The emperor has no bandwidth

Internet Infrastructure

PHOTO: Joselito Tagarao, Flickr CC

As I prepare to embark upon another summer of media production and online teaching from my rural Northern Minnesota home, my thoughts again turn to broadband.

We already wrote about the blasé outcome for broadband projects in this year’s legislative session. Of course, the technology costs money — a sizable investment for private companies or government to build new lines (with sizable benefits for both in the future). Thus, some opposition can rightly be understood as fiscal skepticism. These arguments tend to fade, at least for most, when broadband infrastructure is compared with far more expensive transportation or stadium projects, or put in the historical context of rural electrification. Nevertheless, some have learned that wrapping up the more passionate supporters of rural broadband like an outmatched prize fighter has proven an effective way to stall the matter, something cellular companies and rigid cable giants are happy to see.

Brian Lambert at MinnPost wrote this piece, “How the legislature is cheating Greater Minnesota on Broadband,” last week. He interviews current and former state lawmakers and cites recent research on the economic role of broadband and its changing technologies.

This section from Lambert’s story gives you a good indication of what happened, and how a fallacious argument has essentially stalled progress on something rural residents of all political persuasions want in great numbers every year:

In [rural DFL State Sen.] Schmit’s ideal world, the entire state would get a fiber optic system capable of carrying 20 times as much data per second. At least two companies, CenturyLink and USInternet, have begun the process of installing 1-gigabit­-per-­second fiber optic in the metro area, and under the Obama administration’s stimulus program, hundreds of miles of fiber optic were buried in corridors through the state.

So what has happened between last year — when even the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband suggested a $100 million infusion of state money — to this year, when broadband will be lucky to leave St. Paul with $12 million to keep the initiative’s lights on?

Former GOP Rep. Dan Dorman left the House in 2009 and now is executive director of the three-year­-old Greater Minnesota Partnership, a consortium of 90 members — including 10 MnSCU campuses and 10 chambers of commerce — that advocate for Greater Minnesota issues. “Basically,” he says, “what you see is that technological ignorance and politics have intertwined. I was in the House for eight years. I’ve seen this firsthand. In general, Republicans don’t like to spend money. If they can find a reason, any reason, not to to spend they’ll cling to it no matter what.”

Wireless systems not adequate
While buried, hard­wired fiber optic is the preferred method for delivering a reliable, long­-term, upgradable Internet across the state, the initiative pushed by Schmit and others by no means requires fiber optic.

The reality, though, is that today’s wireless systems are either not adequate or not reliable enough to handle the load businesses, hospitals and schools require for full function, despite what lobbyists have told legislators looking for a reason to say “no” to any kind of government spending.

In essence, and I can back this up personally, wireless and satellite providers do not have the raw ability to handle the bandwidth necessary for professional applications of broadband internet.

Kevin Jacobson of Northlands News Center, the NBC/CBS affiliate in Duluth, filed a series of reports this week on high speed internet’s role in the future of Northern Minnesota.

The first part focused on the need, highlighting a Northern Minnesota professional looking to make an e-living in a rural place. Just in the last couple weeks I’ve fielded personal queries as to the state of broadband in the region by people looking to work from up here for jobs that can be performed anywhere in the world.

The second part highlighted some of the financial and logistical challenges to installing broadband lines in extremely rural parts of Northern Minnesota. These are real concerns, to be sure, but reflect headwinds, not a brick wall. It’s clear that the demand for the service is growing across multiple demographic groups.

My read on trends is that people’s personal and professional use of media is driving us all toward a ubiquitous blend of video, audio and data used by all that will be delivered through some future iteration of what we now call the internet. The amount of data used will be staggering by today’s standards but no one seems to doubt the plausibility of the developing technology.

Perhaps one day we’ll pump all this data through the air directly to all our devices, but there is no clear date on when that might be, if ever. (If it’s even a good idea). Right now, fiber optic cable in the ground is the only plausible way to deliver massive amounts of data in a safe, efficient manner. Broadband would make an enormous difference for the economy of rural Minnesota. Broadband is currently making a huge difference in other rural places I’ve written about, like these small towns in South Dakota and Mississippi.

Both of those towns voted Republican in the last election and are located squarely in deeply conservative states. What’s stopping us?


  1. Patty Smith says

    There are actually two problems with rural broadband… access, and cost. I have two examples to give you..

    1) Cost — my mom lives on Highway 1 in Isabella — she’s fortunate to be on a DSL line. Her phone and internet service is $180 per month from Frontier. The service is reasonable, but the cost is outrageous. For similar service in the city, Centurylink has run “bundled” specials for about $40 per month. For faster internet, cable, and HBO Comcast charges me about $100 per month.

    In terms of service, Frontier is even worse (if you can believe that!) than Comcast. She has no choice or alternatives to Frontier — even though it seems that there have been several infrastructure projects working up and down Highway 1. Most of her neighbors rely on cell hot-spots for internet access.

    2) My husband and I more or less work on the internet. He’s a photographer and he edits wedding images from home. I teach college, and mostly teach online courses. We end up with a pretty good income, solidly upper-middle class. We would like to move to Moose Lake, to a beautiful property on County Line Road. The catch is, we can’t seem to get high-speed internet service to the property. There is no cable infrastructure, as you’ve noted above satellite is unreliable and therefore not good for professional work, and Century Link does not provide even DSL service to the property. The owners of the property say that Verizon is the best cell provider, but even cell service on the property is spotty, so unless we want to work while walking toward the barn, using a cell hot-spot isn’t a good alternative either.

    We would have loved to bring our income to a small community. We would have loved to participate in community activities and enrich both ourselves and the folks living in Moose Lake, and we would have been a net economic increase for a place that could use it, but we can’t move there because we can’t continue to do our jobs if we live there. Instead, we’ll stay in the cities.

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