The little town with blazing fast internet

This is an extended news feature I produced for Northern Community Radio that was broadcast today on the Morning Show and this week on the news magazine “The Give and Take.” This web version includes some visual add-ons. Please support Northern Community Radio during their pledge drive this week. In addition to being a vital producer of community journalism in Northern Minnesota they have continued to support my work here and on the Great Northern Radio Show. 

The unassuming city hall of Quitman, Mississippi, where every resident now has access to 1 Gig of broadband capacity.

The unassuming city hall of Quitman, Mississippi, where every resident now has access to 1 Gig of broadband capacity. (PHOTOS, Intelligent Community Forum)

(LISTEN NOW) — Across Northern Minnesota, old pictures gather dust on the walls of aging city halls. The black and white photos show miners, loggers and horses delivering mail. What the people depicted have in common is that a vast majority of them have now been replaced by machines. The central challenge facing these descendants today is diversifying the region’s economy in ways the past would never have predicted.

Intelligent Community Forum, an international economic development nonprofit, argues to anyone who’ll listen that high speed internet access and development spurs cities and regions toward that goal. And they have plenty of examples that show this. For instance, Mitchell, South Dakota — home of the kitschy Corn Palace — which has enjoyed an unexpected renaissance due to the use of technology and active economic diversification.

Broadband allows entrepreneurs and e-commuters to locate in towns and rural places outside traditional urban centers. But the infrastructure is expensive and the technology is often not well understood by local leaders and an aging population that still knows the names of those guys in the old pictures I was talking about.

So let’s head down river and see how a small town in the Deep South got the fastest internet in the country.

Quitman courthouse

At first blush, Quitman, Mississippi would seem a stark contrast to Northern Minnesota. First, the weather. It was unusually cold there the winter day I talked on the phone with Quitman’s mayor — about 40 degrees, compared to the five below outside my window in Balsam Township. But beyond the weather, Mississippi has a different economic base than Minnesota and an opposite political philosophy, evidenced by 40 years of divergent election results.

But two things about Quitman, located in Clarke County in east central Mississippi on the Alabama border, reminded me of our Northern Minnesota counties: aging demographics and crippling job losses from a single industry just a generation ago — in their case, textiles; in ours mining and logging. It’s the age-old challenge: how do you pass the torch from an older population used to one way of doing things, to a younger one that needs new tools to succeed.

Eddie Fulton, first elected in 2008, was the first mayor of Quitman to ever use a computer. Having retired from a career as marketing manager for Sears Roebuck, Fulton immediately recognized the economic importance of high speed internet once he started working with local businesses trying to expand.

“I want to see our city grow. I want to see our kids have an opportunity to stay here. We graduate some very, unbelievably talented kids, but the majority of them go farther away.”

Quitman now has some of the fastest internet available in the United States, in a town of 2,300 people that, until recently, had no major tech industry to speak of. Only 40 percent of the population used the internet at all. But the mayor and local business leaders made a bid to be the first Mississippi town hooked up to an ultra high-speed gigabyte internet service by the state’s homegrown internet provider C-Spire. C-Spire sponsored a grant contest to pick the model community.

“C-Spire is our Robin Hood. They’re the people who are going to carry us and make Mississippi a state people don’t recognize. I think we rank 50th in everything, but if you come here, you’ll find it’s the best place in the world to live.”

Eddie Fulton, Mayor of Quitman, Mississippi.

Eddie Fulton, Mayor of Quitman, Mississippi.

Thanks to a lot of work by local officials and an effective YouTube video by a teenage girl highlighting the town’s slow internet, C-Spire picked Quitman as its model community. Mayor Fulton says the key was convincing older residents to support the grant proposal. Quitman needed 80 percent of its citizens to show interest in subscribing to C-Spire’s service, which meant that many who used the internet for little more than keeping in touch with their kids, if at all, would have to sign up. So Quitman officials let the kids do the talking.

“There’s not a child in America in junior high or high school who doesn’t know everything there is to know about apps on phones. They know every one of them. They love them, they love the wi-fi, and they will absolutely blow you mind on the speed in which they can text. Well, we harnessed them. And they’re the ones who went out into all the neighborhoods and went to their parents and said we’ve got to have this.”

Main Street, Quitman, Mississippi

Main Street, Quitman, Mississippi

Quitman is an example of how broadband expansion can be led by the private sector. Google Fiber’s expansion to medium and larger cities is another example. Still other popular broadband projects have been led by cities and states. Chattanooga, Tennessee, for instance — under its former mayor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker— scored huge economic growth with a high speed municipal broadband effort. Another approach combines public investment in infrastructure with private internet service delivery. That’s the model folks in Itasca County, Minnesota, are pursuing as part of their Connect Itasca initiative. One thing Fulton noticed, however, is that once C-Spire launched its gigabyte service to Quitman, the local cable company and AT&T both quickly responded by adding their own infrastructure.

“So we’ll have choices. We never had a choice. If you wanted internet that works you had one carrier. Now we have choices. It’s going to become very competitive because the national companies are going to become very aware of what’s happening in Mississippi.”

In other words, once the initial installation starts, other unexpected development follows. Quitman is working with a incubator to help local businesses generate new ideas using the internet. It’s also working with entrepreneurship programs in its high school, incorporating software development, robotics and 3D printing into the curriculum.

Broadband infrastructure has been a hot talking point but relatively low political priority until recently. As the popularity of streaming media, devices that use the internet, and video conferencing has increased, so has public demand for faster and more universal broadband.

President Obama pitched a measure that would allow more municipalities to open co-operative networks in his 2015 State of the Union address. Here in Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $30 million in new spending on broadband initiatives for underserved populations. These plans are only a start; New York state just committed $500 million to matching internet service providers willing to expand broadband to new areas. Now that Fulton and the people of Quitman are hooked up, they wouldn’t go back to the way things were.

“You can’t believe how fast it is. You don’t have to wait on anything. It’s instantaneous.”

Quitman’s city motto is “A Very Special Place to Call Home.” With ultra high speed broadband to the door, that home in Quitman has immediate access to the whole world — including streaming media, video conferencing and a network that compares to any in the world — a fact that last month earned this little town an award from the Mississippi Economic Development Council. Struggling small towns and rural areas in Northern Minnesota have an array of options to expand broadband infrastructure. But they’ll need to pick up the pace, and soon, to keep up with the rest of the country … and globe.

You know, I tell you something, Aaron. I just look at Northern Minnesota and I know the land up there is beautiful. I know y’all are no different than we are. Your state has a wonderful reputation. Except for your football team.” (laughing)

HOST: Aaron Brown is an author, a blogger at, instructor at Hibbing Community College and host of the Great Northern Radio Show here on Northern Community Radio. You can hear more about efforts to expand broadband infrastructure in Northern Minnesota at our website, KAXE.ORG.

Archusa Avenue as you enter Quitman, Mississippi.

Archusa Avenue as you enter Quitman, Mississippi.


Take a smooth jazz tour of Quitman, Mississippi:

The C-Spire announcement of gigabyte service in Quitman, Mississippi:

Intelligent Community Forum announces its Top Seven Intelligent Community nominees. The video explains the process of how the organization assesses communities’ ability to adapt and thrive in the coming economic age:


  1. Independent says

    I agree this is one very important piece of a large puzzle for developing and sustaining the economic futures for any community as we move forward. I am curious are there any examples of direct or indirect economic gains to this Mississippi community such as tax dollars generated or jobs created?

  2. OK, nice piece. In Red Wing we have fiber, cable (coax), ADSL (copper phone lines) and of course the various dish options. Of course these different technologies have quite different speed limits, but it’s not so clear that real competition is keeping prices under control. More to the immediate point, should communities be begging Google and other mega-corps to provide infrastructure, or should they be looking at public investment in Internet infrastructure? There are models for that. I don’t live on the Range and its not for me to say, but I wonder: Has the IRRRB, for example, looked at spending public money for such infrastructure, as opposed to shoveling it out to politically connected fat-cat industries. How much fast Internet could have been installed for the forty million or so that Tom Micheletti and his buddies have walked away with….? I dunno, but it seems to me that the Range has options that a town in Mississippi probably doesn’t have. On the other hand, wiring a town is different than wiring the countryside….

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