SRDC Spotlight: Broadband Infrastructure

Broadband internet access is increasingly essential infrastructure for business, agriculture, education and most other aspects of day-to-day life.  Communities must have broadband to compete in today’s economy.  USDA’s Economic Research Service states the situation in clear terms in a report released last month: In this decade, “rural communities that had greater broadband Internet access had greater economic growth.”

Over ninety percent of businesses in rural Minnesota are online.  SRDC and other regional development organizations worked with the EDA Center at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, earlier this year to survey firms across the state.  If a business has a computer today, it is probably networked, and it’s probably a broadband connection—only 4.3% of rural businesses surveyed are accessing the internet on a dial-up connection.

It may seem like anybody who wants broadband speed can get it these days, but the situation is more complicated than that.  The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force was created by the State of Minnesota “to make recommendations to the governor and legislature regarding the creation of a statewide high-speed Internet access goal, and a plan for implementation by 2015.”  The 26 task force members are meeting around the state to identify the needs balancing speed, security, economic development and public access.

The Blandin Foundation Broadband Initiative has been working for several years to help communities with broadband issues.  Bill Coleman, a Blandin consultant, has been offering small workshops ahead of regional Task Force meetings to promote “informed public participation”.  In July, about two dozen participants met at the Region 9 Development Commission’s office in Mankato.  There were elected officials and staff from the cities of Jackson, Red Wing, and Northfield; representatives from libraries and school districts, wired and wireless providers, and economic development professionals.  Former Congressman Tim Penny, president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, even paid a visit.

The central question for that workshop came down to this:  Is Broadband an essential utility or market service? What counts as “high speed” in rural areas is too often a much lower speed than that provided in metropolitan areas with more customers much closer together.  In many areas high-speed service may be available in town but not to farmers and residents in rural areas.  And service may only be provided by one company, which typically results in fewer access options and higher costs.  If private utility providers are not offering sufficient services, and broadband is becoming a necessary utility, then rural electric co-operatives may offer a model for service.

It is difficult to see clearly how well service is currently provided, before we even begin to plan for the future.  Connect Minnesota, a project of the non-profit Connected Nation, is working “with all broadband providers in the state of Minnesota to create detailed maps of broadband coverage in order to accurately pinpoint remaining gaps in broadband availability in Minnesota.”  Their maps show broad swaths of unserved territory from Redwood Falls south through Cottonwood County, northern Nobles County and much of Jackson County.  SRDC staff has also found that areas shown to be served by local telephone carriers do not in fact have broadband service available.  It is obvious there is much work to be done.

Community leaders from the Windom area are trying to do something to make sure service is available.  In 2005, the City of Windom became the first city in Minnesota to provide a municipally-owned fiber-optic network to homes, businesses and schools, including telecommunications, digital cable and broadband internet.  Windom’s pioneering fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network ( ) provides internet service much faster than traditional DSL or cable modems.  A new initiative proposes to build on that network.  According to Windom Mayor Kirby Kruse’s blog ( ), the project will connect 8 communities in Cottonwood, Jackson and Nobles counties with a 125 mile fiber ring.  The project is competing for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funding, which has been highly competitive across the nation.

For more information on broadband and infrastructure issues, contact John C. Shepard, AICP; SRDC Development Planner at .


Originally published for Southwest Regional Development Commission board meeting 10 September 2009.  Download PDF version of this article: Spotlight Broadband PDF.

I just got an update from Aaron Backman, Windom’s Economic Development guru, on the Windom area project.  The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group (SWMBG) is a consortium of eight communities, including Windom, planning the FTTP project connected by that 125-mile fiber ring to Windomnet’s existing operations center.  They have also included a wireless services component—a very exciting prospect for rural connectivity.  The Group requested $12.8 million from NTIA, best-case drop fiber next construction season.  It’s a big project but they are already getting some kudos in-state.


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