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Internet funding rule could favor rural areas over cities

Cities and urban counties across the U.S. are raising concerns that a recent rule from President Joe Biden’s administration could preclude them from tapping into $350 billion of coronavirus relief aid to expand high-speed internet connections.

Biden has set a goal of delivering fast, affordable internet to every American household. The massive American Rescue Plan took a step toward that by including broadband infrastructure among the primary uses for pandemic aid flowing to each city, county and state.

But an interim rule published by the U.S. Treasury Department has narrowed the broadband eligibility. It focuses on areas that lack reliable broadband, which connects devices to the internet through a cable or data line, at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.

That threshold ensures funding for remote, rural areas that have slow or no internet service, and it matches the definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But cities contend the eligibility mark overlooks the realities of today’s internet needs.

Though most cities already have broadband available, the speed still might not be fast enough to handle multiple people in a home trying to work, study and stream entertainment simultaneously — a common scenario during the coronavirus pandemic. The price also can be more than lower-income residents can afford.

“They’re basically prioritizing those rural areas over the underserved urban areas where there is more population,” said Detta Kissel, a retired Treasury Department attorney who helped write agency rules and now advocates for better internet service in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Virginia.

Several cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Antonio, have submitted public comments to the Treasury Department urging it to loosen the eligibility standard for spending pandemic relief money on broadband. Some want the Treasury to define underserved areas as anything less than download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps.

That would increase the number of locations eligible for funding from about 11 million to 82 million households and businesses nationwide, according to a study conducted for America’s Communications Association, which represents small and medium-sized internet providers.

Cities argue that the Treasury should use a 100/100 Mbps eligibility threshold because that’s the same speed projects are supposed to achieve if they receive funding. A separate infrastructure bill working its way through Congress is more flexible, allowing some of its $65 billion in broadband funding to go to “underserved” areas lacking download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps.

If the Treasury goes forward with its rule as originally written, sparsely populated areas currently lacking broadband could leapfrog certain urban areas in their internet speeds. That doesn’t sit well with some mayors.

“The inner city of Memphis is as in a dire need of broadband connection as rural Tennessee,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who wants Treasury Department assurance before spending $20 million from the American Rescue Plan on a broadband project.

Residents almost anywhere in Milwaukee already have access to at least one internet provider offering download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But in parts of the city, fewer than half the households subscribe to internet service because of its cost, said David Henke, the city’s chief information officer.

“If you don’t have a job and you can’t afford broadband, that’s kind of a cycle,” Henke said. “You’re locked out of remote learning, remote work, telemedicine and participating basically in a modern society.”

Milwaukee has applied for a $12.5 million grant from Wisconsin’s share of the American Rescue Plan and would chip in $2.5 million of its own pandemic relief money to expand affordable broadband into more parts of the city, Henke said. But the city wants the Treasury Department to broaden “the narrow wording” of its rule.

Although the public comment period ended in July, the Treasury has set no date for when it will publish the rule’s final version. A Treasury official said the department is undertaking a thorough review of the comments that is likely “to continue into the fall.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is among those urging the Treasury Department to adopt a broader eligibility threshold. He wrote that it would be “severely misguided” to assume that communities are adequately served by the “woefully outdated” broadband benchmark the department has set.

Broadband industry groups generally have urged the Treasury to stick with its original plan of targeting money at areas with the slowest internet speeds.

“Rather than reinvesting in locations that already have broadband to make it better,” the pandemic relief money should go to “places that don’t have any broadband at all,” said Patrick Halley, general counsel at USTelecom, whose membership includes AT&T, Verizon and others.

The cable industry group NCTA urged treasury officials to tighten eligibility even further. It wants to limit the number of households that already have faster service that can be included in areas targeted for improvements. It also wants to remove the potential for locally subjective decisions about areas that lack reliable service.

Allowing improvements in areas that already meet minimum speed thresholds could siphon money away from the neediest, hard-to-reach areas — potentially leaving them without service once the federal money is spent, industry groups said.

To bring super-fast internet service to every place currently lacking 25/3 Mbps speeds could cost between $20 billion and $37 billion, according to the study for America’s Communications Association. That cost jumps to between $106 billion to $179 billion when covering all areas currently lacking speeds of 100/100 Mbps.

“As a matter of prioritization, we think it’s best to start with the areas that have the least,” said Ross Lieberman, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs.

Though most of the complaints about the Treasury Department rule have come from larger cities, some residents in rural areas also have raised concerns.

Charlie Hopkins, a retired computer hardware and software designer, owns a home on a Maine island that is accessible only by boat. The internet speeds at his house registered barely 5 Mbps for downloading and just 0.4 Mbps for uploading when tested recently for The Associated Press.

Because some homes have faster speeds, Hopkins is concerned the Treasury Department rule could make it difficult for the island to get funding to improve its internet. He said broadband is essential to attract and retain residents.

“Other cities and towns in Maine, especially the cities, are getting higher-speed fiberoptic-based internet,” Hopkins said. “I don’t like being in a position where we’re essentially being told, `Well, you’re at the end of the Earth, so you don’t qualify.’”


AP
Militia leader gets 53 years in Minnesota mosque bombing

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The leader of an Illinois anti-government militia group who authorities say masterminded the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque was sentenced Monday to 53 years in prison for an attack that terrified the mosque's community.

Emily Claire Hari, who was charged, tried and convicted as Michael Hari and recently said she is transgender, faced a mandatory minimum of 30 years for the attack on Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. Defense attorneys asked for the minimum, but prosecutors sought life, saying Hari hasn’t taken responsibility for the attack.

No one was hurt in the bombing, but more than a dozen members of the mosque community gave victim impact statements Monday about the trauma it left behind. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said evidence clearly showed Hari's intent was to “scare, intimidate and terrorize individuals of Muslim faith."

“Diversity is the strength of this country,” Frank said. “Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the constitutional promise of this country that brings a lot of people here.”

“Anything less than 636 months would (be) disrespect to the law," the judge added.

Hari made a brief statement before she was sentenced, saying, “For how blessed my first 47 years of life were, I can’t complain about what the last three have looked like ... considering my blessed and fortunate and happy life, I can’t ask the judge for anything further.”

She also said the victims who testified during Monday's hearing have been through a “traumatic ordeal” and she wished them “God's richest blessings in Christ Jesus.”

Frank said he was prepared to recommend Hari go to a women's prison, but said the Bureau of Prisons would decide.

Hari was convicted in December on five counts, including damaging property because of its religious character and obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs.

Members of the mosque asked the judge on Monday to impose a life sentence, describing their shock and terror at the attack. Some were afraid to pray there afterward and have not returned. Mothers were scared to bring their kids to the mosque, which also serves as a charter school and community center.

“I felt really scared because I was going to start school in the same building soon and we lived like six blocks away from the mosque,” said Idris Yusuf, who was 9 when the bombing happened. “I was scared because if these people could do this to our mosque, what’s stopping them from coming to Muslim people’s homes too?”

Afterward, community members said they saw 53 years as justice for an attack that has rattled worshippers for more than four years.

“We were looking for life (in prison), but this is something we can settle for today,” said Khalid Omar, a community organizer and Dar Al Farooq worshipper.

Several men were gathered at Dar al-Farooq for early morning prayers on Aug. 5, 2017, when a pipe bomb was thrown through the window of an imam’s office. A seven-month investigation led authorities to Clarence, Illinois, a rural community about 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of Chicago, where Hari and co-defendants Michael McWhorter and Joe Morris lived.

Authorities say Hari, 50, led a group called the White Rabbits that included McWhorter, Morris and others and that Hari came up with the plan to attack the mosque. Prosecutors said at trial that she was motivated by hatred for Muslims, citing excerpts from Hari’s manifesto known as The White Rabbit Handbook.

McWhorter and Morris, who portrayed Hari as a father figure, each pleaded guilty to five counts and testified against her. They are awaiting sentencing.

It wasn't initially clear how the White Rabbits became aware of Dar al-Farooq, but the mosque was in headlines in the years before the attack: Some young people from Minnesota who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group had worshipped there. Mosque leaders were never accused of any wrongdoing. Hari’s attorneys wrote in court filings that she was a victim of online misinformation about the mosque.

Assistant federal defender Shannon Elkins also said gender dysphoria fueled Hari's “inner conflict,” saying she wanted to transition but knew she would be ostracized, so she formed a “rag-tag group of freedom fighters or militia men” and “secretly looked up ‘sex change,’ ‘transgender surgery,’ and ‘post-op transgender’ on the internet.”

Prosecutors said gender dysphoria is not an excuse and said using it “to deflect guilt is offensive.”

Prosecutors asked for several sentencing enhancements, arguing the bombing was a hate crime led by Hari. They also say Hari committed obstruction when she tried to escape from custody during her transfer from Illinois to Minnesota for trial in February 2019. Hari denied trying to flee.

Hari, a former sheriff’s deputy and self-described entrepreneur and watermelon farmer, self-published books including essays on religion, and has floated ideas for a border wall with Mexico. She gained attention on the “Dr. Phil” talk show after she fled to the Central American nation of Belize in the early 2000s during a custody dispute. She was convicted of child abduction and sentenced to probation.

Before her 2018 arrest in the mosque bombing, she used the screen name “Illinois Patriot” to post more than a dozen videos to YouTube, most of them anti-government monologues.

Hari, McWhorter and Morris were also charged in a failed November 2017 attack on an abortion clinic in Champaign, Illinois. Plea agreements for McWhorter and Morris say the men participated in an armed home invasion in Indiana, and the armed robberies or attempted armed robberies of two Walmart stores in Illinois.

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This story was first published on Sept. 13. It was updated on Sept. 16 to correct that Belize is in Central America, not South America.


FILE - This July 16, 2004, file photo, shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Dozens of American Indian tribes are demanding the Biden administration enact emergency protections for wolves. Groups representing the tribes sent a letter Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asking her to place wolves back on the endangered species list on an emergency basis for 240 days. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella, File)


Local
top story
19 die from COVID-19 complications Tuesday in Wisconsin

Chippewa County announced 52 new active cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, raising the total positive cases to 8,739 countywide to date (457 cases currently considered active).

No new coronavirus related deaths were announced Tuesday in Chippewa County, leaving the Chippewa County COVID-19 death toll at 103 lives lost.

There have now been 33,653 negative coronavirus tests administered and 359 individuals hospitalized due to complications with COVID-19 (10 individuals currently hospitalized) in Chippewa County to date. Chippewa County’s risk-level for the spread of coronavirus is currently classified as “severe.”

The state of Wisconsin has now seen 758,000 active cases of COVID-19 statewide to date (a one-day increase of 3,891 active cases) and 8,632 individuals have passed away statewide to date due to complications with coronavirus (a one-day increase of 19 lives lost). 315 of the deceased died from other causes, according to their death certificates.


News
AP
Officials: 4 found fatally shot in SUV in Wisconsin field

MENOMONIE, Wis. (AP) — Four people found slain in an abandoned SUV in a western Wisconsin cornfield had been shot and were all from Minnesota, authorities said Tuesday.

Preliminary results of autopsies performed Monday by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office showed the two men and two women all died of gunshot wounds, the Dunn County Sheriff’s Office said.

The victims were identified as Matthew Isiah Pettus, 26, Loyace Foremann III, 35, and Jasmine Christine Sturm, 30, all from St. Paul; as well as Nitosha Lee Flug-Presley, 30, of Stillwater.

A 911 caller alerted deputies Sunday to the black SUV that was off a rural road in the Town of Sheridan, according to the Dunn County Sheriff’s Office.

No arrests have been announced.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of these victims. I wish we could release more details of our investigation but we have to balance the public’s desire to know the details with running the risk of harming our investigation and losing evidence for building a good homicide case”, Sheriff Kevin Bygd said.

Sheriff’s officials said in an earlier statement that there may have been a second dark-colored SUV traveling with the vehicle that was abandoned.

The Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation and the Wisconsin State Patrol are assisting in the investigation.

Dunn County sheriff’s officials planned to hold a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Menomonie.


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