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Region’s broadband landscape isn’t good
But $7.2 billion in stimulus money is pending for rural Internet.
David and Denise Carlson left the Twin Cities eight years ago for a little slice of land on the edge of Lake Superior.
A retired librarian, Denise started her own book-indexing business in the Lake County community of Little Marais. Two years ago — long after television and phone companies in large and small cities began offering various high-speed broadband options — the Carlsons were able to upgrade from dial-up Internet service through a modem, to Verizon’s wireless mobile broadband. That broadband upgrade is helping Denise generate about $20,000 in annual revenues, working about three-quarters time, she said.
Because it’s through a cellular network, the broadband speeds available to the Carlsons run no faster than 800 kilobits per second. Most other broadband options download at speeds of at least 1.2 megabits per second.
That’s barely fast enough to watch a movie online, and too slow for many applications.
“(Denise) has had to turn down some contracts that required true broadband,” David said.
Her clients — scattered throughout the country — increasingly rely on her ability to pass documents back and forth online, and log into their Web sites to conduct work, he said.
The family is lucky in one sense. A neighbor just 600 feet east can’t get anything but dial-up service.
On the other hand, move their home 1,000 feet from where it sits, and the Carlsons could receive a speedy wireless broadband signal.
This Little Marais saga is a microcosm of the skimpy Internet options available to many residents scattered throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Broadband availability is sprinkled in pockets all over the area. That’s largely because copper telephone wire wasn’t designed for Internet traffic, hilly terrain, and telecom companies haven’t been able to make money running new wires to just a few homes . . . until now.
Enter the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Beginning this fall, the federal government will begin doling out $7.2 billion in stimulus money for rural broadband development across the nation. The initiative has the potential to dramatically expand coverage to people like the Carlsons. And it could spur other urban dwellers to follow the couple’s lead, to live a rural life, while working with employers in distant cities.
Imperfect Internet access
“There are going to be gaps in places, especially in places like Northeast Minnesota,” said Marnie Werner, research manager for the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter. Her organization has completed annual studies on broadband access across Minnesota.
Werner argues that the Carlsons’ situation – sparse broadband options – is typical.
“We’ve pretty much moved beyond the question of whether you can get it, to the questions of how reliable it is, and if can you afford it,” she said. “Having reliable, affordable access has become a key factor in just being able to get daily business done,” she said.
Overall, 75 to 94 percent of the residents in Minnesota and Wisconsin – the numbers vary depending on the study — have access to broadband.
Nationally, the figure stands at 63 percent, according to a spring 2009 study by the Pew Reserach Center for the People & the Press.
Rick King, chairman of Minnesota’s Ultra High-Speed Broad Band Task Force, said the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband — anything faster than 768 kilobits per second — is considerably slower than what most people consider practical.
Even You Tube videos won’t consistently play smoothly at 768 kilobits, King said.
“All Minnesotans need a basic level of connectivity. And we’re not there yet,” he said. The task force is going to recommend that minimum coverage levels be set at about twice what they are now — 1.5 megabits per second.
People need to be able to reliably download files, such as their bank statements, King said.
Quick, dependable Internet access has moved beyond luxury to necessity, according to Werner and other broadband industry officials. Communities that don’t offer it lack a key tool for attracting new businesses and residents.
“One of the nice things is the government stimulus money is dealing with unserved and underserved areas,” King said.
He considers the Internet a piece of infrastructure, just like a highway, so, for example, residents in Cook County can consult with a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, for example. “Health care is going to be one of the applications that drives significant requirements in terms of bandwidth,” King said.
While companies across both states are preparing proposals for using stimulus dollars, Minnesota has taken much bigger strides than Wisconsin toward ensuring high-speed rural Internet accessibility.
The 2008 Minnesota Legislature convened the 26-member Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force to provide a report due by year’s end for ensuring statewide Internet accessibility.
The Legislature also contracted with private company Connected Nation to produce maps showing available coverage options, and parts of the state still lacking coverage.
Because of all the potential benefits, the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation has launched an effort to help organizations receive some of the stimulus money for broadband. Since 2003, it also has promoted the benefits of statewide broadband expansion. In addition, the Minnesota Telecom Alliance is applying for stimulus money on behalf of 26 member companies, said Randy Young, its executive director and CEO.
“Without grant money like this you can’t make a business case to spend the money,” Young said.
Until they file their grant applications for stimulus money, telecom companies aren’t providing information about their targeted areas for adding broadband access, for competitive reasons.
In Wisconsin, there is no task force studying broadband, but a survey this year reveals about 60 different groups — telecommunications companies and some cities and schools — plan to apply for stimulus dollars to boost broadband access for themselves and customers. “They range from a few thousand dollars to $20 million,” said Gary Evenson, administrator of the telecommunications division of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
The Public Service Commission intends to map the state’s broadband coverage, but that project has not begun.
Patrick Garmoe is a Duluth-based freelance writer, and former Duluth News Tribune business reporter.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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