Broadband rewards go to the well-organized

Duluth, Minn. — The big thinkers in Washington are talking about net neutrality, billions of dollars, ubiquitous service and the role of the Federal Communications Commission in spreading access and adoption of high-speed Internet.

But a lot of the real action seemed to be in the Greysolon Ballroom on Superior Street here Wednesday afternoon.

“The nation’s broadband future is not going to be written in Washington, D. C.” Tom Koutsky, chief policy counsel for Connected Nation told those gathered for the Blandin Foundation’s annual conference on extending the use of high-speed Internet. “It’s going to decided in places like this.”

About 170 people from around Minnesota were attending — telecommunications providers, local government officials, consultants and residents interested in getting better service where they live and work.

Some were from the 11 demonstration communities Blandin is encouraging to try pilot programs to increase Internet use — from putting historical data online in Grand Marais that will encourage senior citizens to get online to offering up online training in Winona in Spanish, Hmong and even Karen that can enable others on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Others were like Janet Keough, who lives north of Duluth and whose Internet access is limited to wireless or dial-up, not good enough for her and her neighbors. She lives in North Star Township and residents from there and a few other nearby St. Louis County townships up and down the Cloquet River have been gathering to figure out how to do better.

The self-named Cloquet Valley group has gotten some help from Blandin and is asking the questions that might help the roughly 1,500 people in those townships.

Do they try to entice Lake County’s under-construction fiber network to eventually include them? Will new generations of wireless be good enough, given all the trees and rocks in the way? Will they want to pay what it will cost to improve?

All are variations of questions that are being answered differently all over the state by a patchwork quilt of residents, providers and governments.

There’s an urgency and a sense of not wanting to be left behind. The most forward-thinking fiber optic providers talk of the wonders of service that can deliver 100 megabits of data per second. But, given that demand is increasing dramatically, Jake Anderson, business development director for BEVCOMM, a telecommunications company in Blue Earth, said he thinks we’ll see the day that will demand 10 times that to the home.

Koutsky had encouraging words from his perch in Washington. Some of the ways the FCC is establishing to rejigger federal spending on telecommunications are being designed to reward communities that get organized. “For a state like Minnesota that has shown a propensity to organize, this is an opportunity.”

All over the state, local governments and communities and providers have been figuring out different ways to get access and improve use. Each one is a little different, as we’ve written about in our broadband coverage. It’s only getting more interesting but it looks like the rewards are there for the well-organized.

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