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Troubles with Broadband Availability

March 07, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

When the rest of Minnesota had electricity running to its homes, many parts of the state’s countryside remained unwired. A century later some rural Minnesotans are going through a similar dilemma. Most of Minnesota takes internet availability for granted but those in some rural areas still lack access.

It’s a nationwide problem for rural areas but its degree varies depending on location and who is counting. A joint FCC-NTIA (which is a U.S. Department of Commerce division) report says nearly 95 percent of rural Minnesota has broadband availability. However, a recent State of Minnesota report, prepared in partnership with the non-profit Connect Minnesota, examines broadband availability, and provides a dimmer picture for some Minnesota counties.

For example, only 42.3 percent of households in Aitkin County, in northeast Minnesota, have broadband internet available, making it the state’s least connected. Southwestern Minnesota is the state’s least connected region, with four counties below 55 percent availability.

However, northwestern Minnesota is in good shape, according to the state report, with Clearwater and Red Lake Counties passing 99 percent availability rates. Still, Mahnomen County stands out in that region, with only 59 percent of households having broadband availability.

While these numbers provide a basic snapshot, there are many other factors to consider when calculating Minnesota’s true rural broadband availability.

These availability numbers are based on three Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds. (Broadband statistics do not count dialup services, which tend to run much slower—in fact, many internet applications are inaccessible with dial-up.) However, the three Mbps used as an availability threshold isn’t a very fast internet connection and could inhibit access to some web applications.

Broadband’s minimum speed threshold is often disputed and that also complicates calculating true availability. Minnesota's ideal for broadband internet is 10 Mbps download speed. The state's goal is to make these speeds available to all Minnesotans by 2015. According to the state's report, about 84 percent of all Minnesota households currently have 10 Mbps speeds available to them.

Here’s the other major problem. Availability is different from adoption or accessibility. Residents who either cannot afford the services or choose not to use them remain an important factor in considering broadband policy. To that end, the state report lays out recommendations for engaging the public with educational campaigns to improve digital literacy and adoption, paired with education on avoiding the risks of the internet. Many communities are also working to make internet access more affordable.

Let’s add one more complication to evaluating the state’s rural availability numbers. Remember, the state partnered with Connect Minnesota to collect data from broadband providers, which responded on a voluntary basis. The organization’s mission “is to pinpoint remaining gaps in [Minnesota’s] broadband availability.” Connect Minnesota is a subsidiary of Connected Nation, which is sponsored by private telecommunication companies, according to the public interest group Public Knowledge. It released a 2009 report expressing concern that Connected Nation will put private companies’ interests over public interests.

Connected Nation and its subsidiaries systematically overstate broadband availability, according to Chris Mitchell, with the community-development Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Connected Nation and its subsidiaries typically don't disclose their raw data and don't take data caps into account, Mitchell also notes.

The state report does contain admissions of disparities between its statistics and national reports. "Statewide estimates do not necessarily reflect the reality faced by each Minnesota community. Connect Minnesota county-level availability estimates reveal variances, in some cases large, in measured broadband inventory across counties," the report states.

Broadband internet is a dynamic economic tool, and widespread broadband access and adoption is important for Minnesota. It is clear, however, that broadband availability reporting is not a simple task, and it is not the only factor affecting rural broadband. Conflicts are now developing between counties trying to make their own broadband networks and the private companies who operate in those counties. This is an issue that requires public investment and engagement to ensure that the process benefits Minnesotans and helps all of our communities move forward in the digital realm.

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