Broadband availability inches up again

A half year ago I wrote that the number of Minnesotans with high-speed access to the Internet was inching upward.

Six months later, another report from Connect Minnesota, the organization charged with tracking this progress, says the state has gained another few inches.

The percentage of state residents with access to what the state officially thinks everybody should have by 2015 now stands within an eyelash of 60 percent. That’s up 3 points from last fall and, with three years to go on the goal the Legislature established, seems not too bad, even hopeful.

A look at a map makes it seem less so. The geographic imbalance jumps off this map in the latest report.

broadband map 4-12.jpg

If you click on the image you can get to a readable version at the Connect Minnesota site but you don’t have to to get the point: Anyplace that’s not pink doesn’t have download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 6 megabits per second, which is the state’s goal for all households. In only two outstate Minnesota counties — Beltrami and Stevens — do three-quarters of households have those speeds available. In many outstate counties, no households can reach them.

By today’s standards, this is really fast service, more than most of us need. If you apply a slower standard — 1.5 megabits up and 6 megabits down — then 85 percent of Minnesota households have broadband access.

(Think of the difference in two ways. For now, email attachments, movies and music download faster, and games interact more quickly with the greater speed standard. But in the future, who knows? “We don’t know what we’re going to need, but we’re going to need it,” says Bill Hoffman, Connect Minnesota’s program manager.)

That slower standard is meaningful because it’s a rough proxy for new Federal Communications Commission guidelines for the Universal Service Fund, the pot of money aimed at making broadband available to the whole nation. Connect Minnesota’s new six-month study estimates that 311,000 state households are in areas eligible for USF funding. (See problems with that here.)

You can apply an even slower standard and come to the conclusion that 98 percent of Minnesotans have at least some access to the Internet. But with each passing month, that standard seems less and less meaningful.

Where has this incremental speed increase come from? Hoffman says it’s been a mix of providers rolling out new technology, public-private partnerships like those financed by the federal stimulus coming on line and small telecommunications companies expanding their coverage areas.

Look for the action on this front to pick up toward the end of the year. When Connect Minnesota publishes its next set of data in six months, Hoffman thinks it will show a bigger increase, maybe 5 or 10 percentage points, as more stimulus projects come on line. What’s more, the state’s task force studying broadband issues is scheduled to issue a set of recommendations in December that could be ambitious.

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