Speed boost: Itasca County sets goal of broadband Internet for all

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Aaron Brown and his wife, Christina, need a good Internet connection.

The two live in Balsam Township, an area of rural Itasca County north of Grand Rapids, west of Hibbing. He runs a widely read blog in northern Minnesota and teaches college courses online. She has her own successful site, Northern Cheapskate.

The Browns pay $130 a month for satellite service – and it's not even fast enough for video conferencing.

“The fact is we live in rural Itasca County, with three kids in the Grand Rapids school district, and we need high-speed internet to do our jobs,” Aaron Brown said in an Itasca County press release, which he helped write. “Our current Internet options are oppressively expensive and prevent us from expanding our services or taking certain jobs."

Itasca County is now setting a lofty goal: Get the Brown family – and the thousands of other residents in the same, slow spot – a modern-day Internet connection.

The county announced the Connect Itasca initiative, the end goal being broadband service for each and every one of the its nearly 45,000 residents.

“I see Internet as a utility like phone and electricity,” said County Administrator Trish Klein. “I also see it as the key to our economic viability. Many feel the same. We just need to band together and make it happen.”

Just over half the residents in Itasca County have subpar Internet access, she said. To determine how to best address the problem, they'll be running a participation survey starting Tuesday, which can be filled out online, or at the Itasca County Fair, by residents. The end solution could be a public, private or joint venture.

“We don’t know what the solution looks like yet,” Klein said. “We are committed there will be one.”

Broadband access in Minnesota

The governor's Task Force on Broadband, formed in 2010, set a goal to get every residents and business access to broadband Internet by 2015. That's a minimum download speed of 10-20 Megabits per second.

The country’s average is 18.2 Mbps, according to Gizmodo.

In the task force's 2014 annual report, it noted 74.5 percent of Minnesotans now have access to that fast of Internet, or better, up from 61.5 percent one year prior. But that still leaves more than a quarter of Minnesotans with what's been deemed unsatisfactory service – and the task force says the state is unlikely to meet its 2015 goal.

Internet access in Greater Minnesota got a boost from the Legislature this year.

Lawmakers approved $20 million in funding to better connect unserved and under-served areas of the state. The Greater MN Partnership – an advocacy group – detailed the spending.

The total was well short of the $100 million in funding proponents had hoped for, WCCO notes.

In a press release, the Partnershiup outlined the stark difference in Web access for greater Minnesota compared to the metro area, with data taken from ConnectMN. It says 92 percent of households in the Twin Cities area have “high-quality broadband” Internet access. Drive outside of the metro, and that number plummets to just 32 percent of households, the group says.

An economic boost

As for the effect it has?

Forbes dug in to a report, which concluded doubling broadband speed for an economy increases its economic output by 0.3 percent. (This report from the Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences Department at Berkeley, comes to a similar conclusion: A 1.19 percent jump in gross domestic product for developed countries when broadband penetration increases 10 percent).

The Forbes author then focuses on the impact rural access can have.

“Getting everyone, however rural, up to 2 Mbits produces a much better return on investment than trying to make sure that urban areas have 50 Mbits, or 100,” he writes. “Which rather makes sense if it is the move from dial up to broadband which produces the biggest jolt of economic growth. … We do know however, that the move from none to 2 Mbits, or from 256 k to 2 M, does indeed produce those growth dividends.”

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