It used to be that, when people went on vacation, they’d choose destinations such as Voyageurs National Park to get away from it all.
Tom Dougherty of Rainy Lake Houseboats near International Falls, Minn., says renting one of his 37- to 65-foot houseboats and fishing in the pristine lake that borders Canada, is still popular. But the “getting away from it all” part? Not so much. He says guests now expect fast internet, too.
“We have DSL [Digital Subscriber Line], but it comes in on the old telephone wires, and it makes for slower speeds and doesn’t have adequate infrastructure in place,” he says.
About 650 residents and businesses on Rainy Lake currently do not have high-speed broadband connections. They access the internet through a DSL connection. Dougherty says the internet speed is often slow and intermittently cuts out altogether. Once on the lake, boaters are unable to access internet or mobile phone service at all. He says that, for an area that relies heavily on tourism, it may get harder to attract business without a reliable internet connection.
“From the time guests arrive and when they’re checking in to the office, running credit cards, buying fishing licenses and checking their emails. Some guests have to do a little bit of work before they go on the water because they realize there’s no connections out there,” he admits.
According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, nearly 93 percent of the state has access to 25 megabits of download speed and 3 megabits of upload speed – in other words, what Netflix says is compatible with HD streaming. Still, some in the state struggle with slower speeds or no internet at all.
As it turns out, geography plays a significant role when it comes to varying internet availability and speed. Rainy Lake residents who rely on DSL connections must still wait for fiber optic cable to come to their door. But that costs money, and it’s something local provider Frontier Communications has not been able to justify implementing.
“We’re kind of last mile. Once we get out to the lake, the geography, we are on heavy bedrock, mostly granite, so [it’s] hard to physically get those fiber optic lines out [and it’s] very expensive. We’ve been unable to convince a service provider to get the high-speed broadband out in this neighborhood in particular,” said Joe Mershon, a broadband proponent in Koochiching County.
For its part, Frontier said business decisions are measured against the return on investment. Mershon estimated the cost to lay fiber to the homes of area residents would amount to $6,500 per household. Frontier has laid fiber in the area, but then signals connect to copper telephone wire. An executive for the national telecommunications company said the location where a subscriber lives is also a factor.
“The speed of the services depend how far you are from a company’s infrastructure, we have central offices that house the network equipment. The closer the customer is to one of those, the higher speed that can be achieved. It’s just physical science,” said Javier Mendoza, vice president of communications for Frontier.
Brent Christensen is the voice for 45 independent rural providers and does not represent Frontier. “There’s always more work to do. We’re chipping away at those last customers who don’t have it. And given the resources we have and the terms and regulations we have to deal with, we’re doing our best,” he said.
In addition, he explained that a telecom provider must also weigh the infrastructure cost against competition from wireless and satellite providers. Paul Bunyan Communications, a telecom cooperative based in Bemidji, said that hesitancy to invest is creating an opportunity for companies like theirs. Business decisions are weighted toward providing service and the risk is spread across members for a decade or more.
“If you’re willing to look longterm, fiber is the perfect investment. If you just want short term bang for the buck, that’s where you get into this debate on what’s fast enough,” said Gary Johnson, CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications.
Experts say that, in many respects, Minnesota has proven itself a leader in broadband development. The state has set a goal of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload speeds for 2022. In 2026, the goal jumps to 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload. But there is no enforcement. Instead, the state calls the goals, ‘aspirational.’
“We are on a path to get there. Certainly there is a funding gap, but we are making progress. And thanks to our state and local private investment, I’m hopeful that we’ll get there,” said Angie Dickison of the the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.
This year, state lawmakers again agreed to fund $20 million a year for two years to assist broadband development. Last year, funding never made it out of the session. As a result, independent and rural providers that need assistance to build out their broadband networks have said they are grateful the money is there. But Dickison’s office has received 80 applications totally $70 million in requests for its Border To Border grant program, which requires a significant local community or provider match.
Some don’t see it as enough.
“So the state has set more aggressive goals than the federal government, and I admire that. The trick is, are they funding it in a way we can do it? And at $20 million, no, we won’t get there to everyone,” Gary Johnson said.
Blandin Foundation researchers say there’s still evidence that Minnesota is not on track to meet state goals in just seven years. [Disclosure: The Blandin Foundation is a funder for the One Greater Minnesota initiative on Almanac.]
The Upper Sioux Community in Granite Falls, Minn., got tired of waiting for broadband to reach them. Fourteen years ago, the tribe installed its own fiber-optic cable on its reservation, which has allowed artists like Walter “Super” LaBatte to sell his beadwork creations to customers anywhere.
“If I am feeling down, I will do my art, and art always makes me feel good. And if I am selling something, it makes the person feel good, too,” he said, surveying one of his latest beaded moccasins on Facebook.
This story was originally published October 22, 2019.
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