Lately I’ve been reading and writing about the concept of “Brain Gain” for rural Minnesota and Iron Range communities. This is the idea that rural areas, particularly in Minnesota, may lose their high school graduates, but have been steadily and quietly attracting young professionals back through reverse migration. Our central challenge is in engaging this population for our region’s economic future. This is all part of a project I’m working on (stay tuned for that). Without rehashing all of it now, I’ll leave it at this: a tremendous about of potential awaits our rural communities IF we have the technological infrastructure to welcome telecommuters and the educational infrastructure to rapidly respond to training needs in a fast-changing economy.
Northern Minnesota is actually well poised on the education side of that equation, but continues to lag on the tech side — a source of unending frustration for yours truly. Failure to respond to this ONE challenge will cost the Iron Range region more potential jobs every year than any given proposed mine or factory could hope to provide. Most local leaders still seem to believe the internet’s sole redeeming value is in sharing pictures of grandchildren and finding the weather forecast on demand. People will nod politely at the notion that new entrepreneurs can use high speed internet to create media, projects, products and more; but when it comes time to install the lines, cities balk and local cable providers are waiting in the wings to offer as many excuses as necessary why their near-monopolies should be allowed to choose when and if rural areas should be served at all.
So look at this story about how Chattanooga, Tennessee, got “the fastest internet in America” and tell me again why we all need to “wait.” A pairing of private companies and public bodies combined ideas and resources to make Chattanooga internet an unrivaled sources of economic development. Now, private providers are seeking legislative action to block this kind of project in other places.
Cable internet companies will only take risks that could specifically benefit themselves; that’s the very nature of capitalistic endeavors. Risk that carries a high expense, like installing fiber optic cable that won’t become profitable for a decade or two, is always going to be on their back burner. It is in this manner that we have ended up with American internet that is slower and much more expensive than the internet of most other major industrialized powers.
Chattanooga isn’t some left-wing bastion, either. Conservative Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was mayor there before he was elected to the Senate. The benefits of a modern high speed internet network are nonpartisan, and carry as many advantages for private interests as they do for public ones. Do you remember what roads and railroads did for capitalism in the 1800s and 1900s? That’s what high speed broadband networks will do for capitalism in the 2000s and beyond.
Last week, the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced a broadband tour of Greater Minnesota as part of the $20 million rural internet package approved last legislative session (including a 1:30-3 p.m. Wednesday stop at the IRRRB south of Eveleth). So, more meetings. This is a start, but what we need is more fiber. And every moment we wait will cost us dearly.