Local View: Like electricity, wired Internet needed so rural areas can thrive
The Minnesota Legislature has invested in rural broadband for three years. Lawmakers are considering additional funding this year; however, recent speed increases in satellite Internet have caused some legislators to say rural areas in the state no longer need additional broadband infrastructure.
My personal experiences with satellite tells me this may not be a universal answer. Cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans make satellite Internet less available and less useful in rural areas than wired services.
I live 20 miles north of Duluth. No wired Internet via DSL, cable, or fiber optic is available in our township. Internet is possible through fairly poor mobile (one cell tower with a weak signal), fixed wireless from the electric cooperative (tower), and satellite via two providers. I used to get Internet from one of those two providers but switched to fixed wireless largely because of cost and reliability. With satellite, the signal can be lost when ice and snow fall on the dish.
Both providers in our area offered plans with speeds of 25 megabits per second with data plans up to 50 gigabytes per month for $129 and $110, respectively. The service reaches us but is very expensive; and latency, upload speeds, and data plans are problematic.
Some friends had to deal with serious illness this past winter, with months of treatment and recovery from surgery. That meant more time working and convalescing from home and up to three people trying to access their satellite Internet at the same time to work via Skype, to connect with family, and to watch Internet movies. Simultaneous use slowed down everyone, and they ran through their "unlimited" monthly data plan halfway through the month; then the satellite service ramped down to effectively block a reasonable connection for a couple of weeks until the data plan renewed.
This situation is not unusual. Multiple users simultaneously using multiple Internet video or other intense systems is common for families with schoolchildren, at family gatherings, for small businesses, and at local community centers. Internet video is becoming very data-intensive, with high-definition video common for gaming and certain software, eating both speed and more and more data. The "Internet of things" is real. Home-based monitoring tools are now common in thermostats, refrigerators, pet minders, medical monitors and more. And that's on top of telecommuting, video connectivity, music streaming, gaming and other data-intensive activities. Many people use the Internet to access television networks. While 25 megabits per second may be a sufficient speed now, it won't be long (a year or so?) before it isn't enough for personal and business use, and cost-effective data plans are inadequate.
Can satellite deliver 100 megabits per second at a reasonable cost by 2026, which is Minnesota's border-to-border goal? Satellite Internet may bring fast broadband to rural areas, but it is very expensive and data plans are easily exceeded; satellite Internet at the higher speed and data plans are far more costly than offerings in urban areas.
Wired systems like DSL and, especially, fiber optic offer far more affordable access to broadband and can be scaled to vastly higher speeds to meet the needs of families and businesses well into the future.
Wired infrastructure is expensive to build, but so was rural electrification. Private-public funding (leveraged by Minnesota broadband grants) and technology partnerships are capable of bringing modern and scalable broadband Internet to everyone, even in rural areas.
With satellite Internet, rural folks are at a great disadvantage, especially where cost, uploads and latency matter. That's in health care, education, and business operations, as examples. Satellite may not be the short- to medium-term panacea in rural areas.
Like electricity and roads, wired Internet is needed across our state to ensure that everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to thrive in our communities into the future.
Janet Keough lives in a rural township north of Duluth.