COLUMN: Blazing new trails for Northern Minnesota’s future

This is my Sunday column for the Oct. 9, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Blazing new trails for Northern Minnesota’s future
By Aaron J. Brown

When I was a kid, maybe 11 or so, my mom showed me a picture from a Minnesota history book she was reading. The image showed the thin, rough path that connected Duluth to the Iron Range before there were any roads or modern highways. The path was one cart wide and cut through a massive white pine forest that no longer exists.

I recall paging through this book many times in the years to come, always fixating on this picture. Someone was the first to plot this trail. Someone was the first to cut the brush and mighty trees, even before the commercial loggers. And someone was the first to drive down this ominous, seemingly endless road to what was then nowhere. All of this occurred in the lifetime of several of my then-living relatives.

In this modern world we are told there is nothing new, nothing left to explore. Of course, the land itself has indeed been populated several times over. Buildings and businesses have risen and fallen like so many years’ corn or tomato plants, some years better than others. But the human need to explore and innovate in order to adapt is no less strong.

Instead of building paths in new wilderness, today we build new paths over the old to reach higher levels of human capability. Or at least, we should. The fact that this might seem fantastical is, in essence, the whole of our economic morass in the United States and northern Minnesota.

Adam Bengtson is the CEO of St. Paul-based Endorse Communications and a former executive director of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, specializing in state chamber of commerce internet issues as they relate to online job creation.

“If you think of people who lost their jobs and are on the unemployment lines, the only place they can go is where the jobs are,” said Bengtson. “New jobs seem to follow the contour of where the high speed lines go. Access is a big issue in determining where businesses will place their operations.”

I’ve written before that high speed internet is the infrastructure issue of our times, and should rightly be compared to those early cart paths through the untamed forests of northern Minnesota. Today, many northern Minnesotans don’t use high speed internet as part of their daily lives, but in a few years we can predict that most will – at home and at work, to the degree there will be a distinction between the two.

Bengtson is a web developer who lives in Rosemount on the southern edge of the Twin Cities, a suburb that overlooks southern Minnesota’s sprawling farmland. He has farming stock in his family, including an uncle who’s looking for new markets and techniques online. For these reasons, rural high-speed internet has become Bengtson’s cause to the degree that he joined a lobbying effort sponsored by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and other internet organizations. The group spoke with members of Congress this past week.

Also before Congress and government boards these days is a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, two of the nation’s biggest wireless service providers. The merger has run into opposition from several large states and the U.S. Justice Department because of antitrust concerns. However, the merger has garnered support from several prominent Minnesota leaders because of the implications for wireless coverage in rural parts of the state, including here in the north.

“Minnesota benefits more than other states,” said AT&T Minnesota President Bob Bass.

Bass says his company would quickly cover up to 80 percent of the state with high-speed wireless service if the merger goes through (a prospect that appears unsure at this time). Using T-Mobile’s acquired wireless spectrum would allow AT&T to cover more territory with deeper coverage, bringing better coverage north of Chisholm and Nashwauk and farther into northern Minnesota.

Such expansion is welcome, especially given the slowness of traditional internet providers to invest capital into their own high speed lines. Public efforts to expand the lines have been spotty, subject to a difficult-to-understand grant process. The political will for major state or federal investments has been lacking. But wireless internet coverage is subject to its own limitations, particularly in the data needed to stream media or upload large files.

From Bengtson’s perspective, both wireless and fiber optic lines need to be a part of the state’s internet future.

“You don’t know where the next innovation will come from,” said Bengtson. “I work from my office and I work from my iPhone. I think we need both.”

Northern Minnesota’s resource-based economy is holding its own as steel prices and those of other minerals stoke old desires to mine our way to prosperity. Indeed, every indication is that good mining jobs lie over the horizon. However, regional economic prosperity will require more. For a region with such a unique tax structure owing to taconite production it would be pure folly not to build new pathways to economic diversification while we still can. That is, in fact, the point of such a tax structure.

The challenge of blazing new trails isn’t as clear as 100 years ago when we marched through virgin forests. We must now build railways of electrons and data, requiring the courage of a new generation not inhibited by fear of change.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and speech instructor at Hibbing Community College. He is the author of the blog and the host of 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on the HCC theater stage Saturday, Oct. 15 at 4:30 p.m.

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