Technology credited with rural revival – what if we boosted technology?


Over the weekend the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a story of rural revival. The article features towns such as Osakis, Jackson, Mankato, Brainerd, Kiester, Benson, Hancock and Morris and notes their progress and growth. Technology – broadband technology – is given some of the credit for progress and growth. That’s exciting and I’m sure that technology has played a role BUT it also feels as if maybe the towns could do even better with more technology or as if maybe we’re being satisfied with minimal improvements when we should be aiming higher.

For example, the starts by talking about dialup access…

“If you don’t have to endure dial-up modems, it really changes everything,” said Deborah Morse-Kahn, a historian who works from a home in the woods along the North Shore. “I have a FedEx truck or a UPS truck here every other day, and I am constantly running into people I used to know in the Twin Cities who are coming up here permanently, semi-retiring, still eager to be connected to the world — but also loving this sense we have here of living in the middle of a National Geographic special, with bears fishing for trout in a stream near your home.”

Comparing the current access with dialup is damning with faint praise. Some parts of the North Shore are well served, other parts will be well served soon but there are some areas – the Cloquet Valley – that are stuck with just better than dialup access. It might be OK for semi-retired residents who are looking to keep connected but it isn’t adequate for many home-based businesses or anything larger.

Imagine the multiple generations that could move Up North if broadband was sufficient to run a full time business…

When jobs do arrive in rural areas, local people say, they enable a lifestyle that many city folks would envy. “When I see four or five cars on my way to work,” said Brett Grinager, master distiller at Panther Distillery in Osakis, “it’s a busy day. I can bring my dog to work, and 10 minutes after I’m done, I’m out hunting.”

Another example also seems to minimize the potential impact of broadband access…

Then too, technology is bringing “the sticks” a lot closer to the world.

Laura Backes, co-owner of the hardware store in downtown Osakis, takes her visitors to a backroom, whose wall bears a huge United States map with marks showing all the states she sells to via eBay, both conventional merchandise and stuff she buys up from abandoned storage lockers.

“Why a person in California buys a light bulb from Osakis,” she says, “I do not know. But they do. We kept marking the towns we shipped to on this map until we had at least one mark in every single state. ”

The Internet isn’t just for eBay anymore. I was surprised that an article that focused on farming didn’t talk more about broadband applications in precision agriculture. Wikipedia details the economic advantages of precision ag…

Precision agriculture management practices can significantly reduce the amount of nutrient and other crop inputs used while boosting yields. Farmers thus obtain a return on their investment by saving on phytosanitary and fertilizer costs. The second, larger-scale benefit of targeting inputs—in spatial, temporal and quantitative terms—concerns environmental impacts. Applying the right amount of inputs in the right place and at the right time benefits crops, soils and groundwater, and thus the entire crop cycle. Consequently, precision agriculture has become a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture, since it respects crops, soils and farmers. Sustainable agriculture seeks to assure a continued supply of food within the ecological, economic and social limits required to sustain production in the long term. Precision agriculture therefore seeks to use high-tech systems in pursuit of this goal.

The potential is there for big changes if/when broadband is available. It is available in many areas – Lac qui Parle for example. But again there are areas that are left unserved. Talk to the farmers near Renville – who would happily pay the big bucks to get broadband but still can’t get it.

Many have access to some broadband – but it isn’t adequate to make a difference in their businesses. The article highlights stats from the recent Connect Minnesota report…

Broadband of some sort has grown to reach nearly 100 percent of the state’s households, and high-quality broadband rises in its reach year by year. Service at 10/6 megabits per second reached 69 percent by April, up from 56 percent in 2011, according to Connect Minnesota.

There are many businesses – even small home-based businesses – that cannot be run effectively on less than 10/6 Mbps services. And while access to “some broadband” is almost ubiquitous – access to the state definition of broadband speeds (10/5 Mbps) is available to only 69 percent of households – but geographically you can see that there are definite dead zones. Looking at that map – where would you relocate? What is there to keep the unserved areas thriving?

I may be a little touchy this week. Last week I spoke to someone who had a funny attitude about rural broadband. He seemed to think that people “who chose to live by the lake” could probably make do with whatever access they could get and/or could pay a premium for enhanced service. But it didn’t occur to him that farmers need access and that whole towns need better access. That living in a rural area didn’t always mean early retirement – it was a lifelong life choice for many – and I suspect it will be for many more when the technology gets even better.