Future of the Internet: Minnesotans voice views and worries

Hip-hop artist I Self Divine: "Having access to open Internet allows me to bypass the middleman."
Photo by Bruce Silcox
Hip-hop artist I Self Divine: “Having access to open Internet allows me to bypass the middleman.”

From a Gunflint Trail resort owner to a Native American consultant to a South Minneapolis hip-hop artist, Minnesotans weighed in on broadband and the future of the Internet this past week as officials from the Federal Communications Commission came to town.

Major controversies and shared concerns were voiced during two very different sessions addressing upcoming decisions in systems as economically important for this century as was electrical wiring during the 20th Century.

Net Neutrality
Chaka Mkali summed up the essence of a roiling national debate over what’s called “net neutrality.” The question at issue is whether the FCC should have authority to ensure that content flows equally without discrimination or interference by service providers and media companies.

Mkali is a local hip-hop artist performing under the name I Self Devine. He’s also an organizer for Hope Community, which serves Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. He was on a panel of speakers at Minneapolis South High where about 600 people attended a future-of-the-Internet forum.

“As a socially conscious and politically conscious hip-hop artist on a local independent label, it is difficult to compete with major labels for distribution, touring, radio and video if you don’t fit nicely into the marketing process,” said Mkali, whose label is Rhymesayers Entertainment.

But the degree of difficulty has dropped dramatically on the free-wheeling Internet where independent artists, authors and bloggers have joined millions of budding entrepreneurs to push their stuff alongside the fare sold by large corporations.

“Having access to open Internet allows me to bypass the middleman, leveling the playing field and amplifying my voice in ways unimaginable,” Mkali said.

Verizon-Google plan
The balance of that access could change under a proposal by media giants Verizon and Google. They proposed this month to preserve openness on today’s wired Internet while also leaving companies free to create some restricted premium networks in the future, especially on wireless devices like mobile phones.

That would be devastating for the little people trying to do big things online, Mkali said.

“If our Internet freedoms are not protected, there is no way I will be able to compete with corporations with unlimited resources promoting homogenous sound that is not reflective of the values of our community,” he said.

What’s true for independent artists also is true for community work, Mkali said.  

In the Phillips community — where 70 percent of the residents are Native Americans, Latinos, east Africans, African Americans and other ethnic minorities –the Internet has been a vital resource for organizers working to empower youth, connect with local resources and engage voters.

“If the FCC does not impose regulations protecting Internet users, reasserting their authority over broadband and pass strong net neutrality, it will compromise democracy and democratic participation while perpetuating further disparities with staggering impacts none of us here today want on our hearts and minds,” Mkali concluded.

The forum was sponsored by organizations that largely agree with Mkali: Free Press, Main Street Project and the Center for Media Justice.

“Hands off our Internet”
But not everyone in the crowd was on board.

Zack Segner, a masonry worker from Loretto, Minnesota, stood near the back of the South High auditorium holding a large banner lettered: HANDS OFF OUR INTERNET.

Early in the program, he shouted, “The Internet is working fine right now!” When one speaker lamented that the FCC has no real authority to regulate Internet service providers, he yelled, “Yea! Wikileaks!”

Segner told me that he didn’t represent any group opposing government regulation of the Internet, but he’d heard about the event from Tea Party members.

“The Internet works, and I don’t think we should go to a Chinese-style Internet,” Segner said. He was referring to Chinese government controls that have, among other restrictions, blocked access to sites noting the 20th anniversary of the protests in Tiananmen Square.

The masonry worker apparently knew in advance that FCC Commissioner Michael Copps would disagree. Segner sounded a loud “Boooooo” when Copps took the podium.

A world of private internets
Copps said he is deeply worried that the Internet will be turned over to “special interest and gatekeepers and tool booth collectors who will short circuit what this great technology can do for our country.”

Years ago, broadcasters claimed that giving them free spectrum was in the public interest, and cable companies pledged to fill holes in public affairs programming. But media consolidation has rendered those pledges largely empty, Copps said. Among other results, he said, “newsrooms were shuttered, reporters were yanked off the beat and fired and investigative journalism was placed on the endangered species list.”

“We were too quick to take their word, and now the big internet service providers are telling us the same thing,” he said.

“Do you think we should take their word?” he asked the crowd.

If anyone said yes, I could not hear it for all of the hearty “NOOO” responses.

As for the Verizon-Google proposal, Copps said: “The Verizon-Google gaggle wants to build a world of private internets that would vastly diminish the centrality of the Internet that you and I know. They want a tiered Internet… I call it gated communities for the affluent.”

Something really great
A few days later, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was more circumspect about net neutrality. He spoke Tuesday at a broadband summit organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. About 150 people attended the summit at the University of Minnesota.

“I feel very strongly that we stumbled into something really great in the country when the Internet was developed with open architecture that encouraged a whole series of things that we have seen over the last number of years: incredible innovation, access to information and ideas,” Genachowski said.

He said it was important that consumers “continue to access the lawful content of their choice on the Internet.” And he said “we need an enforceable framework to preserve Internet freedom and openness.” But he did not specify whether that should be the framework proposed by Verizon and Google or the one advocated by Copps.

Cost of digital exclusion
Bruce Kerfoot summed up an equally pressing issue at the summit. He owns Gunflint Lodge near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.

Kerfoot said his family recently decided to vacation in a remote Swiss village. It took them two minutes to make an online reservation at the resort they had chosen.

Bruce Kerfoot
Courtesy of Gunflint Lodge
Bruce Kerfoot

“There is not one person in Europe who can make an online reservation with me,” Kerfoot said.

Further, Kerfoot said he hasn’t had a foreign visitor all year while half the customers at Canadian wilderness resorts in the Rockies have come from Asia where travelers overwhelmingly prefer to book online.

Living in remote and rugged northeastern Minnesota, Kerfoot is among some 100,000 households in the state that don’t have broadband. And he can’t get it even if he wants to pay for it. (MinnPost’s report on his county’s fight for connection is here.)

The upshot for Kerfoot is that he is stuck using dial-up Internet over 50-year-old phone lines. He can’t accept online reservations, quickly process a guest’s credit card payment or offer his guests the Minnesota DNR’s online system for obtaining fishing licenses.

“We are close to becoming second-class citizens,” Kerfoot said.

Losing ground to other countries
The United States prides itself in claiming first-class economic standing around the world. But it jeopardizes that standing with inferior broadband coverage, Klobuchar said.

The latest report on the subject from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the United States 15th among its member nations in broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants.

And we’re losing ground. The same report ranks the United States 18th in the growth of broadband penetration.

Klobuchar said our average connection speed is 4.7 megabytes per second compared with 33 megabytes in South Korea.

Jobs go where the connections are.

Klobuchar said every percentage increase in broadband deployment sparks the creation of some 300,000 jobs.

Winners and losers
Pam Lehmann told one of the most encouraging tales in the two sessions. She is executive director of the Lac qui Parle County Economic Development Authority in West Central Minnesota.

Lac qui Parle — with a population of about 8,000 in the 2000 census (probably lower now, Lehmann said) — has set the ambitious goal of becoming the first county in Minnesota with fiber-to-the-premise connections for every household and business.

The county won broadband’s equivalent of the lottery this month: a grant/loan package of nearly $10 million in federal stimulus funding for the fiber system.

Now the county is gearing up to attract telecommuters and businesses and expand delivery of health care and online education. As a result, it will punch that population much higher than 8,000, Lehmann predicted.

In all, Minnesota has received some $140 million in stimulus funds for broadband, said Richard King, Chief Technology Officer for Thomson Reuters. He chaired the state’s Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force.

The task force recommended goals of making broadband coverage available to every home and business in the state by 2015 and also making the state among the top five in the nation for broadband speed and penetration. The Legislature agreed this year, passing the goals into law.

But there have been more losers than winners in the scramble for federal funding.

“We are not there,” King said at the summit on Tuesday.

We are not even close. But we are making progress.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/30/2010 - 09:18 am.

    If Amy Klobuchar had her way, she’d regulate how many squares of toilet paper each person was allowed to use.

    Contrary to those who are pushing for taxpayer-funded broadband service, we already have broadband coverage available to every home and business in the state. It’s available via satellite from companies like HughesNet. If Mr. Kerfoot would have Googled “broadband service” he could have learned that, even with his dial-up line.

    We can’t afford free, taxpayer-funded broadband service and most people don’t want a government-regulated internet. You either believe in freedom or you don’t.

  2. Submitted by Tom Miller on 08/30/2010 - 09:46 am.

    Freedom is upheld by institutions protecting the rights of all Americans and, as the constitution puts it, promoting the general welfare.

    “Net neutrality” is not the government regulating each TCP/IP packet, but rather the government protecting the rights of all citizens to access any TCP/IP packet choose. It would prevent a corporate stranglehold on individual liberty and and freedon of choice.

    The interstate highway system, funded by the government and built by private contractors, is part of the backbone of modern American economic power. It is fundamental to the economic efficiencies achieved by private business. It provides us a with a richer (literally and figuatively) life. The same would happen with universal broadband access. The private sector and all Americans would benefit.

  3. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 08/30/2010 - 10:37 am.

    Dennis, several sources have told me in interviews that satellite service as it exists right now doesn’t quite do the job for functions like interacting with the DNR for fishing licenses, etc. and doesn’t come close to options like fiber in terms of speed and reliability.
    Comment from readers with first-hand experience would be helpful here.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/30/2010 - 11:07 am.

    Tom, the internet consists of servers and routers and switches and cables … all of which belong to somebody. They were paid for and installed by a private entity. It represents a system of communications and commerce that has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And it’s become that in spite of government not because of it. The government has no right to tax and regulate it, especially under the guise that they will somehow make it better.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 08/30/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    Dennis, you don’t understand what net neutrality means, do you? This isn’t about the government telling you what you can and can’t do with the internet, it’s the government keeping corporations from telling you what you can and can’t do with the internet. They are trying to prevent corporations from regulating the internet, and by the way, no matter how many switches and routers a private company buys, so long as they have cable running through public right of ways or they use communications frequencies owned by the public, they absolutely should have to answer to the American people, rather than the American people having to answer to a corporation.

    Beyond that, the statement that the internet succeeded in spite of the government is something that I find quite ludicrous. The government funded the back bone of the internet, funded the people who created the protocols that make it work. Private industry once again only took advantage after our government did the dirty work.

    As far as everyone having access to broadband – you obviously have never had any experience using satellite “Broadband”. My friend in Boone, IA can attest that dial up is as fast as the “broadband” you get from a satellite dish. Having said that, people I know who would very much like to move to the lake and run their business from there cannot do so until true broadband internet access is available.

  6. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 08/30/2010 - 07:20 pm.

    “the internet consists of servers and routers and switches and cables … all of which belong to somebody.”

    But they are useless (except internal corporate use) until they are connected to the PUBLIC communications system. If there was no public system, then there would be no national telephone network–and no Internet. Qwest, Sprint, etc are all private businesses–but they have received exclusive licenses to serve the public through the govt at various levels.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 08/31/2010 - 06:35 am.

    David,

    The speeds listed are almost always listed as “up to” speeds. Obviously you are dependent upon other sites as well when you are downloading, but…

    As a business, generally upload speed is equally, if not more important than download speed, especially if you host your own website or send a lot of content (think graphic designers).

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