Wednesday, December 23, 2020

SpaceX rural broadband plan may be too pricey, and it appears to have exploited flawed FCC broadband maps

The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded SpaceX $885 million to bring broadband internet to rural America via its Starlink satellite service, but the service may end up being too expensive for many rural residents, and the company is spending nearly 13 percent of the money on urban broadband expansion because of flawed FCC data maps, critics say.

"While underserved communities will be happy to have access to faster Internet, it can be expensive," Geoff Herbert of writes for GovTech. "CNBC reported in October that Starlink’s 'beta' service costs $99 a month — plus a $499 upfront cost to order the Starlink kit. The kit includes a user terminal to connect with SpaceX satellites and a Wi-Fi router that can be controlled by a Starlink app on Google and Apple devices."

Not only will $111 million of SpaceX's funding will support urban broadband expansion, across all 180 internet service providers that received funding in the latest tranche of $9.2 billion, more than $700 million will go for non-rural development, reports Derek Turner, research director at advocacy group Free Press. "Turner has a strong track record analyzing FCC broadband data and last year found major errors in Pai's broadband-deployment claims," notes Jon Brodkin of ArsTechnica.

Some of the locations for which SpaceX won funding include several major airports, census blocks with luxury hotels in Chicago, and a parking garage in downtown Miami Beach, Turner reports. That's possible because ISPs exploit a design flaw in the FCC's mapping system. "ISPs are [required] to report the blocks where they currently offer service or could without extraordinary use of resources within a 10-day period," Turner told Brodkin in an email. "Thus a block can show up as 'unserved' even though it isn't any more expensive than any typical block to serve; it just means an ISP didn't claim the block."

SpaceX "appears to have played by the rules. But the FCC's rules created a broken system," Turner reports. "By bidding for subsidies assigned to dense urban areas, Musk's firm and others were able to get potentially hundreds of millions in subsidies meant for people and businesses in rural areas that would never see broadband deployment without the government's help."

Agribusiness consolidation helps drive rural-urban polarization, writes ag econ columnist, citing Wendell Berry

Alan Guebert
In January 1999, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, urged colleagues to pass on consolidation of agribusiness, saying Cargill's offer to buy a competitor was a question for lawyers, not lawmakers.

That directive turned out to be prescient. "In fact, as a friend pointed out on Twitter shortly after Thanksgiving, 'Turkey is now the only meat in (U.S. flag emoji) right now not under investigation for price-fixing'," writes syndicated agriculture columnist Alan Guebert. "That should infuriate all Americans for two reasons: First for what it says about today’s largely dysfunctional livestock and poultry markets and, secondly, that it has taken 20 years for end users to confront Big Meat over how it uses its sledgehammer market power to suck unearned profits out of both livestock growers and meat buyers."

The increasing industrialization has hurt rural America, Guebert writes, citing recently published research for the Family Farm Action Alliance that says "Agrifood consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes."

Guebert notes, "Lugar’s edict for 'legislatures' to stay out of Big Agbiz’s biz has remained in effect despite mountains of evidence that the corporatization of key ag sectors has cost farmers, ranchers, rural America and consumers billions of dollars and an untold number of jobs And that’s on top of what boneheaded farm policies advocated by AgBiz — like 1996’s Freedom to Farm — cost taxpayers. (From 1997 to 2002, F2F cost taxpayers $122 billion, or three times its projected cost.) Many of these policies also took down antitrust fences and, shortly thereafter, consolidation in ag inputs, production, and processing went into overdrive."

Wendell Berry
Guebert implies that economic disparities brought on by Big Ag have helped drive rural-urban polarization, noting writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry wrote in Another Turn of the Crank that "Political democracy can endure only as the guardian of economic democracy. A democratic government fails in failing to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities."

"That wisdom bears repeating," Guebert writes. "We will continue to fail if we continue to fail 'to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities.'"

Quick hits: the top 10 agriculture stories of 2020; rural schools facing closures amid pandemic, and more

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Small banks helped businesses win more Paycheck Protection Plan loans. Read more here.

A school district is suing parents for unpaid textbook fees during the pandemic. Does your state allow such lawsuits? Read more here.

Rural schools are more likely to hold in-person classes, but the pandemic is hitting staff and students in many areas, forcing closures. Read more here.

Ken Burns' Country Music documentary is "feel-good but badly conceived entertainment," writes one critic. Read more here.

Columnist shares ways to create caregiver-friendly workspaces in rural communities. Read more here.

DTN/The Progressive Farmer has the top 10 agriculture stories of 2020, one per day. Read more here.

A recent paper from the Aspen Institute takes a deep dive into the rural disparities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and how they might be tackled. Read more here.

The proposed nationwide bike and foot path is making progress. Read more here.

Investigative reporters place sensors around rural Illinois for a year, detect banned pesticides near homes and schools

In an admirable feat of investigative journalism, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting placed air-pollution sensors in five agricultural locations in central Illinois, where much soybeans and corn are grown. After periodically sampling the air from June 2018 to July 2019, the center "found the presence of pesticides near schools, parks and homes where vulnerable populations live," Claire and Johnathan Hettinger report. The chemicals have been linked to multiple health issues. Read more here.

New country song an ode to modern farmers' struggles

"In the agriculture industry, we have witnessed changes in our communities and across the nation," AgDaily staff writes. "While some of the changes are improvements, others have been detrimental to the farmers and ranchers in our community. Nashville recording artist and dairy farmer Stephanie Nash recorded 'Time Changes' as a song for farmers everywhere who are just trying to do what they love while also providing for the family. Nash’s titular single, 'Time Changes,' was written after she heard that California’s bullet train was taking land away from farmers without paying them. This song explains the struggles that farmers deal with every day due to an evolving society that doesn’t always appreciate agriculture. It took Nash only 45 minutes to write down her emotions and feelings and create a song that farmers everywhere can agree on — times are changing."

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Trump's Justice Department, after shielding Walmart from criminal charges in opioid epidemic, files lawsuit against it

The Justice Department sued Walmart Inc. Tuesday, alleging that the company worsened the opioid epidemic "by inadequately screening for questionable prescriptions despite repeated warnings from its own pharmacists," The Wall Street Journal reports.

The suit claims Walmart tried to boost profits by understaffing pharmacies and pressuring employees to fill prescriptions quickly. ProPublica reported in March that the company slashed drug prices to attract buyers, then when demand soared, pressured pharmacists to fill prescriptions faster. That made it harder for them to question suspicious prescriptions, increasing drug abuse, the suit charges.

ProPublica found that top Justice Department officials shielded Walmart from criminal prosecution in 2018 for allowing suspicious opioid prescriptions to be filled over the objections of thousands of Walmart pharmacists. This happened as the Trump administration told the public it would crack down on those responsible for the opioid epidemic, Jesse Eisinger and James Bandler reported. Their blockbuster report is based on Walmart internal emails and documents, legal correspondence, and interviews with nine people familiar with the investigation.

Federal prosecutors in Texas began investigating Walmart in 2016. Walmart pharmacists there and in other states reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions to their supervisors. They knew these opioids were being prescribed by "pill mill" doctors, and begged the corporate office to allow them to refuse to honor such prescriptions. Some of the doctors had been banned from sending prescriptions to all of Walmart's major competitors.

"Walmart didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment" on the lawsuit, the Journal reports. "The country’s largest retailer by revenue, Walmart has been expecting this complaint and sued the federal government in October to fight the allegations pre-emptively. In its suit, Walmart accuses the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration of attempting to scapegoat the company for what it says are the federal government’s own regulatory and enforcement shortcomings."

Relief bill has more forgivable loans for community news media, expanded to include those owned by big chains

The new pandemic relief bill has more forgivable loans for local newspapers and broadcast stations -- a first round for those owned by large chains, and a second round for those that lost more than 25% of revenues in any quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter of 2019, with a limit of $2 million.

Newspapers owned by large groups were not eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans in the relief bill passed in the spring, which was for companies with fewer than 500 employees. The new bill's limits are 500 employees per location and $10 million per corporation, as long as news outlets certify funds will be used for production or distribution of locally focused or emergency information.

The bill addresses all requests the National Newspaper Association made to Congress in the latter half of 2020, NNA said in a release. NNA Chair Brett Wesner of Cordell, Okla., said NNA had hoped the second round of loans "would reach more businesses and to enable greater loan packages."

“Most of our requests were included in some way,” Wessner said. “What’s more, we learn again and again that members of Congress value the contributions of our newspapers to local communities. We take the recognition of our requests as an encouraging indication that Congress wants to see local newspapers survive and thrive as we get through this painful coronavirus disaster.”

Recent films, including Hillbilly Elegy, prompt discussion about how Hollywood views rural America

Films like Hillbilly Elegy and the new limited-release Nomadland are stirring up new discussion about how Hollywood portrays rural life, Stephen Humphries reports for The Christian Science Monitor.

"It’s a touchy topic. White, rural voters have been excoriated in some quarters of the media for voting for Donald Trump. Consequently, popular culture depictions of those in the countryside are often viewed through a political lens," Humphries reports. "Those living in small-town America worry about how they’re portrayed by filmmakers who’ve parachuted into a locale. Others argue that the outsider storytellers can bring fresh perspectives to socioeconomic issues. But there’s also widespread agreement that Hollywood should venture into the outer reaches of red states more often and try to tell nuanced stories about what unites and divides us."

Stereotypes are also often embraced by nationwide news media, R. Garringer writes for Scalawag:
"I've seen national media portray West Virginia—where I was raised—and Eastern Kentucky—where I now live—as the home of racist white voters, as a place of despair and conservatism, as a wasteland of drug epidemics and pollution. I've seen national media swoop in every four years for presidential campaigns, or stop in for a short story about the "drug overdose capital" of the country. I've seen national media seek out stories that fit a narrative they wrote long before their reporters set foot on mountain ground. What I've almost never seen is national coverage that portrays this place as the home of rich legacies of radical labor organizing, environmental organizing, and queer organizing, as the soil for rich artistic and literary traditions, as a region shaped by patterns of in- and out-migration, as a place that is complex, varied, diverse, and full."

Impoverished single moms in Appalachia don't have much access to the literary world, and are mostly portrayed inaccurately in popular media such as Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy film version of J.D. Vance's book, Alison Stine writes for Gen, a Medium publication about politics, power and culture: "The film gets so much epically wrong about the region it purports to reflect; its poverty fallacies have overshadowed how much it gets wrong about women, particularly single mothers."

In the film, Vance's mother, a high school salutatorian, mourns that she got pregnant at 18 and was unable to pursue her own goals. "But her very valid complaints of not being allowed to better herself or use her brain because she’s been forced into solo caregiving are presented by the film as hysterics. She’s a roadblock in Vance’s way — how dare she question the system," Stine writes. "In this narrative, Vance’s desire for a better life is presented as noble, a hero’s quest. Bev’s desires — to have more schooling, to remarry, to get out, like Vance — are monstrous, unacceptable . . . Vance heads off to the kind of better life that only some men can aspire to, while women are left behind to pick up the pieces."

Proliferation of paywalled content will make it more difficult for Americans to read a diverse range of news sources

More and more news sites are putting up paywalls, which helps news writers make a living, but also makes it harder for the public to read a wide range of reputable news. 

"As paywalls grow more common (76 percent of American newspapers used them in 2019, up from 60% just two years prior) and stricter (publications are getting better at sussing out incognito mode and other tricks to dodge paywalls), most readers are still only willing to pay for one online news subscription," Mark Hill writes for Wired. "The media landscape, then, may come to resemble what it looked like before the internet, where it was difficult and expensive for any one consumer to traverse a wide range of viewpoints."

Hill continues: "Unless readers are willing to spend a lot of money—and substantially more than they spend on watching videos—it simply won’t be financially viable for them to consume a lot of internet content. Not coincidentally, a lot of internet content won’t be financially viable, either." That could push readers to free "news" sites with more dubious content.

University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe told Hill that news sites must make it clear to readers why a subscription is worth their money. "That means letting people know the actual cost of producing journalism, and what’s at risk if you don’t financially support it," Hill writes. "Otherwise, big publications will only serve a minority of the population, small publications will struggle to survive, and people who have grown accustomed to free news will continue to seek it out, even if it ends up not really being news at all."

Coronavirus vaccine roundup: Rural providers fight distrust and conspiracies, and face distribution challenges

Rural communities face challenges in distributing the coronavirus vaccine. Watch the video here.

The first vaccines have been administered to hard-hit Native American communities. Read more here.

Rural doctors fight vaccine distrust and conspiracies along with the virus itself. Read more here.

The next six months will be "strange and confusing" as certain groups of people get vaccinated but others have to wait. Read more here.

Farmworkers, firefighters and flight attendants jockey for vaccine priority. Read more here.

Some rural Texas doctors celebrate the distribution of the Moderna vaccine while others are disappointed. Read more here, here, here and here.

A recent survey in Oregon shows that less-educated people were less likely to say they would take the coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available. It's unclear whether that's partly conflated with political and population fault lines, since Republicans and rural residents are less likely to have a college degree, and those segments are also less likely to report wanting the vaccine. Read more here.

The vaccine rollout in rural Oregon and Idaho poses unique challenges. Read more here.

Rural Louisiana also faces challenges in distributing the vaccine. Read more here.

FCC report: Broadband linked with more productive farms

Better rural broadband availability has significant positive effects on crop yields and other measures of agricultural production, according to a new working paper by the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Economics and Analytics.

The report "drew on FCC data on broadband availability by census tract and U.S. Department of Agriculture data on agricultural productivity by county, for crops such as corn, cotton, hay, and soybeans. The report found 'statistically significant effects' of increased broadband penetration, both on lower costs and higher production for farms," Kelly Hill reports for RCR Wireless News. "The paper acknowledges that high-speed connectivity is 'considered an essential component of modern agriculture' and sought to quantify the impacts of broadband availability on farming outcomes."

Pandemic has boosted ranks of first-time hunters, and that could help fund state conservation and wildlife efforts

"Conservationists and wildlife officials have spent years trying to stave off the decline of hunting in America. In 2020, they finally saw a glimmer of hope," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "For decades, the number of hunters—who are mostly older, white males—has steadily dwindled. That’s led to a loss of conservation funding at state wildlife agencies, which largely rely on license sales to support their budgets. But now, unexpectedly, officials in nearly every state are reporting a moderate-to-massive spike in hunting in 2020."

The reasons are many: an increase in free time, concerns about food-chain security, and financial hardship. "Officials said it’s too soon to calculate how the 2020 hunting surge will affect their budgets, but for once it won’t be bad news," Brown reports.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Survey of rural heartland bankers shows strongest growth since 2013, from farmland prices and farm equipment sales

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download the full report.

The December Creighton University survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on farming and energy showed the strongest growth for farmland prices and equipment sales since June 2013. The index surveys bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

For the second time in the past three months, the Rural Mainstreet Index climbed above growth-neutral, climbing to its second-highest level in the past 10 months because of recent improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm aid, and the Federal Reserve's record-low interest rates, according to Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the survey. The farm equipment sales index moved above growth positive for the first time in 86 months. 

Bankers continued to report "anemic" loan volumes, and non-farm hiring was down by 2.2 percent (non-seasonally adjusted) from pre-pandemic levels and 4.8% compared to 12 months ago. "Bankers were to indicate their top 10 concerns for 2021 and water availability and was the top concern (see tables). Not surprisingly, with strong 2020 farm income and farm commodity prices, farm financial conditions were of least concern for 2021 as judged by bank CEOs," Goss reports.

Blackjewel bankruptcy motion, apparently denied, would dodge mine cleanup laws, abandon miners' medical claims

A judge has apparently denied a proposal to shift Blackjewel, LLC's bankruptcy from reorganization to liquidation, a shift that would have allowed the coal company to dodge its responsibility to clean up abandoned mines and pay workers' compensation for medical bills. On Nov. 25, Blackjewel lawyers motioned to convert the bankruptcy from Chapter 11 to Chapter 7. "That would mean that instead of exiting bankruptcy as a new company with less debt, Blackjewel L.L.C. would effectively cease to exist," Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

"Blackjewel had 1,100 employees at its Appalachian mines and about 600 at surface-mining operations in Wyoming," The Lane Report reports. "At the time of its bankruptcy filing, Blackjewel owed about $146 million in unpaid taxes and also owed workers unpaid wages and retirement funding." The company made national headlines in 2019 after laid-off miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, blocked a coal train from leaving for months because the bankrupt company had not paid them for recent work.

Dec. 17 was the deadline to file objections to the company's plan to liquidate. A wide range of environmental and community groups did so, along with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and federal creditors, Matt Hepler and Molly Moore report for The Appalachian Voice. At a hearing that day, Judge Benjamin Kahn denied Blackjewel's motion to shift to Chapter 7. 

It's "pretty common" for companies to shift to Chapter 7 "when they're struggling like Blackjewel is," University of Chicago School of Law assistant professor and coal bankruptcy expert Joshua Macey told Boles.

One reason Blackjewel may have been struggling so much: its former CEO, Jeff Hoops, was allegedly defrauding the company. Blackjewel lawyers filed a civil suit against Hoops on Dec. 10, accusing Hoops of making tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent transactions, Boles reports.

America's Health Rankings makes annual report, based on more metrics than before but with no overall ranking

America's Health Rankings map, with figures for states ranking high in multiple chronic conditions added by The Rural Blog

The latest edition of America's Health Rankings, from the United Health Foundation, gives a set of snapshots for every state. The report usually gives each state an overall ranking, but this one does not, citing the health challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the latest rankings have even more comparative information for states than before, because they are based on 74 separate metrics, more than double the number used for previous rankings. County-level information is available from other sources for many of those metrics.

States with large percentages of rural population tend to rank low. One example of that is the high share of people with more than one chronic condition; the 10 states with the largest percentages of people with multiple chronic conditions are Maine, the most rural state by population, and a group of states running from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to Oklahoma.

Churches struggle to decide how to celebrate Christmas during pandemic

Churches all over the nation are trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas during the coronavirus pandemic, a decision influenced by shut-down laws, broadband availability, and local sentiment. 

"Generally, religious leaders in the region predict a minority of people will physically be in church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the ones who attend will in some instances have circumvented wait-lists and long lines," Michelle Boorstein reports for The Washington Post. "Other faith leaders have urged Christians to stay away from gatherings to reduce the spread of the virus, and they say the most apt way in 2020 to mark the narrative of Jesus’ birth is to focus on improving housing and health care."

Rural churches are facing a more complicated calculus. Locals are more likely to be regular church-goers, less likely to observe social-distancing measures and less likely to have broadband access so they can worship from home. 

Pastor Jay Richardson of Highland Colony Baptist Church in Mississippi said the isolation might be more dangerous than the virus—and Richardson knows how bad the virus can be. "The church temporarily shut down at the start of the pandemic, and again three months ago, when 25 worshipers became infected with coronavirus during an outbreak. Richardson, 70, was hospitalized with double pneumonia caused by the virus," Leah Willingham reports for The Associated Press and Report for America.

"God has built a certain rhythm into our lives as Christians, and part of that rhythm is meeting together on a real regular basis," Richardson told Willingham. "If you get to where you’re not doing that, your whole life gets out of rhythm."

In the Upper Midwest, "church announcements are marked not with parties and performances, but with deaths. South Dakota and North Dakota, states largely spared from the worst of the pandemic during the spring and summer, have seen a frightening pace of death since October. The states' per capita death over the fall was almost double that of even the next worst-off state," Stephen Groves reports for The Associated Press. "The virus has been a crucible on the neighborly harmony that is the pride of many towns. Impassioned debates over politics and mask requirements, the unrelenting discomfort of isolation, the pain of losing loved ones and the pressures on medical workers have all compounded into discord. Churches saw needs arising, even as they waded through divisions."

Support rural journalism in your end-of-year giving; in the end, it matters to everyone in rural America

Rural journalism matters more than ever, and not just in rural areas. Local journalists play a crucial role in keeping people informed during the pandemic and engaged in democracy, and that has far-reaching consequences for all Americans.

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