Is wireless the answer for rural Minnesota?

Posted in Broadband

“Broadband access — and the skills to use it — are fundamental to healthy, resilient communities… It deserves more than a one-off response.” — Dr. Kathy Annette, Star Tribune, April 20, 2015

On Monday we added our voice to the chorus of rural Minnesota voices rallying in response to the House’s decision to zero out all broadband funding. In a Star Tribune editorial, our president Kathy Annette said that opportunity should not be limited by zip code.

Part of the opportunity for rural is tied up in the question: Is wireless broadband the answer to rural Minnesota’s broadband barriers?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve listened to what our rural partners are saying about wireless and what we’re hearing is that wireless cannot be the only answer.

In a Blandin on Broadband post, Janet Keough, a representative of Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative, says, “Wireless internet is not the medium or long-term answer to connecting our rural citizens and businesses to the internet…wireless is only a short-term incremental solution to helping people get a ‘taste’ of what the internet can do.”

Marc Johnson, Director of East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative, posted a letter he wrote to the House saying, “We have wireless providers in our area including fixed wireless, cellular and satellite. In ALL cases the costs to consumers are significantly higher than wired (copper or fiber) services due to high equipment costs, data caps and generally high monthly fees.”

Blandin on Broadband blogger Ann Tracey expounded on Johnson’s letter, featuring five reasons why wireless broadband is necessary but not sufficient.

In short:

  1. You need wired to support wireless
  2. Distance matters so rural areas will still be difficult to serve.
  3. Weather and trees matter
  4. Current wireless options available to users are more expensive
  5. A move to support wireless-only will increase the digital divide.

When the FCC redefined what counts as adequate broadband earlier this year, Chairman Tom Wheeler concluded that wireless isn’t an equally viable option — yet.

“We have great hopes for wireless as a potential substitute for fixed broadband connections. But today it seems clear that mobile broadband is just not a full substitute for fixed broadband, especially given mobile pricing levels and limited data allowances…Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections. While LTE and LTE-A offer new potential, consumers have yet to see how these technologies will be used to offer fixed wireless service.”

On the national stage, wireless has been called out as an inadequate substitution for fixed connections, so is it the only answer for rural Minnesota? We will keep following the conversations happening in rural and in the legislature to bring you the answers.