This is my Sunday column for the Jan. 20, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
The broadband crossroads
By Aaron J. Brown
Last week I chatted with my cousin and his new wife. They were in Philadelphia; we spoke through an internet video phone connection at my grandparents’ home in Keewatin, Minnesota. While my cousin explained how close they live to Ben Franklin’s grave, we nestled in my grandma’s sewing room in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range.
It was a good thing we were in Keewatin for this because the internet at our home 15 miles northwest isn’t fast enough to sustain video streaming services like Skype or Google Hangout. At least, not reliably. Even though my wife and I make much of our living writing content and communicating with people on the web, our lives in northern Minnesota have meant making sacrifices on the reliability and cost of our internet.
According to the FCC, about 119 million Americans live without access to high speed internet, commonly called “broadband.” More than 19 million of them, like us, live in an area without access to broadband. Wireless and satellite services close the gap, helping us do most of what we need to do; but the limits are wearing on us. We pay more than $1,000 a year for our satellite internet and routinely hit our “data cap,” after which our fast speeds are rendered slower than dial up.
Several studies and reports have been released on the issue of high speed internet in northern Minnesota, all painting a slightly different picture — but all showing our state and nation behind the rest of the industrialized world in this basic modern commodity. In reality, the confusing structure, varied use and widespread misunderstanding of the internet here is the real problem.
Not all internet is the same. A data plan on a new phone will let you use the internet wherever you have reception. But this “internet” is not broadband; not exactly. You face steep data caps (limits on how much you can do) and translating that service to your computer is prohibitive to many professionals. Further, focusing on phones — apps, videos and music — reinforces the false notion that the web is “just for fun.” The web is the way our economy works!
And while those of means can afford workarounds, like we do in paying for satellite service, working families will always be limited by cost. And the cost for access, and the cost for access to enough bandwidth (data capacity) for professional use of the internet is a big problem in the United States.
Our economy is ever reliant on things we understand and things we are only beginning to understand. Yes, the future will require raw materials like iron ore and lumber, things we have extracted for more than a century in this region. We will need food (farms) and goods (manufacturing), as humans have since civilization began.
This would normally bode well for rural Minnesota, producer of all these things. But it hasn’t. Efficiencies in production greatly reduce the number of people needed to staff these industries. While the promise of additional mining remains on the lips of many on the Iron Range, the reality is that the population and employment levels of the Iron Range won’t change much over the next few decades; if anything they will continue to slightly decline.
Perhaps if retirees continue to settle here in record numbers, which could level off our losses. However, in that case school referendums will continue to fail and our schools will suffer, further stratifying the people who are here to make a living and the people who are here to celebrate a life they lived someplace else.
As sure as our ancestors sought abundant natural resources in northern Minnesota, their great-great grandchildren will flee for lack of access to the modern economy. We have had, and missed, opportunities to change this; we will not have many more.
Frankly, those in our communities who continue to reject or dismiss the internet as a part of our future will cause scores of future generations to be raised elsewhere, while our communities wither into the small shells common to once-mighty mining towns.
Ask your grandchildren. Or the kids at the high school. Ask them where they want to live and why.
For more reading on this topic, read Gov. Mark Dayton’s Broadband Task Force plan outline or this fine column, “It’s Time to Fix the Pitifully Slow, Expensive Internet Access in the U.S.” by Susan Crawford of Wired.