DULUTH — In modern America, we can’t imagine living without indoor plumbing. Or electricity. Or clean water straight from the tap.
After a year of hunkering down at home, distance learning, and working via Zoom, all in vigilance against sickness and the deadly ravages of COVID-19, another necessity has emerged that at one time also seemed just a nicety or a luxury: A reliable and strong internet connection.
In spite of all the appropriate attention and responsible public investment to broaden the reach of broadband, especially since the onset of the pandemic, a surprising 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access at speeds fast enough for conducting business or going to school. An estimated 125,000 in the Gopher State don’t have a wired internet provider where they live, according to BroadbandNow, a service finder and internet-access advocate.
One lingering barrier to border-to-border broadband, long a goal for the state, is what companies tend to do after landing state or federal grants meant to push broadband availability to more homes: “They often cherry-pick a path (that serves) larger population centers to enhance profits,” as Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association of Maple Grove, wrote in a commentary distributed last week to the News Tribune Opinion page and elsewhere.
“This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach,” Moe wrote. “Without a financial incentive to serve the smaller and more rural areas, they are bypassed time and time again for larger, more profitable service areas.”
Thousands of rural — and even not-so-rural — residents here in northern Minnesota can attest. We’ve seen it happen firsthand.
It’s occurred before, too, in the 1930s, when for-profit utilities had the opportunity to bring electricity to rural communities but oftentimes chose instead to preserve their profits by building power lines only in more-populated areas.
Not-for-profit electric cooperatives stepped up then — and they can again today for broadband, Moe argued in his piece.
“Electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place,” he wrote. “Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines. Minnesota’s electric cooperatives can be part of the solution to bridge the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric co-ops natural champions for deploying broadband to rural America.”
Already, Arrowhead Electric in Lutsen has deployed broadband to its members through a partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company, Minnesota Rural Electric Association Director of Education and Communication Krista Benjamin reported last week to the News Tribune Opinion page.
For more co-ops to follow suit, a bit of help from St. Paul will be needed, according to Moe. Legislation is being sought this session to allow current electric service easements to be applied to broadband, too, rather than requiring co-ops the time-sucking, prohibitive task of signing an additional easement agreement with every landowner.
Electric co-ops aren’t the only solution to solving our broadband challenges, of course. We’ve learned that, too, during our year of isolation or of being connected almost entirely over the Web. Perhaps phone companies could also benefit from legislation similar to what co-ops are seeking. Perhaps companies receiving state or federal grants to expand broadband could be prohibited from cherry-picking their paths.
Legislatures in at least 18 other states already have passed laws helping electric cooperatives be a more active part of solving broadband challenges. “It’s time for Minnesota to join this group,” Moe wrote.
As long as Minnesota also continues considering all ideas and strategies to break down barriers preventing true border-to-border broadband.
Electrical service was successfully extended to every home a century ago. There’s no reason reliable, strong internet connections can’t be next.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.