Broadband should be Job #1, even if our leaders don’t know what that means

This USA Today story explains how rural Americans long for faster internet and explains what broadband could mean for rural and out of the way places. I submit rural Minnesota and the Iron Range as my own example. Another blog post I found (“It’s the Internet Stupid“) explains a key aspect of this issue:

Broadband is not the Internet. Broadband is shorthand for a diverse class of wired and wireless digital transmission technologies. The Internet, in contrast, is a set of public protocols for inter-networking systems that specifies how data packets are structured and processed. Broadband technologies, at their essence, are high-capacity and always-on.

This means we aren’t just talking about faster Facebooking in the woods. We’re talking about a way to broadcast a professional media presentation to clients all over the world from anywhere you want to live. And isn’t northern Minnesota a great place to live? (Or southern Minnesota, for you flatlanders). I won’t sit here and say that the possibilities are endless. But they are enormous and measurable and why a place like the Iron Range isn’t pushing HARD for these kinds of technologies is baffling. Remind me again why increasing broadband connectivity in the Taconite Tax Relief Area (public or private) is not being discussed in any public setting. This is job #1 if the Range is going to be a part of the 21st century economy. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about ask the kids or grandkids you wish could live on the Iron Range.

Comments

  1. Ross Williams says:

    “Remind me again why increasing broadband connectivity in the Taconite Tax Relief Area (public or private) is not being discussed in any public setting.”

    Because those of us who support it are too busy having online discussions to make it a public issue anywhere in, well, public? I think it is time for folks who understand the opportunities broadband can bring to Northern Minnesota to get ourselves organized as an advocacy group. The opponents of public broadband are the companies with legacy infrastructure that really can’t deliver modern broadband – the phone and cable companies. They spend money on lobbyists, public relations and building political allies. We need to do the same.

    The other problem really is that wisecrack about being too busy online. I am obviously an advocate of using the internet to build communities. But many of the folks involved in online efforts are technology geeks chasing after the latest new tool whether hardware or web site.

    There are many people in Northern Minnesota who don’t spend any more time online than they have to. They would rather be in a boat with their line in the water. If broadband could help them catch fish, they would be all for it.

    If you look at the recent decision to close schools in St. Louis County, you could ask whether that would have been necessary if those schools were working cooperatively using high-speed internet to provide resources to one another, to provide technical support to teachers and to allow students to interact with one another as well as teaching specialists. That isn’t about technology, that is about preserving small town communities by using technology to allow them to survive in a world that is changing. Its about allowing kids to build careers in their local community, not just find a job.

    The problem is that the popular media treats the internet as a new form of popular media, not a tool that is transforming all parts of the world. I doubt Indian based Essar steel would be considering a mining/manufacturing operation in northern Minnesota if they couldn’t be linked half way around the world via broadband. But we don’t put those two things together very often in the public mind. Instead we treat the internet as a source for the latest new fad.

    We need to start making serious arguments for broadband. And we need to bring those possibilities to local leaders who may be well behind their kids in use of technology and haven’t yet learned how to take full advantage of it for their own work. They see it as a luxury, rather than an essential feature of a thriving community like roads, electricity, water and sewer.

  2. Wow, Ross — Great points. That reads like a column. Do you think this is partly generational? I notice that, in general, people my age are hesitant to organize, congregate, run for office or otherwise attempt to influence policy at the front end. Decisions are made that affect us at the tail end and by then outrage is misplaced because the damage has been done.

  3. Toni Wilcox says:

    “…If you look at the recent decision to close schools in St. Louis County, you could ask whether that would have been necessary if those schools were working cooperatively using high-speed internet…” If you asked, the answer would probably be “no.” But no one in the school systems seems to have asked because squeezing every last efficiency out of the current model of k-12 schooling is what they intend to do. They’ll continue down this path, even though the model hasn’t served us well for decades. Why should we build any new schools, even nicer consolidated ones with more “programs” if what goes on inside them remains the same?

  4. Well, I can afford satellite internet, and I can afford radio-sent out internet, but I’m still waiting for Qwest to put broadband on my road so I don’t have to pay 3 – 4 times as much as I do now with my dial up internet. I’m only one mile from town and there is broadband in town.

    It used to be fine to have dialup, but the websites are all too complicated now for dial up. Qwest just puts in the new lines where there are rich people.

    BTW, the Saint Louis County schools aren’t stuck with dial up internet. And they’ve been using Interactive TV for many years to share teachers and classes. Just remember that we’re talking about teaching older children, ie teens, who don’t always behave in a way conducive to other students’ learning environments when they only have a TV monitor in front of them. Which is to say, you can really only use a TV as a teacher in classes with mostly self-motivated, somewhat mature students.

    So what exactly are you saying that ISD 2142 could be doing and sharing that they aren’t doing now? High speed internet and interactive TV aren’t going to bring back band class, home economics, and shop classes, that’s for sure.

    I DO AGREE that new buildings don’t guarantee a better educational program. But if the teachers don’t have to do four class preparations each day, they may have time to prepare more interesting lessons for their classes.

  5. Anonymous says:

    @Ross Williams:

    “I doubt Indian based Essar steel would be considering a mining/manufacturing operation in northern Minnesota if they couldn’t be linked half way around the world via broadband.”

    Uh, Essar is probably going to build a mining operation where the ore is located.

  6. I don’t agree that broadband is priority number one in this country because I think ending these dirty wars is at the top of the list along with health care reform, follwed by ending foreclosures and evictions and economic revitalization putting people back to work at real living wage jobs so people can enjoy the benefits of broadband… pretty hard to enjoy the benefits of broadband when the kids are hungry and sick and you are being kicked out of your home.

    I would say a chicken in every pot comes before putting broadband in every home.

    However, I do agree broadband is VERY important.

    If tax-payers are going to foot the bill for this broadband system than tax-payers should own the broadband system and it should be available as a communications package for very, very cheap… Maybe $10.00 a month at maximum… something that could be done if this is a non-profit public works program designed to create living wage jobs, too.

    If broadband is just going to be another tax-payer subsidized boondoggle for corporations to get richer then forget about broadband until we put an end to this rotten capitalist system first.

  7. I get what you’re saying, Alan, but a 100 percent publicly owned system is not political possible. I wish I was wrong but I’m not. The most important thing right now is to establish broadband as a utility like electricity, water or cable.

  8. Well, Aaron, I can’t afford cable and a lot of times I can’t afford to pay my electric bill; and water costs more than oil now while our largest freshawater aquifer in Minnesota, the Big Bog, is being destroyed… the last thing I need is a big bill for broadband.

    But Obama and the Democrats along with the Minnesota DFL seem to be content having created a “new” party with the middle class as its base while writing off all solutions to the problems of the working class as not politically feasible or expedient.

    To me it is very sad that tax-payers will be funding a new technology like broadband before every American has access to health care.

    Let the banks and mortgage companies take away the family homestead and give other corporations the right to drive the shaft collecting high fees for broadband deeper… not my idea of good and honest government.

    But then again, I’m just a red Finn and we have always believed in cooperatives and people before corporate profits.

    Nothing for working people was ever “feasible” or “politically expedient” until Floyd Olson, Elmer Benson and John Bernard came along.

  9. I’m for universal health care, too, but in terms of regional economic development this is a big deal. I have equated it to rural electrification. You speak of many great heroes, but revolutionary action in the 21st century will look different.

  10. I’m curious: what kind of monthly bill are people likely to get with broadband coming into their home?

    And, will the broadband bill include access to the internet, a television connection and telephone service?

    I am not opposed to broadband; but, I am wondering who will control it, too. Do you see any kind of community control over it, beyond, say, the little to middling community involvement in cable television around the public access channels or C-Span?

    You said:

    “The most important thing right now is to establish broadband as a utility like electricity, water or cable.”

    I kind of look at everything that it is good to have these public utilities as you say; we can always take them over and make them real public utilities when working people build the kind of powerful political parties, political organizations and social movements that are required 🙂

    I notice a whole lot of jockeying going on by the foundations and other businesses trying to place themselves in a position to profit in any way they can from broadband… do you see anything that ordinary people could be doing to capture some control over broadband in any way or is it all just beyond the reach of people with very limited incomes and resources?

  11. I have been involved in “get broadband” initiatives for some 12 years now, and have seen several groups come and go pushing the notion that communities “need” broadband services.

    We tend to cite job creation, economic development, new means of educating our populace, health care, etc. The wish list goes on, but unfortunately, it is just that. A wish list. There is a big disconnect between those wishing for broadband services, and business applications using them.

    Sure,there are exceptions, but really…
    …how many employers trust/enable their employees to work from home full time
    …how many doctors/clinics/hospitals provide remote consultation services
    …how many local units of government enable citizens/contractors to complete legal transactions electronically
    …how many people conduct regular meetings via interactive television or online meeting tools

    I would argue that in most cases, the network is not the limiting factor. Instead, there simply is not much of a business case for broadband. It sounds easy to work from home, but what employer is going to hire people, buy them a laptop, and ask them to report to work in their living room. It’s not realistic. Even experienced programmers need to demonstrate their coding abilities, teamwork, time management, problem solving abilities and other professional skills in a work environment that the employer can monitor, evaluate and shape into their business culture.

    Clinics and hospitals are struggling to just get patient records converted to electronic formats. How in the heck are they going to train grandma how to use remote consultation tools so they can do electronic office visits. Will she be able afford the end user equipment?

    Try to apply for a building permit on-line in Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Bemidji, Duluth, or even Minneapolis, and you’ll be sadly disappointed. Sorry, no dog licenses are available on-line either. You can download a form to fill out at home on your typewriter or with a pen, but you cannot re-submit it via your computer.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not a Luddite. I work with technology all day long. However, I have come to realize that we cannot force people or institutions to use it the way we think they should. Businesses and institutions need to see a value in conducting business via online technologies. It takes a lot more than just a broadband connection. It requires backend and frontend business automation tools to interact with customers, and interface with record keeping systems and accounting systems, new layers or security, and support/development services. it’s no simple task.

    There have to be enough paying customers to justify the hardware, software and personnel resources necessary to make this change. Putting the fiber in the ground is the cheap side of equation. Putting the fiber to use is expensive.

    Chicken or the egg? I am not sure. Build it and they will come? I don’t think so.

    It’s all about application. When there is a real need and demand for broadband services, and when people are willing to put their money where their mouth is, it will become available.

  12. Three examples of current use of broadband: Filing death certificates.(although this is possibly via internet fax) VA medical records.
    And a relative who works for a Minnesota company whose wife got transferred to Seattle. His company is allowing to work from home in Seattle.

    Perhaps the usages will come from the ground up, ie private businesses will use it first.

  13. Chad, there’s no one whose views on technology I respect as much as yours, so your point is well taken. I’m looking at this from a different angle. The Iron Range desperately needs economic diversification. Wood, minerals and tourism is a vital, but insufficient base for us in the new century. So I look out across a broad spectrum of other things people could do here. Manufacturing? Limited by cost of transportation. Tech development? Many tech types prefer cities.
    But not everyone prefers cities. I argue that for those who have jobs with work-from-home capability or who are in business for themselves might make the choice to live here and raise a family if that choice existed. I work from my rural home half time and it’s great. My internet options are limited and very expensive, though.

    You’re right, when the market demands broadband the industry will deliver very quickly. Perhaps the premise of my calls for broadband is that we need to educate our leaders and local businesses that the work of the future involves the internet and that it’s not some big scary thing. Fully half the people I talk to believe that to be the case.

  14. Toni Wilcox says:

    Chad has many good points, but the best one I think is that we need a cultural shift to take full advantage of broadband.

    A case in point is psnafterthought’s comment from June 10th, with some very true observations about the limitations of teaching teens via interactive TV or having them all in the same room receiving instruction via computer. Just putting the same old schooling on computer is not taking full advantage of boradband’s possibilities, and without moving to a more results oriented workplace businesses can’t do any better than schools at using it.

    I’m having an interesting summer testing my own beliefs about broadband’s utility and how to take full advantage of it while both teaching teen entrepreneurs and ostensibly managing them as employees.

    One thing I’ve noted is that their collaboration skills, and speed, are phenomenal-and all taught through social networking, not school. As one of them said “file sharing isn’t all about music.” But, to work “together” while not physically present they need reliable broadband.

  15. This has been a great conversation. I wanted to comment on something Chad noted –

    There have to be enough paying customers to justify the hardware, software and personnel resources necessary to make this change.

    While this is true, the costs vary greatly whether you are talking about a publicly owned utility (like, say LUS in Lafayette, LA) or a company like Qwest that is looking first to profit.

    Who owns the system, and what rate of return on investment they demand, changes the equation quite a bit. This is why hundreds of communities in the U.S. have some sort of publicly owned broadband provider – they got tired of waiting for the private sector to build it. If we waited for private companies to wire the entire country for phone or electricity, we would still be waiting.

  16. Why does Qwest keep advertising their broadband service when it serves so few of us who receives their bills. Maybe I’d have opted for an alternative if I hadn’t been swayed by their ads that I could get it here.

    My sister, in very rural NW Wisconsin, went from having only 19 kbps to fast internet through the phone company on fiberoptic lines through her phone company, but she was required to sign up for a big phone company package for about $100/month, mostly for services she will never use. That’s sure a rip off. I’ve heard that it isn’t legal to require a big package price like that.

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  18. Aaron:

    I feel a little conflicted here. On one hand, I strongly advocate the expansion of broadband service into unserviced areas to reduce the digital divide and provide rural folks with better opportunities for economic development and education. On the other hand, it is hard to justify huge public expenditures for what in reality is a toy, not a tool, for most users.

    I know that I am fortunate to have at least three choices for wired DSL service. I’d like to have even more options, especially in the “speed” side of things. Even though I have two DSL connections at home (one for business, one for pleasure), they are both slooowwwwwwww compared to urban and especially European standards.

    I concede. I cannot imagine living outside of a broadband service area again. So, if private enterprise is not willing to provide a baseline level of service, I can see the need for government/cooperative delivery of broadband services. Perhaps new wireless broadband capabilities will help cover more of us at an affordable cost.

    Have a big day.

  19. Hello Ross and other Broadband Advocates:
    June 18 and 19 in Grand Rapids will be a great opportunity to make good on your exhortation that “we need to start making serious arguments for broadband:” Governor Pawlenty’s Ultra High Speed Task Force will be in town for one of its 3 “out state” public hearings. A Public Comment period is on the Task Force agenda from 9:15 to 9:30. To help think through messages for the Task Force, I urge you and other broadband advocates from the Range to attend Blandin Foundation’s community seminar,to be held at the Sawmill tomorrow, Thursday, June 18, beginning at 3:00. This is a real chance to deliver directly to people charged with developing a broadband vision for Minnesota your message that Broadband is not a “luxury,” but “an essential feature of athriving community like roads, electricity, water and sewer.” Aaron – you come on over, too!

    Here’s a link to a flyer about the seminar:

    http://www.blandinfoundation.org/_uls/resources/BB_Community_Seminar_Flyer_.pdf

    Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin Foundation

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