The Federal Communications Commission said this week that 19 million Americans still don’t have access to high-speed Internet service, something it considers a universal infrastructure imperative of the 21st Century.
If you want a sense of how that looks on the ground and how the country might get from here to there, head up to the Cloquet Valley north of Duluth, where about 3,000 of those millions of people are trying to do something about their lack of service.
The Cloquet Valley is a collection of rural townships and unorganized territory consisting of peat bogs, wetlands and forests. The area includes about 2,100 homes, a third of which are seasonal. There’s no cable TV and, because it lies on the edges of both Frontier and CenturyLink telephone exchanges, DSL can be iffy, nonexistent or slow.
The small population, the remoteness and even the terrain add up to a pretty poor market for high-speed Internet providers. And the area is in St. Louis County, so it’s not benefiting from the federal stimulus dollars expected to bring broadband to neighboring Cook and Lake counties.
“We’re in a doughnut hole,” is the way Janet Keough puts it.
Keough is a supervisor in North Star Township and one of the squeaky wheels advocating for several years now for better broadband service. She describes the residents as a mix, including university faculty, doctors, lawyers and others who commute to Duluth, Two Harbors and the Iron Range but who can’t work or get educational services at home because of the poor Internet service.
“If we don’t do anything, nobody will do anything for us,” Keough said.
Residents have organized a joint powers board and, with money from the Blandin Foundation and AgStar Financial Services, paid for two feasibility studies. One is looking at the potential for some kind of fiber optic network, although it’s hard to imagine a place that sparsely populated and remote and without professional staff could afford it.
“I don’t foresee us building something on our own,” Keough said.
A second study, conducted by consultant U-Reka Broadband Ventures, sketches out other possibilities. John Schultz, who heads U-Reka, lists how Cloquet Valley could get the job done in coming years.
First, phone companies Frontier and CenturyLink have the potential to improve their DSL offerings. Both are taking federal money from the new Connect America Fund aimed at just such households, although only CenturyLink is using any of the money in Minnesota. If this happens, expect the phone companies to provide pretty basic broadband service, maybe download speeds of 4 to 6 megabits per second, Schultz said. That’s how the FCC defines the very low end of broadband speeds.
Second, AT&T and Verizon both are eligible for a different pot of federal money, the Mobility Fund, available for wireless providers expanding their 3G and 4G networks. If this happens in the Cloquet Valley, the speeds would be better than DSL, Schultz said, but those providers put caps on how much data a customer can download in a month. So, fans of streaming movies, ration your use.
Third, Cooperative Light & Power, the electricity provider in Two Harbors, has in the past expressed some interest in fixed wireless (as opposed to the mobile wireless services of the big phone providers.) Both phone and electrical cooperatives elsewhere in Minnesota have been key players in improving broadband access.
Finally, there’s a new generation of satellite service. Keough just signed up for the Exede service and sounded pleased. It can deliver 8 to 12 megabits per second download speeds, and even Skype conversations are possible, she said. The problem with satellite service has been the communication delay, making interactive use difficult or impossible. The new service isn’t perfect on that score, but it’s better, both Keough and Schultz said.
So it’s a patchwork. And no solution is going to be as good as the 100 megabit service fiber networks promise elsewhere. But Schultz thinks in a few years, the landscape will look different, even in the Cloquet Valley.