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Ultra-fast Internet is coming but Minnesota's in the slow lane

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US Internet employee separates fiber optic cables.
US Internet employee Tim Mattis separates fiberoptic cables from one another at the company's central office in Minneapolis.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

Along Lyndale Avenue and in the surrounding neighborhoods of southwest Minneapolis, US Internet has spent four years and millions of dollars snaking cables under sidewalks within reach of 23,000 homes, apartments and businesses.

  It is among the broadband companies racing to give consumers fast Internet connections that would allow them to do things like watch Netflix without any timeouts and run home businesses that need fat and fast pipes to the Web. Telecom companies typically work such magic through fiber optic technology, which transmits data on a stream of laser light, rather than electrical signals.

  After US Internet wires more of Minneapolis, the company plans to expand in other communities, perhaps by next year, said vice president of technology Travis Carter.

  "We're currently evaluating pressing on the gas a little harder, growing faster," Carter said. "We put up on our website a place where people can go and pre-sign up so we can see where the pockets of interest are."

  In much of Minnesota, home Internet connections are far faster than those in the earlier days of the Web. But many Minnesotans want more speed and lower prices.

  Among them is Anton Schieffer, who has been a US Internet customer for two years. Schieffer, of Minneapolis, pays $48 a month for a 100 megabit connection that allows him to upload and download digital files with lightning speed. He said Comcast and CenturyLink don't offer a deal anywhere near as good.

  "I love the speed I'm getting — it's a lot better than anything else offered around here," he said.

  Schieffer could buy a 1 gigabit connection from US Internet for $65 a month. At that speed, more than Schieffer thinks he'll ever need, HD movie downloads take less than a minute. US Internet is tweaking the equipment in its central office to enable customers to get 10 gigabit connections next year.

  Although faster, cheaper broadband is increasingly becoming a reality nationwide, Minnesota is generally behind when it comes to giving consumers that choice.

  US Internet's limited service area means most Minnesotans looking for an ultra-fast Internet connection have only two choices: their local phone company and the cable guys.

Fiber optic cables provide fast internet service.
Fiber optic cables are connected to provide service to costumers in US Internet's southwest central office.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

  In the Twin Cities metro area, CenturyLink promises to deliver 1 gigabit service over the next few years by replacing copper wires running to homes with fiber optic cable. But the CenturyLink officials aren't saying when or where.

  Copper has limited the speed of the Internet connections old-line phone companies, like CenturyLink, have been able to offer. Nationally and in Minnesota, cable companies typically offer faster Internet connections than phone companies can. Not surprisingly, cable companies provide more than twice the number of Internet connections that phone companies do.

  CenturyLink's expensive project could change that, spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland said.

  "Offering 1 gig service puts us at a competitive advantage in terms of what we can offer customers," Hjelmeland said. "Our 1 gig service actually costs less than the cable company's fastest speed in this market now."     But Comcast, the dominant cable company in the metro area, can tweak its network to deliver "multi-giga speeds into the home."

  Comcast already offers 100 megabit connections to about 1.1 million area homes, company spokeswoman Mary Beth Shubert said.

  "We're bringing super-fast broadband speeds across our footprint now, and we will continue to do," Shubert said. "CenturyLink has simply announced."

  The stand-alone price for Comcast's top residential speed, though, is $114 a month, more than twice what US Internet charges. Comcast's price drops when customers also subscribe to packages that include TV and phone service.

  Generally, the more high-speed Internet competitors in a market, the better the speeds and prices available to customers. That's been the case in Chattanooga, where a community-owned electric utility is installing a fiber network, and Kansas City, where Google is deploying such a system.

  Gigabit pricing generally starts at about $70 a month, said David Belson, who studies the broadband landscape for Akamai Technologies, a major Web content delivery firm.

Internet speeds available to Minnesotans.
Internet speeds available to Minnesotans, including mobile. The first number listed is for download speed, and the second for upload speed. Data source: Connect Minnesota.
MPR News Graphic

"Chattanooga's efforts have put that price out there," he said. "Google Fiber in Kansas City put that price out there. But I'm also seeing pricing on the order of $200, $300 a month."

  Verizon, AT&T and Google have been building and planning fiber networks in a few dozen cities — offering Internet connections, TV and phone services. But so far, those big players with deep pockets have skipped Minnesota.

  State policy largely is focused on upgrading service for the have-nots, the roughly 20 percent of state residents with slow or no Internet service available to them. But that policy may be holding back Minnesota from satisfying increasingly data-hungry homes and businesses.

  "We range between about 20th and 23rd in the country in terms of connectivity and speed," said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chair of the governor's broadband task force. "We actually have been increasing the number of people connected and the speeds. But other states are going even faster."

  That's a concern because the economic prospects of a community or state increasingly hinge on how well wired it is, Kelliher said.

  Proponents of high-speed fiber Internet connections point to Chattanooga, which heavily promotes the availability of one-gigabyte fiber service to homes and businesses. The community-owned electric utility that built the fiber network there boasts on its website, "When Volkswagen announced Chattanooga as its headquarters for North American manufacturing, and Amazon.com chose our city for their new distribution centers, it was a nice confirmation that we're on the right track."

  At best, no more than 5 percent of Minnesota households have access to fiber networks, estimates Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

  Mitchell said local governments can increase availability by building fiber networks on their own or in partnership with the private sector, providing financing help, and smoothing the permitting process.

  When communities reconstruct streets on a large scale, they can also lay the foundation for future fiber networks. Mitchell wishes St. Paul had been doing that, as the city tore up and rebuilt streets city-wide.

    "Neighborhoods get torn up every year and the streets are totally rebuilt," he said. "It breaks my heart that there's never any fiber or conduit assets being put in. It would be incredibly low cost and even if the city didn't want to offer service, it would make it a lot easier for a competing entity to come along and build a network."

  Tonya Tennessen, a spokeswoman for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said it isn't appropriate for the city to get involved.

  "We believe that residents receive the best service by attracting companies to Saint Paul that specialize in providing those services," Tennessen wrote in an email. "The city could not match the research and development that private sector organizations fund to continue to evolve these important services. The installation of fiber is only a small infrastructure component that is required to reliably provide these important services."    

  More: Information on broadband availability from Connect Minnesota