I met Mark Forseth in 1994, when as Chairman of the Traill County Economic Development Commission Mark hired me as Executive Director to help facilitate economic opportunity in the Red River Valley. TCEDC didn’t limit itself to recruiting footloose branch plants, but focused broadly on preparing communities across the county with a seedbed for growth. One of our goals was improving infrastructure, and among our tasks was bringing local dial-up internet access to our rural North Dakota homes and businesses.
Fast Forward to 2011. Mark took on a new job across the Red River with Halstad Telephone Co (HTC), which serves customers in both states. In the meantime, I’ve found myself back in the area, but it took the Blandin Foundation‘s annual Broadband Policy conference (this year in Duluth) for our paths to cross again. HTC was asked to present a Learning Station at the state-wide conference to share lessons from their successful ARRA project which is bringing fiber broadband internet service to customers in rural North Dakota and Minnesota. They had spent some time getting to know their curstomers’ needs, planning flexible infrastructure, and preparing for the future so they were ready to go when opportunity presented itself.
Dan Olsen also came up from Windom, the Cottonwood County seat. Dan runs the City’s Windomnet fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband service, which is now being leveraged by several communities in neighboring Jackson County for service in the new ARRA-funded Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services. Other sessions drew from fiber projects up the North Shore and across Greater Minnesota, as well as digital inclusion projects to encourage all Minnesotans to use broadband to improve their lives. Blandin’s MIRC demonstration communities (including Windom and Worthington) also took the stage to update attendees on the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project.
Other than catching up with old friends, the big draw of the Blandin Broadband conference is marquee speakers on national broadband policy and technology trends. For example, Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel for Connected Nation, prompted a flurry of Twitter hashtag traffic (#mnbb2011). While Washington sets the rules, the future, he says, is being written in places just like this. The non-profit Connected Nation and their subsidiary ConnectMN map broadband infrastructure nationwide, and work to expand access, adoption and use of broadband. National broadband policy, in Koutsky’s opinion, is shifting from guarantees of universal service to promotion of multi-faceted, high performance service as the telecommunications field—wired and wireless—continues to become more (not less) complicated. The Federal role will shift from subsidizing providers to filling gaps in communities, from guarantees of comparable service to incentives for innovation and value. Brent Legg and Bill Hoffman with ConnectMN later walked us through the Minnesota-specific data collection, research, planning and program development in progress.
An afternoon session also let speakers venture into the rarified air of futurism in a panel “Evolving Technology: Where We’ll Be in 2020”. Trends for bandwidth? Device convergence and proliferation will continue to increase demand. Voice is becoming just one more app. Bandwidth will be driven by video demand, which wireless isn’t so good at. The next big thing? Watch social networking—the next generation will drive change. Networks will have to work better together, wired or wireless. And near field communications is creating some interesting opportunities.
One thing remains the same, you have to do your broadband homework; communities who are prepared will be rewarded.