broadband speeds.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission set the standard definition of “broadband” at 25/3 Mbps.

But the current pilot program plan calls for achieving download speeds of 10mbps and upload speeds of 1mbps.

The president’s announcement was welcome news to rural Americans who often pay high fees for sluggish internet connections via cellular, satellite or wireless services. Rural Americans can pay as much as $155 a month for service slower than the Federal Communications Commission classifies as “high speed internet.”

But after the president’s executive orders, there was little action on the issue. The program, which had a $600 million budget in 2018, was promised another $425 million in the 2019 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.

The public comment period opened in July and closed September 10.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, speaking at a USTelecom Broadband Investment Forum on October 18, said the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service is still determining how internet providers will get funding for the program in which parts of rural America.

“We are moving as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “I’ve challenged our people to have a good, solid plan in place by the end of the year.”

Yet funding for the service is still unclear.

On June 4, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, calling into question several items in that bill. In that letter, Mulvaney pushed back against the request for more money for the Rural Broadband Pilot Program, pointing out that the agency hadn’t yet used the money allocated in 2018.

“This funding is premature, as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 recently provided $600 million for a “pilot” grant/loan program, which USDA is still working to implement,” said Mulvaney in the letter.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting compiled all the comments submitted during the public comment period and analyzed them for common themes in the text of the remarks.

While nearly all the comments were in favor of the Rural Utilities Service’s efforts to expand broad internet, there were 3,659 references to the idea that the pilot program’s standards for speed were either not fast enough, they were focused on speed but not bandwidth, or the speed at which technology is advancing would leave those speeds obsolete in just a few years.

The pilot program tries to define what parts of the country should be eligible for expanded rural broadband coverage.

But 2,114 references mentioned words relating to who should receive coverage, words such as “unserved,” ‘’underserved,” ‘’density” and “eligibility.”

Many spoke of living on the edge of coverage, with high speed internet available just down the road from them, but not where they lived.

Sarah Sorrell of Fredericksburg, Va., commented that, although she lives within five miles of a high school, she doesn’t have reliable internet access, which she needs as a college student.

“No cable company wants to run cable out to us,” she said. “The map says that we have cable wireline coverage, and it also says that down the road there is fiber optic coverage. This information is false.”

The Rural Utilities Service’s map of current coverage is built using data from internet services providers. The providers are to “comment if 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream service exists for households in the proposed service area or not,” according to the request for comment.

The just over 1,100 references to the accuracy of these maps indicates that commenters don’t have a lot of faith in the speeds the internet service providers claim they’re able to offer.

Christopher Varenhorst of Eclipse Communications, a wireless internet service provider based in Benzonia, Mich., explained in his comment that mapping internet coverage has long been a struggle, across government agencies.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration recently requested feedback regarding improving the accuracy of broadband availability maps,” said Varenhorst. “This is a realization that the viability of current datasets and maps are at this time, compromised.”

Cost is top of mind for many commenters. More than 1,800 references were made to current costs, fears that adequate speeds will come with big price tags and hopes that decent internet could help rural communities that are fighting poverty find prosperity and new opportunities for growth.

Mary Stough, from Spencer, Ind., said in her comment that when she moved to rural Indiana, she found the only internet connection available to be via mobile hotspot.

“The speed is not fast and it’s prohibitively expensive but it’s something,” said Stough.

For others, paying expensive rates is not feasible. Debra Hansen, commenting on behalf of Stevens County, Washington, said that an affordable option has to be available.

“Especially where there are higher levels of poverty, lower levels of education attainment, limited jobs, etc., having at least one provider that offers discounted service is critical,” said Hansen.

Sean Markis of Tempe, Ariz., lays out a scenario in his comment that highlights the need for keeping costs down.

“If I as a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) say that I can get you 25/3 speeds to your house and get thousands of grant dollars to build up my infrastructure to support those speeds. Then charge you the customer ridiculous amounts of money that make it unaffordable for that speed,” said Markis. “Does paying hundreds, thousands of dollars a month for FCC required 25/3 speed make much sense when customers can’t afford it? How exactly did we solve anything?”


Medicaid expansion is early flashpoint for Evers

MADISON — The battle over whether Wisconsin should accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage for about 75,000 more poor people is shaping up to be an early flashpoint for Gov.-elect Tony Evers.

Evers last week pledged to take his case for expansion to voters across the state — focusing on conservative areas — hoping to increase pressure on Republicans who have vowed to oppose it. To strengthen his position, Evers plans to count on the roughly $180 million a year in his first state budget, forcing Republicans to find ways to replace it or cut an equal amount.

Exit polls showed health care was the top issue for voters who elected Evers over Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who long opposed taking the federal money to expand Medicaid. Both Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin made health care and their support for Medicaid expansion central to their winning campaigns.

“The politics of this are very bad for anyone who wants to stand in the way right now,” said Robert Kraig, director of the health care advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “Evers understands the public is with us.”

Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who was paralyzed after a car crash that killed his parents and younger brother, said Evers’ statewide tour will increase pressure on Republicans.

“It’s ultimately going to be whether Republicans think it’s a priority to provide health care to Wisconsinites or not,” Anderson said.

Wisconsin is in the minority of states in refusing to take the money. Walker rejected it in 2014 and instead did a partial Medicaid expansion. Thirty-five states have taken the money, and voters in three others approved the expansion in the November election.

Republicans show no sign of bending. They have controlled the Wisconsin Legislature the past eight years and will for at least two more.

“Not going to happen. No way. Never,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters in October. His spokeswoman said after the election that it was not a priority.

Republican lawmakers and Walker have been united against accepting the federal money, which has meant Wisconsin missed out on $1.1 billion since 2014, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Vos has said his concern is that Medicaid doesn’t currently all the costs incurred by the medical provider, so putting more people on the program will only increase the private sector cost to subsidize the program.

Republicans have also voiced concerns about the federal government not fulfilling its funding promise for Medicaid, leaving states to pick up a larger percentage of the costs.

This year the Legislature passed a reinsurance bill , signed by Walker, requiring legislative sign-off before the money can be taken, tying Evers’ hands as he prepares to take office in January. That program is designed to lower premium costs for people buying insurance on the private marketplace. It takes effect in 2019.

The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 and signed into law by then-President Barack Obama provided states with federal money to pay for expanding Medicaid coverage to all adults under the age of 65 in households with an income up to 138 percent of the poverty level, or $16,753 for a single person and $34,638 for a family of four.

Wisconsin did a partial expansion of Medicaid in 2014. Childless adults who were not covered under Medicaid were made eligible, up to 100 percent of poverty, or $12,140. But eligibility for parents dropped from 200 percent of poverty to 100 percent.

That resulted in adding about 130,000 childless adults, while dropping about 63,000 adults who made too much to qualify.

Wisconsin’s BadgerCare Plus Medicaid program covers about 773,000 people, about 300,000 of whom are non-disabled, non-elderly adults. Expanding eligibility to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level would increase enrollment by about 75,000 people.

Some Democrats want to go even farther and make BadgerCare available to anyone who wants to apply, regardless of income. The BadgerCare Public Option idea, championed by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, would allow people and businesses to purchase the state insurance at a much lower cost than other private insurance.

Evers said during the campaign that he would try to implement it by the end of his term, but may not propose it in his first budget.