With the Legislature now in session, improving telecommunications in rural Minnesota should be near the top of the to-do list for lawmakers. As legislators continue to grapple with how to bring reliable, high-speed Internet access to less-populated parts of the state, they must recognize that the lack of investment by regulated providers, like Frontier Communications or CenturyLink, is currently the biggest hurdle to achieving widespread broadband access.
The Department of Commerce highlighted the challenge earlier this month when it released the results of a months-long investigation into the quality of Frontier’s service to the roughly 100,000 households it serves in the state, including many here in northeastern Minnesota.
As we report this week, the department found what most residents of our area already know, namely that Frontier has failed to provide reliable phone and Internet service to many parts of our region. Much of the problem stems from the company’s unwillingness to make the kinds of investments in infrastructure and equipment necessary to improve its service quality. It appears that Frontier and other big corporate providers believe smaller communities represent smaller profit potential, and so are increasingly unwilling to direct resources to places like northeastern Minnesota.
The lack of private sector investment has become the missing element when it comes to fast and reliable Internet in our region. We’ve seen multiple public projects to expand high-speed fiber to area communities. Those are essential efforts, and legislators like District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund deserve credit for advancing such funding. We’re hopeful that lawmakers have come to recognize solving this issue will take more than public dollars. It will require committed private sector partners that will utilize the fiber network that our tax dollars pay to install.
If the big corporate providers like Frontier and CenturyLink aren’t willing to do the job, both legislators and state regulators need to start clearing the way for alternatives. They need to develop financial incentives that make it possible for smaller local companies, or locally-based cooperatives, like Bemidji-based Paul Bunyan, to extend their services into communities that the big corporate providers would just as soon ignore. We’re already seeing interest from alternative providers, such as Jackson-based BackForty Wireless, which recently installed a wireless service in Orr. Brainerd-based Consolidated Telecommunications Company has also been exploring possibilities in Tower and Ely.
Unlike the big corporate providers, locally-based companies are generally far more responsive to outages and questions from users. The cooperative Paul Bunyan has an excellent reputation for customer service in the communities it serves. And when you have a problem, you can quickly get a live person on the phone who actually speaks Minnesotan.
The bottom line is this: the technology exists to bring high-speed communications to even the smallest of our area communities. The big corporate providers, however, appear unwilling to make the investments to bring these technologies to our area. If they won’t do it, the Legislature and state regulators should clear the way for others to serve rural parts of the state. We’ve waited long enough.