A MN suburban voice for rural broadband

Last week there was an interesting letter to the editor in the St Paul Pioneer Press

Does anybody remember what life was like in rural Minnesota before the rural electric co-op came to the farm? Telephones?  Why isn’t it obvious that the 21st century requires new development? It’s called broadband high-speed internet.

Modern life demands access, access by schools, hospitals and clinics, colleges, businesses and individuals. Private companies have been reluctant to lay the fiber-optic cable needed. So, where is the state?

Don’t you see the economic advantages we’d have if the state was wired? The jungles of Maui are wired for residents. Why aren’t the fields and meadows of Minnesota? Instead of trying to figure out a way to build a new mining industry in northern Minnesota, let’s embrace the future. Build a better internet and they will come. With their ideas, their visions and their investment dollars, they will come. The question is, will Minnesota receive them?

Carl Brookins, Roseville

I don’t know the author – but it’s great that even folk closer to the Twin Cities are promoting broadband access for the whole state.

Rural Minnesota communities can get broadband if we all help do it ourselves

Lori Sturdevant (Minneapolis Star Tribune) takes on rural broadband this week – starting with reasons to continue support to get rural areas better broadband.

My hunch: When Greater Minnesotans say they feel “left behind,” the complaint that’s top of mind is insufficient broadband. They may fume as they drive on bumpy two-lane highways and fret about aging water infrastructure. But they’ll leave — or their kids will — if the internet service is lousy.

And they’ll warm to politicians who credibly promise to make it better.

Why is it taking so long to get fiber to rural areas?

“At first, it was because the technology had to mature,” he [Mark Erickson of RS Fiber] said. “When fiber to the home became cost-efficient, in about 2005 and 2006, it began to work.” The notion that wireless technology will eventually be an affordable high-speed alternative for sparsely populated places is in question, Erickson added. “Wireless works well in high-density places, not in the country.”

But installing fiber cables to every farm and hamlet involves a major upfront investment that’s ill-suited to the business plans of large shareholder-owned telecom companies, Erickson said. The return on those investments is too low and slow. That’s why small local companies, cooperatives and municipal providers have outstripped companies like CenturyLink and Frontier in bringing broadband to rural places, where upfront costs can exceed $10,000 per premise.

How can they get there? With state support such as the Office of Broadband Development and Border to Border Grants. Sturdevant explains the ethos that makes it possible for both sides of the political fence to see that state support makes sense.

Erickson said something that might help those who are torn. He related that when selling would-be rural subscribers on establishing the RS Fiber co-op, he often says, “If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

He isn’t referring only to individual effort. In Greater Minnesota, “do it yourself” has always meant “do it yourselves, with your neighbors.” It’s meant marketing cooperatives, rural electrification associations, municipal liquor stores, township roads, county parks. It’s meant pooling resources with one’s fellow citizens to solve a shared problem.

Think of state government as just another, bigger neighborhood pool.

Lt Governor Smith supports broadband investment on KAXE

Lt Governor Tina Smith was on KAXE this week. Broadband came up (at about minute 3) and the impact of reliable broadband in rural areas.

She mentioned the following (I paraphrase hugely)…

If you’re not connected with high speed affordable connection, you aren’t connected to the rest of the world. It’s not fair that 20 percent of rural Minnesota doesn’t have access.

We see bipartisan support for broadband investment. We recently awarded Border to Border grants to help get the last mile of broadband to households and schools that really need it.

High School senior in Aitkin’s winning essay on better rural broadband

The Minnesota Association of Townships had an essay contest. One of the winners wrote about broadband policy and the need to improve broadband in rural places. Logan Cluff’s winning easy was posted in the Aitkin Age. I’ll only excerpt a portion of it – but as you can see he has some clear ideas…

Fiber to the home would be the best option to get broadband out to people. This technology would be able to meet the needs of people now and be expendable to what future needs may require. However, the cost of this technology is extremely high. Building a fiber network is a big gamble for any communications company, because there is no guarantee that people will take the service. Also the distance between people’s homes can be anywhere from one to 10 miles. Adding a fixed wireless technology to the mix would be a great option to reach more people and give some internet options to those without.

All governments need to modernize their telecommunications policies. The federal governments, Connect America Fund (CAF) that is used to help fund telephone services offered by corporate telcos, should also be available to other providers of internet access. Broadband is replacing phone lines and this money could get access to many more users. At the state level, Minnesota is moving in the right direction with the development of the Office of Broadband and the Border to Border grants. These grants are helping communities expand services to underserved areas but the extreme rural areas of Minnesota are still being left behind. The grant process is not easy and can be costly for lower income counties and companies to find a way to start. To help alleviate those issues, there should be different levels of funding based on the economies and current availability in a predefined area. Economic development will depend on the local government’s involvement and bringing attention to where broadband is needed. Not all communities will need the fastest internet service available, but they need it to be reliable and affordable.

Logan is a senior at Aiktin High School. I think it’s telling that community members are so well informed on the topic – access to better broadband is clearly important to the community.

Park Rapids celebrates recent broadband grant – recognizes the need for more

Park Rapids Enterprise recently posted an article on broadband. They detailed the recent grant award in their area…

Paul Bunyan Communications last month was awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant by the state of Minnesota to expand its fiber optic services to portions of southwest Hubbard County and a small portion of west central Becker County. The expansion area is located to the south and west of Park Rapids.

As a result, the company stated in a news release, the cooperative will begin expansion construction this spring that will pass a minimum of 359 locations in portions of Straight River Township in Hubbard County and portions of Osage Township and Green Valley Township in Becker County. The project, along with the cooperative’s project in central Itasca County which was also a part of the Border to Border Broadband Grant, is estimated to cost $3.9 million, with Paul Bunyan Communications contributing $2.16 million, $1.74 million from the State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant, and Itasca County contributing up to $75,000 towards the Itasca County portion of the project.

Paul Bunyan Communications expects to develop the specific expansion construction plans by early spring and will contact locations included in the project shortly thereafter. Construction will start in the early summer and will be completed by June 30, 2019.

And recognized that there’s still work to be done and that work needs to be funded…

Lawmakers last week announced a bill calling for another $100 million in spending for rural broadband projects statewide. Gov. Mark Dayton, in his state budget, released last week, proposed $60 million over two years for rural broadband.

While both proposals may prove a bit ambitious, the Legislature can continue to chip away this session at the worthwhile funding goal, following $20 million approved in 2014, $10 million in 2015, and $35 million allocated last year.

Rep. Julie Sandstede calls broadband a $10 to $1 investment

The Hibbing Daily Tribune recently ran an article from Rep. Julie Sandstede on broadband…

Down in St. Paul, I’m the chief author of an initiative to expand the Border-to-Border Broadband program by $100 million. Matching grants made available under this program are able to leverage private capital to improve infrastructure throughout the state.

Since the program launched in 2014, $65 million has been invested to expand access to 10,000 new homes and more than 1,000 businesses.

As learning has moved toward electronic resources, students and teachers increasingly rely on access to fast internet service. The use of telemedicine is expanding, and our aging populations in rural Minnesota need 21st century broadband — this isn’t a luxury.

It’s no secret that our regional economy needs to diversify, and I’m working hard to make this happen.

For every $1 invested in broadband infrastructure, communities have seen up to a $10 return. If we want to be a destination location for businesses of all types, we can’t put these investments off.

If we don’t build it, they won’t come.

Senator Simonson calls broadband an economic development and an economic diversity tool

The Duluth Budgeteer News recently ran an article from Senator Simonson on the importance of broadband…

Many of America’s urban areas enjoyed the basic comforts associated with electricity. But in most rural areas, including vast areas of Minnesota, electricity was simply not available. Providers could not justify the expense of extending the electrical grid to a sparsely populated area, meaning farmers and families in rural America could not enjoy the benefits of electricity. Most cities were being powered by a relatively low voltage system, and if lines were extended just a few miles out of town, the voltage dropped off quickly.

The REA changed the landscape for rural America and for Greater Minnesota. By having access to electricity, many small communities, farms, schools and other institutions were able to survive and to prosper in a better life. Electricity was a necessity of the time and changed rural America forever.

Fast forward to current times. Many will suggest that access to quality broadband service in today’s world is much like the need that spurred FDR’s REA  80 years ago. And since 2013, I and others in the Minnesota Legislature have worked collectively with Gov. Mark Dayton to try and extend quality and dependable broadband access to rural areas of Minnesota. In 2014, we created the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program, designed to provide a 50/50 matching grant program that would in turn leverage private investments and create opportunities of expansion. To date, we have appropriated more than $60 million to this program, leveraging many more private dollars and bringing dependable services to many homes, business and community anchor institutions.

What we in larger cities take for granted is a much-needed service all across Minnesota. For many of the same reasons the REA was successful in saving rural America so long ago, broadband access will allow Minnesotans to remain in their homes, grow and attract businesses, improve delivery of education, health care and many other important services across Minnesota, regardless of where you might be.

This program is far more than a convenience program. It is an economic development and an economic diversity tool. If we want our smaller rural communities to survive and retain populations, we have to invest in their infrastructures to promote their stability. This is why I again chief authored a bill to appropriate $100 million from our current budget surplus into the border-to-border grant program. This request aligns with the recommendations of the Governor’s task force on broadband deployment and is supported by Democrats all across Greater Minnesota. I believe strongly that if our rural communities can retain viable economies, then Minnesota as a whole will be strong. Just like when we electrified all of America, we can and must work together to accomplish great things.