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McClatchy-Tribune  06/20/2014 8:19 PM ET
Minnesota-wide broadband goal unlikely to be met by 2015 [Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. :: ]

June 20--John Socha once yearned to work from his Spring Grove home, but was crippled by out-of-date technology -- notably his excruciatingly pokey rural Minnesota dial-up Internet access.

So Socha, a creator of digital-audio content for radio, had to journey nine miles to a Caledonia office for an Internet connection fast enough to let him upload his sound files.

Today, those pesky commutes are a distant memory. Socha is now on the Internet fast lane via a fiber-optic connection from local telecom cooperative Spring Grove Communications, with upload and download speeds roughly comparable to those offered by Comcast in the Twin Cities.

Socha said he's living the dream: Country living (he's several miles outside of Spring Grove, population 1,310, and roughly 150 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) with big-city tech.

Though slow in coming, access to high-speed Internet around the state is on the rise. This includes wired access with physical connections via copper, coaxial or fiber-optic technologies, and wireless from cellular operators AT&T and Verizon, providing Internet service to phones, tablets and notebook computers.

Wireless, though, usually complements and does not replace physical access for most consumers because of caps on data usage.

Verizon Wireless, Minnesota's wireless-Internet leader, has blanketed most of the state with high-speed service. Rival AT&T is hot on Verizon's heels, offering rapidly expanding wireless-data service of its own.

This means most outstate Minnesotans, if they have AT&T or Verizon, have Internet-access speeds that would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago -- provided they're willing to access their carrier's data plan.

'Horse and buggy'

But for wired Internet, much of the state still is in the dark ages.

Socha said a friend of his, living not far outside of Caledonia, still has no option other than dial-up service for wired home Internet access.

In 2013, about a quarter of Minnesotans lacked access to high-speed or "broadband," according to a state report released earlier this year.

The report's authors, called Governor's Task Force on Broadband, define "broadband" as download speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second and uploads of 5 to 10 megabits per second, roughly what a Twin Cities home Comcast user had. Generally, this is understood to be wired and not wireless access.

More recent data in April from Connect Minnesota, a coalition of businesses, universities and government agencies focused on expanding high-speed Internet, pegged broadband use in Minnesota at 79 percent, up from 72 percent in 2010.

"A significant number of Greater Minnesota households are still relegated to the horse-and-buggy days of dial up and many more only have access to a slow DSL connection," said the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, another broadband proponent.

While most Twin Cities residents have access to what the institute calls a broadband "minimum standard" with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, "fewer than half of Greater Minnesota households have such access," it said in a recent report.

Minnesota had set of a goal of universal broadband access by 2015, but will fall short.

Supporters of broadband expansion in rural Minnesota did log a victory this year when the Legislature set aside $20 million for such efforts. This, however, fell far short of the $100 million the governor's broadband task force had recommended.

Craig Otterness, Spring Grove Communications' general manager, said $20 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket. To put this in perspective, he noted, the cooperative's own fiber deployment covering just 100 square miles cost $5 million several years ago.

Minnesota, in the broadband sense, is a mass of contradictions, with pockets of advanced technology often surrounded by large swaths of tech-backwards territory.


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