For decades there has been a push to bring high-speed internet service to all of Minnesota, but today about one in five rural Minnesota households still lack access.
“It’s criminal we don’t have high-speed internet in rural areas,” said Wes Gilbert of Mankato Computer Technology.
“I know rural businesses that could have (tech) solutions during this (pandemic) but they don’t have the internet speed.”
Nathan Stolt of Tech Connect in Mankato said it is a world of haves and have nots when it comes to what has become a near necessity of life.
“I don’t think people in Mankato or St. Peter know how good they have it. You have a lot of these small communities — and not that far away — that don’t have good internet. The St. Clair, Janesville, Elysian areas, there are a lot of dead areas. You may only have one provider and it might not be a great option.”
Stolt said even those who have internet may not have enough band width to handle the several computers and streaming devices many families have today.
“Literally, you can’t get anything done without internet these days,” he said.
Bill Coleman of Mahtomedi-base Technology Advisors Corp. has for 20 years worked with counties, communities, schools and others to improve internet access.
“We’re chasing something that’s running very fast in front of us,” he said of getting universal access.
He said poor internet speed is especially highlighted as people try to upload data.
The state’s definition of and goal for high-speed broadband has been a 25 megabits download speed and 3 megabits upload.
There are a variety of maps of the state, often based on information given by internet provider companies, that show who has high-speed internet and who doesn’t. Coleman said the maps are often inaccurate.
“They’re done by census blocks, which are many miles across. If one home in that block is served, the provider can claim that whole census block is served.”
He said there are companies now able to better measure who really has high-speed internet. A current speed test is being conducted in northeast Minnesota.
“Their mapping in a very sophisticated way and they can show where service is and isn’t despite what providers say. In many cases the service providers say they’re providing doesn’t really exist,” Coleman said.
“A lot of providers say they deliver 25 megs but it’s actually maybe 5.” Depending on how the service is being delivered, customers living farther away from certain equipment will have a slower speed than advertised, and if copper wires or other equipment isn’t good, it weakens speeds.
Coleman said internet service that has data caps is also a hindrance to rural customers who can burn through their data limit relatively quickly, particularly during the current pandemic when people are doing a lot of Zoom meetings and other online work.
“The deficiencies in the system are becoming very apparent in many places.”
One federal program Coleman is hopeful could provide a boost is the Rural Development Opportunity Fund, funded through the FCC.
There is a total of $20 billion available and the money is to be distributed across the country using a “reverse auction.” That means internet providers who show they can provide the most broadband for the lowest cost will qualify for the grants.
“The lower the speed (providers) promise, they get penalized. So the FCC is incenting the higher speed.
“It will be interesting to see the strategy of providers and how they bid and who gets these dollars,” Coleman said.
The first round of providers getting funds will be announced in January and the companies then have several years to build out the system in underserved areas.