Each month EDA Director Jack Geller writes a commentary on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
Joining the Underserved
In early November, after more than a year in the making, the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force released its report to both the Legislature and the Governor. And as the Task Force member appointed by Governor Pawlenty to represent rural citizens throughout the state, I was particularly pleased with both the focus and priority the Task Force placed on meeting the broadband needs of rural Minnesotans who reside in areas of the state that are both unserved or underserved by incumbent broadband providers.
But the real irony that unfolded shortly afterwards makes these issues quite real and personal for me. For you see, after spending a decade as a high-speed broadband user and a telecommunications researcher, I moved out to a beautiful farmstead in early December just a few miles from the campus where I work. But the consequence is now that I am 2 miles down the gravel road; I am just out of the reach of both the incumbent telephone and cable companies that provide the majority of the broadband services in the region.
Now don't begin to feel too sorry for me as I still have my mobile broadband card, so I'm not completely offline. But both the connection speed (well under 1Mbps) and the reliability are far from ideal. So now that I have personally joined the ranks of the broadband underserved, I am counting on the Minnesota Legislature to carefully read and begin to implement the Task Force's recommendations. And with that in mind, allow me to share with you the elements of the broadband report that give me hope.
A Focus on Ubiquity - One of the areas where the diverse Task Force members found complete unity and consensus was that high-speed broadband service must reach every home and business across Minnesota. Not just the homes in town; but every home everywhere in Minnesota. It's a very clear, unambiguous and positive statement for rural Minnesotans all across the state.
Setting a Minimum Connection Speed - For the residents of the last farmstead at the end of the gravel road, few concepts are more important than defining a minimum connection speed. That's because you can bet that that's the speed they will likely receive. Accordingly, it's important to set a minimum speed that is sufficient for those remote residents to access telehealth services, engage in distance education services and functionally engage in many of the essential services that broadband allows us to access. For you see, people who live in remote places and have poor access to broadband services typically have poor access to a variety of other services as well. It's simply the disadvantage of distance. But broadband is a unique technology that often allows us to transcend the disadvantages of distance, by bringing services right into our homes.
So ensuring a minimum connection speed is vital; and for the Task Force, that minimum speed was 10-20 megabits per second. But equally important, the Task Force set an adjacent goal for Minnesota to be in the top 5 states in both connection speed and broadband penetration. So in fact, that minimum connection speed is really a moving target that must regularly be increased if Minnesota hopes to achieve and then maintain a "top 5" ranking.
Prioritizing the Unserved First - A final element of the report that is vital to rural Minnesota is the focus on prioritizing public investments in broadband deployment. The truth is that there simply isn't enough money, public or private to "fiber up" the state as many would like. In fact, the costs are somewhere between enormous and staggering! So the development of public/private partnerships will be required to effectively finance these projects. But where to begin? Where the need is highest? Where the return on investment will be highest?
Well, in this case the Task Force was once again clear and unambiguous when they noted that we should first address the needs of the residents living in unserved areas of Minnesota, where broadband currently has no reach; next address the needs of the underserved areas; and finally address the remaining needs of the state. With this priority in mind, the Task Force is clearly placing rural Minnesotans at the front of the line.
So when the Minnesota Legislature once again convenes in February, there will be many who will help breathe life into this new report and help encourage the Legislature to implement many of these recommendations. And rest assured that I will be one of them because this time it's personal.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at email@example.com