Access to high-speed broadband Internet is sometimes taken for granted nowadays. It seems like access is just about everywhere — at schools, libraries and many homes.
But for people who live in rural and semi-rural areas of East Central Minnesota and other similar areas of the state in terms of population density, access can be spotty at best or, in some cases, nonexistent.
Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County’s HRA/EDA director, hosted a forum on regional broadband Jan. 6 in North Branch. More than a dozen people came to the meeting, including Sen. Matt Schmitt, DFL-Red Wing.
Schmitt is one of those leading the charge to build out broadband access throughout the state.
“Minnesota has spent the past decade talking about the importance of broadband access,” Schmitt said in a press release. “We’ve formed three separate governor’s task forces, we’ve established speed goals, and we’ve identified policy recommendations. There’s been a lot of talk, but very little action. Despite a great deal of philanthropic activity and admirable work by our local providers and co-ops, our statewide infrastructure investments aren’t keeping pace and we’re lagging increasingly behind the curve.
“I’m convinced high-speed broadband access is the great equalizer for rural economic development. Unfortunately, a lot of our communities are falling short of the speeds and service levels that are required for essential 21st century applications — including those in education, health care, e-commerce and agriculture.”
Marc Johnson, director of the East Central Minnesota Education Cable Cooperative, said having access to affordable, high-speed Internet at home is integral to education because of how education is changing as technology advances.
“School districts are putting technology (like iPads, laptops and other mobile devices) in the hands of students because of the good things that they can do,” Johnson said.
He noted these devices are amazing tools when it comes to learning, but they cannot be used to their full capacity without Internet access or with slower-than-average access.
Johnson explained school districts make accommodations for students who can’t get the same kind of Internet access at home as they can at school because of where they live, but those students are often at a distinct disadvantage compared to students who live in homes where Internet access and speed is not an issue.
“Students access information from the Internet; if we don’t know if our students are going to have that kind of access, it puts them at an immediate disadvantage and it changes what the schools can do,” he said.
Johnson also said some of the curriculum available for teachers is only online — it’s not in books that teachers can send home with students.
“Right now, our cooperative is part of a digital curriculum initiative,” he said. “We’re creating a digital curriculum that is replacing textbooks. Some of that content is accessed via the Internet — that’s just the way things are going.”
Kathy Lindo, the director of the North Branch Area Chamber of Commerce, said lack of high-speed Internet options affects business opportunities in numerous communities.
“So many businesses need high-speed Internet,” she said. “If it isn’t available, it limits where they can go.”
She also noted there are a number of home-based businesses in and around North Branch that need high-speed Internet to operate.
“The appetite for Internet speed and volume is just increasing. … It’s just going crazy,” she said.
Maps can be misleading
Those who consult online maps of broadband access across the state might notice that areas like Chisago and Isanti counties look like they’re thoroughly covered.
Johnson said those maps can be misleading.
“Virtually, you get a mile or two outside of the towns and (residents) are immediately very limited,” he said.
He said the maps might note an area has DSL, and it probably does, but the speeds in those outlying areas tend to be slower, there are data caps, and the price of a connection can be an obstacle when it comes to having fast enough access.
Johnson also explained that some households can get Internet access through their cellular providers, but doing that can rack up data charges, and families are sometimes forced to have conversations with their children and their schools about how much it costs for their kids to access the Internet at home for school assignments.
Hoffman mentioned another advantage of having broadband available in more areas of the state: It could allow older Minnesotans to stay in their homes longer.
Hoffman, a member of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Advisory Committee, said a few years ago the committee partnered with a nonprofit to set up a technology called “GrandCare” in the home elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the GrandCare website, “The GrandCare System is connected to any dedicated Internet connection and communicates with wireless sensors throughout the residence. Designated caregivers log into the GrandCare website to send communications to the loved one, view activity graphs, access digital health and medication information, and customize automated rules and alerts. A caregiver may choose to receive a call, email or text message if specified conditions occur.”
Hoffman mentioned the GrandCare system can allow people to communicate with their elderly family members via Skype, it can alert them if a door in the elderly person’s home is opened, or even if a cabinet where medication is kept is opened — it all just depends upon where the wireless sensors are placed.
Who pays for better
Hoffman and Johnson agreed that the challenge in getting better broadband access across the state is all about who would pay for the build-out.
If counties and municipalities were involved in the funding, the initiative could rely on tax dollars, which might not sit well with taxpayers.
Johnson said it has to make financial sense for a broadband provider to more thoroughly cover rural and semi-rural areas. He said there is federal money available for such an effort through the Connection America Fund, “but there are lots of strings attached on what you can and cannot do” with the money. In addition, he said, some providers simply don’t want to jump through all of the hoops to get federal money they could use for a build-out in sparsely populated areas.
Steve Johnson, business development manager at Midcontinent Communications, said the cost to extend broadband networks into rural areas can run $20,000 per mile or more, so providers really have to consider the benefits of building out an area before that decision is made.
“Our economical model is based on more high-density areas,” he said.
He added, “Midcontinent is definitely willing to leverage its backbone network to help support the growth of business,” but another provider would have to approach the company with an affordable partnership for a rural build-out because the costs would be very high if Midcontinent were to do a rural build-out on its own.
Marc Johnson said there isn’t a specific plan about how to do a build-out in East Central Minnesota right now, but the good news is that broadband providers are coming to the table and listening to community concerns about Internet access.
“Providers are listening, at least,” he said. “At least they don’t just say ‘no.’ They’re showing up; they’re talking.”