A group trying to bring faster, more reliable internet to rural Minnesota is asking for two things: It wants rural Minnesotans to take its internet speed test, and it wants the Legislature to boost its spending on expanding broadband access throughout Minnesota.
“We wouldn’t accept communities living without electricity or running water and we think broadband is no different,” said Nathan Zacharias, lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. “It is the electrification of the 21st century.”
Accurately mapping who has fast, reliable internet access and who doesn’t has long been a challenge for policy makers, providers and interest groups. Zacharias said the mapping tool offered by the coalition will offer a quick assessment of which areas are served and which are not.
Even homes and businesses that don’t have internet access can take part in the speed test by going to a library or other site where there is access and reporting the address where they don’t have access. Users can also report how much they pay for internet access each month, so that policy makers and rural advocates can assess affordability.
Broadband access has risen in prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, with students and workers trying to log on from home.
Speed test data improves maps
Internet users often like to know how fast their upload and download connections are and several companies offer speed tests.
There are now links to two such tests on the Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development website, including the one offered by the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition and a second run by a private company called Ookla.
Each of those tests provides users important information about their own access. The information is then used for other purposes.
Ookla removes private information from the data and sells it to other companies and government agencies, said Bryan Darr, executive vice president of Smart Cities at Ookla. Companies can use it to determine their next moves, while the federal government is using it to develop a National Broadband Availability Map.
Accurate mapping has been difficult to come by nationally because the old map relied on census blocks and determined a block to be served even if only part of it actually was.
The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, a group of local government, telecommunications companies, libraries, schools, nonprofits and health care organizations, launched its test this year.
Called the Minnesota Broadband Speed Test Initiative, the test not only checks speed, but affordability and lack of access. It will allow the coalition to create maps searchable in more than two dozen ways, including by congressional district, school district, and township, Zacharias said.
In Minnesota, the well-known Ookla has gotten more than 3.3 million tests so far this year, Darr said, while the coalition’s test, which is new, only has just over 19,000. However, that’s a good number for a new speed test, and the data the coalition gathers will be valuable, he added.
“They will absolutely capture data from the public that we don’t,” Darr said.
To take either speed test, visit mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband and click Broadband Speed Tests. The coalition's speed test is also available at mnruralbroadbandcoalition.com/speedtest.
Seeking $35M a year
The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition was hoping the federal government would send another round of pandemic-related financial aid to the states, and that the state would steer $27 million toward broadband access, given how crucial it has proved for working from home and distance learning.
The money could reimburse schools for the hot spots they are providing to students, and boost telemedicine and other access, Zacharias said.
However, state officials have publicly expressed doubt that any new infusion of cash is heading to the states anytime soon.
Zacharias said the coalition would also like the 2021 Legislature to set aside $35 million per year for the next two years for the state’s border-to-border program, up from the current $20 million per year. A governor’s task force had originally requested the higher figure. These grants go to internet providers who grow their internet access networks particularly in unserved, rural areas.
The state is laboring to meet its goals of providing all households with 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload by 2022.
In Douglas County, Katherine Viereck, who lives near Rose City, said she doesn’t have any internet access. She doesn’t even have good cell phone service.
“When my kids come home — they have much more sophisticated phones than we do — they can get text but they can’t receive a talk call.”
She has occasionally seen neighbors logging onto the internet from their driveways.
It’s not an unusual situation, Zacharias said.
“I wish those stories were uncommon,” he said. “We’re looking at something like 15 to 20% of rural Minnesota still doesn’t have access to 25 download and 3 upload.”
Fiber optic cable provides the fastest, most reliable internet service, he said, but it’s costly.
“It would be fantastic if everybody had it but it is a huge investment,” he said. “Hopefully the federal government steps up not just with relief funding but they’re interested in spending billions on this to make this happen nationwide. We know people need it.”