A shoddy Internet connection in a Minneapolis household might mean someone has trouble publishing a timely reply to a Facebook post, or has to wait to stream her favorite Netflix show.
The same issue in rural Minnesota, where robotics are often used to administer farm chores, might mean thousands of dairy cows miss a scheduled milking.
DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken seized on that example during a small roundtable event at the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) on Thursday, saying it illuminates the economic impact of rural broadband access for states like Minnesota. Leading a quiet discussion around a conference table, Franken pressed for answers on the topic with about a dozen state staffers, federal experts and private-market stakeholders.
Franken told attendees he wanted to take away a “much firmer” understanding of the barriers to true “border-to-border” high-speed Internet. The second-term U.S. senator said he sensed Americans were “conflicted” about the topic.
“We agree … on the goal of everyone having high-speed Internet broadband,” Franken said. “But, are we not dedicating — or are we finally dedicating … the resources?”
Also present on Thursday was DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben, whose agency has pushed for increased state legislative funding for rural broadband grants. Some $20 million worth of local grant money was approved in 2013, with another $10.6 million passed as part of the 2015 budget; grant applications from cities, counties and businesses are currently being accepted, and are due by Sept. 15.
Denise Dittrich, a lobbyist for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said that organization supports full border-to-border access, saying rural students need fast Internet in their homes and in classrooms, where schools use online resources as a supplement or a replacement to textbooks.
“The demands in our classrooms are continuing to grow,” said Dittrich, a former GOP legislator. “So, that class disparity [between districts] will even enlarge.”
Franken, and several others, seemed to favor more and stronger public-private partnerships to get Internet to underserved populations. Building out broadband infrastructure in hard-to-reach places is more expensive, as is its maintenance, and Franken wondered how funding for those projects could be tied to usage — and in a way that could pass a congressional vote.
“One of the things people routinely say is, ‘No tax on the Internet!’” Franken said, recalling failed efforts to extend a federal sales tax for items purchased online. “Trying to explain to people that’s not ‘taxing the Internet’ is hard enough as it is… without actually taxing the Internet.”
Several participants made comparisons to the spread of telephone service and electricity to outstate residents as touchstones for the discussion. JoAnne Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Public Broadband Alliance, spoke of how the spread of plug-in washing machines helped accelerate the spread of electricity to rural areas.
“We are presently looking for the ‘killer [application],’ that nobody talks about anymore,” Johnson said.
Later, Franken asked for clarification on different delivery methods, and was told that fiber could either be sent to a central location, called a “node,” and shared by several homes, or wired directly to an individual’s home. Fiber directly to a home is more expensive, though, as Bill Coleman, a consultant with Community Technical Advisors, observed, its $10,000 price tag is roughly comparable to purchasing a single tire for a premium tractor truck.
Danna McKenzie, DEED’s executive director of broadband development, said she had recently heard the story from a dairy farmer whose milk output was at risk after losing his broadband connection.
Making a connection to her earlier statement, Johnson interjected: “Milking is the ‘washing machine.’’’
Speaking after the discussion, Franken said the anecdote of the milking machine story is a “perfect example” of a story that illustrates the importance of reliable, high-speed Internet, even far away from highly populated areas.
“That’s the case with every business now, virtually every business,” Franken said. “It’s a requirement, it’s not a luxury.”
Asked if part of the holdup on delivering broadband to rural Americans came because, by definition, those regions lack voting power, Franken said that should not be a problem in the U.S. Senate, where nearly every state has its less-populated but important areas.
“Everyone has a significant rural constituency, and understands that, like electricity, which was necessary in the 1930s, broadband is necessary in the 21st century,” he said.