When they moved into a neighborhood near Lake Carlos, however, he discovered that the access speeds advertised by the internet provider were overly optimistic.
“My work is all based off the internet,” he said. “We’re making it work right now, but if anyone’s home they can’t go on the internet at all.”
That means if his wife has to look up a recipe online, he stops working. After all, he wants to eat.
Around Douglas County, internet access is hit or miss. It’s easy to assume, when you live or work with great access, that everybody has the same. The truth is, wide swaths of the county find themselves waiting… and waiting… for pages to download and movies to buffer, and for internet providers to upgrade their homes to a faster speed.
Lots of frustration
An informal Echo Press query on Facebook drew a flood of comments, mostly from those unhappy with their service.
“Don’t even get me started on the upload speed,” wrote Brett Hanson of Nelson. “I could probably drive faster than the speed of uploading.”
Kayla Reigstad, who lives five miles outside of Alexandria, called her service “horse poop.”
“Half the time we can’t even stream on-demand shows due to internet speed and we have the highest offered in the area,” she wrote. “Not to mention our bill is always going up.”
Some commenters were pleased with their access, however.
“I have Runestone internet services out of Hoffman,” wrote Sara Boerner. “It’s fiber optic and is great.”
Internet service reaches people in Douglas County through a variety of methods and companies. Some companies are private, for-profit businesses, while others are cooperatives formed by farmers in the early days of telephone service. Together, they run a mix of wireless (via cell phone towers), copper lines (also called DSL, via phone lines), cable (designed to deliver television signals, not to receive input from homes), and fiber optic, which delivers the fastest, most reliable access.
Help is coming slowly
Since 2014, Minnesota has poured $85 million into grants to help companies extend internet access to unreached pockets of the state. Called the border-to-border grant program, it was suspended in 2018 when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the spending bill it was in, but Gov. Tim Walz is now asking lawmakers for $35 million per year for 2020 and 2021.
The grants would apply to unserved areas (those with internet access below speeds of 25 mpbs download and 3 mpbs upload) and underserved areas ( which get service above those speeds but below the state’s 2026 goal of 100 mbps download and 20 upload).
However, money isn’t going to solve everyone’s woes all at once, said Dave Wolf, CEO of Brandon-based Gardonville. Even as Gardonville runs fiber optic to one new residential customer, it upgrades two old customers, he said.
“At the rate we’re going, it’ll take another 10-12 years to move everyone onto fiber,” he said. “We’ll be able to take on two to three projects every funding year with border-to-border.”
That time frame could speed up, he said, if the federal government also spends more on expanding broadband access.
Fiber optic is prized because it is faster than copper DSL lines, because it can cover a much greater distance and because it’s not susceptible to lightning strikes.
However, many internet companies are still using their old DSL lines because they still work. Arvig isn’t running new copper lines, but it is planning to improve its existing lines near Miltona by adding three nodes, which will improve speeds for 169 homes, said Mark Birkholz, the company’s director of customer operations.
Homes closest to those nodes will see the fastest service, up to 100 megabits per second for download speeds, while those three miles away might only get 10 megabits, he said.
“It’s not very much but you’re into a real subjective area as far as what’s enough,” Birkholz said.
Along the southwestern part of Douglas County, Runestone Telecom Association is promising customers within its service area — including Kensington, Lowry and Hoffman — that they will be able to get up to a gigabit of fiber optic service by the end of 2019.
“That’s why we were set up, to serve,” said Kent Hedstrom, Runestone’s manager.
Plus, it is running fiber optic line to communities outside its service area, including Holmes City and Forada.
“What I heard from the Holmes City folks, there are people with home-based business that have to go into Alex to McDonald’s to use their Wi-Fi because they can’t work from home,” Hedstrom. “We’ve had a few seasonal people say, ‘I’d stay up here a lot longer if I had internet access.'”
Runestone’s fiber optic plan gratifies Rankl, whose neighborhood has been consistently left out as neighboring roads have upgraded to fiber optic.
He and his wife own 10 acres in Runestone’s service area. That’s where they intend to build in about three years, and he said he might well be one of the few who would actually benefit from the one gigabit of service.
Alexandria Light and Power sells fiber optic access to businesses in and near the city, but has considered getting into the residential business, said network administrator Nathan Chan.
“For us to support residential would be a new undertaking for us,” he said. “There is the possibility in the future that we would do something.”