The News Tribune and other newspapers across the state have been sounding the alarm about the unacceptable broadband service in many parts of Minnesota. The News Tribune’s editorial on April 7 (Our View: “Reliable internet never more critical than now”) did a thorough job of describing the challenge Minnesotans are facing.
Too many communities don’t have the internet service needed to thrive. People can’t work, go to school, or get health care without it.
As the editorial highlighted, financial support from the state and federal government is desperately needed. A bill passed Monday by the Minnesota Senate was a good start (“Minnesota Senate approves $20 million in grants for rural broadband,” May 4).
But the money can’t be spent as it has in the past.
We won’t fix the problem by giving telecommunications companies more taxpayer dollars to do what they have always done. The industry’s model is broken. Rural and even suburban communities suffer because of it. (I say it doesn’t work well for urban areas either, but I’ll save that for another day.)
In my 30 years in the business, I’ve observed a few things.
Most telecommunications companies have quietly abandoned rural and suburban communities. Due to economic realities, they have applied bandages instead of replacing old equipment. Fixes and installations are done as quickly and cheaply as possible. Then it is onto the next project. Later they send a repair truck to try to fix problems.
Their new fiber installations cut corners wherever possible, it seems. Sometimes it means the fiber goes down the street but not to your home or business. And here’s an industry secret: Just because you have fiber, doesn’t mean you have reliable, fast service. Often more than 600 addresses share one fiber strand. Technically, they have high-speed service. In reality, they don’t.
State data shows that 33% of households in nonmetro Minnesota don’t have speed that reflects current business needs. The data are just homes. Imagine what the percentage is when we add business addresses. On top of that, add in the areas of the state without reliable service, and the number balloons. These details all point to how the industry’s model doesn’t work today, let alone meet needs in the future.
The chaos is why it often takes several service calls to get problems fixed. It can take days, weeks, even months. The economic reality of fast and cheap design is enormously expensive in ongoing operating costs. The industry can’t afford to keep up. Yet our country can’t be without it.
There’s a better answer.
Local, state, and federal officials are trying desperately to solve the problem. But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars, in many cases, the problems still exist and few people understand why. Sometimes the system works, sometimes it doesn’t. People are clear about what they want: reliable, affordable, high-speed service.
This is critical infrastructure, and it needs a complete redesign. But that doesn’t mean cities become internet providers. That economic model doesn’t work either. A new model must continue to allow internet and cell phone companies to provide their services. The community’s role is building and taking control of the fiber infrastructure through public-private partnerships. Just like public entities build roads today, they need to build a reliable fiber “road.”
Reliability demands a completely different design coupled with a well-built fiber infrastructure. This approach ensures low ongoing maintenance costs. It means combining all the public and private grant money available to cities, counties, townships, school districts, and other public entities to design and install a fiber infrastructure. It means taxpayers help foot the bill once for a network that serves entire communities’ needs not only today but also well into the future.
I was raised in a small town and have worked my entire career with communities in Minnesota and South Dakota. It breaks my heart to see the damage the current system does to rural cities and towns. Local communities must take control of their fiber infrastructure to ensure reliable, affordable internet for all businesses and residents. Their future depends on it.
Kyle Moorhead of Maple Grove, Minnesota, is chief technology officer for Hometown Fiber.