Range leaders beginning to talk broadband

Internet Infrastructure

PHOTO: Joselito Tagarao, Creative Commons license

This morning, the Mesabi Daily News and Hibbing Daily Tribune published a Bill Hanna story about rural broadband. It begins:

ST. PAUL — The governor and lawmakers, both in northern and southern parts of the state, agree that better broadband is needed in rural areas, especially as an economic development tool.

But there is real concern about how the money being sought by broadband supporters this legislative session — $200 million — would be allocated.

And one Range legislator says broadband funding can easily become a “black hole.”

“Technology is a whipsaw — we spend all the money on what we think the needs are now and then the technology changes. I get all mine now off a cell tower,” said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.

“I’m concerned about spending huge amounts of money and then getting caught in a technology crunch. We need to be cautious … can’t build helter-skelter. I don’t know what the figure is … it feels like a bottomless pit.”

The story repeats like that, a paragraph suggesting the importance of rural broadband followed by concern over cost.

It’d be easy to say that Northern Minnesota legislators still don’t get what this issue is all about, but the fact that they’re acknowledging the value of high-speed rural internet even if they don’t fully understand it yet is, in fact, progress. Building broadband infrastructure isn’t cheap, but then again neither is building a $220-$240 million bridge over a mine pit or subsidizing large international corporations. Broadband infrastructure will, however, give more back to the Iron Range in subsequent decades.

To address a few of the points from the story, I’d like to start with Rep. Dill’s discussion of how he gets his internet through wireless providers.

Yes, many people can now get their internet “through the air” using cellular service. This service is capped by the providers. That means the kinds of things David Dill does on the internet (checking e-mail, reading things) are fine, but any kind of large file creation and dissemination — the kinds of things businesses do on the internet — are not supported by cell towers. These towers simply can’t handle the coming tide of streaming media and video conferencing. For that matter, neither can the expensive satellite internet services like HughesNet or Exede, who despite increasing bandwidth capacity in the last year are simply incapable of handling significant volume.

Yes, this technology does change fast. That’s why I’m not sure that schools should be investing so much in iPads or specific delivery methods. That’s also why in infrastructure we should now err on the side of maximum capacity: fiber optic lines in the ground.

Yes, many Iron Range towns have reasonably good internet service. Some towns, like Grand Rapids, have remarkably fast speeds available. Why don’t people live in town? Well, that’s up to the towns. Population is steady and growing in Grand Rapids, compared to east Range towns, and I don’t think it’s higher internet speeds are coincidental to that equation. Town life on the Iron Range has declined in recent years as people’s shopping and entertainment habits changed. For instance, I moved from town to the country because I enjoyed living in a natural environment better than the waning cultural scene in Hibbing. There are trade-offs, sure. But one of the big advantages Northern Minnesota has is a peaceful, attractive environment in which people can do work that is untethered from physical place. That’s precisely why rural broadband is a growth investment for us.

Yes, these projects are expensive. Cost overruns happen, especially when they are being managed by consultants less interested in the nitty gritty of laying down an efficient broadband network and more interested in the easy money that comes from local officials who can’t tell the difference, or who literally don’t care. But that’s where state leadership would be so helpful. It’s also why politicians should actually pay attention to the things they fund, and set high expectations of contractors.

Right now, rural broadband in Northern Minnesota is happening in piecemeal fashion — some of it private, some of it public or co-operative. In coming weeks, President Obama will lay out a national plan pushing to expand internet speeds. The country is talking about the speed of broadband, while we’re still up here in the woods deciding whether to hook it up.

Note to any interested politician: Want to know what a loyal supporter looks like? A constituent who needs broadband that you help bring to his or her house for an affordable price. It’s better than a paved road. (In my case, preferable). Who are these constituents? Nearly all of them, in 10 years or less. Pretending that it’s just a fad for young people isn’t cute anymore. Those “young people” are in their 40s.


  1. Interesting. I get my ‘net “through the air” via radio waves. It’s ok, certainly faster than my previous dial up, and a bit expensive. I waited and waited for the phone company to make good on all the ads and PR about their cheap and fast ‘net. Just last summer, some company put cables in around my area, but there has been no effort to “sell” the service. My friend lives on a busy paved county road which had cable laid about 10 or so years ago when the road had a major upgrade. She still can’t get anything but satellite ‘net. Yet, on Lake Vermilion, my friend has a place across the water, no road access. He gets his ‘net through a cable via the phone company. Being able to hook up is inconsistent to say the least. In December 2014, due to getting a new phone, I figured out that my data speed via the cell tower is 10x what I get via my broadband company. No wonder some people are pleased with that type of internet service. I’m currently on vacation to a very populous state. My net where I’m staying is 3x what I have at home with the WiFi here, ditto with the phone signal, though that isn’t completely reliable. People will start including reliable net service in their relocation decisions. That will affect school populations, hospital districts, and the customer base for local businesses. In previous decades, some people would complain about the high taxes within city limits, therefore choose to build in the country (and then realize the high costs of a well and septic, etc.) How may internet access play into this equation? We will see. But areas where our public servants are behind the 8 ball won’t win this one.

  2. “Pretending that it’s just a fad for young people isn’t cute anymore. Those “young people” are in their 40s.”

    And 50s, and 60s, and 70s, and even 80s!

    My parents (82 and 78 respectively) who live in Cass County love their high speed access as it allows them to Skype with their grandkids, send videos back and forth, and share photos. Net access is how we communicate now, for both personal and commercial applications. How is bringing broadband to our rural areas any different from how we built roads into the outlands to spur economic development?

  3. You know you have my full backing on this topic. I love living in Side Lake. However, I look at the nice homes on the lake for sale forever and wonder if we could get a different demographic to fill them if we had actual high-speed internet (curse you CenturyLink for your terrible DSL) where young, successful Internet-based employees could live in God’s country and connect at a respectable speed. There are many days I can barely check my email through my WiFi. It’s beyond frustrating.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.