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Seeding 'a culture of broadband' in rural Minnesota

Spurred by long-shot chances to land a Google fiber system or federal broadband bucks, Minnesotans are trying everything from jumping into frigid Lake Superior to toiling over tedious grant applications.

But there's another side to the challenge of connecting Minnesota to its brightest prospects for the future: getting people to make full use of high-speed Internet service once it is available.

Minnesota got a $4.7 million boost toward that goal last month when the Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids won a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to further broadband adoption.

Delivering broadband access to Minnesota homes and businesses is a costly work in progress — beyond the financial reach of many counties and cities, let alone farmers and small-town residents. It is so coveted that Duluth's mayor promoted his city's bid for Google fiber by diving into Lake Superior.

But this new federal grant is not dedicated to laying more fiber. Instead, it is intended to seed Minnesota's rural grass roots with what Blandin's Bernadine Joselyn calls "a culture of broadband."

Slow move to high speed
Rural residents have as many or more reasons to embrace broadband as any city dweller.

High-speed connections are a small town's best hope for stopping the devastating drain of businesses and bright young people.

They can deliver world-class university courses to the bedroom of a farm kid.

They also can make a life-or-death difference to someone who lives a half-hour ambulance ride away from the nearest hospital.

But rural Americans have been slower than their city counterparts to take to high speeds. Just 50 percent of rural Americans have broadband in their homes, compared with 68 percent for the nation as a whole, according to a survey [PDF] conducted last fall by the Federal Communications Commission.

One reason is that high-speed connections simply aren't available at any price in some rural areas.

But that doesn't account for the full measure of the reluctance.

Other reasons high on the list are demographic: Rural Americans tend to be older and to have lower incomes and education levels. These factors play large in decisions to use computers in general and, in particular, to pay for taking them high speed.

Perhaps the most telling need to nurture a "culture of broadband" is illustrated by the fact that the sizeable urban-rural gap holds even for young adults: Just 56 percent of rural dwellers between the ages of 18 and 29 in the FCC survey had broadband at home compared with 75 percent for the same age group nationwide.

Wiring up for the revolution
Joselyn, who directs public policy and engagement for Blandin, draws on her own family history to explain one of the subtle psychological barriers. Decades ago, her grandparents in rural Nebraska used an ice box to keep foods chilled. Most in the family thought it worked fine — until a relative brought home an electric refrigerator. Overnight, the ice man was out of business at their house.

In other words, they didn't see the need until they adopted change.

High-speed Internet access is poised to change the countryside as dramatically as did the miles of wires that carried electricity and telephone service to almost every home during the mid-20th century, creating the connectivity for appliances and tools that revolutionized life and work.

Once again, it's time to "get every house and every farm house wired up" for a new technological age that will prove every bit as revolutionary, Joselyn said.

"In its scale and scope, it really is a similar enterprise," she said.

The big difference is pace. It took decades for post-Depression families to replace those old ice boxes and to believe that a phone is worth another monthly bill.

Rural America doesn't have decades to play with this revolution, given the stakes in terms of job training and business competition alone.

The Great Recession hit many Minnesota rural counties harder than the state as a whole, speeding the decline of small towns and forcing suddenly jobless families into a race for new skills.

Those towns are home to the heart of Greater Minnesota's economy: small businesses. Roughly one in 10 rural Minnesota businesses are not connected to the Internet, according to a study done last year by the University of Minnesota Crookston. Another 4 percent use only dial-up connections.

"The imperative of doing this quickly is upon us," Joslyn said.

Hooked up to the hospital
Pockets of Greater Minnesota already have picked up the pace, using computer connections far beyond the obvious advantage they bring to business competition and to education.

If you were unfortunate enough to suffer congestive heart failure near the small town of Staples (northwest of Brainerd), Lakewood Health System could send you home from the hospital with a scale and assorted monitoring devices attached to your computer.

The computer, in turn, is linked to monitors at the medical center. If that scale reported a sudden weight gain, your medical team would suspect that your body isn't moving fluids efficiently and either send help or ask you to come back to the hospital.

Think of the advantages in a place where the hospital can be a county or two away from home! You can go home from the hospital earlier. You have a shot at a better outcome because you are monitored closely. You save yourself long drives to the clinic. And you save your health insurer substantial costs.

Add ultra-high-speed broadband, and the benefits climb higher, said Stuart Speedie, who directs graduate studies in health informatics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. On sabbatical as visiting professor of ehealth at Kings College in London, Speedie talked by phone with MinnPost this week.

Interactions with specialists
You (the heart patient in Staples) could be "seen" by cardiologists and other specialists at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, in Minneapolis. Taking advantage of high-quality audio via broadband, the specialists could listen to your organs and perform sophisticated tests.

Prof. Stuart Speedie
Prof. Stuart Speedie

They also could get a face-to-face look at you — noting the color of your skin, whether you seem bloated or distressed or lethargic, whether it's a struggle for you to stand up and how far you can move your limbs.

"Human beings are very good at assessing other humans through visual means," Speedie said. "The video that is available through broadband provides a much richer interaction in terms of providing care for the patient."

Right now, that level of connectivity is available hospital to hospital at high costs, Speedie said. In a fully connected Minnesota, it could extend to local doctors' offices — and, eventually, even to patients' homes.

Looking further into the future, fully connected patients could use cell phones and other hand-held gear to get medical help. Say you seriously injure your ankle while deer hunting. The first responder might come via your iPhone and bring a surprising level of sophistication to your tree stand deep in the Minnesota woods.

Another vision is for continuous health monitoring, Speedie said, combining broadband with new sensor technology. It could help healthy people as well as the sick — someone, for example, who is trying to lose weight or just get in shape.

Harnessing and driving the technology
Nowhere would all of this connectivity be more of a godsend than in Minnesota's rural countryside.

Now, the challenge is to help rural residents harness the technology and drive it to its full potential.

In that regard, Blandin is working with 19 partners organized in the statewide Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities coalition. The partners include the Regional Development Commissions, University of Minnesota Extension, state workforce centers, Association of Minnesota counties, University of Minnesota Crookston and other organizations.

The $4.7 federal grant is to help leverage the partners' resources in strategies such as extending hours the workforce centers are open, stepping up training programs for small businesses and bringing to Minnesota an online network for mental health workers.

At least 1,000 refurbished personal computers are to be distributed to operators of home-based businesses and to economically distressed families that never have owned computers.

And 11communities throughout rural Minnesota are to receive up to $100,000 each to develop and demonstrate broadband projects. The "demonstration communities" are Benton County, Cook County, Grand Rapids/Itasca County, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Stevens County, Upper Minnesota Valley region, Thief River Falls, Willmar/Kandiyohi County, Winona, Windom and Worthington.

In all, the coalition aims to increase the ranks of broadband subscribers by more than 38,000 households and 240 small businesses in addition to training workers and providing technical assistance for more than 2,000 small businesses.

Kickoff in May
The project's institutional kickoff will be in May, Joselyn said. On-the-ground work in communities should start rolling out this summer.

The initiative is expected to cost more than $6 million. Coalition members already have committed the $1.3 million in necessary matching funds over and above the federal grant.

This statewide project is unique in Minnesota, but several regional organizations have won federal grants this year for expanding local broadband networks.

Most recently, the Northeast Service Cooperative based in Mountain Iron was awarded a $22 million grant and a loan for the same amount to install the fiber needed to deliver high-speed connectivity to schools, local governments, hospitals, universities and some 20,000 households across much of Minnesota's Arrowhead Region.

In a sense, such grants have cultivated the ground for the coalition's work. The opportunity for funding alone — whether it's through the federal grant programs or through Google — has ramped up interest in a better connected future.

"The funding opportunities have helped community planners and broadband champions catalyze the kind of sustained, broad-based and inclusive community engagement required not just to put fiber in the ground, but maybe even more importantly, to create a 'culture of use,' " Joselyn said.

Sharon Schmickle reports on science, international affairs, Greater Minnesota and other subjects.

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Comments (4)

Might a more technically adept person than I let me know if cable works better than wireless? Or is it better than wireless for some applications like the medical ones described in the article?

The city of Portland made wireless communication available to every city and town in Multnomah County, Oregon, a few years ago. Might wireless suffice for the average home or farm?

If by cable, you mean the same wire that brings cable TV, then yes - it tends to perform better than most wireless. Unfortunately, the term cable can refer to a range of technologies, as can wireless - so comparisons are difficult.

Wireless is better than dialup for any farm or home. However, the world is moving toward a fiber-optic connection to homes as the gold standard for high speeds and reliability. The upfront costs are substantial though, so public policy will define whether rural folks in MN will be left behind or get the same technical capabilities of those in the metro area. For many rural folks, this may mean forming or joining a cooperative or encouraging a municipal deployment. Just like electricity, the private companies don't want to build it -- and if the government pays them to do it, they'll probably still find ways to provide poor service to increase profits.

We have fiber optic cable to our home in Grand Rapids with basic internet service of 10mps. By this summer, we will have fiber optic cable to our family's lake cabin 15 miles north of town and almost a mile from a paved road. As my brother said, "Wow! Better internet at (the lake) than in Shorewood" where he lives.

How did that happen? The Bemidji based Paul Bunyan telephone/television/internet coop decided it should compete with Qwest. They are building out their network with modern infrastructure, while Qwest has a huge investment in their legacy copper wire.

What is interesting is that in most of Paul Bunyan's existing service area, they are also relying on their legacy infrastructure. So Bemidji, a large community than Grand Rapids, does not have fiber to most of its homes.

The same situation exists in Shorewood and most of the Twin Cities. It does not make sense to invest huge sums of money in fiber optic when you already have an existing customer base.

My concern is that, unlike refrigerators, a lot of the uses of fiber optic are still not available even in urban areas. While interactive doctor visits would be a real boon, how many doctors/hospitals now offer this service? My guess is few or none. And with most urban homes lacking the kind of bandwidth required to support those services, is there really a market for them.

It may be that far from simply keeping up with urban Minnesota, that rural Minnesota will need to be the leaders. Distances and isolation may give applications that depend on high speed connections more value.

There are kids in rural areas who spend several hours a day on school buses. Think of how much better than time could be spent. But that may or may not require fiber optic speed connections. On the other hand, exposing those same kids to real interactive educational experiences with specialists around the world becomes a real possibility only when you have the kind of connections that allow it.

The other thing is that unlike urban communities, rural communities are often spread out making community interaction difficult. The challenge for rural residents is to figure out how to use these new technologies to strengthen their local communities, not just their connections to the broader world.

Imagine pastors being able to visit with the sick without traveling to their home. Or groups being able to meet face-to-face without everyone driving to a central point. The possibilities for improved local communication are endless.

Excellent article. I agree with many of Ross' points about adoption. Many of the applications that Ross notes can be done without fiber. For example, the pastoral visits could easily be done on with a DSL or cable modem connection using Skype or other free software. Churches could have some laptops to lend to parishioners. Family and friends could also be trained to video conference as well.

We have found that the technology is the easy part of telehealth care. More complex is the reimbursement policies of the multiple payers - private insurance, medicare, medicaid all have different policies.

How many kids on those buses have portable electronics - ipods, PSPs, etc. Schools could offer content for those devices for download during school hours for use on the bus going home. The new apple IPAD seems like a device that would really be useful in this setting.

Digital inclusion issues must enter into all of these discussions so that no one is left behind.