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Conquering the 'digital divide' to bring next-gen wireless to farms, rural areas

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, right, receives a tour of the new Midcontinent Communications data center in Fargo from Tom Lynch during his visit to the area on Thursday, Oct. 11. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO — Hubs like the Midco data center here will serve as the "brains" for increasing armies of mobile devices and the "internet of things" that will exploit the lightning speed of broadband and wireless communications.

That's the vision of Brendan Carr, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, who stopped here Thursday, Oct. 11, on a tour of locations in Minnesota and North Dakota that will continue with a field hearing Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Carr, who once worked as a lawyer for the FCC before becoming a commissioner, said it is vital to close the "digital divide" and ensure that even remote rural areas aren't left behind as the world evolves to ever-faster telecommunications technologies, including up-and-coming 5G wireless service.

Before stopping at the Midco data center, which will serve businesses with large data needs, including banks and hospitals, as well as small businesses, Carr visited rural broadband sites in Minnesota. He also stopped at Iteris, a company in Grand Forks that uses big data to improve agriculture and transportation.

Ubiquitous broadband access will be required for "smart farming" and other applications that combine data analytics and cloud computing with operations, Carr said.

"5G is what you need to do that," he said. 5G, shorthand for fifth-generation wireless, will replace the current wireless network, 4G, that connects wireless devices, such as smartphones.

"New York's going to get it, no matter what," Carr said of the expensive 5G network. "San Francisco's going to get it, no matter what."

But it's an ongoing challenge to bring high-speed broadband and wireless to remote rural areas, he said. To do that, the FCC is working on two tracks. One is through regulatory reform, cutting needless regulations that drive up costs.

For example, the regulations used for conventional wireless transmission towers, typically 200 feet tall and serving a wide area, are ill-suited for the coming world of 5G wireless, which uses multiple small box transmitters that serve a much smaller area. By doing away with unnecessary requirements for 5G, the cost of deploying the transmitters is cut roughly in half, Carr said.

The other track is to subsidize communications in rural areas through the Universal Service Fund, he said.

The $12 million Midco data center in south Fargo fits into the evolving world that blends cloud computing and high-speed connectivity, he said. As an example, drones won't need to be equipped with powerful computers, a function that can be handled remotely by a data center.

"The 'brains' are now here instead of on individual devices," Carr said.

Tenant business can rent space in the data center for their computer servers, by the rack or by the room, said Tom Lynch, a Midco data operations specialist. The data center has room to expand, with space to accommodate a second building, he said.

The Fargo data center is Midco's fourth data center; others are located in Grand Forks; Yankton, S.D.; and Sioux Falls. "This is our largest and newest data center," said Justin Forde, Midco's senior director of government relations.

On Friday, Carr will testify at a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing convened by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., "The Race to 5G: A View from the Field."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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