Report urges increasing Minnesota's broadband access

Broadband cables
In a report out Friday, a broadband task force appointed is urging Minnesota to increase its broadband connectivity and access to place it in the top tiers of states in the U.S.
AP Photo/Daniel Roland

In a report out Friday, a broadband task force appointed by Gov. Pawlenty urges moving Minnesota into the top tier of states when it comes to speed and accessibility.

There's a wide range of speeds available at home to Minnesota Internet users with the contrast most striking in rural areas.

Eric Bergeson, a nursery owner near Fertile in northwestern Minnesota, said his Internet speed is one-sixth that of the FCC's threshold of 768 kilobytes a second and really slows down in the evening when young people jump online.

"When school is on the service is good, and then after school is out it slows down to a crawl," Bergeson said.

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The task force recommends that in six years, all Minnesotan's have access to Internet speeds at home of 10 to 20 megabits a second to download and 5 to 10 megabits a second to upload information.

At the moment, the report said, only a relative handful of state residents come close to having that speed.

Rick King, chair of the task force and chief technology officer for ThomsonRueters, said 20 and 10 mbps for downloading and uploading would allow a patient in northern Minnesota to consult with a specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester via the Internet.

"They have a huge imbalance namely, relatively high download speeds and very small upload speeds."

King also said it would allow students in some rural areas who spend up to three hours a day riding the bus to take classes at home.

"Perhaps for some of that time we might be able to bring the school to their house," he said.

A digital access scholar is heartened by part of the task force speed recommendations.

Andrew Odlyzko, a University of Minnesota mathematics professor and a founder of the U's digital technology center, likes that the recommended speeds are close to being in balance, a boon for two way communication.

It's a welcome contrast, Odlyzko said, with what broadband companies are offering; speeds mostly designed for delivery rather than exchange of information

"They have a huge imbalance namely, relatively high download speeds and very small upload speeds," Odlyzko said. "I think the demand is going to be increasingly for closer to a balance."

On the other hand, the broadband task force speed goals, Odlyzko said, are not that impressive.

They'll still leave Minnesota only somewhat faster than other states and well behind other developed countries in the world.

Finland and Hong Kong, for example, are committing to broadband access for people at home at speeds up to ten times faster than the task force recommendations.

Those speeds allow transfer of very large batches of information but are only a distant dream for many rural Minnesota residents.

Long Prairie educator and writer David Bengtson said when he tries to send or receive video files it's hurry up and wait.

"You kind of get used to it after awhile, but faster speeds would certainly enhance things for me," Bengston said.

Over in rural Lowry in west central Minnesota, Ed Bolas said his Internet connection at home is so slow he gets the heave ho from the bank computer when he tries to check his account.

"It'll say that your account is inactive and kick you out," Bolas said.

Bolas, an accountant, said when he and his wife want a faster connection, they get in the car.

"We'll actually drive to where there's a Wi-Fi and maybe once every couple of weeks and download emails and get caught up," he said.

Money is a big factor determining how soon more Minnesotans will have faster Internet speeds.

Companies selling Internet services prefer to have a batch of subscribers ready to sign up before they start installing the infrastructure.

That's fueling a 'build it and they will come' attitude in the public sector.

With encouragement from impatient residents, a growing number of cities and counties are building their own systems, but not always with access for everyone and not always at a cost everyone can afford.

What's more, some surveys show the anticipated subscribers don't necessarily sign up after the system is built.

The governor's broadband task force is silent on how a 20 to 10 megabit per second goal by 2015 should be financed.

They recommend creation of a broadband council to explore funding ideas and oversee development, and they are calling on private and public sector interests to expand their cooperation on bringing faster Internet speeds to state residents.