A Level Playing Field
U alumni in Greater Minnesota say broadband means more than just connectivity. It means productivity.
Imagine running a business where it takes minutes to attach a one-page PDF to an email, or hours to upload a video to a company website. Jon Benz (B.S. ’08, UMN-Crookston) of rural Mountain Iron, Minnesota, knows that frustration firsthand.
Benz operates J & M Retrievers, a dog breeding, boarding, and training business in Mountain Iron, population roughly 2,800. His town is located in St. Louis County, which borders Canada on the Mesabi Range.
“Currently, the only internet connection I have is line-of-sight wireless,” says Benz, referring to internet he receives by literally being “in sight” of the antenna that carries the signal. “In the past I could go to a store to get a hard disk for installation [of software], but now ordinary things like downloading software or updating Word are all done online. With the internet connection I have, these things might take me 20 hours to do.”
Benz’s situation—in a nutshell—defines the challenge that Minnesotans in the most rural areas of the state confront when trying to gain access to high-speed, broadband internet. And from both a social and business standpoint, increasing access to broadband internet is a big issue.
“When we ask people around the state what concerns them most,” says Bernadine Joselyn (B.A. ’78, M.P.A. ’01) of the Blandin Foundation, “they talk about education, health care, jobs. They don’t talk about broadband access, yet broadband is the common intersection for those things. Broadband supports them all.”
The Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is a private foundation funded through a $407 million trust, established to strengthen rural Minnesota communities. Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for the foundation, has worked with a number of communities in the Itasca area and elsewhere to ensure that rural voices inform public policy on broadband issues.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently defines “high speed” internet or broadband as any connection equal to or greater than 25 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads—although that target number will change as internet-driven tasks grow. And while progress is being made to ensure that level of access becomes a reality for everyone in Minnesota, it’s been a slow climb.
According to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development—housed in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED)— in 2015, 85.8 percent of Minnesota residences had 25 Mbps/3Mbps or greater connections, but only 68 percent of rural residences had that access. After the state and federal government, foundations, and providers, including rural cooperatives, began directing resources toward the disparity, by April 2019, 92.7 percent of households in Minnesota had access to broadband. That’s a significant improvement, but it still leaves tens of thousands without full, affordable access (see map above).
Why is this important? Access to broadband is the difference between a rural clinic sharing radiological imaging with a consultant in real time or facing lengthy waits. It’s also the difference between a school where teachers and students access multimedia learning tools versus using printed handouts. Broadband can even let farmers use the latest field-sensing and management technology to plant, rather than relying solely on intuition and experience to raise their crops.
Two years ago, the Blandin Foundation commissioned a study on the return on investment (ROI) of public funds used to support broadband access in five rural Minnesota counties. The study showed that the broadband investment resulted in immediate economic improvement and higher land values in three of the counties—Beltrami, Crow Wing, and Goodhue. In the fourth county, Sibley, the ROI took one year. The fifth county, Lake, had an ROI that took six years. Unsurprisingly, the longest ROI was for the county with the sparsest population—an example of something known as the “the last mile” challenge.
Where dense populations exist, laying cable for a mile to carry broadband is reasonably cost efficient. But putting cable out a mile to one or two rural households isn’t worthwhile for some cable providers. Conversely, some providers do lay cable to that last mile, but then place the cost burden onto users, making broadband unaffordable for many.
At the federal level, the government supports broadband access through two agencies: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FCC uses money from public bandwidth auctions and user taxes to support its initiatives. In August, the commission authorized more than $569 million to support smaller rural carriers in Minnesota, with the funds to be allotted over a 10-year period.
The second source of federal funds, the USDA, uses money budgeted by Congress to support broadband access to rural and tribal areas.
Brad Finstad (B.S. ’02) is a fourth-generation resident of New Ulm, Minnesota, population 13,238. He is also the USDA’s state rural development director for Minnesota, and his duties include overseeing funding designed to help ensure broadband reaches rural areas in the state.
“Broadband is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity,” Finstad says. “[It’s] a necessity that helps rural communities improve prosperity by attracting new residents and businesses.” In 2016, Finstad’s USDA agency provided two $3 million Community Connect grants to install high-speed broadband infrastructure for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation. The Band received another $2 million grant in 2017. This support allowed the Fond du Lac Band to establish and operate their own provider system to serve the reservation at an affordable cost to users.
A task force on broadband, organized in 2011 by then-governor Mark Dayton, set the first statewide goals for increasing rural access to highspeed broadband. The group set a goal of having 25 Mbps/3Mbps access in every home and business across the state by 2022; and 100 Mbps/20 Mbps to the same by 2026.
Angie Dickison (Humphrey School of Public Policy Fellow, ’14) is currently the broadband development manager for the Office of Broadband Development. She says DEED has awarded $85.6 million in financial assistance to support broadband over past years. Their grants, which require a 50 percent match by the applicant, have helped to connect broadband to 35,000 homes in Minnesota. However, only 68.4 percent of rural households in the state currently meet the 2026 100 Mbs/20 Mbps goal.
This past June, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bipartisan bill to provide $40 million in grant funds to further broadband access within the state. The amount represents about half the funding interested parties had lobbied for, but in the budget realities of the state, it represented a victory of sorts. The money will be allotted over two years, with $20 million in 2019 in grants and loans, and $20 million in 2020.
Bill Rozycki (B.A. ’71) is a former English teacher who recently returned to Minnesota after teaching abroad.