Broadband mapping and task force in Minnesota

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Stimulating broadband access and use in Minnesota could result in an economic impact of $2.79 billion annually, according to a 2008 report by Connected Nation. High speed Internet access is necessary for a vital community. It’s a top priority for businesses looking to choose a location. It can improve access to top quality healthcare regardless of location. It improves education and students who don’t use the Internet in school are disadvantaged in the workplace. Yet, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) the US ranks far below international counterparts for broadband availability, cost, and use, failing even to make the top 10.

Last spring, a new Minnesota law established the Ultra High-Speed Task Force and provided for a statewide map of broadband access. The Task Force appointed by Governor Pawlenty represents a wide range of interests, including broadband providers, business owners, education, healthcare and government agencies. The Task Force has been meeting monthly since August to learn about the state of broadband and prepare to make recommendations to the governor and the legislature regarding the creation of a state ultra high-speed broadband goal and a plan to implement that goal. That report will be presented by November 1, 2009. A preliminary version of the statewide map was unveiled last week.

The state hired Connected Minnesota, a subsidiary of Connected Nation to create the maps. Connected Nation has performed similar services in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia and South Carolina. They compiled information for the maps by contacting the approximately 150 broadband providers in Minnesota; to date they have heard from 98 providers, including the largest providers in the state. While the preliminary maps were created based primarily on the information supplied by those providers, they also performed spot checks and used speed tests compiled from Internet users in Minnesota to confirm veracity of provider supplied data.

What is broadband?
Broadband refers to high speed internet access. The FCC defines broadband as anything above 768 kbit/second. Dial-up is slow internet access, delivered over a regular telephone line.) Broadband access may be delivered in a number of ways, including DSL, cable modems, fiber optic, wi-fi and satellite.

The maps, now available online, indicate that 92 percent of the state has access to broadband, as defined by a download speed of 768Kbps. (While the Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 768Kbps, many people feel this is on the slow end of the broadband spectrum.) The maps also indicate that the average download speed in Minnesota is 6.5 Mbps and upload speed is 1.5 Mbps. Those speeds are higher than Connected Nation has seen in other states. Some speculate that those numbers may be reflective of speeds in the Twin Cities, but are not reflective of speeds seen outstate.

Some in the field have been skeptical of both the speeds and the coverage reported. According to the maps, for example, there is connectivity in the BWCA. Connected Nation invites citizens to provide feedback on the maps on their web site. They are continuing to talk to providers and perform testing in the field and will investigate potential discrepancies. In the industry, there has been some concern about Connected Nation’s relationship with the providers. Connected Nation reported last week that approximately 20 percent of their budget comes from providers.

Open meetings on broadband

Blandin on Broadband blog is tracking progress of the maps and the Task Force. The Task Force meets monthly; the public is invited to attend. The next meeting will be Friday, February 20, 2009. Details can be found on the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force web site.

To balance the provider-supplied information, Connected Nation has posted a speed test on the Connected Nation’s local Connected Minnesota web site. They are asking Minnesotans to take the speed test from computers at home and in the office. They are particularly interested in getting tests from rural Minnesota. Those tests will be used in the final version of the maps.

Initially, there was some concern regarding the speeds tests on the Connected Minnesota site. The tests could not gauge speeds faster than 10 Mbps, the tests were housed on servers in Texas, they assumed asymmetrical speeds (different speeds up than down, which are generally the case with DSL and cable connections), and they used Ookla software, which is known to be inaccurate. The tests have been improved; now they can test higher speeds, more accurately test symmetrical speeds and the servers have been moved to Chicago. They do still use Ookla software, which, while not perfect, is a popular solution for the industry.

The maps are an important tool for the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force in making recommendations for the future of broadband in Minnesota. The best way to affect that recommendation is to test your speeds and post any feedback on the maps on the Connection Minnesota site.

Ann Treacy is a former librarian who writes, blogs in St. Paul, while following broadband issues in rural Minnesota for the Blandin on Broadband blog.

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