Like most “kids these days” I keep my cell phone with me at all times. I post etherial tidbits to social media and turn to Google to find the lyrics to a song or the location of a restaurant. I’m writing this column in the “cloud.”
Nevertheless, I’m conscious of the fact that I taught myself to type on my parent’s electronic typewriter. One of my favorite early 1990s activities was to go to the Kmart to hack out ironic comments on the demonstration typewriters — models from IBM, Tandy and Brother cast in sleek beige plastic.
Time since, typewriters turned to ghosts, along with the local Kmart and, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential race, the abstract concept of irony.
The internet now emerges from its awkward early years. Like many millennials, the internet finds itself balancing on uncertain terrain. The wireless router, after all, may be found in your parents’ basement.
Twenty-five years ago, the modern version of the world wide web came to Minnesota. Minnesota Resources Network, a nonprofit, spurred the advance of the Information Age in the North Star State, first hooking up schools, then connecting large businesses and the state government. Though many innovators would come later, MRNet — which has since merged with other companies — laid the groundwork.
I can remember when school officials rigged the Cherry High School library with internet. Eventually, a couple classrooms received special computers dedicated solely to the purpose of accessing the web. They stood apart, like the monoliths in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” almost too mysterious to touch. We had no idea that in a few short years we’d be using internet tools to bludgeon our rivals.
Here on the Iron Range, The Bridge, later Range Broadband, was the first to provide cable internet service in a Minnesota small town. The technology was so advanced that people couldn’t understand why they needed to upgrade from their much cheaper dial-up service. In time, Mediacom took over Range Broadband and now most consumers can’t fathom anything less than high-speed internet.
This early cautionary tale shows that capitalizing on the rising usage of the Internet has been one part innovation, but also one part timing. That’s where rural parts of Northern Minnesota now find their greatest opportunity.
Earlier this month, my family and I attended a community open house for Paul Bunyan Communication’s Central Itasca Fiber project. You might recall that I wrote about this last winter when the project sought funding. The interest then was great then. But now thousands of rural Iron Rangers will actually connect to gigabyte speeds — from Balsam and Lawrence townships to areas North of Nashwauk. Thus, the mood at the event was jubilant. Almost 300 people packed the Balsam Hall to hear project updates.
Paul Bunyan Communication is a cooperative network owned by its members. This year’s expansion comes from its own money combined with support from the state Border to Border Broadband program and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. There are plenty of other internet companies out there, but it’s harder to find examples of companies putting this much effort into expanding to rural underserved or unserved markets. However it happens — public, private, cooperative or some combination — providing world class internet speeds outside Iron Range towns will connect the whole region to new opportunities.
Northern Minnesota faces numerous challenges in our economy, our society, and heck — even in the upcoming winter, which is supposed to be a doozy. We must use any advantage we have. Ultra high speed internet in beautiful rural spaces? That’s a tool to attract young families and entrepreneurs, while also better serving existing residents — especially students.
Minnesota’s relationship with the internet has come a long way in 25 years. And while it still has some immature tendencies (I’m looking at you, creepy clown videos), now is when life in the Information Age starts to get serious.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.