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High speed Internet expands across Minnesota

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SPRING GROVE, Minn. -- John Socha once yearned to work from his Spring Grove home, but was crippled by out-of-date technology — notably his excruciatingly pokey rural Minnesota dial-up Internet access.

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So Socha, a creator of digital-audio content for radio, had to journey nine miles to a Caledonia office for an Internet connection fast enough to let him upload his sound files.

Today, those pesky commutes are a distant memory. Socha is now on the Internet fast lane via a fiber-optic connection from local telecom cooperative Spring Grove Communications, with upload and download speeds roughly comparable to those offered by Comcast in the Twin Cities.

Socha said he’s living the dream: Country living (he’s several miles outside of Spring Grove, population 1,310, and roughly 150 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) with big-city tech.

Though slow in coming, access to high-speed Internet around the state is on the rise. This includes wired access with physical connections via copper, coaxial or fiber-optic technologies, and wireless from cellular operators AT&T and Verizon, providing Internet service to phones, tablets and notebook computers.

Wireless, though, usually complements and does not replace physical access for most consumers because of caps on data usage.

Verizon Wireless, Minnesota’s wireless-Internet leader, has blanketed most of the state with high-speed service. Rival AT&T is hot on Verizon’s heels, offering rapidly expanding wireless-data service of its own.

This means most outstate Minnesotans, if they have AT&T or Verizon, have Internet-access speeds that would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago — provided they’re willing to access their carrier’s data plan.

‘Horse and buggy’

But for wired Internet, much of the state still is in the dark ages.

Socha said a friend of his, living not far outside of Caledonia, still has no option other than dial-up service for wired home Internet access.

In 2013, about a quarter of Minnesotans lacked access to high-speed or “broadband,” according to a state report released this year.

The report’s authors, called Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, define “broadband” as download speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second and uploads of 5 to 10 megabits per second, roughly what a Twin Cities home Comcast user had. Generally, this is understood to be wired and not wireless access.

More recent data in April from Connect Minnesota, a coalition of businesses, universities and government agencies focused on expanding high-speed Internet, pegged broadband use in Minnesota at 79 percent, up from 72 percent in 2010.

“A significant number of Greater Minnesota households are still relegated to the horse-and-buggy days of dial up and many more only have access to a slow DSL connection,” said the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, another broadband proponent.

While most Twin Cities residents have access to what the institute calls a broadband “minimum standard” with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, “fewer than half of Greater Minnesota households have such access,” it said in a recent report.

Minnesota had set of a goal of universal broadband access by 2015, but will fall short.

Supporters of broadband expansion in rural Minnesota did log a victory this year when the Legislature set aside $20 million for such efforts. This, however, fell far short of the $100 million the governor’s broadband task force had recommended.

Craig Otterness, Spring Grove Communications’ general manager, said $20 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket. To put this in perspective, he noted, the cooperative’s own fiber deployment covering just 100 square miles cost $5 million several years ago.

Minnesota, in the broadband sense, is a mass of contradictions, with pockets of advanced technology often surrounded by large swaths of tech-backwards territory.

Fiber, the optical material capable of accommodating vast amounts of Internet traffic, is on the march in Houston County, where Spring Grove is located. The hamlet and several neighboring ones have worked on a joint fiber-optic infrastructure for greater reliability.

‘Big city life’

Indeed, Spring Grove Communications’ 1,300 customers have fiber running directly to their homes and offices, something most Internet-savvy urban dwellers can only dream about.

“We have customers living 10 miles from town, on back roads surrounded by valleys, bluffs with deer, turkey and all sorts of wildlife or next to trout streams,” Otterness said. “They are enjoying high-speed broadband, over 100 channels of TV (which we provide) and many other services we offer. It’s the ‘Big City’ life, away from traffic, pollution, crime and noise.”

Otterness said his customers can get connections with downloads of 50 megabits per second or higher. One user has a 100-megabit connection — comparable to what Comcast gives its business clientele in the Twin Cities.

Joe Deschler, another Spring Grove resident working in the radio industry, remembers how difficult uploading audio files was in the days before his fiber-optic online access.

“When it wasn’t consistent or fast enough, I literally had to jump in my car and drive to the radio station,” said Deschler, referring to a station a half-hour away in northeastern Iowa.

Deschler, who contributes spoken-word content to a couple of stations and is owner of a third station, now rarely has to leave his Spring Grove home due to speedy, reliable fiber-optic access.

“It’s solid and consistent,” he said.

And yet Spring Grove’s surrounding Houston County sticks out as one of about two dozen counties with broadband penetration of less than 20 percent, according to state data. Winona County to the north is at nearly 80 percent, and Mower County to the west is at more than 73 percent.

A lack of high-quality broadband access largely is due to a lack of “robust competition for services,” according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“Like most of America, Minnesotans generally have to choose between a single cable company and a single telephone company for a broadband connection,” the group said in its recent report.

Comcast, which typically provides the fastest speeds, operates primarily in the Twin Cities, the institute noted, while most of the rest of the state is served by Charter and Mediacom.

These companies “have been much slower to upgrade their cable systems,” it said.

The state’s broadband proponents do take pains to highlight success stories.

Locally spawned Internet providers like Spring Grove Communications, serving as alternatives to national providers like Comcast, are an emerging and promising trend in Minnesota, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“Rural cooperatives, mostly telephone but also some electric, have invested significantly in fiber optic connections capable of very high speeds,” the group said in its recent report.

The report focuses on local governments and other civic entities around the state with aggressive broadband-deployment policies.

These include: Scott and Sibley counties; the cities of Windom, Monticello, Chaska and Buffalo; and Lac qui Parle County with its county seat and “Lutefisk Capital USA” Madison. The various localities have adopted a range of approaches, according to the report.

In Lac qui Parle County and Sibley counties, government agencies created partnerships with, respectively, a local telephone cooperative and a broadband cooperative.

“Windom and Monticello built their own city-wide FTTH (fiber to the home) networks in the face of forceful opposition,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s report said. “Chaska and Buffalo have invested in fiber and wireless technologies to connect anchor institutions, businesses and residents.”

The common thread: “When large incumbents declined to provide affordable, fast and reliable connectivity, each of these communities took control of their own situation,” the report said.

Wireless options

Minnesota broadband also includes the mobile variety, delivered by wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to users of smartphones and tablet computers. That kind of high-speed access has become more prevalent in recent years — though some carriers have lagged behind others.

For those who want generally reliable high-speed wireless-data access in most parts of the state, Verizon Wireless long has been and still is the best choice.

Verizon Wireless, like other top U.S. carriers, offers high-speed data service using Long Term Evolution technology, or LTE. The difference: While the other carriers have limited state footprints, Verizon Wireless essentially blankets the state, with certain exceptions such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Verizon Wireless recently concluded its statewide LTE rollout. The city of Grand Marais was the last holdout, the carrier said.

Verizon Wireless also has embarked on major upgrades to its existing network. These partly involve increasing capacity in areas that are congested due to heavier use. That mostly means the Twin Cities — but sections of outstate Minnesota are getting the upgrades where needed, as well.

This is possible because Verizon bought additional spectrum, the term used to describe radio waves used in wireless communications. The so-called AWS spectrum is now at the heart of a Verizon overhaul, one the carrier recently christened XLTE. The name is meant to connote greater speed and higher capacity compared to normal LTE.

Verizon claims that XLTE can deliver faster peak data speeds and a minimum of double the bandwidth compared to standard LTE in high-traffic areas. Many customers can try this out for themselves because XLTE is compatible with many recent-model handsets such as Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and S5, Apple’s iPhone 5s and 5c, and others. Portions of Minnesota with “substantial deployment of XLTE” include the Twin Cities along with Rochester, Austin, Duluth, St. Cloud, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Bemidji and Brainerd, Verizon Wireless said.

“We are building new cell sites for capacity, both for XLTE as well as new cell sites to offload network traffic from existing sites throughout the state,” a spokeswoman said.

Verizon’s archrival AT&T also has been on an upgrade and expansion kick with an LTE footprint in Minnesota that has increased dramatically in the past few years.

Dubbing this “Project VIP,” (short for Velocity IP), AT&T has pushed its LTE coverage outside of larger cities and major traffic arteries, such as Interstate 35, to blanket bigger and bigger swaths of outstate Minnesota. It intends to essentially match Verizon Wireless in statewide LTE coverage by the end of this year.

What’s more, AT&T provides a slower yet speedy kind of wireless-data access dubbed HSPA+ that will typically kick in where LTE isn’t available. The carrier refers to both LTE and HSPA+ as “4G,” the generic moniker used to describe the fastest-available data service.

AT&T likes to brag that Verizon has no such second-tier 4G service as a fallback option for users who can’t get LTE — though in Minnesota that is a bit of a nonargument since Verizon’s LTE is essentially everywhere.

The other two top U.S. wireless carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile, aren’t good options for those requiring LTE in outstate Minnesota. The carriers do have LTE, but mainly in large population centers.

Sprint has LTE in the Twin Cities and Faribault, Mankato, Northfield, Owatonna, Red Wing, Rochester and St. Cloud. The carrier has suffered from Twin Cities performance problems in recent months, however.

T-Mobile also has LTE in the Twin Cities and Faribault, Mankato, Northfield, Owatonna, Red Wing, Rochester and St. Cloud.

What’s more, T-Mobile recently announced Twin Cities and Rochester availability of “Wideband LTE,” not unlike Verizon’s XLTE, for a higher-capacity network. Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of more than a dozen U.S. cities getting this capability, but it does not extend into outstate Minnesota for now.

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