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Key parallels: The railroad and Minnesota broadband

In 1868, the railroad bypassed Forestville, Minn., and the town died. The decline came slowly, and over time my distant relatives, Thomas and Mary Meighen, saw the town dwindle and people move away. They were left in an empty town with their farm and a general store attached to their home. Farmworkers, paid in "chits" to spend in that store, kept it open until 1908, when business in it came to a screeching halt as Thomas abruptly closed up shop — the last business in Forestville — with all the merchandise inside.

My dad and his cousins tell stories of being kids on weekend holidays in the 1930s, taken out to the farm to look around. They'd rub the store windows so they could peek inside at all the old clothing, canned goods and assorted sundries, all left intact when Thomas locked the store and he and Mary moved to nearby Preston.Many of our other relatives moved there, because Preston thrived when the railroad was built and passed through it, instead of smaller Forestville to the south.

The Minnesota Historical Society later purchased their property (and what was left of the town) and turned it into a State Park, complete with interpretive storytellers in period costumes. It's definitely worth a summer visit some weekend.

The lesson here is how important transportation was for physical goods in the late 1800s during a time of shifting from a predominantly agrarian economy to one that was primarily industrial. The location of a railroad line dictated the fate of a town (though post-Civil War economic doldrums didn't help). You may remember (or have heard stories about) how imperative it was for businesses to be "located on a siding" so railroad cars could load and unload easily. But what's less obvious is the economic explosion that always accompanied the laying of track and the development that occurred alongside it, and how being bypassed by the railroad could doom a town or region.

If you buy into the premise that we're living in a time of the greatest shift in communication and connection in history driven by the Internet — and that the transport of digital bits is as important (if not more so) than the movement of physical goods over the past 100 years or so — it almost goes without saying that location is not only less important today, but in many ways, it's irrelevant, unless you don't have access to the Internet — and fast access at that.

What happens to your town if it's bypassed by high-speed broadband like Forestville was by the railroad in 1868?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report on global broadband (PDF and more at the OECD Broadband Portal) and found the United States ranks 15th worldwide with a broadband density of 23.3 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Notwithstanding our massive geography in the United States and the significant investments necessary for ubiquitous and truly high-speed broadband, this is still a dismal situation growing more concerning by the year, especially if Minnesotans expect to participate in a global economy, and do so competitively, moving forward.

The good news? Minnesota is doing something about it.

A focus on broadband In early 2007, I became aware of the Blandin Foundation's Broadband Initiative and added their blog "Blandin on Broadband" to my RSS reader. I've been impressed with their assistance to outstate Minnesota communities, the rolling-up-of-shirt-sleeves to assist these towns and regions with their own initiatives, and the attention they're driving about the imperatives represented by the need for truly high-speed broadband within our state.

Much to my delight and strategically satisfying to my way of thinking, in the last Minnesota legislative session, both the House and Senate passed legislation (HF2107/SF1918) to "...create a High-Speed Broadband Task Force to develop a broadband deployment goal for the state and a strategy to achieve it."

"...the bill is something that will bring Minnesota into the 21st century by asking the governor to appoint the task force to make legislative recommendations regarding the creation of state high speed broadband goal and a plan to implement that goal.

The governor would appoint 19 members to the task force, in addition to four appointed by the Legislature. A report and recommendations will be due from the task force by Nov. 1, 2009, that:

 

  • identifies a level of broadband service, including connection speeds, reasonably needed by 2015;
  • describes a set of policies and actions needed to achieve that goal, and estimates the costs of doing so;
  • identifies areas in the state that lack infrastructure necessary to support broadband service; and
  • evaluates strategies and financing mechanisms used elsewhere to support broadband development.

 

On June 30, Governor Pawlenty announced the appointment of 20 leaders (26 members total) to the Minnesota High-Speed Broadband Task Force:

Governor Tim Pawlenty today announced the appointment of Stephen Cawley, Brent Christensen, Thomas Garrison, Dr. Jack Geller, Ph.D., Barbara Jo Gervais, John Gibbs, JoAnne Johnson, Richard King, Tim Lovaasen, Mike O'Connor (editors note: Mike is a friend of Minnov8), Dr. Kim Ross, Ed.D., Vijay Sethi, Richard Sjoberg, Karen Smith, John Stanoch, Chris Swanson, Craig Taylor, Mary Ellen Wells, Peg Werner, and Robyn West to the High-Speed Broadband Task Force. All 20 are appointed to terms that expire on March 2, 2010.

Thomas Meighen was quite active in Minnesota politics, though not necessarily in the mainstream. According to the Minnesota Historical Society site, "By the 1880s, ... the Meighens gravitated to the new Farmers' Alliance Party. This party attempted to "unite farmers of the United States for their protection against class legislation and the encroachment of concentrated capital and the tyranny of monopoly." (Historian John D. Hicks.)

If Thomas were alive today, I can only imagine that he'd be incredibly involved with Blandin's initiatives and active in the Legislature helping drive ubiquitous and ultra high-speed broadband to every town in Minnesota since he saw first-hand what happens when your town is passed over with the transport system of the day.

Minnov8 will be staying close to this task force and will bring you their findings as they unfold. Nothing is more important to the future of Minnesota innovation in Internet and web technology, our educational system and Minnesota's economic development and global participation going forward.

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Comments (2)

If I plug in a $50 wireless unit into my wall socket, it just does whatever it does, and I'm set to go with a wireless cloud in my home and surrounding yard. If my neighbor does the same thing, we can communicate with each other's computer at speeds tenfold faster than the telcos/cablecos offer. That's broadband forever, for a single $50 purchase per house. It creates a local broadband infrastructure wherever there's a unit. No Internet access, but some wonder if that's necessary. A local broadband infrastructure sets the stage for those who want to connect.

The local hospital wants to gain access to a local broadband infrastructure to offer telemedicine programs to the community. Should they have to pay?

The telcos/cablecos would like to gain access to a local broadband infrastructure to offer Internet services at reasonable wholesale pricing for that access. Should we negotiate with them on what a reasonable wholesale price is for Internet access?

The task force might not be needed. Consider the local broadband infrastructure makes it possible to create a virtual world, where every resident can sign in and literally carry on a conversation with any other resident with their computer and webcam. Heck, this application would enable town hall meetings to take place, videoconferences with city employees, their bosses, the mayor and the resident all discussing an issue that's important.

The ability to create digital live interactive tv and radio shows, with everyone that signs in, participating as a member of the audience for live shows. Did I mention live shows?

All things being equal, it seems like the task force might want to start with a statewide $50 per house broadband policy for local broadband infrastructure, and then plan how best to expand connectivity between communities. They might find it won't cost taxpayers a nickel, and might even generate revenues that would pay for the infrastructure.

By the way, Ypsilanti, Michigan is doing this, and their local broadband infrastructure is operated and maintained by two not-so-geeky volunteers. You see, a local broadband infrastructure doesn't need technical expertise to build, operate or maintain.

Oh, but, excuse me, we need to leave the decision-making to those who brought us the multimillion dollar Twin Cities wireless network, and the telcos/cablecos lobbyists who are undoubtedly helping the task force become informed.

Pardon my cynicism but to some extent I agree with the previous poster - there has to be a better way. What will the legislature do, other than offer big money to Qwest and ComCast to help them lock the whole state into overpriced, outmoded systems for years to come?