Over the past decade, the state of Minnesota has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve telecommunications, particularly broadband capacity, in rural parts of the state. Here in northeastern Minnesota, that money has gone to install hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable to communities across the region.
Those projects involve huge price tags and they invariably attract headlines that suggest that our political leaders are taking the disparity between urban and rural connectivity seriously. You can think of that fiber as a kind of superhighway, with the capacity to move incredible volumes of information, just like regular superhighways can facilitate the movement of huge numbers of cars and trucks.
There’s just one problem. We’ve forgotten to install the on and off ramps. The city of Orr, as we report again this week, has at least three separate fiber optic cables running right through town, but no one can get Internet. We report on the frustration of two local business owners in Vermilion Lake Township, who have fiber running right past their businesses, but who still must operate on Internet speeds that barely allow them to navigate the web— and that’s when their service is actually functioning.
The missing link in all this has been the corporately-owned service providers, companies like Frontier and CenturyLink, which have failed to uphold their role in the process. Bringing real and reliable broadband connectivity to rural Minnesota is, in theory, supposed to be a public-private partnership. The state or federal government provides the backbone of the system, while the local service providers like Frontier and CenturyLink are supposed to build the on and off ramps so local residents can begin to tap into that information superhighway that runs past their door.
While we’ve been critical of Frontier Communications in the past, the company has, at least, begun to make some upgrades to allow faster speeds in some parts of the region than have been available before. We’ll give credit where it’s due. It’s been a much more frustrating experience for customers of CenturyLink, such as those who live in Orr, given the company’s near-abandonment of parts of its service territory in northern Minnesota.
A partnership can only work when all the partners are willing to pull their weight. We certainly don’t want to discourage the Legislature from investing in bringing fiber to our region. The backbone is a critical part of the solution. But it has to be paired with strict and enforceable commitments by the local service providers to utilize that backbone to bring the level of service now possible to homes and businesses in our region. These service providers are regulated utilities and the Legislature needs to start addressing the lack of investment and follow-through that we’ve seen from some of them. If the Legislature can’t or won’t use enforcement mechanisms, they should explore incentives to encourage other providers to do the job. Ely is currently working with Brainerd-based CTC to facilitate fiber connections to downtown businesses. Orr is now turning to Back40 Wireless for a similar project, using a wifi signal. These are all hopeful developments which should be provided financial support where needed.
If CenturyLink or Frontier can’t do the job, the state should provide the resources needed to enable such organizations to expand the reach of their service.
These days, high-speed Internet isn’t a luxury. It’s absolutely necessary for economic development and community growth in our region. State and federal officials have done a generally good job of laying the backbone for broadband. But until a solution is found to connect that backbone to the residents and businesses who want and, in many cases, need improved Internet access, the job of connecting rural Minnesota remains undone.