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Minnesota has steep climb to reach its broadband speed and access goals

Ambitious goals set into state law this year call for Minnesota to rank among the top five in the nation in broadband speed and access.

Well, Minnesota had better get going.

A new report by the Pew Center on the States gauges how close states are to meeting broadband goals set in federal stimulus legislation, which calls for providing connections of at least 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) for downloads.

Minnesota ranks 20th — behind most other large Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri.

By that federal standard the best connected states are Hawaii, Oklahoma and Nevada. The worst are Wyoming, Alaska and Montana.

Game changer
The stakes couldn’t be higher in this race to a connected future.

“Broadband has earned the term “game changer,” and it is easy to see why,” says Susan Urahn, the Pew Center’s managing director.

“Once considered a convenience, access to broadband Internet service has crossed the threshold to necessity,” she said in a letter announcing the report. “As increasing numbers of business, government and personal interactions move online, Americans who lack reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet connections may be left behind.”

Broadband is driving the latest thrusts in everything from the economy to education to health-care innovation. That’s why $7.2 billion in federal stimulus funding was made available to states and their partners for expanding and upgrading broadband access.

America had been virtually asleep at the wheel while other developed countries rushed to connect at ever higher speeds. In a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development the United States ranked 15th in broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants.

But a recent tally of the costs of the nation’s “digital exclusion” should shake us awake. The United States loses more than $55 billion a year because its residents, businesses, schools and other institutions are not connected or are hooked up at slow speeds, according to estimates [PDF] by Philadelphia-based Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corp. 

If you’re among the “digitally excluded,” it costs you more to hunt for a job, renew the tabs on your car license plates and manage energy in your home — to name just a few examples. Your exclusion also pushes more costs onto your partners in those transactions: the potential employer, the auto licensing agency and the power company.

Minnesota takes a big step
A new National Broadband Plan calls for states to play a major role in closing the connectivity gaps around the country.

The Pew report notes that Minnesota took one important step in 2007 when it set up the Minnesota Ultra High-speed Broadband Task Force. In November, the panel completed its mission by setting out goals for propelling the state toward better broadband access and improved speeds. The Legislature incorporated some of the goals into state law this year.

In addition to calling for Minnesota to rank among the top five states, the law says all state residents and businesses should have access by 2015 to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second and minimum upload speeds of five to 10 Mbps.

But Minnesota is a very long reach away from that goal. Less than 4 percent of the state’s connections can download at 10 megabits right now, the Pew report says. Further, one in four connections in the state even fall short of the far more modest federal goal.

(I know, I know. All of these megas and kilos can give you a headache. Ten megabits is 10,240 Kbps. So the state’s goal is well above the minimum federal suggestion of 768 Kbps for downloads. And here’s some perspective on the scale of all these bits: If you want to download a 2 minute HD movie trailer, it would take about 8 minutes if your download speed was 2 Mbps and 2 minutes if it was 8 Mbps.)

What the Legislature couldn’t do in our cash-strapped state this year was to provide funding for Minnesota to reach its goals. Thus, cities, counties, schools and many different private entities are scrambling for shares of the federal stimulus funds and any other money they can find.

The state law also does not ensure anything will happen. It says the commissioner of commerce must report to key legislative committees each year on the achievement of the goals. But it doesn’t say what happens if little or no progress is made.

No funding. No mandates. We’ll see.

Hitting the accelerator
Meanwhile, other states are stepping up their broadband efforts.

Here are examples from the Pew report of other states’ efforts:

• California created an Advanced Services Fund, which promotes broadband in unserved and underserved areas through financial awards to providers. The state also is creating a telehealth network that will connect more than 800 health-care providers in underserved areas to a state and nationwide broadband network dedicated to health care. The state expects to dramatically cut health-care costs because patients will make fewer emergency trips via helicopter and ambulance and the network will make it possible to transmit diagnostic information, such as X-rays, electronically.

• North Carolina’s e-NC Authority has used partnerships with rural and urban communities and also with providers to expand broadband use. The state has complemented those efforts with technical education and training for local businesses. Between 2001 and 2007, its e-NC Business and Technology Telecenters provided free Internet access to 158,000 residents. Nursing homes have been a special target. North Carolina officials have teamed up with Time Warner Cable to provide nursing home residents with computers, affordable Internet access and user education.

• A block of states, including North Dakota, have formed an alliance for eHealth. The group is trying to make it easier for a doctor with a license in one state to practice in another, a key requirement in telemedicine, where the best specialist to treat a patient may be a state or more away.

• In Texas, utilities have installed more than 1 million “smart meters” that transmit information about electricity use wirelessly to the utility, eliminating the need for meter readers. Smart meters also can allow customers to see their electric usage before the bill comes, alert utilities to power outages and communicate wirelessly with household appliances, including monitors that instantly can show customers how much money they are spending on electricity. Consumers will pay for the new equipment over time. In the Dallas area, for example, the utility will bill them an extra $2.19 a month for the next 11 years.



Click on chart to enlarge


Competition and costs
You could make a good argument that Minnesota was misguided in setting broadband competition into law — in saying it must rank among the top five states in access and speed. Why not just set the broadband standards the state knows it needs and leave it at that?

But given the economic stakes, there is a competitive race under way whether or not we choose to declare it officially.

There are immeasurable costs, too, in having spotty connectivity where some parts of a state are left behind. The Pew report relates a sad story in that regard:

In northern Iowa, a young mother of two children was rushed to a small community hospital with severe injuries — including a fractured skull — sustained in a car crash. The hospital performed a CAT scan, but the staff had to send the images to specialists in Mason City because the hospital did not have its own radiologist.

Unfortunately, the hospital’s Internet connection was slow, and it took nearly half an hour for the CAT scans to download in Mason City. As soon as the specialists saw the images, they called the hospital and told the doctors there to drill into her skull. Without relieving the pressure, they said, the mother’s brain would not function.

But the radiologists’ call came too late. The mother had died 15 minutes earlier.

Now the Iowa Hospital Association and the Federal Communications Commission are building a $10 million online network for 89 rural providers to ensure that the same thing never happens again.

Sharon Schmickle covers science, Greater Minnesota, international affairs and other topics.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2010 - 10:44 pm.

    Well, that’s the private sector for you. We left the whole thing up to the magic of the markets and efficiency of the private sector while other nations implemented national plans. We could have done this the same way we did rural electrification, or the national highway system but that woulda been big government. Now we’re paying twice as much, for slower and glitchier connections, and way less access than they have in Japan or Europe.

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