Two broadband views in Duluth News Tribune – and a place for partnership between electric coops and broadband providers

Earlier this month, the Duluth News Tribune published an editorial about the need for better broadband…

One lingering barrier to border-to-border broadband, long a goal for the state, is what companies tend to do after landing state or federal grants meant to push broadband availability to more homes: “They often cherry-pick a path (that serves) larger population centers to enhance profits,” as Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association of Maple Grove, wrote in a commentary distributed last week to the News Tribune Opinion page and elsewhere.

“This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach,” Moe wrote. “Without a financial incentive to serve the smaller and more rural areas, they are bypassed time and time again for larger, more profitable service areas.”

And the electric cooperative’s role in providing service…

“Electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place,” he wrote. “Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines. Minnesota’s electric cooperatives can be part of the solution to bridge the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric co-ops natural champions for deploying broadband to rural America.”

Already, Arrowhead Electric in Lutsen has deployed broadband to its members through a partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company, Minnesota Rural Electric Association Director of Education and Communication Krista Benjamin reported last week to the News Tribune Opinion page.

The letter is similar to one I wrote about in the Worthington Globe. Today the Duluth News Tribune has posted a response from Brent Christensen at the MN Telecom Association

Minnesota has been measuring and mapping broadband since 2008. While our state’s maps can always be improved, particularly when it comes to fixed wireless verification, they are still the most accurate in the nation. Why the News Tribune chose to get facts from outside the state is beyond me. The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has a plethora of data and maps showing how broadband availability has grown year after year. From 68.08% in 2015 at the state’s 2022 goal of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speed and 3 Mbps in upload speed to 83.10% last October. The state’s 2026 speed goal of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload went from 40.68% in 2015 to 72.53% last October.

The editorial cited the president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association as a broadband expert and source. That would be like asking me, the president of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, to be a resource on issues surrounding rural electrification. You can fill volumes with what I don’t know about the electric industry.

Unlike the electric industry, telecom, including broadband, is a competitive utility. Our industry is no longer a “build it and they will come” business. We have to make sure we are going to get the customers to support the infrastructure investment. This is why the editorial’s comparison of rural broadband deployment today with rural electrification a century ago didn’t work.

This is where state and federal support comes into play. Minnesota Telecom Alliance members are cooperatives, family-owned companies, privately held commercial companies, and investor-traded companies. We all have one thing in common, besides providing broadband in rural Minnesota: We can’t invest in broadband if the business case doesn’t work. Last year, Minnesota Telecom Alliance members invested more than $196.9 million to maintain and upgrade their networks, with more than $244 million projected for 2021. That is still not enough to make some business cases work.

The FCC is investing $162.2 million each year in broadband expansion. The state of Minnesota has invested more than $136.1 million in border-to-border broadband grants to further tip the scale. None of these programs allows providers to cherry-pick who they serve, as the editorial suggested. The federal dollars come with build-out requirements and performance-testing requirements that providers have to meet. If they don’t, they have to pay the money back.

There are three lingering barriers to true border-to-border broadband in Minnesota. One is our limited construction season. We cannot bury fiber during the winter. The second is supply-chain issues. There is so much broadband expansion that getting supplies and the contractors to install broadband is a major problem. And three is bad information. Misinformation keeps communities and providers apart. Minnesota has great examples of partnerships that have brought broadband to entire counties and examples where local units of government have failed miserably.

One thing the editorial got right was the partnerships between members of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association and the Minnesota Telecom Alliance: They are yet another example how Minnesota has gotten it right.

This entry was posted in Cooperatives, MN, Policy, Vendors by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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