Broadband in every pot

Blandin Policy Seminar Mankato

I wonder if our grandparents spent as much time debating pavement, as we do debating broadband infrastructure.

Indulge me a moment. Let’s go back a dozen years to the mid-1990s. I lived and worked in a small town in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. We had to dial long-distance to access the internet. Yeah. Long-distance. Dial-up. Remember those? I have felt so good about getting local 48k dialup those many years ago that I still cling to my (relatively) inexpensive dialup connection. And the same email address I’ve had since then.

Minnesota, like many states, has been continuing to move forward with the on-going debate to improve access to information technology networks. The Blandin Foundationhas been a force prompting our better natures to all work together and figure it out. Ahead of a Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force meeting in Mankato, consultant Bill Coleman put on a Broadband Policy Seminar to promote “informed public participation”. Ann Treacy (Bill’s partner at Blandin on Broadband blog) posted slides from an earlier seminar Up North the Mankato presentation:

About two dozen participants attended the seminar at the Region 9 Development Commission’s office. There were elected officials and staff from the cities of Jackson, MN, Red Wing, and Northfield; representatives from libraries and school districts, wired and wireless providers, and us economic development professionals trying to tie it all together. Former Congressman Tim Penny, president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, even paid a visit.

After a bit of global comparison, we mostly focused on a wonderful term: Ubiquity. We hashed over the Connected Nationmaps (consensus: they may not be terribly accurate, but better than anything else we have) and the challenge of reaching the final mile(s) out in rural areas. We discussed schools and libraries, ILECs and duopolies, fiber to the home and capacity compared to priority, wired and wireless (and the tyranny of T1 backhauls), and the sole certainty of technology: “People will fill whatever pipe they have available.”

The primary question people seemed to focus on was this:

Is Broadband an essential utility or market service?

Concensus? Yes. Broadband is both. Information technology has at it’s core become a basic utility the same as streets, electricity, water and sewer.  In schools and libraries there are mind boggling issues of social equity, workforce productivity and sustainable citizenship at stake (There’s an entire dedicated blog in that concept alone).  At the same time, there are a plethora of choices and options, bells and whistles and it is very much undecided where the line is between essentials and services.

Like many of these meetings, I don’t know that anybody in the room heard much they didn’t already know. It was a pleasure hearing from smart people who are very interested in creating innovative communities. The value (for me anyway) is putting the information in context of the broader situation and tying it all together. For example, I’ve browsed the discussions here and thereon how we define what counts as “broadband”. When I’m sitting at home on 48k dialup, just about anything would qualify to me. However, the folks in the room took apart the Federal standard (768k down, 200k up) and dissected it–where did those numbers originate? what do they mean for most users? what do they mean for education? innovation? economic development? what happens if we continue with asymmetrical standards in a future cloud computing environment? how is that going to affect our positions vs. Europe and Asia?

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers on the one hand, and in the broad political concerns on the other. It’s easy to say we need a computer in every home and a broadband connection to every computer. It’s even easier to dismiss the concerns of the folks who dismiss our concerns.

It’s obvious isn’t it? If I like it or not, dial-up isn’t going to cut it much longer.

I like gravel roads. In the last century, gravel roads were a huge improvement on dirt game paths, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need concrete and asphalt highways today. Not every home is going to have pavement to their front door, and not every home is likely to have fiber to the curb*. But just because we can’t do everything everywhere doesn’t mean we are absolved from doing what we can for our communities where we can when we can.


[ 10 Aug 09 edit update slideshare presentation ].

(*Fiber to the Home: FTTH; Fiber to the Premises: FTTP)

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1 Response to Broadband in every pot

  1. John says:

    Gotta get the trackbacks working one of these days…

    Write-up of Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force meeting Friday, after the session I attended. With some video of public comments from schools & libraries–talk about a bandwidth hog 🙂

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