How fast does Internet access need to be? Is providing it a government role, a marketplace question or something in between? How should people be encouraged to use it? How does it affect a community? The federal government is heavily involved; should the state be?
Fast Internet access has given some Minnesotans a new economic lease on life, and others have reached education goals and attained health care benefits. Lack of it has led some to miss business opportunities and feel the world is leaving them behind. And intense battles are brewing as phone companies, cable companies, cooperatives, local governments and others jockey over the best way to serve people efficiently.
Broadband access issues are felt particularly keenly in outstate Minnesota and residents have tackled them in a variety of ways, so Ground Level has compiled this topic page to provide insight and resources for how the state is moving forward.
Straight-ahead answers to key questions about high-speed Internet. Learn more »
Conversations are taking place in town halls, in county meeting rooms and on farms as people try to figure out what they want, what they can afford and how best to get high-speed access to the Internet. Ground Level picked seven places around Minnesota where this conversation is in gear. We're calling them Ground Level's Broadband 7 and planning to tune in as residents, service providers and local officials work things out -- or not.
The My ConnectView™ Interactive Map is a Web application that helps states map broadband coverage
The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force was convened in April 2008 to outline a path to ultra high-speed Internet access for all residents of the state by 2015.
In the 2010 report, the Minnesota Broadband Advisory Task Force describes the goals and process to achieve them through 2015.
An assessment of the broadband market in Minnesota is conducted by Connect Minnesota in partnership with the Minnesota Broadband Task Force and the Minnesota Department of Commerce
A tool to search, analyze and map broadband availability across the United States.
Outlined by Congressional mandate, the plan seeks to ensure that the entire broadband ecosystem—networks, devices, content and applications— is healthy. It makes recommendations to the FCC, the Executive Branch, Congress and state and local governments.
A map from data.gov and the Department of Education illustrating the available broadband capability for schools across the United States.
A pilot study to gain a better understanding of what bandwidth schools have to access online services and what they are using these services for.
Tom Wirt and Betsy Price live in rural Minnesota, but easy access to broadband internet has allowed them to build a thriving business that has customers all over the country and the world. Watch now »
Join a forum to discuss the future of Minnesota's Arrowhead region, the economy and broadband availability.
When a fiber optic line — the only line to the North Shore — is severed, Cook County discovered a frightening lack of communication. Read more »
A Facebook forum discussion. Read more »
— Minnesota blog focusing on broadband developments in the state, sponsored by the Blandin Foundation, which has financed a variety of broadband projects in Minnesota.
— Washington, D.C.-based news organization focusing on broadband.
Broadband networks are going in across the state. Here are nine people affecting how those networks are being built, perceived and used. Learn about people making a difference in the broadband debate.
In Cook County, in the far northeast corner of the state, Danna MacKenzie is referred to as the godmother of the county's planned fiber network.
For years, MacKenzie has championed the idea of bringing fast internet to Cook County, which has some of the worst connectivity in the state. She successfully pushed the county to apply for federal stimulus funds that helped Arrowhead Electric, a local cooperative, win $16 million to run fiber optic cable to every house in the county that receives electrical service.
"We believe the concept of ubiquity is important," MacKenzie said. "From a county and government services perspective, we see the trend in the way service development is happening. Everyone is going to need to have access to this. Even things like mental health services are being done by video."
She's working on a series of demonstration projects, with funding from the Blandin Foundation, designed to show county residents how broadband can be used. For example, the high school will be wired for streaming video, hopefully in time to show this spring's graduation ceremony and the local clinic will produce a series of videos showing how to meet simple health needs, such as injecting insulin.
MacKenzie's greatest hope is that the introduction of broadband won't change the landscape of the community. "We want to quietly strengthen the fabric that connects the community here," she said. "We want to quietly make the things better and more sustainable, things we're already doing."
Windom, southwest of the Twin Cities, has one of the oldest municipal fiber-to-the-home networks in Minnesota. Completed five years ago, Windomnet gained notoriety and is viewed either as a rousing success or a miserable failure, depending on whom you ask and what their motivations are.
The hand at the wheel belongs to Dan Olsen, who has become sort of a broadband evangelizer in work boots. As other cities and counties consider their own fiber networks, he's traveled long distances to share Windom's experience. "We had nothing but dial-up here until we started construction," Olsen says, crediting a group of citizens who got together in the beginning and approached the city, asking, "What are you going to do about it?"
The city of 4,600 took a chance that Olsen says has paid off. Though Windomnet made some financial missteps early on, it came close to breaking even in 2010, its primary goal.
One of the benefits of a municipal network is that nobody draws a profit from it. "The point is not to make money," Olsen said. "The number one goal of the system is to provide broadband to the residents of Windom."
Olsen will go to great lengths to keep or gain a customer. When Fortune Transportation, a trucking company on the outskirts of Windom, threatened three years ago to leave the area because it couldn't get fast enough Internet service from a private provider, Olsen maneuvered to lay city fiber to the company's door.
"The council said, 'Do it and we'll figure out how to pay for it,' " he recalled. "We got a plow and a local crew. We had it built in 30 days."
Fortune stayed and so did the 47 jobs it provides to local workers.
"I am so tickled," said Pam Lehmann, Lac qui Parle County's economic development director since 2007.
She's referring to the fact that the county of 7,100 people in western Minnesota has received nearly $10 million in federal stimulus dollars to build a high-speed fiber network that will reach every local resident and business, an effort she spearheaded.
Not long after taking the economic development job, Lehmann thought, "Wow, [high-speed Internet] is going to be the key to bringing Lac qui Parle to what it should be to be competitive." Businesses needed broadband access to expand markets; residents needed it to enhance their quality of life and to telecommute and continue living where they want to.
Lehmann likens fiber to electricity or the telephone, which slowly but surely made its way to rural America. "The people here are worth as much as people anywhere in the world," she said.
Lehmann helped establish a group that received funding from the Blandin Foundation and proceeded to survey county residents who said they needed broadband. She then went to two Internet providers, until one — a local cooperative called Farmers Mutual — agreed to take on the project.
Thanks to the stimulus money, Lehman said, the network will be completed by 2014. "Would this have been possible without grant dollars?" she asked. "Never."
It likely wouldn't have happened without Lehmann, either.
Adeel Lari has been pushing for broadband in Minnesota since he worked for the state Department of Transportation during the administration of former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
"We saw a lot of people driving all the way from the north into the cities," he said. "I said, 'Let's build a telecenter in Cambridge and see if we can encourage people to stop driving in.'"
The project, which Lari said was ahead of its time, didn't work. But more than a decade later, he said, "Everything is in the cloud. The office doesn't matter."
These days, Lari is a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He directs the eWorkPlace program, which encourages local companies to allow employees to work remotely. The program has highlighted such benefits as increased productivity, improved worker satisfaction, fewer sick days and lower overhead costs.
Lari believes telecommuting is the way of the future and could have a dramatic impact on where people live. Workers no longer bound to the city for jobs might move to the country and repopulate rural areas. "Most of the jobs in the United States are becoming knowledge-based," he said. "The percentage will go up and up. Can you imagine the implication for where people live?"
He foresees big problems for the suburbs and exurbs. Instead of picking a community like Eden Prairie, workers may go all the way to Grand Marais. "People who want to move out of the city can move way out," Lair said. "At the present time, they may be tethered to the center city, but that will break away."
Teachers in Fergus Falls use technology to the hilt, thanks to a stout city-wide fiber network and the encouragement of Jerry Ness, who has been schools superintendent since 2006.
Some film their lectures and place them online, so students can watch lessons at night and work during class on homework. They use touch pad computers to teach reading; the teacher reads a book into the touch pad at varying speeds so the student can listen along while perusing an electronic book.
They even teach remote students, via Fergus Fall's iQ Academy Minnesota.
"This is how you fight declining enrollment," Ness said of the two-year-old program. "We have teachers from all over the state teaching our students from all over the state. Public schools aren't used to competition. We're used to collaboration. Now what's happening is these school districts have to be very, very mobile. We have to be competitive."
Ness said the current education model isn't sustainable. But he acknowledges that tele-learning isn't for everyone. "The most successful students tend to be home-school students where the parents are helping," he said. "It's not a place for students who tried the regular school and it didn't work. This is self-directed. This is a difficult way to learn. It's a difficult way to teach, too."
For educators, it's an important and exciting time. "I think this is just at the tip of the iceberg with technology," Ness said.
No matter where you go in the state, if broadband is at issue, it seems the Blandin Foundation, established in 1941 by the founder of Blandin Paper in Grand Rapids, has lent a hand.
With the goal of "cultivating a culture of use" for high-speed internet, Blandin has funded everything from a community survey in Lac qui Parle County to demonstration projects in Cook County. Both locations are building high-speed networks.
There is a team of people working on broadband at Blandin, which received nearly $5 million in federal stimulus funds to bolster its efforts in rural areas. But the driving force is Bernadine Joselyn, the foundation's director of public policy and engagement. Her goal is to show people how broadband can change their lives.
"We think of broadband as critical infrastructure for participation in the 21st century," Joselyn said. "It's not unlike roads and electricity in the past."
With better connectivity, she said, governments operate more efficiently and so do hospitals and schools. Students, in classrooms or at home, can learn even the most esoteric skills via video. Remote job training becomes an option. "We can expose people to the careers of the future and to the onramps to those careers," she said.
Christopher Mitchell focuses on broadband at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which helps communities solve problems in local, sustainable ways. But he doesn't worry much about lobbying. "Our greater focus is education," he said. "This is a technical and intimidating field for many."
Rather than push a particular agenda, Mitchell said, "I view our work as a platform that others can use to lobby, educate or just go out and start talking to their neighbors about. That includes reporters. I probably spend more time trying to help reporters around the country understand this field than I do lobbying."
Mitchell is especially interested in how broadband networks are built, whether by small cooperatives, municipalities, or big telecommunication companies. "We are one of the very few groups opposing the strong message of many cable and telco-funded groups that argue only they should be able to build these networks," he said.
The debate over who should bring broadband to rural areas has been contentious in Minnesota, which has received more than $228 million in federal stimulus dollars. Mitchell has been avidly covering the process on his blog http://www.muninetworks.org.
"Rural areas cost more to serve per capita and massive private companies have been loath to make necessary investments for fast, reliable and affordable broadband," he said. "Local companies have done their best, but may not be in a position to build the robust network infrastructure needed today. The better solution is cooperatives and nonprofit organizations that are structured to put the needs of rural areas first, with a greater vision of community return on investment."
Mitchell is passionate, but he doesn't consider himself an evangelist.
"I recognize the many benefits of increased capacity for telecommunications but we are more concerned with the rules governing telecommunications and future implications of current rules," he said. "Our hands are so full with that task, we leave evangelizing to others—though we are happy to support their efforts where we can do so."
Jeff O'Neill didn't start the process that landed Monticello a municipal fiber network, but he's been its facilitator since the beginning. That hasn't been an easy job. Despite a public vote that overwhelmingly supported building the network, called FiberNet, the project was slowed by a lawsuit, filed by one of the city's private Internet providers, TDS.
Monticello, just northwest of the Twin Cities, eventually won the case and built FiberNet—but not before TDS constructed its own competing fiber network. O'Neill credits the Monticello city council, mayor and citizens with "a tremendous amount of courage" and "guts" for proceeding in the face of the lawsuit, which slowed the launch of FiberNet by about a year.
"We're getting good take rates," said O'Neill, who has served in Monticello city government since 1988. "We're marching toward a successful business plan."
In no way does O'Neill regret building the fiber project, which he said led to an across-the-board decrease in Internet prices and increase in speeds. "We built this to have freedom, to have choice," he said. "The community—liberals and conservatives—found a common goal here: to have the freedom to get the service you need to preserve your economic security. Some say government shouldn't get into this, but private companies shouldn't be entitled to a monopoly."
"How do you get the incumbent to build a fiber network?" asked O'Neill. "You build one of your own."
In Sibley and Renville Counties, about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities, city and county leaders are moving toward building a publicly-owned fiber network, which would deliver television, telephone and basic broadband speeds of 20 megabits per second.
One of those cities is Winthrop, whose administrator, Mark Erickson, has become the fiber project's champion and evangelist. Erickson says the impetus for the effort originally came from city leaders, Winthrop's mayor and council.
"They said, 'We need to build a network in town. Have the city administrator explore it,'" recalls Erickson, who has a background in telecommunications. He responded that the only way to do it is to build fiber to the home, to which "They smiled and said, 'That's right.'"
So far, seven cities and two counties have signed on to the project and formed a joint powers board, which will explore whether to go ahead and actually build the network. With the counties included, the fiber lines promise to stretch even to local farms.
"This is the only thing that's going to help stem the decline in rural areas," says Erickson. Because broadband is linked to increased economic activity and the ability to telework from remote locations, he says, "Broadband has the ability to grow this state."
We identify topics that are significant and complex and that play out uniquely at the local level. We want to explore those issues in which people taking action in their communities make a difference and can serve as guides for others.
Ground Level launched in early 2010 and shines a light on a variety of topics, from the growing complexity of Minnesota's local food system to cities preparing for new fiscal realities, from exurban growth in Baldwin Township to the quest to expand broadband access across the state.
We experiment with coverage on a variety of platforms. This includes text, audio and video online, of course - the Ground Level blog, a series of topics pages and social networking, for example. It also includes on-air coverage, public forums both virtual and real-world and collaboration with community-based media.
Our audience consists of Minnesotans interested in community life, particularly those who are taking an active part in it or helping others do the same. Ground Level is very much an experiment -- in finding ways to learn about and tell stories, in working with other organizations, in walking up to the line between providing insight and advocating specific actions. Our goal is to inform and give people the ability and incentive to engage with their community. We invite your feedback and your ideas, via the blog, twitter at @MPRGroundLevel, phone calls,or emails.
About the team:
Dave Peters directs MPR’s project on community journalism, looking for ways Minnesota residents are making their towns, cities and neighborhoods better places to live. He joined MPR News in 2009 after more than 30 years as a newspaper and online reporter and editor. Contact Dave
Jennifer Vogel reports and writes for the Ground Level project, focusing on complex topics that play out in Minnesota's communities and that involve residents getting engaged with the challenges of the day. She is a longtime Twin Cities writer and editor who joined MPR News and Ground Level in January 2010. Contact Jennifer
Support for Ground Level is provided
by the Bush Foundation.