Rural Broadband: An Oral History

Internet Infrastructure

PHOTO: Joselito Tagarao, Flickr CC

If you get a chance, read “‘If it were easy it would have been done by now’: Why high-speed internet remains elusive for many in rural Minnesota” by Tim Gihring of MinnPost. It’s a good story about a topic we cover here at MinnesotaBrown, but it also includes an almost embarrassing amount of press for yours truly. Almost, but I’m not above sharing it.

Here’s how Girhing’s story opens:

Aaron Brown was a junior at Cherry High School, in a little farming community just outside Hibbing, when the internet rolled into his classroom. A single computer with a modem, so that the teacher could pull onto the information superhighway and show students the roadside attractions. And if the students were good, if they turned in their work on time and paid attention, they too could go for a spin — explore, as Brown said, “the edges of what’s out there.”

This was in the late 1990s, years after the internet had become widely available in other schools in more populous places. Brown had grown up on the nearby Sax-Zim Bog, where his family ran a junkyard out of one trailer home and lived in another. He went on the internet just enough in those early days to decide it was stupid, and said as much at the Minnesota State High School League Speech Tournament in 1998.

He won.

Brown eventually did two things unusual for someone who thought so little of the internet: He became a teacher of online courses through Hibbing Community College, and he started a regional commentary blog, Minnesota Brown. His wife became a blogger, too, launching a money-saving site called Northern Cheapskate.

By then, the family had moved to Balsam Township, about 20 miles from Hibbing, to a house at the end of a dirt road they have to plow and grade themselves. There they discovered just how bad internet service could be on the Iron Range.

Anyway, when I talked to Tim several weeks ago I had no idea I’d play so prominently in the story. But what follows my little tale is a clear synopsis of where rural broadband issues stand in Minnesota.

Rural broadband is vitally important, but getting to everyone isn’t easy. Private providers hold a stingy set of standards for investing in new coverage areas. However, they have reasons. ISPs must contend with potential losses as technology and regulations change. That leaves public and cooperative entities to try to bridge the gaps. This often runs afoul of the private providers and their legislative allies. New technology always seems to be the answer, but questions of when it comes and who can afford it never seem fully answered.

What’s next for rural and underserved areas when it comes to broadband? With a governor’s race, two U.S. Senate races, Congress and the legislature all up for election this year, we’ll have a say.

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