John Bergman went from working as a telecommunications analyst for St. Louis County where he could easily access 100 megabytes of data from his work computer to retirement in rural Carlton County, where he uses a dial-up service to get to the internet. He can’t even email a photograph from his home without spending up to an hour.
“Sometimes it can take up to a half hour just to get connections,” Bergman said. “And photos use a lot of data so it might take another half hour to send. And, because of the slow speed of the telephone line, fairly often the connection gets interrupted and you have to start all over again. So I just don’t do it.”
While high speed internet also has issues with interruptions to service, Bergman noted, when it only takes seconds (instead of half an hour) to send a photo, it’s not as much of an inconvenience.
Bergman isn’t the only rural Carlton County resident frustrated by unreliable internet access. Carlton County ranks 66th out of 87 counties in Minnesota whose residents have access to the state’s recommended 25 Megabit (Mb) download/3 Mb upload speeds, according to a Carlton County broadband feasibility study recently completed by Cooperative Network Services (CNS) and funded by the Blandin Foundation.
The cities of Cloquet and Carlton are in the best shape in terms of broadband, CNS CEO Jason Dale told the Carlton County Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 3 meeting, when Dale and Paul Solsrud presented the results of the study. He noted that “relatively speaking,” services are available which are adequate for most users’ needs in those cities. Other towns along the Interstate corridor also have reasonable options for broadband services.
The report noted, however, that broadband options reduce dramatically just beyond the city limits of the county’s town, and throughout almost all of the rural areas of the county, areas that have very, very low population densities.
“Carlton County is pretty well connected,” said Dale, noting the lines showing existing fiber networks (needed for high speed internet) appear “like interstate highways” on a map of the county. “But you don’t have driveways, or access points, coming off those connections between the towns, schools, hospitals, cell towers and more.”
The issue, of course, is that internet access is not a public service, it is a service provided by for-profit companies who don’t make a good return on their investments in less populated areas. Rural Carlton County is mostly served by CenturyLink and Frontier, both large nationwide corporate entities. Both those companies are taking federal Connect American Funds (CAF II) that will help with the costs of extending their networks within rural Carlton County. Those upgrades must meet a 10 Mb download/1 Mb upload speed, under the terms of the grant money. Neither company wanted to share its exact plans for expansion, so Dale was unable to report which parts of the county will be getting better internet access this year.
“It doesn’t guarantee they will build out to 100 percent of those areas,” Dale said. “And I can tell you that large companies will focus on the larger population areas.”
The city of Moose Lake is also in the process of evaluating technology and reach in southern Carlton County, which is also served by Moose Tech.
In addition to the for-profit companies, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is moving forward with a plan that will connect some of the most poorly connected areas on the reservation, and will be a great improvement for approximately 900 homes in and around the reservation.
Bergman, who lives in the northeast corner of Carlton County, said he has reached out to multiple companies to try to get service to that part of the county. It’s not just to be able to email back and forth with his grown children, it’s for children who can’t do homework on the internet at home or people who might like to work from home online.
“A lot of businesses and education have primarily moved access to the internet,” Berman said. “Take the Esko School District for example (which provides technology devices for every student like most school districts in Carlton County). Kids and families that don’t have high-speed internet at home are at a disadvantage regarding studies and research.”
For businesses, Minnesota Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Danna MacKenzie said broadband access is no longer a "luxury" but "critical economic development to make sure Minnesota remains competitive."
"Broadband is one of the tools necessary to ensure these industries are able to compete not only locally and globally," she said.
“Improving infrastructure directly reflects on our economic base in rural Carlton County,” Automba Township supervisor Dan Reed told the board, talking about how rural cooperatives got the telephone and electricity to rural residents. “In both cases, it impacted rural value and we saw great growth in productivity in rural areas.”
The consultants delivered the information on Jan. 3, and left the board to mull over the different ways the county could help facilitate better internet access for its residents. While they did not recommend the county get into the business of providing internet, they noted that the county can choose between minimal local public funding (acting more as a facilitator and catalyst for development) or significant local public funding (using grants and/or financing to actively attract the best partners to provide the needed service).
“Some of the legislators totally don’t understand [high-speed internet access] at all,” said Connie Christianson, County Economic Development director. “The federal government has identified broadband as a public utility, but our state office of the Attorney General does not recognize broadband as a capitalized expenditure so it’s not eligible for the state bonding bill.”
The conclusion of the presentation was that more study and thought is needed before the county will make any decision.
“Keep chipping away for now, and help where you can,” was the short-term advice provided by the CNS officials.
As for Bergman? For now he will continue to talk to his children on the telephone. And enjoy his retirement.