Roundup: The Push for Universal Broadband

Universal Broadband in Minnesota? • Expanding Medicaid in Tennessee • Apprenticeships for High Schoolers • Draining Rural Texas • Farm Bill Breakdown


says the chairwoman of state broadband task force:

“Without that sort of intervention we are going to have a very difficult time getting to 100 percent,” said task force chairwoman Margaret Anderson Kelliher, president of the Minnesota High Tech Association. “There needs to be some sort of gap-closer.”

In recent years, local phone companies and community cooperatives could get federal aid to run fiber through forests and fields to subscribers in sparse areas. Minnesota providers, many working with local government partners, drew more than $238 million in stimulus loans and grants from a national pool of $4 billion, according to state and federal data. All that money helped build out 105,000 miles of new or updated network connections across the country.

It’s not just about having a broadband connection — more than 96 percent of Minnesota households have access to one — but about how fast it is. The state is striving to achieve download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 5 megabits per second.

Those rates are considered vital to unlocking the most technological opportunities: Seamless streaming of distance-learning courses in schools, telemedicine projects that allow for virtual doctor checkups and letting grandparents dote over their grandchildren via Skype or FaceTime without frustrating freeze-ups.

Expanding Medicaid in Tennessee The future of Tennessee’s rural hospitals rests with Gov. Bill Haslam, who has yet to decide whether to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage in the state, reports the Nashville Tennessean.

Expansion of the federal health insurance plan for low-income residents is essential, say hospital advocates. Hospitals need the new revenue from those patients to make up for decreases in funding that are occurring in other provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Henry County, Tennessee, is exhibit A in the article by Tom Wilemon:

About 8,000 more people would get coverage in the counties served by Henry County Medical Center if Tennessee expanded its Medicaid program, said Tom Gee, the hospital’s chief executive officer. He described the financial problems exacerbated by political conflicts over the health law as “the most serious threat to our institution” in the 23 years he has been at the helm.

The hospital lost $1.2 million last year. In October, it reduced its workforce by 25 positions. Gee is contemplating whether to stop offering oncology services and to ask the county to pick up the costs of ambulance services.

“Our future survival is heavily dependent on expansion of Medicaid and signing people up in the health exchange,” Gee said. “That’s the only place we’re going to replace the lost volume and lower reimbursements we’re seeing right now.”

Medicaid expansion was included in the Affordable Care Act. A Supreme Court decision gave states the option of declining federal funds for the expansion, however.

Apprenticeships for High Schoolers. High school students in Aiken County, South Carolina, are participating in a European-style apprenticeship program that prepares them for diesel-engine manufacturing jobs upon graduation. Tognum America Inc. started the program when it had difficulty finding skilled workers for its plant.

South Carolina was among the nation’s biggest job losers during the recession that started in 2007. Much of that loss was attributed to declines in manufacturing.

Aiken County is part of the Augusta, Georgia, metro area, and most of its population lives in unincorporated communities. The county seat, Aiken, South Carolina, has a population of about 29,000.

Draining Rural Texas. Some rural Texas voters are worried that newly authorized spending on water-system infrastructure will drain water from rural areas for the benefit of the state’s biggest cities, reports the Dallas Morning News.

Three-quarters of the state’s voters approved a ballot initiative to increase spending on water systems in the November election. The 20 counties out of 254 that voted against the measure were mostly in rural areas with their own water supplies that are close to big cities.

The newspaper’s analysis is that these counties are worried that the neighboring cities’ big  thirst will “suck them dry.”

Farm Bill Breakdown. The Des Moines Register calls the failure of Congress to enact a new farm bill a “historic breakdown.”  House and Senate members are said to be negotiating a compromise between the two versions of the bill, though there is scant evidence to indicate any progress in those talks. (The biggest sticking point is funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.)

And if it doesn’t pass something by the end of the year, a bunch of agricultural subsidies and nutrition programs will expire, and parts of the law will revert to the original 1938 and 1949 versions that would push milk prices up to $7 a gallon.

That might seem far-fetched, but given the repeated failures of Congress to enact budgets or raise the debt ceiling, the prospect of failure on the farm bill is not beyond the realm of possibility. Some members of Congress are not troubled by the idea of causing widespread economic disaster and pain for average Americans.

The farm bill provides farmers economic backstops through commodity price supports and disaster insurance. The law also promotes rural development, foreign trade in farm products, agricultural research, alternative sources of energy and healthful nutrition programs in public schools.