FCC recalculates; 9 Minnesota counties left in Internet dust

UPDATE POST FOLLOWING UP THIS POST.

The Federal Communications Commission this week changed its definition of how fast is fast enough when it comes to the Internet. As a result, the federal government now considers nine counties in northwestern Minnesota, including Clay County, where Moorhead is the seat, “unserved” by high-speed Internet services.

That can’t be right, I thought, so I called Clay County’s administrator, Vijay Sethi, who was a member of the governor’s task force on broadband access last year. The task force tried to set the course for improving Minnesota’s standing in this realm.

Sethi was puzzled, too, but not because Clay County was on the list of unserved counties. (Along with Cass, Clearwater, Grant, Hubbard, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman and Wilkin.) He didn’t understand why there weren’t a lot more Minnesota counties on the list.

Here’s the background. Until this week, the FCC standard for what it considered high-speed access was 768 kilobits per second for downloading information from the Internet. That’s fine for getting email and browsing the web, activities that dominated most people’s use back in 1999 when the FCC made the rules.

But in a world of streaming video, voice communications and other bandwidth-intense uses, that doesn’t cut it, so the FCC declared that 4 megabits per second download speed is the new threshhold for being considered high-speed. That means up to 24 million Americans don’t have high-speed access to the Internet, mostly in low-income and rural counties. The agency declared more than 1,000 counties as “unserved” under this definition.

Sethi didn’t argue regarding service in Clay County, which he said is largely provided by Qwest and CableOne. The county, schools, businesses and other institutions have access to higher speeds but a typical resident gets download speeds of 1.5 megabits per second, he said. You can pay high fees and get higher speeds in some places, it sounds like.

“For daily use, it’s OK,” Sethi said. “Where I do complain is when I have to send some photos. . . It takes forever.”

But from his time on the governor’s task force, Sethi said he knows a lot of other places in Minnesota, like Lake of the Woods and Cook counties in the far north, are in the same boat.

Qwest spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland says Qwest serves Moorhead and a few other spots in Clay County from its Fargo operation. Areas in the center of Fargo are offered “up to 7 megabits per second” but some other parts of the service area get service of 1.5.

A number of small rural telephone companies provide Internet access for much of Clay County.

In a way, it’s an arbitrary list, given the vagaries of measurement (particularly conducting the metrics at the county level) and the rapidly evolving environment. The governor’s task force set Minnesota goals for 2015 (20 megagbits per second download speed) that only one county achieves at this point.

But it does serve to point out the ever increasing demand for speed and the head-scratching dilemma over what combination of private investment, government prodding and local leadership might be required to supply it.

If nothing were to change except the FCC’s definition, in a few years apparently 86 Minnesota counties could be left in the dust.

You can find the FCC’s report, an annual production that concludes for the first time that he nation’s move toward universal deployment of broadband is not going fast enough, here.

The governor’s task force last November produced this report on how Minnesota should be proceeding on the Internet front.

  • Dave Peters

    Ann Treacy at Blandin on Broadband points out that the FCC’s nine counties don’t overlap much with the nine counties identified last fall by the governor’s task force as having the least broadband availability.

    That report said Cook and Pine counties had far and away the least broadband availability. Clay was tied for 13th least availability.