Spotlight article presented to Southwest (Minnesota) Regional Development Commission, 14 January 2010.
“To remain competitive with other states and the rest of the world, Minnesota must make a long-term commitment to developing and maintaining ultra high-speed broadband capability.”
Recent mapping projects estimate that 94% of Minnesotans have access to broadband internet services, as defined by the FCC. At face value that’s a laudable figure, but what about the other 6% of our friends and neighbors (313,000 people) in Minnesota? And how far does that figure fall when you apply modern levels of service to outdated measures?
In 2008, the Minnesota Legislature created a Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force. Twenty-three members of the Task Force (including DEED Commissioner Dan McElroy and Jack Geller at UMN-Crookston EDA Center) worked for over a year to outline a path to high-speed internet access for all residents of Minnesota. The report was released in November.
Five years ago, when most Americans accessed the internet on dial-up modems, the FCC’s standard of 768 Kbps as “broadband” was quick. Today that level of service doesn’t accomplish much. The Task Force recommends “broadband” be considered as 10-20 Mbps (download) and 5-10 Mbps (upload). No counties in the state currently have this level provided (on average). In fact, Minnesota ranked #24 of the 50 states for broadband adoption and #23 on average download speeds tests.
Across the United States, about 2/3 of all households have adopted broadband. Minnesota’s rate is 57% in metro areas and 39% in rural areas. On a global scale that places rural Minnesota on par with Turkey or Hungary. Broadband adoption rates are highly sensitive to both age and income. National surveys find many people without internet do not want to be online, but many others cannot afford service or do not have service available.
Current broadband networks are evolving primarily from telephone and cable television networks:
- Cable. With compression technologies, traditional coaxial cable can fit a 20 Mbps video stream into 8 or 9 Mbps service. Upgrades to the cable DOCSIS protocol and hybrid fiber coax cable can increase speeds up to 150 Mbps.
- DSL. Digital Subscriber Line technology uses existing telephone copper lines providing up to 40 Mbps; however, service speeds are very sensitive to distance from switching stations so this is often not available to rural areas.
- FTTH. Fiber-to-the-Home completes either of the above networks with glass optical fiber, with speeds exceeding 2.5 Giga-bps.
- Satellite. Provided via geosynchronous satellite, this service is by definition ubiquitous, but suffers from latency and speed issues.
- Mobile and Fixed Wireless. Wireless broadband service includes 3G and 4G cellular networks and Wi-Fi/Wi-Max fixed wireless. Both provide mobility to users and potential for up to 100 Mbps service. Challenges include interference from buildings and vegetation, decrease in bandwidth with distance to antennas, and loadsharing degrading individual service.
How much would it cost to extend ultra high-speed broadband service to the 100,000 households currently in the dark? The low density of potential customers in Greater Minnesota drives the costs up. The report estimates that FTTH could be deployed for $2,900 to $4,500 per household statewide. Basic wireless service might cost only about $1,500 per home, but “if a full 4G network had to be deployed from the “ground up… it would be a more costly alternative than [fiber].”
The report contains numerous substantive action items. Some are simple, while others will require legislation. A few samples include:
- Plan once; develop coordinated broadband, electric grid, and energy retrofit projects.
- Dig once; coordinate infrastructure construction projects, such as roads and electrical grid improvements, with ubiquitous broadband projects.
- Encourage conduit installation with new development.
- Support refurbished and recycled PC programs where effective in reducing cost
- Provide technical assistance to businesses interested in pursuing high-speed broadband deployment projects.
- Engage the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties, and the Minnesota High Tech Association in working with cities, counties, and industry to develop model zoning ordinance language that encourages wireless tower placement.
Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Recommendations:
- Identify the Level of Service
- Policies and Actions Necessary to Achieve Ubiquitous Broadband
- Opportunities for Public and Private Sectors to Cooperate
- Establish the Broadband Advisory Council for Minnesota
- Evaluation of Strategies, Financing, and Financial Incentives used in Other States/Countries to Support Broadband Development and Cost Estimates
- Evaluation of Security, Vulnerability, and Redundancy Actions Necessary to Ensure Reliability
- Economic Development Opportunities
- Evaluation of the Benefits of Broadband Access to Organizations and Institutions
The full report is available at the Task Force website.
-John C. Shepard, AICP; Development Planner, SRDC