NORTH MANKATO — The threat to rural Minnesota used to be measured mostly by the lack of good paying jobs needed to keep young people staying in or moving to small towns.
Bill Coleman says the presence or absence of dependable, speedy broadband service is now the key to rural Minnesota's success or failure.
"Even the smallest manufacturer now requires a fiber connection before they'll move to a location," Coleman, owner of Community Technology Advisors, told leaders from the nine-county region.
And it's not just the ability to attract businesses and jobs that requires solid broadband service, it's become a top requirement for young people considering moving to the area.
"More people say they won't move to a place that doesn't have connectivity."
And he said the use of devices for telemedicine, in livestock and crop production, and other areas of daily life are only going to grow in rural areas.
Coleman spoke at Region Nine Development Commission's Connect Rural Broadband Summit in North Mankato Thursday.
Coleman compared the need for rural broadband to the building of the railroad and the interstate highway system — those communities that got them flourished, those that didn't faltered.
"There's an urgency to move forward, to not get left behind."
The state of area broadband service varies. The region in and around Blue Earth County is in relatively good shape compared to much of outstate and the country. But connectivity is still widely variable outside of larger cities in the area.
Some of the most dependable, fastest service delivered by underground fiber lines connected to homes and businesses is plentiful in Mankato, North Mankato, St. Peter and around New Ulm, due largely by investments from Consolidated Communications and New Ulm Telecom. Satellite services are readily available and used in many rural areas, but their dependability is affected by weather and the distance signals have to travel. Wireless service is also plentiful.
"God made prairies for wireless," Coleman said, noting the prairie region offers the flat, treeless landscape hospitable to sending signals. But hills, valleys and trees around farm and home sites affects wireless signals.
And while most everyone has a cell phone, Coleman noted that the federal government does not define cellular service as broadband service.
Coleman said those who hear about the new 5G cell service may think that will be a solution, but the super-fast cellular service requires a lot of infrastructure that has to be very close — within 1,000 feet — of the person using the cell phone or device. He said such a system may be practical for MSU or downtown Mankato, but not most other places and certainly not in rural areas.
Region Nine Executive Director Nicole Griensewic Mickelson said they hosted the summit to help area leaders and citizens move forward with broadband proposals.
"We wanted to bring information to the region, to make sure all the people have the correct information. And we wanted to identify the community champions for broadband and brainstorm on how to move ahead. And the third goal was to take some concrete steps toward moving forward," she said.
She said people attending the summit included representatives from agriculture, health care, broadband providers, businesses, libraries, citizens and more.
"We have a full house. We're excited about it."
Coleman urged those in attendance to develop locally based efforts on broadband. He said local residents and leaders must decide what type of broadband is best for their community, not the providers. Once data on existing services and needs are gathered, Coleman said public-private partnerships are a must to move forward on improving broadband.
He said Minnesota DEED, Region Nine, the federal government and the Blandin Foundation are all leading providers of expertise and or financial assistance.
Much of the expansion of fiber networks in rural areas has been done by private providers who use state or federal grants along with their own investments.
Mark Sharpless, manager of network engineering at Consolidated Communications in Mankato, said they continue to expand fiber lines.
"Looking at southern Minnesota for 2018, we're adding around 37 or 40 miles."
He said some of those projects are partnerships using government grants and some are general expansions of the company's infrastructure.
Jennifer Spaude, a vice president with Consolidated, said the company has invested $41 million in the past five years in southern Minnesota.
Gov. Mark Dayton this session is proposing $30 million be approved by the Legislature for broadband expansion. Dayton said it would help 11,000 households, businesses and organizations get better service.
A few years ago, the Governor's Task Force on Broadband called for more than $200 million to ensure every Minnesotan can access the internet with speeds of at least 25 mega bits per second download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
About 88 percent of Minnesotans have that kind of access now, an improvement from the 56 percent of the state with broadband internet in 2011.
The GOP is looking at a broadband bill this year that would provide $20 million in grants instead of the governor's $30 million proposal. Lawmakers passed a $35 million grant bill last year.