The $1.3 million estate in Afton is advertised as a “stunning property with total seclusion” — 21 acres, with a heated and air-conditioned barn for the horses.
But its buyer could end up with one big shock. Just four minutes’ drive from the nearest Woodbury subdivision, this part of upscale Afton isn’t wired to the Internet.
“One guy told me he just got back from Cambodia, and they have high-speed Internet in the jungle,” said Stan Ross, an electrical engineer who serves on the Afton City Council. “So why on earth can’t Afton?”
This fall, Afton is seeking to get in on a $10.6 million state program to help subsidize broadband in poorly served remote locations. However that goes, the fix in which the city finds itself is instructive.
In ways you’d never think of, people are learning there’s a price to life in wealthy, countrified enclaves of large-acreage estates surrounding the Twin Cities: The 21st century has silently melted away.
In fact, Bill Jensen, group vice president for Mediacom, a national communications firm helping affluent, horse-country Medina to seek a share of the state’s money, admits his own home in a rural part of Lakeville isn’t wired.
“I’m a cable guy who doesn’t have cable,” he laments. “I’m dyin’ out here!”
In broadband as in other domains, including cellphone coverage, places such as Afton that have fought to remain rural, beating back developers who’ve sought to bring in subdivisions with hundreds of homes, are now too sparsely settled for businesses to make a profit.
“When we told a roomful of Comcast representatives that we were about to add a 50-acre subdivision,” Ross recalls, “they asked, ‘How many homes?’ When we said ‘Five,’ they literally burst out laughing. ‘In Woodbury, it’d be 200 and we’d be talking to you,’ they said. ‘But we are not going to build out Afton.’ ”
It’s not just the thinly scattered homes per acre in some wealthy areas; it’s also distance from the road. Negotiations have taken place in the Lake Minnetonka area over how many hundreds of feet from the street the provider will cover, said Jim Lundberg, operations manager for the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission.
“It used to be 200 feet for us, but we were able to get them to cover 500 feet, and that was a significant change,” he said. “But you have horse farms in Medina where driveways are extremely long and households have to pay the cost themselves when it’s more than 500 feet.”
The attempt to get people to pay that cost bombed.
“We tried shared cost,” Jensen said, “but the ‘take rate’ was terrible, just terrible, so the city said, ‘We want everyone, let’s redo the deal,’ and we had to sweeten the pot.”
A ‘big deal’
Technology isn’t the only problem for many living in pricey, remote areas. Residents of Afton report they can’t always get a pizza delivered, or a windshield repaired. Some drive to Wisconsin for groceries. Residents of extremely low-density communities in eastern Washington County crowded a public hearing on library planning to complain that they don’t have a library anywhere close.
But these days, not getting speedy Internet, especially for folks able to afford big mansions, is like not having indoor plumbing.
“A newcomer plugs in the computer and is like ‘What? We don’t have the Internet?’ ” said Afton City Administrator Ron Moorse. “And you might think, ‘So what, they can’t get on Facebook.’ But a lot of our residents work out of the home, or are executives who come home and don’t want to be off the grid. Not to mention that kids these days do homework online. It’s a big deal.”
Ross, a lifelong resident of Afton, was “stunned” when he knocked on doors as a candidate for City Council to talk with some households and realized what broadband-free lives look like.
A call for testimonials produced 70 to 80 anguished notes from people such as Glenn J. Geisler, professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, and his wife, Janell Geisler, a psychiatrist. Glenn Geisler wrote that he “is forced to anticipate which scientific articles he might need” while writing later on at home, “copy them and bring them home.”
Workarounds are possible, but costly and slow.
The Wisniewski family, just down Neal Avenue from the $1.3 million property, wrote to the city to say they have a 5-gigabyte per month satellite service that is “slow … and barely covers us for half of a month,” forcing them back to 20-year-old dial-up speeds. Added Sally Doherty, who owns Little Foot Farm and Greenhouse in Afton: “We need direct broadband in the same manner that we need electricity and natural gas and telephone access. The times have changed.”
Cities chip in
Unhappy constituents have prompted some cities to chip in to help cover the cost. The Afton council’s 5-0 vote to offer $125,000 if the state would add $250,000 caused Ross to “almost fall off my chair,” he said. “That’s a lot of money for Afton.” Medina similarly has just agreed to contribute up to $216,000, from cable franchise fees, for 18 miles of new cable, said City Administrator Scott Johnson.
State Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, a co-sponsor of the bill providing the broadband subsidies, said it’s not intended for metro suburbs.
“My intention from Day One was that we do the unserved first, the outer reaches of Minnesota, and work toward the served areas,” he said. “And I know many of my rural colleagues feel the same.”
Indeed, the law speaks of helping places suffering “economic distress.” Last year, communities seeking help included Medina, whose median household income of $127,000 towers over Edina’s, and Orono, on the banks of Lake Minnetonka. Neither was awarded funds.
Mediacom spokeswoman Phyllis Peters, based in Iowa, said the firm is completing a full build-out in Orono “on our dime,” the population per square mile being higher there than in some places. High-end home buyers can be a lucrative customer base for related services such as home security, she said. A failure to win state funds in Medina needn’t be fatal, either, she said.
In Afton, though, Ross said, the inability to obtain state money through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program would be “devastating.”
Funding decisions are to be made by the end of the year.