Connecting the state

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Minnesota’s invisible resource — its bandwidth — could drive economic growth as the state’s information technology infrastructure expands.

A broadband mapping survey commissioned in last year’s omnibus energy law is underway, assessing statewide telecommunications provider capacity, connectivity access and connection speed. Final results are due in June, but preliminary findings show that 92 percent of Minnesotans now have potential residential access to at least one broadband platform. However, 8 percent, or 418,000 Minnesotans, don’t, Brent Legg, vice president of state and local initiatives with Connected Nation, the nonprofit organization conducting the survey, told the House Telecommunications Regulation and Infrastructure Division Feb. 6.

Rep. Brita Sailer (DFL-Park Rapids) said that many constituents have expressed concerns about spotty or nonexistent Internet access that poses an obstacle to such business activities as making resort reservations, telecommuting or doing online research.

One constituent told Sailer that because of poor connectivity she had to drive 25 miles to town to file quarterly business tax forms until she signed up for satellite service. Although this solved the problem, it cost $600 a year. Another was given permission to telecommute several days a week when gas prices reached record levels last year, “but she couldn’t do it because she doesn’t have high-speed service,” Sailer explained. Federal Express is no longer fast enough for a Hubbard County photographer to get portfolio samples to clients, and he’s losing business without the technology to send high-quality online images.

“When we’re looking at an even playing field, it’s sometimes about making sure economic development can happen even in areas where distance is a real impediment,” Sailer said. “Broadband makes such a difference now because it’s just how so much of the world operates.”

The Web-based survey compiles information from the approximately 150 telecommunications providers in Minnesota, and connectivity speed tests aggregated by a Connected National subcontractor from information entered by users at the Connect Minnesota Web site, www.connectmn.org.

Project results could position Minnesota to receive economic development funds from the anticipated federal economic stimulus funds and last year’s federal Broadband Data Improvement Act, which is intended to boost broadband availability and connection quality in underserved areas. The act also provides for up to 80 percent of implementation costs to local municipalities or service providers building out access.

Ahead of the curve

Some cities have tried to get ahead of the curve by creating municipal broadband companies.

Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee) recalled that a few years ago, Windom borrowed money, sought grants and passed a levy referendum to build out capacity using then state-of-the-art fiber optic lines to every home in the city – but the city suffered when residents didn’t turn into customers.

“The city is saddled with millions in debt,” Beard said, pointing to other cities, such as Winona, that have run a successful broadband operation.

Beard said the mapping survey, useful as a “snapshot” of current broadband capacity, might guide entrepreneurs who want to get into the market of building out underserved areas, but he’s cautious about committing public funds. “I would ask any (municipality) that’s considering it to tread carefully. You are dealing with technology that’s not going to be in the ground for 50 years. It’s in the air.”

Besides, he thinks the real growth area will be “G4” or next generation wireless technologies that can operate on bandwidth formerly used by analog television broadcasters. He said such telecommunications giants as Sprint and Nextel have paid $16.4 million for wireless channels that will become available for development after the digital conversion is completed by June 12.

“While we’re making plans to sell bonds and take bids on pulling fiber optic to the remote corners of the state like the Boundary Waters, once we get this conversion done and people are going to start deploying G4, wherever people get a TV signal you’re going to get broadband service,” Beard said.

Such new technologies as WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, could serve entire communities up to a 6-mile range in a sort of expanded version of Wi-Fi networks that allow Internet access in coffee shops or homes for a 100-yard range. WiMax networks could eventually combine for a panoply of voice, Internet and video services.

But Sailer isn’t convinced the buildup of the old analog bandwidth will deliver the band-aid unconnected Minnesotans really need.

“I’m hearing when the digital conversion goes and this bandwidth is purchased everything will be wonderful,” she said. “I have a little reservation. How many times a manufacturer, or a whole industry, has said something would happen and it didn’t? I want to make sure it does occur and does in a way that is statewide.”

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