Minnesota’s digital divide

Getting stuck on the information dirt road

The Internet is a rapidly changing place, with new features, services and tools being developed all the time. Today’s technologies like YouTube videos or iTunes music downloads rely on Internet connections handling a lot of data fast. A high-speed broadband connection offers opportunities for entrepreneurship, telecommuting and online learning.

However, for people without access to broadband connections the Internet is a pothole-filled road rather than the information superhighway. Dial-up users are increasingly unable to make the best use of the Internet because their systems can’t handle the amount of data on many websites. The broadband/dial-up speed gap is especially pronounced in rural areas.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development reports that 39.7 percent of Minnesota rural Internet users had broadband connections in 2006, compared with 57 percent in the Twin Cities area. The center’s annual Minnesota Internet Study, subtitled “Broadband enters the mainstream,” is available here.

The report also noted that rural broadband penetration surged from 27.4 percent in 2005, accelerating at twice the pace of the preceding years. But many outstate Minnesotans still suffer from lack of access to high-speed connections. According to the report, 22 percent of rural Internet users would switch to broadband were it available where they live, compared with 10 percent of metro users.

Whatever the reasons, lagging use of broadband puts rural Internet users at a technological and economic disadvantage. Online possibilities like telecommuting and voice over Internet telephone service are simply unavailable to those without broadband access.

Broadband is already beginning to drive the global economy. Minnesota will become a full player in that economy only when we all get up to speed on the Internet.

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Blandin on Broadband blog

I enjoyed Ben Pierson’s story on Minnesota’s Digital Divide. I have been following the state of broadband access in rural Minnesota on the Blandin on Broadband blog (www.blandinonbroadband.com). I couldn’t agree more that broadband is an essential economic development tool. The Blandin Foundation has worked with more than 20 Minnesota communities to help promote and support broadband (http://www.blandinfoundation.org/bsite/) and we have seen an increase in broadband awareness and use in these communities. I think that one of the keys to success was the amount of time each community spent planning and creating a unique program to meet their specific needs. Some focused on training, some on creating community WiFi hot spots, other have created public safety networks, and more. The Blandin Foundation recently released a new report that finds that public/private partnerships may be the way to overcoming rural Minnesotans’ access to broadband. It highlights open networks as a tool that helps procure community-wide access to broadband. In rural areas, community-wide access is key – but due to logistics of vast geography and fewer people is more challenging than many urban or suburban areas. You can find the report online: http://www.blandinfoundation.org/html/documents/Open_Access%20low%20bandwidth.pdf

So true

As a student at Stanford University, I cannot express enough my concerns for the state of broadband internet in Minnesota. Growing up in a rural area put me at a huge disadvantage, both during high school and now my collegiate career. For instance, large portions of today's media intensive sites are moving towards video. There is simply no way to receive such important data over a dial-up conncection. How is one supposed to access necessary information? Morever, my research has been stymied by the "digital gap." If it takes two or three minutes to open a singal webpage, you can imagine my chagrine at trying to access hundreds of sites. Important data is passed by because I simply cannot load the volume of pages I need. I can say this, however: I've learned the value of multitasking from slow internet speeds.

Connecting rural MN

A number of communities are already showing the way forward - publicly owned systems. Windom, MN has had one for several years, Monticello is building one, others are considering it.

Public ownership can guarantee open access - I wholeheartedly agree with Ann on that point. A privately owned network may start open access and later change its mind. Public ownership can also guarantee network neutrality.

I'm not saying City Hall must run it - but that the community must have control over it. I just published a case study on a publicly owned fiber network in Burlington, Vermont. Fiber networks now are what electricity was 100 years ago.

Public vs Private

This is a tough call but I think long term its better off to not be placed in the hands of the public. Government, long term never makes the right decisions once they have this kind of control. At least privately there will be competition. Justin