Broadband: The action is scattered around Minnesota

In the continuing push for ubiquitous high-speed Internet access throughout Minnesota, the Legislature this session took a small step by hanging some speed and competitiveness ranking goals on the wall, but did not articulate a state strategy or put any money into the effort.

So the real action is scattered around the state from Windom to Grand Rapids, where people are trying to figure out what they need where they live, whether it’s laying down fiber, putting more computers in the library or making Internet access friendlier to immigrants.

In Windom, for example, the community launched its own fiber optic network several years ago and now is planning to use federal stimulus money to overcome the drawbacks of a sparse population and expand the network by a 125-mile fiber ring to eight other southwestern Minnesota towns.

By offering cable TV, phone and Internet service to an area with over 3,300 residences, almost 300 businesses and another 50 major institutions, organizers in those towns think they can generate enough revenue to pay for the service.

Elsewhere, the emphasis is less on infrastructure and more on creating demand. Under the umbrella of the Blandin Foundation and a different stimulus grant, 11 communities are going to start exploring the best way to create “cultures of use,” that is, looking at how to help people take advantage of high speed access.

In Winona that might mean delivering better health services via high speed connections to the Mayo Clinic, says Bill Coleman, a consultant working with Blandin. In Willmar it might mean opening access to a sizable immigrant population. In smaller towns or on Indian reservations, maybe it’s turning small libraries into workforce centers where residents can train and enhance their appeal in a knowledge-worker world.

And there aren’t just outstate Minnesota stories. The University of Minnesota has plans to enhance Internet use in 11 computer centers in high-poverty neighborhoods in north and south Minneapolis and in Frogtown in St. Paul. The computers are expected to help residents get access to education, health care, jobs and more in ways they can’t accomplish without high-speed access. In Anoka, adult-learning classes and simply keeping libraries open longer have been cited as key factors in putting Internet tools in the hands of residents.

We’re at an interesting point in the broadband debate in Minnesota, notes Jack Geller, director of the federal Economic Development Administration Center at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. A state task force created speed and ranking goals in an effort to give the state something to shoot for, and the Legislature put those goals into statute.

At the same time, more communities are debating the need for broadband and many are getting help from federal stimulus money, either under Blandin’s grant or on their own. More federal stimulus money is going to be awarded this summer through both the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture.

This has been contentious topic. There’s debate over the role of private telecommunications companies vs collective efforts. People argue over how fast is fast enough and not every voter sees the need to spend local dollars on better access.

So how one community addresses this question is likely to differ, and need to differ, from how the next one does. I can’t think of another public policy issue or social trend — from energy to food networks to housing to demographic change — in which the leadership in specific communities will make as much difference in the quality-of-life outcome.

It’s going to be illuminating to see how local leadership emerges and what kind of information sharing gets fostered. It’s a great opportunity to see, as the Bush Foundation likes to call it, “courageous leadership.”

By the way, for anyone tracking broadband in Minnesota, Blandin on Broadband is a great place to check in.

  • Dave, thanks for this article. It correctly portrays both the access and use questions challenging greater Minnesota.

    One emerging trend is that some regions are beginning to look at this topic. Existing regional health and education networks are expanding their capacity to Gigabit speeds to support new applications. Extending this capability to other public and private sector entities is the next logical step for these entities. However, it carries the same public – private role definition controversies as the municipal network discussion.

  • Jack Geller

    One push that is now occuring in Wahsington DC, as well as among regional organizations is the desire to use Universal Service Funding for broadband deployment in many rural, high cost areas. Without question, this will be a politically contentious issue. However, if the advocates are successful, it would create a captial and revenue stream to encourage providers to deploy technology in more remote rural areas that are currently unserved or under-served. Something worth watching.