It’s not difficult for Dave Johnson to remember the bad old days. They were only a couple of months back.
He’s the strategic accounts manager for Granite Gear, a 28-year-old Two Harbors company that designs, makes and distributes packs, bags and other sewn goods for the camping, travel and government markets. Until recently, “essentially everyone in our facility was sharing a DSL line,” Johnson says.
But modern business is more than shooting emails back and forth. Granite Gear needs to upload video content and distribute large image files, as well as update its website. Speeds were so glacial, however, that Johnson recalls the company’s art director coming in to work at night “so that he could have all of the bandwidth to himself.”
That all changed in mid-May, when Granite Gear became one of the first businesses to be hooked up to Lake Connections. The company’s art director suddenly could upload a 100-megabyte art file in less than four minutes. Previously, it would have taken hours.
To a resident of the Twin Cities metro, this kind of Internet speed must sound like the cyber equivalent of a horse and buggy. But it’s not unusual in large parts of Minnesota. Though the state instituted a broadband standard in 2010, for many rural areas in the northland, connectivity is still a drag.
Now, though, in and around Two Harbors, Lake Connections is bringing local business into the 21st century—and giving it the ability to reach far beyond the northland. In order to grow and prosper, more and more companies here need that reach.
Lake Connections isn’t a traditional telecommunications or cable company: Lake County, where Two Harbors is located and Lake Connections operates, set up its own broadband provider. So the county owns Lake Connections, which is designed to operate as a self-sustaining business.
In the next couple of years, Lake Connections will connect most of the county and part of neighboring St. Louis County with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 6 megabits, which the state of Minnesota considers high-speed broadband. Speeds of up to 100 megabits also will be available for those willing to pay for it.
Lake County isn’t alone. Other rural Minnesota communities and regions, including neighboring Cook County, have been unable to interest private providers in laying the fiber needed to crank up broadband speeds. So they’ve set up their own entities to do so. “No one was willing to step up to provide this level of service in those areas, so Lake County stepped up to the plate,” Lake County administrator Matt Huddleston says.
For northern Minnesota, high-speed broadband is no longer a nice-to-have. “It really is an economic development tool to attract new businesses to the area, and to retain the existing businesses that we have here,” Huddleston adds. “We look at technology becoming more and more important to businesses in our area—and everywhere for that matter. Access to high-speed connectivity is really a standard now, the new normal. If we don’t have it, we aren’t able to compete for those businesses.”
Lake Connections got rolling when it tapped federal stimulus money available during the Great Recession. Still, it has been a slog. Long winters and rough terrain have slowed progress and added to the $66 million cost initially projected to put in the system.
Attaching lines to poles became difficult when some pole owners resisted. In November, Lake County filed a complaint at the Federal Communications Commission about Frontier Communications over a disagreement on the pole attachment hierarchy.
Still, Lake Connections has been plugging along. And other parts of the state might soon be able to join Lake County. In May, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill allocating $20 million for grants to communities seeking to boost their broadband. An even bigger deal is an estimated $86 million from the federal government’s Connect America fund, which could make extending broadband more attractive to large cable companies that thus far haven’t seen the return on investment to do so.
In short, speeding up rural access to the Internet has been steadily moving toward front-burner status in Minnesota. One of the most active groups pushing for rural broadband is the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids. High-speed broadband “is key to rural vibrancy and rural community health,” says Bernadine Joselyn, the foundation’s director of public policy and engagement. The foundation is helping fund local efforts to “communities that want to plan their technology-enhanced future.”
Another vigorous proponent is the Greater Minnesota Partnership, which advocates for economic development outside the Twin Cities metro. “We need competition, and sometimes the only competition comes from the threat of government [providing] the service,” says executive director Dan Dorman, who was a Republican legislator. Dorman points to small cities like Monticello, where demand for stronger broadband “wasn’t driven by consumers saying, ‘Hey, I can’t upload a picture to Facebook fast enough.’ It was driven by industry going to the city and saying, ‘We need better, more robust broadband.’ ”
What’s more, “the whole notion of entrepreneurship is now tied to being connected,” notes Bill Hoffman, program manager of the nonprofit Connect Minnesota, an information clearinghouse on state broadband capabilities. “If you want to have a business in greater Minnesota that caters to a small audience, or a storefront in your community and town, you can do that, “ Hoffman says. “But if you are connected, you have the ability to significantly grow your audience; and by not being connected, you are losing that chance to be connected to a national or even international audience, [which] is becoming more and more imperative.”
In certain parts of the state, private companies have resisted and even fought community efforts to establish publicly owned broadband services. But rural areas may find that this is their only option.
Both private and public leaders should look at rural broadband expansion as an opportunity for both sectors. Small towns might not seem like good investments for cable providers and other telecommunications companies. But that’s changing, and the Internet is pushing that change. “If there is a customer located in Two Harbors that has offices in Minneapolis or St. Cloud . . . we can make those connections so people can have high-speed connections point-to-point to headquarters or offices anywhere in the world,” says Lake Connections general manager Jeff Roiland.
Companies like Granite Gear are connecting to a worldwide base of suppliers and customers. They have to—and being able to do so boosts the economy of the entire state. Business, after all, isn’t done just in big cities.
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.