Critical Infrastructure: Building Broadband Awareness

Image of a physical message board that says Free Wi-Fi.
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

There has been a lot of news lately on President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill and its $100 billion allocation to improving broadband service to Americans. My recent challenge of Life Without a Smartphone has encouraged me to reflect on the possibility of living life with less access to the internet. While I haven’t used my smartphone in more than one month, I still have access to the internet via my laptop and other digital devices. Sure, it’s possible to function in 2021 without a smartphone, but is it possible to function without a reliable internet connection?

It’s not often that we critically think about our utilities. We turn on a faucet and clean drinking water arrives. We flip a light switch and there is light. We go to the grocery store and buy food. We stop at the gas station and pump gas. We open our iPhones and there’s an internet connection. These actions all involve a critical utility, something that we use to ensure our health, safety, and livelihoods. We shouldn’t take these utilities for granted, even though we often do.

The harder you work, the less people notice how hard you’re working. This occurs because your effort makes the task appear seamless. No one knows how hard the power company works, because our electricity works so well that we don’t even notice it (until the power goes out). The same is true for our internet service providers. I personally think little about my internet provider. I’m not even sure the name of my internet provider, because I don’t pay the bill. I just know it works. I want to raise awareness of all the hard work that goes into delivering internet service, and we should consider how difficult life can be for those that don’t have this service.

I’ve been a city dweller my entire life. Even when I lived in a rural community, I still lived in town. This made me a “city dweller,” because I had city water (instead of well water), I had city trash pick-up (instead of trash drop off), and I had broadband internet (instead of little-to-no internet). Today, I spend about 24 hours a day interacting with the internet. That seems strange to say, until I really think about it. I also spend 24 hours a day interacting with the power company, water utility, and several other critical infrastructures, including transportation, fire, and police. These systems are omnipresent in our lives, even though we don’t always consider their impact on our livelihoods.

While connected to the internet, I do a variety of things. I work remotely for my employer. I stream music to keep me company. I sometimes check the news. I occasionally watch a high-definition video clip or a movie. I FaceTime friends and family. I leave my house, and my phone remains connected to high-speed internet everywhere I go. I hardly ever disconnect. My Zoom calls rarely drop. My websites always load. A 2-hour Netflix movie downloads in about 30 seconds. My partner plays Mario Kart online and games with people from around the world without any lag. Even when I park my car in a lower-level parking garage downtown, my phone still gets service. It’s only when I step out of my day-to-day environment that I experience a delay, buffer, or that dreaded “No Service” icon on my phone.

While at work, I talk to my coworkers who live outside of “The Cities,” meaning they live in rural Minnesota. Their experience with the internet is a different story. One coworker told me that her internet is spotty and goes out often. Another coworker said she has to tell her kids to get off the internet when she logs into work, otherwise the bandwidth is too slow. Another said he uses a fixed wireless service provider for his internet. I also talk to my friends who live in rural America. Many use satellite internet, which seems to work okay for most online activities, but streaming media and video calls sometime fail. Others have access to broadband but pay more than $100 a month for the service. Many use their phone as their primary connection to the internet, even while at home. 

Aside from my anecdotal conversations, I wanted to gather more research on broadband access and the initiatives to improve it. Although research on this topic goes back to the 1990s, there haven’t been consistent measurements on this issue because the technology continues to evolve and political opinions differ on measurement standards. The federal government just defined broadband access as an internet connect that can maintain a reliable speed of 25/3 Mbps (that means a data transfer speed of 25 megabytes per second download, and 3 megabytes per second upload at all times throughout the day). This internet speed should allow up to two devices stream a movie and connect a video call. However, many lawmakers say that is not an acceptable speed for an entire household, because a typical household streams several pieces of content and connects several video calls at a time. Many states, including Minnesota, set a standard of 100/20, which would allow for several household members to conduct their online activities.

Minnesota has several creative initiatives to promote broadband development in the state, one of which is the Telecommuter Forward! certification. This program certifies municipalities who are willing to commit to improving telecommuting opportunities. Each community provides a staff member who works with the state to coordinate telecommuting opportunities. So far, 33 communities are certified in this program, all but 3 are located in greater Minnesota.

Map of Telecommuter Forward! certified cities and counties. Cities and counties are located throughout the sate in every region, although only three are located in the twin cities metro.
Map of Telecommuter Forward! certified cities and counties.

The Boarder-to-Boarder Broadband Development Grant Program was created in 2014 and provides funding to new and existing providers to build wired broadband infrastructure in unserved (less than 25/3) or underserved (less than 100/20) geographies. The state expects to allocate $70 million to the program in fiscal year 2022. 91.4% of Minnesotans have access to 25 megabyte internet speeds. The remaining 8%, or 440,000 people, do not have this access and are considered underserved. Only 15% of Minnesotans have access to an internet plan that costs less than $60 a month. This could speak to the vast rural landscape of Minnesota. It’s expensive to live in the Great North.

Map of geographies with with minimum 25/3 internet speeds. Areas not shaded in orange are considered underserved or unserved. Most unshaded area is in the north eastern part of Minnesota.
Map of geographies with with minimum 25/3 internet speeds. Areas not shaded in orange are considered underserved or unserved.

Similar to Minnesota, Wisconsin’s state initiatives include Broadband Forward! Certifications. All of Wisconsin’s certified communities are located in rural geographies. The state also provides broadband expansion grants, but unlike Minnesota, Wisconsin funds projects that enhance wired and fixed wireless services. Only 13.4% of Wisconsin residents have access to fiber-optic infrastructure, which is less than half of the national average at 25%. Fiber-optic infrastructure uses pulses of light to transmit data at exceptionally high speeds and is critical to the future development of broadband infrastructures. 88% of Wisconsinites have access to 25 megabytes broadband, and Wisconsin’s Broadband Task Force aims to serve 100% of Wisconsin residents with 25/3 broadband by 2025.

This is where I start to think about my Life Without a Smartphone Challenge. Sure, 100% coverage of wired or fixed wireless broadband is a critical first step, but 100% coverage of mobile wireless broadband is a close second step. According to Pew Research, 46% of smartphone owners primarily use the internet on their phone. 45% people who don’t have broadband at home say their smartphone is a primary reason why they don’t subscribe to a home provider. People need access to the internet at home and on the go. But it’s not always profitable to put a cell phone tower in geographies where there are more cows than people (I’m looking at you, Western Wisconsin). Local, state, and federal governments should create incentives to bolster mobile broadband service, in addition to wired broadband services.

I should also note barriers to broadband access in urban communities. Many who live in urban areas can’t access broadband because it is unaffordable. Subsidies are available, but they are difficult to navigate and limited to certain income thresholds. In the 2000s, many cities invested in city-wide WiFi, including Minneapolis. However, most of that infrastructure is now outdated. Cities should renew their commitment to broadband access, and pay particular attention to the socioeconomic issues that exist alongside infrastructure considerations. 

Map of Minneapolis public Wi-Fi nodes. Nodes are scattered throughout the city on every block, with the largest cluster in downtown Minneapolis.
Map of Minneapolis public Wi-Fi nodes. Although the service covers almost all Minneapolitans, the data speeds are limited to 6 Mbps. Such speed is considered underserved by the State’s broadband standards.

Where do we go from here? We should continue to pay attention to local, state, and national broadband initiatives. You can search online for your city or state broadband equity initiatives. Check your broadband speed and compare your speed to the benchmarks identified in this essay. What standard does your broadband meet? Create a guest Wi-Fi network for your home and neighbors. Your Wi-Fi could provide a critical connection for your unserved neighbors. Next time you go to a café, observe all the people working on their laptops and ask yourself, ‘are they here because they don’t have internet at home?’ Building awareness is a key first step in closing the digital divide.

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