Duluth hopes to widen access to broadband, with help from feds
City of Duluth officials are entering a race to improve the city's high-speed broadband wireless service with federal stimulus money. The city has gotten into the starting blocks, but it doesn't know the length of the race or when it will finish....
City of Duluth officials are entering a race to improve the city's high-speed broadband wireless service with federal stimulus money.
The city has gotten into the starting blocks, but it doesn't know the length of the race or when it will finish. The city wants to bring wireless service to its community clubs and to areas without service, but it hasn't formulated the details, cost or knowledge about how other communities compare.
The city plans to submit those details on its application due in June for a slice of $4.7 billion in the federal money to expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access for public safety agencies, according to the Commerce Department, which is overseeing the program.
"We've been looking at this for a while, and when the stimulus package came up, we felt like we met the guidelines, but we're still looking for our niche," said Karla Culhane, the city's management information systems manager.
The funding, known as the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, provides grants for communities behind the national curve on broadband service.
A 2007 report showed that only one-third of residents in northern Minnesota -- the 218 long-distance area code -- had broadband connections, according the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn. The number doubled to 60 percent for people with a slower-speed Internet connection, the report said.
"Our overall goal is to increase access to all parts of the city and to all types of income," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said. "It's going to be a competitive process, and we will try to bring those resources to Duluth."
Ness said the application for broadband funding isn't as formal as other stimulus applications and that a possible exclusion from the federal money won't alter the city's pursuit in improving broadband capabilities.
"We want to be the catalyst to bringing a sense of community into the neighborhoods," Culhane said.
The city began a wireless network in Canal Park in 2004, and began offering a similar service at the main library in April.
Even without federal stimulus money, communications companies are investing in Northeastern Minnesota.
Verizon Wireless introduced a new broadband service in February, while AT&T will launch its faster 3G network in early fall in Duluth.
"The industry has been growing very quickly in Minnesota," said Bob Bass, president of AT&T Minnesota. "The investments in Duluth will soon bear fruit."
Diane Smith, a rural Montana entrepreneur who started a small business in a coffee shop with a wireless connection, said she knows the benefits of bringing high-speed wireless capabilities to a relatively rural area such as Northeastern Minnesota.
"What do I need to start a company?" Smith asked a group of business leaders Wednesday at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast. "A first-class communication infrastructure."
That infrastructure can move business out of the office space, Smith said.
"America is a great idea economy," she added. "There is no need for four walls. ... What part of the paradigm [of business] says you need that?"
Both Smith and Bass said growth in wireless capabilities is best achieved under "light touch" regulatory policies from the overseeing government body, the Federal Communications Commission.
"I think government really matters as a business partner," Smith said. "Ask government to get it right -- local, state and federal. ... Wireless is regulated at the FCC, but the FCC has kept a very light regulation on the industry, and in part, that has allowed the industry to move very swiftly."