We see the headlines all the time. A new broadband initiative, funded by the state or the feds, is investing more taxpayer dollars to lay fiber optic cable to small towns out across rural America. We’ve certainly seen our share of fiber optic cable buried across northeastern Minnesota in recent years— indeed, well over $100 million has been invested in bringing fiber to area communities in just the last few years.
And, still, most residents of our region continue to suffer with the same poor-quality Internet access they’ve had for years.
It’s clear that bringing fiber to a community is valuable, but it’s only one part of the equation. If you don’t believe it, just ask the poor residents in Orr. They’ve had fiber optic cable run through their community three times, beginning as early as the 1990s. Orr is one of the most fiber-rich communities in all of Minnesota. Folks in Orr should have blazing fast Internet. Instead, you can’t even sign up for Internet access if you move to town.
How is that possible?
Here’s how: There’s a fundamental disconnect between the promises we hear with each new broadband investment, and the service that actually gets delivered to the end users, whether they’re residential or business customers. The publicly-funded projects that we hear about are enhancing the capacity of what’s known as “the middle mile.” Essentially, these projects provide a solid infrastructure with the “potential” to bring advanced broadband capacity to our communities, but they stop short of actually connecting with the businesses and homes they’re supposed to serve. The final mile of these projects is supposed to be completed by the private sector, companies like Frontier and CenturyLink, who are ostensibly partners on these projects.
These fiber installations are massive public subsidies that we provide to these telecommunications companies, with the supposed understanding that they will then provide a matching private contribution to enhance their switching capacities and upgrade their connections to the end users.
But as we’ve seen, these companies simply aren’t interested in making such investments in our communities. Which means we lay a lot of fiber in the ground that, essentially, serves no purpose.
We see this all the time when government interfaces with the private sector. Unfortunately, the politicians are more than happy to throw money at the problem du jour, but there’s little to no follow-up to make sure that the promises made at the press conference, when the money is approved, are converted to promises delivered six months or a year down the road.
In the case of broadband expansion in northeastern Minnesota, there isn’t much to show for the tens of millions of dollars we’ve stuck in the ground extending fiber. Until state and federal officials require that private sector providers begin to live up to their commitments to make better use of the infrastructure we have all paid to install, residents and businesses in our area will continue to reside on the backroads of the information superhighway.