High-speed internet connectivity is just around the corner in Greater Minnesota, a visionary Lakefield city administrator named Mark Erickson told me (and I told you) 17 years ago. In a few years, he predicted, broadband will allow rural businesses to sell to the world, patients to consult with specialty doctors, students to search the collections of great libraries and grandparents to virtually join their faraway grandkids’ birthday parties. A rural renaissance will ensue.
Everything Erickson said about broadband’s capability at high speeds came true — for people in the Twin Cities. And, as of 2016 by the tally of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, for about half the households in Greater Minnesota.
The patience of the other half has to be wearing thin after years of seeing what high-speed internet can do, somewhere else. Of watching would-be entrepreneurs go elsewhere. Of being unable to work from home on a snow day. Of driving kids to the city library parking lot at night so they can use its Wi-Fi to do their homework. Of driving long distances for doctors’ visits that might have been handled via video teleconference.
My hunch: When Greater Minnesotans say they feel “left behind,” the complaint that’s top of mind is insufficient broadband. They may fume as they drive on bumpy two-lane highways and fret about aging water infrastructure. But they’ll leave — or their kids will — if the internet service is lousy.
And they’ll warm to politicians who credibly promise to make it better.
Those thoughts brought me to a Jan. 26 news conference by advocates for an additional $100 million state taxpayer investment in Greater Minnesota broadband. Among the featured speakers: Mark Erickson.
Yup, still working on rural broadband after all these years, Erickson said. The internet prophet of Lakefield in 2000 is now the economic development authority director of Winthrop, Minn. He’s also chair of the League of Minnesota Cities’ telecommunications task force and his city’s representative in the RS Fiber Project, a 10-city, 17-township broadband cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties.
Erickson has some successes to his credit. His work in Lakefield laid the groundwork for an eight-city consortium, Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services. It accounts for the blue blob signifying widespread availability of fixed, nonmobile broadband service on the otherwise mostly red map of southwestern Minnesota issued last year by the state Office of Broadband Development.
Erickson’s latter-day home turf, Renville and Sibley counties, is a red-and-blue patchwork on the map. “We’re served pretty well,” he said. Winthrop’s fiber network has kept it on Greater MSP’s list of exurban contenders for an industrial plant’s expansion, he said. A private medical school is interested in setting up shop in nearby Gaylord only because of the internet connectivity it offers.
But Erickson concedes that for much of Greater Minnesota, his circa-2000 predictions were off by a decade. Or two. Why?
“At first, it was because the technology had to mature,” he said. “When fiber to the home became cost-efficient, in about 2005 and 2006, it began to work.” The notion that wireless technology will eventually be an affordable high-speed alternative for sparsely populated places is in question, Erickson added. “Wireless works well in high-density places, not in the country.”
But installing fiber cables to every farm and hamlet involves a major upfront investment that’s ill-suited to the business plans of large shareholder-owned telecom companies, Erickson said. The return on those investments is too low and slow. That’s why small local companies, cooperatives and municipal providers have outstripped companies like CenturyLink and Frontier in bringing broadband to rural places, where upfront costs can exceed $10,000 per premise.
Enter the state’s Broadband Grant Program. Since 2014, it has been awarding matching funds on a competitive basis to both new and existing internet providers, public and/or private, for the installation of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved portions of the state. Last year, the program dispensed $34 million to 42 projects, RS Fiber among them. If it had more money, it could have helped many more.
The governor’s task force has recommended a $100 million infusion in the program, as it has in each of the last three years. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton put $60 million in his budget. A handful of DFL legislators joined Erickson at the news conference endorsing the task force’s number.
The DFL enthusiasm stands to political reason: DFLers are keen to regain lost support in Greater Minnesota. As recently as 2008, DFL legislators outnumbered Republicans in rural districts, 58-35. The tables have dramatically turned since then. This year, rural districts are represented by 70 Republicans and 23 DFLers.
Republicans have yet to put a broadband bid on the table. It’s not an easy call for politicians torn between dislike of government intrusion in the marketplace on the one hand and a desire to help constituents participate in the modern economy on the other.
Erickson said something that might help those who are torn. He related that when selling would-be rural subscribers on establishing the RS Fiber co-op, he often says, “If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.”
He isn’t referring only to individual effort. In Greater Minnesota, “do it yourself” has always meant “do it yourselves, with your neighbors.” It’s meant marketing cooperatives, rural electrification associations, municipal liquor stores, township roads, county parks. It’s meant pooling resources with one’s fellow citizens to solve a shared problem.
Think of state government as just another, bigger neighborhood pool.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.