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‘If it were easy it would have been done by now’: Why high-speed internet remains elusive for many in rural Minnesota

Broadband is critical to the fate of Greater Minnesota. But the people who can make a difference, from providers to politicians, don’t even agree on the problem, much less the solution.

Fiber-optic cable — the method typically proposed for broadband projects supported by the state — is both the most reliable and most expensive option in remote regions.
REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Aaron Brown was a junior at Cherry High School, in a little farming community just outside Hibbing, when the internet rolled into his classroom. A single computer with a modem, so that the teacher could pull onto the information superhighway and show students the roadside attractions. And if the students were good, if they turned in their work on time and paid attention, they too could go for a spin — explore, as Brown said, “the edges of what’s out there.”

This was in the late 1990s, years after the internet had become widely available in other schools in more populous places. Brown had grown up on the nearby Sax-Zim Bog, where his family ran a junkyard out of one trailer home and lived in another. He went on the internet just enough in those early days to decide it was stupid, and said as much at the Minnesota State High School League Speech Tournament in 1998.

He won.

Brown eventually did two things unusual for someone who thought so little of the internet: He became a teacher of online courses through Hibbing Community College, and he started a regional commentary blog, Minnesota Brown. His wife became a blogger, too, launching a money-saving site called Northern Cheapskate.

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By then, the family had moved to Balsam Township, about 20 miles from Hibbing, to a house at the end of a dirt road they have to plow and grade themselves. There they discovered just how bad internet service could be on the Iron Range.

Many Rangers still used dial-up internet in the late 2000s, when the Browns became a blogging family, the way most of us did during the Clinton years.

“It was untenable,” Brown said. “You couldn’t even load the Star Tribune on dial-up.” They put a satellite dish on their house and got the internet that way, but the bandwidth caps stifled their usage. “My wife and I were like bandwidth misers,” he said. “We’d say, ‘Hey! Are you watching a YouTube video? I can’t believe you would do that!’ It was such a challenge.”

As the years went by, hope changed to frustration, and then to disbelief.

“In 2005, we thought the Iron Range could be ahead of the game if it got high-speed internet,” Brown said. “In 2010 we thought it could still catch up.” Now, he said, “it’s become outrageous.”

The most likely to benefit are the least connected

In most of the Twin Cities, where about 60 percent of Minnesotans live, the internet is oxygen — at once ubiquitous and unnoticed. The choices of service include various levels of high-speed internet, or what’s sometimes referred to as broadband, fast enough to quickly send enormous files to a client, or to watch “Portlandia” in 4k resolution on a MacBook. Fast enough to be taken for granted.

But for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of Minnesotans, according to recent estimates, the internet is still ephemeral. They might use the internet only late at night, when usage is low and speeds are faster. They might use their cellphones to do homework. They might still be using dial-up.

They often live in sparsely populated counties where home internet is arguably even more important than it is for urbanites, as many rural Minnesotans are sole proprietors, running farms or small businesses. They’re more spread out, far from hospitals and banks and stores. And they’re older, generally speaking. They’re the people most likely to benefit from connectivity, and yet they are the least connected.

By one estimate, having broadband adds an average of $1,850 to a household’s income. In some cases, it’s much more. In Bemidji, where internet service is actually very good, AirCorp Aviation makes $4 million a year restoring vintage airplanes and making parts for legacy carriers; its owners figure that without high-speed internet, they’d be doing $400,000 in business at best. Even farming, once so hermetic, is now at the forefront of the so-called “internet of things,” employing everything from wired tractors to digital milking machines to remote crop-monitoring.

“It’s hard to be against broadband — it’s like being against apple pie,” one advocate said. And yet, because of the costs involved in bringing wired high-speed internet to far-flung homes, the large telecom providers — CenturyLink (formerly Qwest), Frontier, etc. — have been taking their time to reach the estimated 48 million Americans still without broadband, if they’re even in a position to do so.

The state has been involved in broadband since the Pawlenty era. There is an Office of Broadband Development, and a Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force, and Border-to-Border Broadband grants that have supported community efforts to get high-speed internet with $65.58 million in the last three years. And there has been progress: In 2009, the state estimated that only 55.13 percent of Minnesotans had broadband access; that number is now officially 87.94 percent.

But those final percentage points, translating to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Minnesota, will be the hardest to connect. “If it were easy,” said Danna MacKenzie, who heads the state broadband office, “it would have been done by now.”

And the people who can make a difference, from providers to politicians, don’t agreed on the problem, much less the solution.

Satellite, wireless or fiber?

Last March, Pat Garofalo tweeted a cryptic announcement: “Starting this week, NO Minnesotan is in an unserved area for fast internet. 25M download, 3M upload available for all!”

He included a link to HughesNet, a satellite internet provider that launched a new satellite into orbit a few months earlier and was now offering high-speed internet plans to customers across the country. In a follow-up tweet, Garofalo declared, “Technological advances have rendered the majority of the reasons for government spending on broadband … moot.”

State Rep. Pat Garofalo

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
State Rep. Pat Garofalo

Garofalo, a Republican from Farmington, is the chair of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee in the Minnesota Legislature, with significant control over state broadband funding. And 25 megabits down, 3 megabits up is the state and federal standard for what is considered broadband — about the speed it takes to watch a Netflix movie online without the constant interruption of buffering.

There are several ways to get internet service that fast in rural areas. You could get it via satellite through a company likes HughesNet, with a satellite dish. You could get it via fixed wireless, meaning a wireless signal from a tower within sight of your home or business (in rural areas, usually placed on a silo or other tall building). Or you could get it via fiber-optic cable — the method typically proposed for broadband projects supported by the state — which is both the most reliable and most expensive option in remote regions. In parts of the Iron Range, for example, it could cost $8,000 to $10,000 per home to get fiber.

Garofalo, an avowed technologist who drives a Tesla and consults on computer networking, has long argued that the government’s investment in expensive fiber is a waste of money, given the improved satellite and wireless service coming soon. And now, he said, that moment has come.

“Broadband is an important tool, and we want to make sure every business and every home and every school has access to it,” Garofalo said. “But it doesn’t make sense for the government to hook people up with fiber when the industry is moving toward satellite and wireless because it’s cheaper. A lot of people in rural Minnesota don’t realize they could have high-speed internet tomorrow. Just call and get it installed.”

Garofalo allows that the old satellites “weren’t that good,” and that latency could still be a problem, meaning there’s a long delay between clicking on something online and seeing it happen. He draws an analogy to cellphones. “When they first came out, only a few people had them, right? These gigantic, Gordon Gekko cell phones. But they got better and cheaper, and that’s what is happening with the way we provide internet. People need to realize the technology is still maturing.”

The monthly bandwidth (data) caps that once shut off satellite internet service if you downloaded too much data are now usually “soft” caps: Service may slow at certain times of day, but not turn off completely. And if latency is a problem, Garofalo believes that Elon Musk’s SpaceX company could solve that with a network of internet-providing, low-orbit satellites expected to launch in phases from 2019 to 2024 — no government funding needed.

Pragmatism suggests that communities will probably need some combination of technologies — fiber to connect a core of businesses and homes, and wireless or satellite for everyone outside of it. But for some advocates of rural communities, being told to wait or settle for lesser service is just another sign of second-class citizenship.

“We look at it as 25, 30 years already of being left behind,” a representative of the Minnesota Association of Townships told me, “and now we’re being told to wait again? Simply because of where we live? Look, a place like Thief River Falls may be way up there, but it’s still part of Minnesota.”

Seeing ‘the possibility of making a difference’

At a broadband conference held last fall near Brainerd, sentiment about high-speed internet as the “great equalizer” or “justice” was as common as talk of bitrate and 25/3. The annual conference is sponsored by the Blandin Foundation, which is based in Grand Rapids and sometimes jokingly referred to as the Broadband Foundation for its longstanding push of high-speed internet (disclosure: Blandin supports  MinnPost’s coverage of New Americans in Greater Minnesota).

Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin’s director of public policy and engagement, oversaw the conference in a red and green plaid jacket reminiscent of the foundation’s heritage. Blandin was founded with money from paper mills and is now the largest foundation based in Greater Minnesota — a bulwark, some say, between rural Minnesota and the forces that would seem to be pulling it apart. The day before the conference, word spread that one of the two remaining paper mills in Grand Rapids would be closing, putting 150 people out of work — a big deal in a small town and a blow to its birthright.

“This is a future no one wanted to see,” Joselyn said, not just of the paper mill but all the problems that have come with de-industrialization: the opioid crisis and shrinking opportunity and loss of heritage. “We’re going to have to reinvent work and really think about what life is about to put community at the center.”

Bernadine Joselyn

Blandin Foundation
Bernadine Joselyn

Joselyn came to Grand Rapids from Moscow. She had been working in the U.S. embassy there as a diplomat with the State Department, and then on international academic and cultural exchange programs, when she became pregnant. Moscow was no place to raise her child, she decided, so she returned to her native Minnesota, earned a master’s in public affairs from the Humphrey School, and went to work for Blandin.

At the time, Blandin was refocusing. “We didn’t want a new issue every month, we wanted to make systemic change,” Joselyn said. Broadband seemed a logical issue. “When you ask rural leaders about their priorities, it’s not broadband. It’s jobs, attracting good employers, schools, crime, and drugs — but these are all things that can be addressed with broadband.”

Blandin has now sponsored broadband projects across about 50 Minnesota communities, offering up to $75,000 each to help get wifi in buses or parks or laundromats or Hispanic grocery stores. Joselyn sits on the state Broadband Task Force, too, and last spring she encouraged a contingent of rural Minnesotans to come to the Capitol to advocate for broadband. Nearly half had never been to the Capitol before.

“The essence of democracy is that you believe you can make a difference, that your voice matters,” she said. That’s at stake when Minnesotans feel ZIP codes define opportunity, she believes: “They don’t see the possibility of making a difference.”

Rural communities banding together

Among the broadband advocates in Blandin’s orbit is Kevin Edberg, who worked for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in the 1990s and now heads Cooperative Development Services in St. Paul, which advises budding co-ops of all kinds. He was a friend of Paul Wellstone, such that on the 15th anniversary of Wellstone’s death, this past October, he choked up recalling the late senator’s exhortation to “be the change you seek” — advice he often passes on to Minnesotans fed up with their internet.

Edberg, like other broadband advocates, compares the push for rural broadband to rural electrification in the 1930s, when utilities didn’t find it profitable to bring electrical lines deep into the countryside. (Garofalo rejects the analogy, saying the way we deliver electricity — on copper wires — hasn’t changed in 100 years, while the way we provide the internet has and will continue to change.)

Then, as now, the government stepped in. But the New Dealers specifically plowed the majority of government funding into member-owned electric power companies that relied on communities’ self-interest rather than profit motive to get the job done — cooperatives not unlike the ones Edberg helps organize.

“Humans know how to compete,” Edberg said. “We know how to enter into combat. That instinct is in our amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain.” And that competitive instinct, he believes, has led us to accept the widening wealth gap, to accept that shareholders in far-off places deserve the greater benefits of our labor and resources, and perhaps to accept crappy internet. “We’ve become really good at creating extractive economies, at taking value out of our communities,” Edberg said. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

When Edberg talks to communities underserved by internet providers, he advises them that these telecoms “ain’t coming to your doorsteps anytime soon unless you bribe them. So you better grow the muscles and language needed to cooperate with each other. Be clear about the values you hold and what you want to give to your children and grandchildren. Think with a future in mind, not just what your internet bill is going to be this month.”

In fact, many rural Minnesota communities have recently partnered with a telecom to get better internet. But to Edberg’s point, they needed to band together to make it happen — as when Sunrise Township, about 50 miles north of St. Paul, rallied its residents around enough bonding to bring CenturyLink as well as state and federal funding on board.

Residents of Aitkin County, the Minnesota region least-served by internet, were able to lure a telecom last year with a state grant of $1.7 million and a partnership with Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative — a local electrical co-op formed during the New Deal — to lay a fiber-optic cable.

Kevin Edberg

Kevin Edberg

One co-op, in particular is often held up as a broadband success story: Paul Bunyan Communications, based in Bemidji. On the official map of broadband access in the state, a swath of north-central Minnesota has long been colored green, marking it among the best-served regions, largely because of Paul Bunyan.

It, too, was formed out of support from New Deal initiatives, though much later, in 1950, when the co-op bought a couple of local telephone companies with a government loan. It eventually bought 45 more, a pattern of relentless expansion that has it poised to operate one of the largest fiber networks in the country offering 1-gigabit service, well above the broadband standard — a network it calls the Gigazone.

Paul Bunyan has only installed fiber since 2004 — with the help of state broadband grants — “because we’re thinking long-term,” said Gary Johnson, the co-op’s CEO. “I’m thinking 40 years out, and if you’re talking about a generational investment you can put fiber to that last farm on the last mile of the road.”

Connecting is only half the battle

This year, the current Broadband Task Force is expected to sunset along with the Dayton administration. Nationally, the FCC under Ajit Pai would appear to be championing rural broadband — Pai grew up in rural Kansas — but the proposals have largely taken the Trump tack of deregulation with the hope of spurring more investment and competition among telecoms, notably by ending net neutrality.

Pai has also proposed creating a separate, lower broadband standard for mobile service, 10/1 — or about what a smartphone currently offers — instead of 25/3. This would ostensibly sharpen the government’s focus on the least-served people still not up to that 10/1 standard, while also suggesting that everyone could get by with only cellular internet at home.

Of course, the broadband issue will never really go away, whether through government investment or redefinition. The goalposts will keep moving at the speed of richer and richer content, such that the Broadband Task Force recently recommended quadrupling the state broadband standard to 100/20 by the year 2026.

Getting broadband is only half the battle anyway. Getting people to use it is proving harder than expected. The Red Wing area has had gigabit internet service for years. Now they’re partnering with a National Science Foundation program in hopes of leveraging all that speed into something more than email or cat videos. Infrared cameras to measure crop stress, perhaps. Anything that throws a bridge across the digital divide.

But an era is ending. Technology is changing and with it the calculus that kept telecoms from better serving rural America. Garofalo insists that even the state’s higher goal will likely be achieved by the private sector before the government can make an impact. Activism and incentives have created such awareness, said one Minnesota network design engineer, that “no sooner do we do a feasibility study than providers start sniffing around.” As a Washington lobbyist for rural internet providers put it to me, “We’re at the cool kids’ table now.”

A year ago, Aaron Brown and his family finally did get good internet. A postcard, of all antiquated communications, came in the mail. “Our gigabit internet is coming to your neighborhood,” it announced. “Sign up now.” The Gigazone had arrived.

The Browns were not initially slated for service. They were in a secondary area that would only be connected if market conditions were ideal, and only much later. But at the last minute, because they were between two primary sectors, they were slotted in. Paul Bunyan came through a few days before Christmas, dug a ditch and laid in the fiber-optic cable, for no more than the co-op membership fee.

Everyone on their road — four households — signed up. “Just because I’ve got gigabit service doesn’t mean I’m going to use it or that my neighbor will become a Silicon Valley tech exec in a year,” Brown said. “Having high-speed internet to every house in rural Minnesota isn’t the thing that’s going to cause a real renaissance to self-generate. But it certainly won’t generate without it.”

His kids now bring home iPads from school along with homework that requires the internet. They’re working on robotics and doing some rudimentary coding. And it’s that engagement with the future, in a place shut out of it for so long, that matters more to Brown than any particular technology. “At the end of the day, we’re not talking about some novelty,” he said. “We’re talking about humans.”

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.