Rural Minnesotans crowd libraries for high speed internet access

The broadband divide is real. Get outside of the Twin Cities metro and high-speed internet access is the exception, not the rule.  All the proof you need is by the people crowding local libraries.

In Princeton, Minn., it’s not necessarily the books that are drawing people to the local library – it’s the high-speed internet connection. In rural Minnesota, these connections are too few, or too slow.

“You’ll be on and you’ll be typing away and all of a sudden everything freezes and you just keep on going and eventually it will catch up,” Mille Lacs County resident Annette Crawford said.

In too many places, libraries are the only reliable high speed access point.

“It’s not uncommon to see cars pulled up when the library is closed -- people using their devices from their car,” East Central Regional Library Director Barbara Misselt said.

The chair of Gov. Mark Dayton’s broadband task force says it’s costing families money.

“Families are able to save over $10,000 a year if they’re connected to high-speed internet,” Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.

Coverage maps show those speeds just do not exist in too many rural Minnesota counties. Cost is a driving factor. In a town, it runs as much as $3,000 to run a home with a broadband line. Get outside of town and it can jump to as much as $7,500, and in some extreme parts of the state it can cost $12,000 per home.

“And what happens here is the companies would love to provide the service, but make that capital investment and recoup the cost on the subscription service over the lifetime of that connection doesn’t make economic sense,” Anderson Kelliher said.

Until the state can provide enough cost sharing with providers to expand hard lines, libraries are likely to remain popular hot spots.

“It’s a huge disadvantage,” Crawford said. “Just because you’re living up north doesn’t mean you should be stuck in the woods, so to speak.”

Gov. Dayton is asking for $100 million for the state’s border to border broadband grant fund. House Democrats this week say they support that. But the governor’s own broadband task force says the need to wire the entire state will actually cost about $200 million.