Bridging the broadband divide in stateState leaders often talk about two Minnesotas, a well-connected Minnesota around the Twin Cities and a less advanced Minnesota elsewhere.
By: Don Davis, Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
State leaders often talk about two Minnesotas, a well-connected Minnesota around the Twin Cities and a less advanced Minnesota elsewhere.
Nowhere is that more evident than in internet service, something more and more Minnesotans see as essential as electricity and telephones.
“It is one of those clear cut issues that really separates regions and really makes ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’” said Brad Finstad, Minnesota’s Center for Rural Policy and Development executive director.
There is a movement to correct that disparity, including one in Lake County, and to speed connections outside the metro up to levels that allow all Minnesotans to use online health, government and business services.
Some say every Minnesota home and business should have a high-speed internet connection.
Jack Geller, Finstad’s predecessor and now at the University of Minnesota Crookston, said the questions are: “Is it fair to say that those people who live ... at the end of a gravel road have the same right to technology as those living in downtown Minneapolis? And do poor people have the same right to it as people of means?”
To the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Task Force that recently produced a list of recommendations, the answer was simple: Internet service via a fast broadband is necessary for everyone.
It was not just rural Minnesotans that the task force said needed better service. Members decided that even the fastest service in Minnesota, in the eastern Twin Cities’ Washington County, is not fast enough, and everyone should have access to ultra-high speed broadband by 2015.
Just how to achieve the high-speed goal is not clear, especially given the state’s budget problems. Task force members skirted the question about how to fund expanded high-speed connections, other than to encourage governments and private businesses to work together.
Lake County hopes to blaze a trail to a faster internet with private businesses paying most of the cost.
County officials want to lay fiber optic cable, capable of carrying high-speed signals, to every home and business with electricity. If it happens, Lake County could become a model not only for Minnesota but the country by offering its rural citizens the same service their big-city cousins receive.
“It is kind of like stepping off the side of the cliff,” county board chairman Paul Bergman said of the decision for the county to act as middleman between a federal government low-interest loan and private firms.
But the cliff, like some of those near Lake Superior, could turn into a destination.
“The studies that have shown ... with the fiber (optic cable), property values increase, the population increases and there is more economic growth,” Bergman said. “It also helps with economic retention.”
About a year and a half ago, state economic development officials were helping a company look for up to 500 acres of land within 30 minutes of a major airport and close to a railroad. Lake County could provide both.
But the county lost out, Bergman said, because it did not have one other requirement: A high-speed internet fiber connection.
County officials do not know which company was looking, but they decided it was a data storage business and “they figured it was so much easier to cool it in northern Minnesota,” Bergman said. “In the future, we would have a lot bigger opportunity to land something like that.”
The lost opportunity meant 150 jobs never came to the region. But it is not just jobs at stake.
As the recession and other economic woes force governments to cut back, more and more services will be available only online. Better and cheaper health care also is going to be available online, when doctors in far-away cities meet with patients via video. And businesses do more business online every day, leaving some people out if they have no internet service or only turtle-slow dial-up connections.
Finstad said Minnesotans should think about farmers. When his father started in farming, he dealt with the price of corn going up or down 5 cents or 6 cents a bushel in a day. That was no problem. Today, prices may swing 60 cents an hour, requiring farmers to constantly be in touch with the markets.
Or, Finstad said, consider a small-town printing plant that expanded when it got high-speed internet service, adding $3 million a year to its revenues.
Then there is the woman who lives between Sleepy Eye and St. James in southwestern Minnesota. She can work for a Twin Cities area insurance company from her home only because she has high-speed internet available, allowing her to work from home and make the long drive just once a week.
More and faster connections are vital for rural Minnesota, Finstad said.
“It is one of the top questions businesses ask when they are looking at communities,” Finstad said. “From a quality of life standpoint, it is no secret we are losing our young people to urban areas.”
Clay County Administrator Vijay Sethi, who, like Geller, is a task force member, said the problem is going to get worse if something is not done soon.
In Moorhead, where Sethi lives, high-speed internet is available, but at a fraction of the speed that is needed to run many applications.
In flood-prone areas of his county, people need to keep in touch with river levels, he said, something that is tough at slow connection speeds.
Internet providers need “enough horsepower to download a bunch of information” for tasks such as medical care, Sethi said. “Nobody should be left out having access to those services.”.
Not for everyone
Geller said the actual broadband connection may end up being not as big a problem in rural areas as other factors, such as the high number of elderly and poor.
“Some of those demographic barriers and socioeconomic barriers are very real and will prove to be larger barriers,” Geller said, indicating some will not want or be able to afford computer equipment to be connected. “I would have a hard time figuring out the right argument to convince somebody that they need to spend anywhere between $25 and $50 a month, plus the cost of a computer ... for an elderly person on a fixed income who is of modest means.”
But if a person wants a high-speed connection, he added, they should be allowed to have one. It is much the same as when telephones and electricity spread across rural areas, he said.
Chris Swanson of Two Harbors, another task force member and city council member, said that to him the key issue is to make the most important service available to everyone. He considers that to be health care for the elderly. If such a service needs fast broadband and is available, service to everyone would improve.
Swanson said government needs to consider providing infrastructure like it provides roads for package-delivery companies. How the internet is delivered matters less than making sure it happens, Swanson said.
In Lake County, fiber optic cable is logical because forested areas make wireless less reliable. But in southern Minnesota’s farm country, wireless connections may make more economic sense.
Fiber is “like having a four-lane highway,” Swanson said, while wireless “is a real nice two-lane road with shoulders. It still delivers what they need.”
It is not financially feasible to build four-lane internet highways to every home, Swanson said, although that is what Lake County plans.
County board members are still waiting to hear word on a low-interest federal economic stimulus loan it applied for to get a private company to lay fiber cable. Then private firms will be allowed to provide service over those lines. The county does not plan to be an internet service provider itself.
Swanson said Lake County could be a model, “especially for rural areas. I think our model is one that is very sustainable. It is very healthy. It allows for business growth, at the same time puts the critical infrastructure needs in place.”
Lowest broadband availability and speeds in state counties:
State recommends 10 or more mps
Percent of county with broadband, Download speed (mps), Upload speed (mps)
Cook 37 1.0 0.7
Pine 57 1.8 0.3
Kanabec 59 1.4 0.9
Aitkin 60 2.4 0.7
Mahnomen 68 2.1 0.4
Wabasha 70 4.1 0.7
Jackson 73 1.2 0.3
Redwood 74 5.6 0.7
Morrison 76 1.0 0.4
Waseca 79 5.2 0.6
Becker 80 3.4 0.5
Watonwan 80 1.5 0.4
Carlton 81 6.1 0.8
Cass 81 2.4 0.5
Clay 81 1.6 0.8
Lake 81 3.4 0.6
Pope 82 2.4 0.6
Winona 82 7 2
Isanti 83 3.7 0.6
Itasca 83 4.8 0.9
Need for speed
Only one county (Washington) comes close to meeting the
Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force goal
of providing all residents access to broadband internet speeds of at least 10 to 20 megabits-per-second download and 5 to 10 megabits-per-second upload. Some examples of speeds needed
for various internet uses:
1 Mbps/500 Kbps
Simple email and Web browsing
Voice phone calls over Internet
5 Mbps/1 Mbps
Browsing complex Web sites
E-mail with larger attachments
Share medium-sized files
Digital broadcast video
10 Mbps/5 Mbps
More complex telecommuting
Share large files
Video streaming (2 or 3 channels)
Basic online gaming
Basic medical filing and diagnosis
100 Mbps/10 Mbps
More education services
Complex online gaming
High-definition TV (3 channels)
Multiple telephone lines
Radio, music, video downloads
Most business needs
1 Gbps/100 Mbps
Live video event coverage
Sharing large databases