What next for rural broadband?

PHOTO: Gavin St. Ours, Flickr CC

State Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) lives about as far from St. Paul as you can get. After the end of the legislative session he returned to his home just outside town, wondering if the governor would sign the bills or call lawmakers back.

Here’s what he wrote on Facebook:

I received the info today on the Governor’s signing letters on the budget bills. However because of the lousy internet service here in Northern Minnesota, I had to drive into International Falls to access WiFi from the public library to be able to open the links. I challenge my colleagues to bring true border to border broadband to all of Minnesota. All of the residents of this great state deserve this service.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) returned home to the Minnesota House district with the lowest broadband penetration. Lueck was among many rural Republicans elected in 2014 and 2016, swinging both the state House and Senate to the GOP. Among their grievances was the lack of attention to rural issues.

“Our area has long suffered from little or no high-speed internet service, something our friends in the metro area take for granted,” Lueck said in a press release last winter.

One of Lueck’s former constituents told the Star Tribune she moved from Aitkin County to Wisconsin because her home-based business couldn’t survive with such slow internet speeds. This is happening all over the state.

Despite the bipartisan recognition of the rural broadband problem, bipartisan solutions have been hard to find. This is particularly true when it comes to spending on broadband expansion. Gov. Mark Dayton and DFLers proposed $100 million in grants for units of government, nonprofits or private companies to expand broadband access. The Republicans countered with a smaller number. The result was $20 million allocated to the Border to Border Broadband program in 2017.

That’s something. And several areas in Minnesota will benefit from the spending. The Border to Border Broadband program is one of the big reasons I have high speed fiber access today. But there’s no avoiding the fact that large parts of Minnesota still don’t have adequate access. Meanwhile, prices for broadband access remain higher than most industrialized countries of the world.

Some of this can be fixed by spending, but the issue also requires different ways of thinking. For some, especially conservatives and IT people (to the degree there is a difference), the solution includes looking at newer, less expensive technologies to deliver faster (though not fastest) internet speeds to more people. For these people, the cost of stringing fiber optic cable to the existing grid of telephone and power customers is a bridge too far.

Others complain, and this would include me, that telecommunication companies use monopolistic practices to keep competition out of rural areas. They also string customers along with promises of “better” options at some vague time in the future. This tends to stunt community efforts to lobby government or rival companies to serve their demands.

Meantime, everyone has a cell phone. Data service is improving rapidly. But the price of *enough* data to access professional or educational opportunities remains very prohibitive for many rural residents.

Intelligent Community Forum, a nonprofit seeking to help communities use technology to thrive, opened its 2017 conference this week by passing a resolution declaring broadband access to be a utility, legally defining high speed internet as an essential service:

“Broadband has already been declared a human right in such nations as Finland and by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly. In issuing this resolution, ICF seeks to translate that global aspiration to the local level, where broadband is actually deployed. In cities, states, provinces and nations around the world, broadband deployment and adoption are hindered by monopolistic or oligopolistic markets, profit-driven business models and regulatory barriers erected at the urging of incumbent Internet Service Providers. The areas most affected are those traditionally on the margins, whether due to poverty, ethnicity or low population density. ICF believes that this is no longer acceptable because broadband has become a utility as necessary to economic growth and quality of life as reliable electricity, clean water and functioning waste disposal.

The Star Tribune reported earlier this week about how federal spending on rural broadband is expected to dry up. State spending, even if increased, will struggle to pick up the slack.

I’ve got two things to say about our current problems with broadband.

First, there are plenty of ways to spend little chunks of money *talking* about broadband. Many well intentioned consultants have found gainful employment doing just this.

It’s also fairly affordable to target specific locations, like schools and township halls. But actually hooking up homes and businesses in the sticks takes a fat load of cash. There’s money to be made with the new customers, but companies don’t want to take this risk of going first. In this, the dynamic resembles the challenges facing rural electrification 70-100 years ago. It will take investment and will. Despite the protestations of broadband skeptics, you can’t wish your way to accomplishing this goal. Nothing will change unless it is changed.

While that may mirror what liberals and broadband advocates like me have been saying for a long time, let me add my second thought.

It is imperative not to forget the local responsibility for these matters as well. Rural areas need to organize. Groups of neighbors need to let their local government and local internet providers know that A) they exist, B) they’re willing to sign on as customers, and C) they can quantify their service areas. This is precisely why Paul Bunyan Communication, a co-op, chose Central Itasca County (where I live) to expand last year. It took leadership within the county, township board, and among businesses to set the bait with thousands of surveys and petition signatures. If enough rural areas do this, private market forces would be more inclined to act independently or use whatever public grant funding is available.

All this being said, the problems facing rural areas and their broadband access are not limited to broadband. No matter who’s elected, rural voters are more likely to get lip service than they are to see external change agents actually helping them. That’s why I advocate a mix of public investment and a strong dose of local self-determinism. Not one or the other, but both.

If you’ve read this and, for some insane reason, want more, I’ve got something for you. This week on the Northern Community Radio podcast Dig Deep, commentator Chuck Marohn and I talk about broadband in the context of infrastructure spending and policy. Our show endeavors to provide new ways of thinking about issues that often pit liberals and conservatives against one another. We tackle specific issues once a month with a three-part series of short podcasts. The segments, produced by Heidi Holtan, also run on the KAXE/KBXE Morning Show and the Saturday morning program “The Give and Take.”

Comments

  1. Actually not everyone has a cell phone. Both my dad and us only have land lines.

    “Meantime, everyone has a cell phone.”

    • Fair point. Not everyone really has a cell phone. My point is that most people do, and the 4G data plans can give the illusion that everyone has access to high speed internet, but most cell users don’t have the bandwidth or capabilities that a bandwidth user uses for school and work.

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