Rural broadband catching up but has miles to go
FREDENBERG, Minn. — Here is a story to match the motto of Fredenberg Township: "A pleasant blend of progress and tradition."
The 1,300 residents among the reservoirs north of Duluth now have access to some of the fastest internet speeds available anywhere, thanks in part to taxpayer support — a tradition as old as the New Deal.
"This is like getting rural electrification to all the towns," said Clay Cich, a Fredenberg town supervisor who worked for years to bring broadband to the shores of Fish and Island lakes. "It just changes everything."
Officials say high-speed internet access is a requirement for participating in today's economy, just like electricity. And just as rural areas needed public subsidies for power lines to reach them, so too will taxpayers help bring our far-flung neighbors into the future and lessen the “digital divide.”
While nearly every Minnesotan in urban areas has access to basic fixed broadband service, just 80% of rural residents do, according to state estimates.
“Robust and reliable connectivity touches every part of our daily lives and will only continue to grow in its importance to how our world functions,” said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the state’s Office of Broadband Development. “Its absence will increasingly become a bottleneck for the health and well-being of our rural areas.”
The $3.9 million Fredenberg project, led by CenturyLink, includes $1.8 million in federal and state grants and offers gigabit speeds — ten times faster than many urban residents can get.
If rural residents are going to be the last online, at least they will be fast.
'A big difference'
As the Rural Electrification Administration was bringing power lines to some of the last residents that needed them more than 60 years ago, a property near Willow River finally saw the lights come on. That was the home of Clay Cich’s grandparents.
Now Cich gets to witness the same night and day as Fredenberg residents flip on the broadband wired directly to their homes.
“It’s quite something. It’s going to change the whole town,” he said. “It’s going to make a big difference in our home values, and a big difference that people can work from their homes.”
While satellite providers have served rural areas for many years, Cich said the speeds and reliability aren’t keeping up with business — and family — needs.
“When the grandkids got here with all their devices, they couldn’t do anything — now they come up and it’s just wonderful.”
Minnesota has rapidly expanded its wired internet access in the past decade, yet the northern half of the state especially still needs a boost, according to data from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. More than 150,000 residents still lack access to basic fixed service, defined as 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload.
The state has a goal of getting all residents to that basic level of service by 2022, then increasing the minimum threshold to 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload by 2026. The Border to Border Broadband program is spending $40 million over the next two years to that end.
“Minnesota’s grant program is designed as a catalyst to draw other investments into the areas of most need that might not be otherwise commercially attractive for private investment alone,” MacKenzie said. “If policymakers continue to hear from those Minnesotans still experiencing gaps in service and they continue their commitment to the challenge, the state is on track to achieve its goals by 2026.”
If a business can’t get a return on its investment, it probably won’t make that investment. This is the conundrum of rural broadband and why a push from public dollars is needed to make those final connections.
“As we’ve expanded, we’ve covered all the areas where it made economic sense — those who don’t have broadband today are so low in population density, it is difficult to offset costs,” said Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor for Bemidji-based Paul Bunyan Communications. “Without the support of grants, we wouldn’t be able to justify the initial investment.”
Paul Bunyan has brought much of Beltrami County and its neighbors online and is looking east to add to its 27,000 members. The cooperative recently started work on a service center in Grand Rapids and is busy laying cable in central Itasca County. Western St. Louis County and southern Koochiching County may be next.
“If you live outside a city on the Range, you’re probably stuck without adequate broadband access,” Bissonette said. “If we were able to get more funding, we might be able to do that.”
State grants bridge many investment gaps, but MacKenzie said the total amount needed to bring every Minnesotan online is “unknowable” and that state money is just a “small but critical” part of private, federal and local investments.
The Federal Communications Commission is directed by law to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.” The federal government has spent billions bringing rural areas up to speed and an FCC report from 2016 estimated it could take another $40 billion to $80 billion to finish the job.
“Improving the nation’s digital infrastructure should be a significant part of any national-infrastructure plan,” the report says, “as the economic upside for the country from accelerating investment in broadband is likely greater than from most other areas of infrastructure investment.”
It's worth the burden on taxpayers, according to a study from the Blandin Foundation, which found that among three rural Minnesota counties "the annual collective economic benefit for residents would surpass the public/community investment in one year," though it will take six years to pay for itself in more sparsely populated areas like Lake County.
"The whole point of broadband is not an end in itself, it is a means to … quality of life and wealth creation," said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation. "At the same time, it's a hard topic for local leaders to organize around — it doesn't pull your heartstrings like kids or trees."
More than half of Fredenberg homes didn't have internet service when town officials started seeking solutions to that problem four years ago. It took meeting after meeting, call after call, but at last the money was secured and CenturyLink started installing fiber cables — providing speeds that well exceed any current state goal.
These fiber-to-the-home networks should especially be encouraged, Joselyn said, since they are "future-proof."
She stressed that the state's 2026 goal, with a much higher upload speed, will be essential to ensuring the economic returns seen in home businesses, health care, education and other needs where users to send large files and not just download or stream them.
"The current (2022) goal isn't good enough for Minnesota," she said. "We have a danger that people will pat ourselves on the back and stop investing."
The state's broadband task force, which Gov. Tim Walz extended this spring, last year recommended increasing the Border-to-Border Broadband grants to nearly $70 million every two years until current goals are met and in a report raised the possibility of issuing bonds to help deploy more internet infrastructure.
"General obligation bonding is something the state might consider using, for example, to take advantage of existing and upcoming federal broadband programs requiring a match of federal dollars," the task force wrote, though it urged continued support of the grant program as it assures "the state’s dollars are most effectively being directed toward achievement of Minnesota’s broadband goals."
For all the policy it will take to get everyone plugged in, broadband is ultimately about the people it benefits. At least in Fredenberg, it won't be long until firing up Netflix out in the woods or on lakeshores is as second-nature as flipping on the lights, Bissonette mused: "It's an unbelievable change in their lives, and you take it for granted when you have it."