Rural Broadband in Minnesota – an issue that’s not going away soon

Tim Girhing of MinnPost spent time talking to folks about broadband before, during and after the Fall Broadband Conference. His article – the result of many conversations – was published today. It recognizes the importance of broadband and necessity of cooperation – in having public-private partnerships as well as hybrid technological solutions.

Making the case for rural broadband…

In most of the Twin Cities, where about 60 percent of Minnesotans live, the internet is oxygen — at once ubiquitous and unnoticed. The choices of service include various levels of high-speed internet, or what’s sometimes referred to as broadband, fast enough to quickly send enormous files to a client, or to watch “Portlandia” in 4k resolution on a MacBook. Fast enough to be taken for granted.

But for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Minnesotans, according to recent estimates, the internet is still ephemeral. They might use the internet only late at night, when usage is low and speeds are faster. They might use their cellphones to do homework. They might still be using dial-up.

They often live in sparsely populated counties where home internet is arguably even more important than it is for urbanites, as many rural Minnesotans are sole proprietors, running farms or small businesses. They’re more spread out, far from hospitals and banks and stores. And they’re older, generally speaking. They’re the people most likely to benefit from connectivity, and yet they are the least connected.

By one estimate, having broadband adds an average of $1,850 to a household’s income. In some cases, it’s much more. In Bemidji, where internet service is actually very good, AirCorp Aviation makes $4 million a year restoring vintage airplanes and making parts for legacy carriers; its owners figure that without high-speed internet, they’d be doing $400,000 in business at best. Even farming, once so hermetic, is now at the forefront of the so-called “internet of things,” employing everything from wired tractors to digital milking machines to remote crop-monitoring.

Making the case for cooperation and strategic partnering…

Edberg, like other broadband advocates, compares the push for rural broadband to rural electrification in the 1930s, when utilities didn’t find it profitable to bring electrical lines deep into the countryside. (Garofalo rejects the analogy, saying the way we deliver electricity — on copper wires — hasn’t changed in 100 years, while the way we provide the internet has and will continue to change.)

Then, as now, the government stepped in. But the New Dealers specifically plowed the majority of government funding into member-owned electric power companies that relied on communities’ self-interest rather than profit motive to get the job done — cooperatives not unlike the ones Edberg helps organize.

“Humans know how to compete,” Edberg said. “We know how to enter into combat. That instinct is in our amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain.” And that competitive instinct, he believes, has led us to accept the widening wealth gap, to accept that shareholders in far-off places deserve the greater benefits of our labor and resources, and perhaps to accept crappy internet. “We’ve become really good at creating extractive economies, at taking value out of our communities,” Edberg said. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

When Edberg talks to communities underserved by internet providers, he advises them that these telecoms “ain’t coming to your doorsteps anytime soon unless you bribe them. So you better grow the muscles and language needed to cooperate with each other. Be clear about the values you hold and what you want to give to your children and grandchildren. Think with a future in mind, not just what your internet bill is going to be this month.”

In fact, many rural Minnesota communities have recently partnered with a telecom to get better internet. But to Edberg’s point, they needed to band together to make it happen — as when Sunrise Township, about 50 miles north of St. Paul, rallied its residents around enough bonding to bring CenturyLink as well as state and federal funding on board.

This entry was posted in MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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