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MN2020 - Where's my Internet?
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Where's my Internet?

July 17, 2009 By Andrew Guyton, Communications Associate
 
The act of moving into your freshman dorm marks a rite of passage for every student.  It holds the promise of limitless possibility, with new friends to be made and new relationships to be formed, and it bequeaths a very real sense of independence on its residents, most of whom are living away from home for the first time.  But this day held a special meaning for me: it was the first time I had ever lived somewhere with access to high-speed internet.

Growing up, I had always been drawn to technology, both for its novelty and its many practical uses.  I had my own email address by the age of 9 and I built my own computer a week after my thirteenth birthday, but around 2002, things started to change.  The internet began catering to people who were always connected, moving from a dial-up audience to those with broadband.  Websites got larger (and slower to load), online news stories started to contain pictures and video footage, and even online email services weren't immune to this trend, becoming bigger and more full-featured.

It was around this time that I first asked my parents if they'd consider getting high-speed internet for our home.  Sure, it was a little more expensive than what we were currently paying, but we all agreed the benefits far outweighed any issue with the cost.  We'd no longer have to wait five minutes for our email to load, or be forced to wait while online pictures appeared at their own pace, one pixel at a time.  This was a big deal.  We lived on a dirt road in a relatively sparsely populated area of town, but we didn't think that would be an issue.  After all, it was the 21st century, so we surely would be able to receive service.  I asked for the honor of calling Mediacom, our town's cable provider, and asking if their internet service was available at our house, thinking it was just a formality, and I still remember how excited I was as I waited on their line for the next available representative.

"We're sorry- our internet service is not available in your area."  I was floored.  It turned out that our house was just too far away from the nearest Mediacom cable box for the actual physical cable to reach our house.  I was told, however, that if we wished to pay $30,000, that would be sufficient to fund an extension of their internet service to our house.  Needless to say, we politely declined.  Subsequent phone calls to Qwest, our phone provider, were met with the same story- just too far away to receive any kind of broadband internet service.  Satellite internet might have worked, but its astronomical installation costs and near-punitive monthly fees, combined with its relatively low level of service, meant that it wasn't an option, either.  So dial-up we had, and with dial-up we grudgingly stayed.

Flash forward to September 2006, to freshman move-in day at Macalester College.  I was certainly excited about the possibilities offered by the college experience, but part of me was even more excited by what the promise of high-speed internet could bring.  After all, the internet had grown exponentially over the past four years, and there was this exciting new website called Facebook that promised to keep me connected with all my high school compatriots, not to mention this other newfangled site called YouTube, neither of which would have been remotely practical to use at home.  It was truly like a whole new world had opened up: I could now use the internet on my own terms, wherever I wanted and whenever I wanted.  For someone who felt an affinity to technology the way I did, this was a godsend.

The bad news is that we're not the only family stuck in this situation, not by a long shot.  Almost a decade into the 21st century, people all across rural America remain without access to broadband, something that should be utterly unacceptable in this day and age.  But progress is coming, slowly but surely.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed earlier this year allocated more than $7 billion to "expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities across the U.S.," funding which, theoretically, could eventually help provide high-speed internet access to my family and others around the nation.  This is an important first step in bringing America's rural areas up to an equal technological level as the rest of the country, but we need to do more.  As of right now, those families without access to broadband cannot shape the expansion process in any way.   They cannot ask any governmental organization for service to be extended to their area, nor is there an official way to request their local internet providers to provide service.  In short, there is no way to track how this money is being spent, and no level of accountability on the part of service providers to ensure that rural broadband is in fact being expanded.  For those of us still without high-speed access in our homes, and for a goal as important as bringing all Americans up to speed with the rest of the developed world, we need transparency throughout this process.

But now flash forward again, this time to last month.  In what's become somewhat of a semi-yearly tradition, I made calls to both Mediacom and Qwest, again inquiring about the availability of service at our house, and again I was told that we were outside their service area.  Over the last seven years, the internet has seen the meteoric rise of Hulu and Youtube, with communication tools like Gmail, Facebook and Twitter all designed for people with always-on, high-speed connections, and web designers everywhere creating sites designed for the now-majority of internet users with broadband connections, leaving us lowly few who are stuck in the technological Dark Ages in the lurch. 

With these federal funds, we now have a chance to address this issue in a way that will benefit rural Minnesotans, and by extension, the rest of the state.  But this can't be solved by our policymakers alone.  It's up to our local telecoms and municipal internet providers to request these federal funds that will benefit our underserved population, and to give everyone in our great state the opportunity to become a citizen of the internet, as well.

It's time to fix this.



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