New Minnesota broadband report makes disparity clear

If you needed any convincing, the state Commerce Department and the organization Connect Minnesota on Thursday are going to unveil the latest report on the status of broadband availability in the state, and it shows again the wide disparity in access to the Internet around the state.

While nearly 100 percent of households in the Twin Cities metro area can obtain speeds of 3 megabits per second or faster if they want it, the percentage is half that for some outstate counties.

In Cook County in far northeastern Minnesota, only 47 percent of households have high speed Internet access, the report says. Even less connected is Aitkin County at 42 percent. And in the far opposite corner of the state, Lincoln County has 48 percent coverage and Rock County 54 percent. In all, more than 118,000 MInnesota households lack service that would let them do perform many routine Internet functions.

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A four-paragraph aside: The numbers look more reality-based than some of the higher figures in the national broadband map published online last week, which is a little odd because the data in the national map comes from Connect Minnesota. But the county-by-county numbers in the national map include mobile service, and I've talked to several people in the last few days who dispute their accuracy.

For example, the national map says 82 percent of Cook County households have high-speed Internet. But here's how Danna MacKenzie, who has been involved in the county's broadband efforts for years, describes the wireless service at her home:

"I am not able reliably to view YouTube or Netflix from either the Verizon wireless broadband or the AT&T wireless broadband (I pay for both for redundancy because I need access for my job and neither one is reliable). I cannot reliably even view the new broadband map from my home. The connection drops regularly."

The numbers come largely from what companies like Verizon and AT&T told Connect Minnesota they provide. The whole measuring process is continuing, and Connect Minnesota is deploying engineers to the field to do reliability testing to make sure the providers are really doing what they say they are.

But back to the state report coming out Thursday.

It makes recommendations on two fronts: improving availability and increasing the number of people who adopt Internet use.

Regarding availability, one recommendation that caught my eye is to encourage state and local coordination to get economies of scale and promote the efficiency of public investment. It suggests the creation of "gigabit communities" and "broadband corridors," presumably organized by means of a statewide plan.

The report also recommends study of the way universal service fund money could be used to better promote broadband. The Federal Communications Commission has proposed shifting that money, originally intended for rural telephone service, to broadband service.

As far as adoption is concerned, the report urges private-public partnerships to build education and awareness campaigns to get more people to use the Internet. More than half a million Minnesota adults do not have a home computer and 73 percent of those say they don't need one.

Access to better health, education, jobs and government services are the reasons, the report says, to reduce that "adoption gap."

The report also includes the results of a survey of Minnesotans, taken last spring, about how and why they use the Internet.

Statewide, 45 percent of broadband subscribers report that they have cable modem service at home, while 40 percent subscribe via DSL service. Satellite broadband accounts for 5 percednt, wireless card/WiFi accounts for 1 percent, and fiber to the home service accounts for 7 percent of home broadband subscribers in Minnesota.

Why do Minnesotans use the Internet? To communicate with friends and family, send email, and search for information and services and products. No surprise there.

But 31 percent use it to deal with doctors and other health professionals. Fifty two percent look for government information. Twenty percent of employed adults work via the Internet.

Teleworking could also provide an additional boost to the state's workforce, as 17% of retirees, nearly three out of five unemployed adults, and almost one-third of homemakers say they would likely join the workforce if empowered to do so by teleworking.

If you have comments about all the mapping and tallying, Connect Minnesota is eager to hear from you. The best is to go to the Minnesota map (not the national broadband map) and click the feedback icon in the upper left hand corner. If you click the icon after you've navigated to the specific geographic place you want to comment on, the tech folks can see exactly what you're talking about.

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