BEMIDJI – Minnesota is making progress toward its broadband access goals, but a new study suggests Internet speed could be an issue in rural areas of the state in the future.
According to a study released Wednesday by Connect Minnesota, almost 62 percent of Minnesota households can access broadband at speeds of at least 10 megabits per second for downloading and six megabits per second for uploading. That’s up a couple of percentage points from last year, but may not be good enough to reach the goal of 100 percent access of similar Internet speeds by 2015, said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chair of the state’s broadband task force.
“If we keep moving at that speed, we’re not going to make it by 2015,” she said. “So we need some things that can be catalytic elements that are going to help us kick-start that number upward a little faster.”
That task force, formed by Gov. Mark Dayton, will present recommendations on how to achieve the state’s broadband access goals next month.
While most of the state has access to some kind of broadband, it may be slower than the state’ goals, Anderson Kelliher said. The study’s release came during a two-day conference on broadband Internet in Duluth.
Meanwhile, another study released Tuesday suggests that the “digital divide” between rural and metro Minnesota may not be about access as much as Internet speed.
A survey from the Center for Rural Policy and Development found that while broadband is available to most people, speed could be the factor that divides the metro and rural areas in the future as technologies that require higher capacity become more important. Speed is not only important to private citizens, but also businesses and hospitals, the study said.
Anderson Kelliher emphasized high-speed Internet is also becoming important in the education sector, as more students use technology like streaming video to learn.
Brad Finstad, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, said that while access issues shouldn’t be ignored, the survey may help policymakers think about the issues a little differently.
“Maybe we really need to focus on speed, too,” Finstad said.
Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor at Paul Bunyan Communications, said the company has been a leader in extending services to nearby rural areas in recent years. He said about 90 percent of its service area will have high-capacity fiber optic cables by the end of next year.
“That was our whole goal … to get these services out to folks who don’t have them available today because it’s certainly vital in a competitive global marketplace,” Bissonette said.
He said cost is one of the biggest challenges in providing broadband to rural areas, adding that recent policy changes at the federal level may make it harder in the future to expand service.
“The cost of a fiber optic cable is the same whether you’re in the Twin Cities or whether you’re in Northome,” he said. “The difference is how many people would be using it and how you can offset it.”