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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Rugged Rural Collectivism

July 20, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota is—or should be—Minnesota equally. While we celebrate regional differences, Minnesota is built on the idea that opportunity and obligation are shared functions. They’re opposite sides of the same coin.

Except, of course, if you live in rural Minnesota.

A very large slice of Minnesota’s population lives in the larger Twin Cities metropolitan area in a swath arcing from Saint Cloud to Rochester. It enjoys easy access to broadband internet service. High-capacity broadband allows on-demand movies, games and other graphic-intensive content. It’s become so ubiquitous that Twin Citians take this service for granted. In fact, it never occurs to most metro folks that something different, something considerably less, is common across most of Minnesota.

The numbers tell a stark story but plotting broadband service on a state map tells an even grimmer tale. According to Governor Dayton’s Task Force on Broadband report, using data drawn from the 2010 U.S. Census, 1.2 million Minnesota households meet the state's 2015 standard for access to high speed broadband internet and 900,000 households do not. Adaquate non-metro high speed broadband service is concentrated into a handful of areas leaving great swaths served by a lesser, slower service standard.

Why? Because service providers insist that they can’t make any money delivering high speed broadband to most of rural Minnesota. With a compassionate shrug, the industry regrets that the market’s functionality simply results in no high speed service. Sorry, they seem to say, that’s just the way it is.

Minnesota pays a cost for technological isolation and it isn’t just being denied streaming “The Hangover, Part Two”. Absent or substantially reduced communications capacity inhibits economic growth. In an increasingly communications-intensive marketplace, both offering and gleaning information facilities exchange. Slowed information can be, in many cases, worse than no information.

If you live in rural Minnesota, you know this. If you live in the Twin Cities and you don’t, you should. The persistent communications drag on rural Minnesota is a drag on the entire state. That’s bad for all of us.

So, what do we do? I’ve always been a big fan of studying history, contemplating what folks before us have done in similar situations. Circumstances change, of course, but utility segregation, it turns out, is not new. We’ve been down this path before. We’ve turned liabilities into assets by pulling together. We can do it again.

Water-generated electricity was a 19th century game-changer. Harnessing rivers awesome generation capacity exponentially expanded industrial production and improved people’s quality of life. While electricity’s commercial application tended to drive initial investment, residential demand quickly became the industry’s bedrock. People immediately understood electricity’s life transforming capacity and were willing to pay for access.

Wiring the Twin Cities was expensive but, given population density, possible and, as history reveals, profitable for the utility companies. But, those same companies refused to extend service into rural areas, arguing that providing electricity, even under monopoly terms, would be unprofitable.

This wrangling went back and forth over decades, repeated across the nation, until President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. A year later, Congress passed the law permitting rural electric cooperatives. Electric power finally began flowing to rural areas, overcoming big city utility resistance. In less than twenty years, Minnesota and the nation went from 9 out of 10 farms not having electricity, to over 90 percent being connected.

A century later, the same argument is playing out, stymieing Minnesota growth and prosperity. We can bridge Minnesota’s growing technology divide if we embrace our cooperative past. Let’s think seriously about bringing high-speed internet access to rural Minnesota through cooperatives. Let’s embrace our tradition of rugged collectivism.

Minnesota is prosperous because we’ve pulled together, understanding that we gain individually through community growth and strength. The free marketplace is a powerful phenomenon but it doesn’t and can’t meet every need. When power utility companies refused to extend service to rural communities, rural people banded together to do it themselves. Rural electric coops resulted, transforming rural life and dramatically increasing rural productivity.

The same answer can be applied to internet access.

The first step is seeing rural Minnesota as an asset, not a liability. Assets create opportunity. Rural Minnesota is an opportunity that can’t be fully realized until we value information technology access the same way that we value roads and bridges, putting money and policy behind the idea. Once we take that step, the rest is just organization.

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  • Alec says:

    July 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Broadband penetration is not just a rural problem!! Articles like this just perpetuate a terrifying problem. Broadband is ubiquitous for those of means.

    The urban core has a huge achievement gap in school, and economic gap in the market place. Broadband puts those already ahead in a rocket ship, and leaves those behind already on a skateboard.

    To state, matter of factly, that broad band access in the cities is pervasive is not only ignorant, it is irresponsible. It becomes a problem for society that we won’t address.

    Downtown Saint Paul, broad band penetration is 80-100%, probably close to 100%. Not one mile away, on the greater East Side, penetration is 20-40%, probably closer to 20%.

    Broad band penetration in the urban core is as bad as the rural areas, which is bad enough, but then articles like this nonchalantly declare the opposite is true.

    Please, take too seconds to type in Saint Paul zip code and do some research. This is a HUGE issue of equality and our growing gap both educationally and economically. Those ahead have a rocket ship, those behind have a skateboard.

  • Alec says:

    July 20, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Sorry, and you do not have to print this comment, but the inherent reek of privilege in this article is not up to 2020 standards.

    “If you live in rural Minnesota, you know this. If you live in the Twin Cities and you don’t, you should”

    Are you absolutely kidding me? If you live in the Twin Cities, and are white, middle class or above, you probably don’t have a clue about the digital divide, as is glaringly apparent by your article.

    For example though, about 80% of the folks living on the East Side or North End of Saint Paul certainly can understand the digital divide.

  • Danna MacKenzie says:

    July 22, 2012 at 10:21 am


    Your observations about the urban adoption gap are spot on. We have some of the same adoption issues in rural Minnesota. Minnesota is fortunate to have many organizations like:
    Technology Literacy Collaborative (
    Blandin Foundation (
    Digital Divide Initiative (
    PCs for People (
    Broadband Access Project (

    and many others that are working on the issues you have raised.

    This article deals with a different leg of the adoption gap. While the infrastructure is available in most metro areas, providing the foundation for working on the affordability, education, and adoption aspects of the challenge; this article rightfully points out that many rural areas of the state don’t yet have access to the first critical step of the process, which is the service itself.