By Mary Jane Smetanka
Minnesota’s small cities are as diverse as the people who live in them. But they’re united in their hunger for high-speed internet, a technology that can determine whether their communities fail or flourish.
Cities have already seen the effects of poor or spotty internet service. In Preston, officials think limited broadband access inhibited residential growth despite the city’s scenic location just 30 miles from Rochester. In North Branch, weak or expensive internet meant residents weren’t able to run businesses from home and had difficulty selling their properties. And during the pandemic, residents of Cook accessed the internet by sitting in cars by the library — the city’s only public building with high-speed service.
What once seemed a luxury is now a necessity for cities that want to thrive in the future.
Pandemic reveals critical need for high-speed internet
While almost all households in the Twin Cities area have access to high-speed wired internet, in counties like Aitkin, Lincoln, Lake of the Woods, Kanabec, Pine, and Yellow Medicine that number hovers nearer 50 or 60%. The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development estimates that 140,000 mostly rural households lack wireline broadband access.
“The pandemic shone a bright light on the need,” says Angie Dickison, director of the state broadband development office. “In a world where there’s tele-everything — medicine, health, work, school — it’s particularly important … Minnesota is definitely making progress, but we still have work to do.”
Increasing internet access and digital literacy in rural areas is one of the goals of the Blandin Foundation, which is based in Grand Rapids and works to strengthen rural Minnesota communities.
“Rural communities need broadband to survive and thrive in the 21st century,” says Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin director of public policy and engagement. “Without it, you can’t attract people. No one will move to your town.”
The job of getting high-speed internet in rural areas and small cities can seem monumental, because internet providers won’t build costly infrastructure unless there is enough density and population to get a return on their investment. Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which is administered by Dickison’s office, tries to solve that issue by providing funds to new and existing internet providers so they can expand infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state.
Since 2014, the program has awarded more than $126 million in broadband grants. Approximately 57,000 homes, businesses, and community institutions like libraries, schools, and health care facilities have gained access to high-speed internet.
“Remoteness is not a barrier to participate in our grant program,” says Dickison. “Our grant program is getting infrastructure deployed to every area of the state.”
Those grants are aimed at helping the state meet goals in broadband development that include ensuring that all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to high-speed broadband by 2022. Minnesota also is aiming to be among the top five states for broadband speed that is universally available to residents and businesses.
This year’s Legislature funded the broadband grant program at its highest level ever, with $70 million committed over the next two years. The money is coming from the federal stimulus bill signed early this year.
The state grant program provides up to half of a project’s infrastructure costs, with grants capped at $5 million. Grant money can be used to pay for costs like project planning, engineering, permits, construction, and installation.
Grants are competitive. The state looks for public-private partnerships, with strong community support as well as an internet provider — which in some cases is a non-traditional supplier like an electrical co-op or a utility company.
Starting such a project can seem daunting in cities with small staffs. Since 2003, Blandin has offered grants and expertise to help communities organize to work toward filling the technology gap. Many cities that have received state grants for broadband expansion started their planning with a Blandin grant.
“We work with communities to find out where they are, where they want to be, and how to get from here to there,” says Joselyn. “To help mitigate the risk for a city, we provide up to 50% of the cost of a feasibility study to plan a broadband network. Providing a matching grant reduces the barrier to moving forward.”
Roughly $4.7 million in Blandin grants has gone to government units in 63 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. But, Joselyn says, “It is not dollars that makes this work. It’s grit and tenacity from communities. The victors are the ones that stick with it.”
North Branch fixed wireless system expands services
In every city, circumstances and solutions vary. In North Branch, officials were wary of incurring debt and didn’t want to burden taxpayers with the cost. Yet something had to be done about the city’s internet service.
Good internet access was available only in the most densely populated part of North Branch. The rest of the city of 10,500 people — an unserved area of about 30 square miles — was rural or lower-density residential. Internet providers weren’t interested in building infrastructure in such a sparsely populated area, so residents had to rely on dial-up or expensive satellite services.
Though the city had been working on the issue for years, the pandemic pushed things to a head. “We knew it had to happen, but we couldn’t find the money,” says Renae Fry, North Branch city administrator. “COVID amped up the urgency. The places where people typically went to get internet access — coffee shops, the library, schools — were all shut down. We had parents and kids needing to be on the service for hours on end at the same time, and it was pretty much impossible.”
Earlier, the city had asked its internet providers to submit plans to expand wireless internet delivery services. Advances in technology made one of those plans more feasible. By mounting equipment on two water towers, a state-owned tower, and three new towers, the expanded technology could serve the whole city.
The fixed wireless system went live in March and is working well, says Mayor Jim Swenson. The final cost was $480,000, indirectly paid for with COVID-19 relief funds. The City Council decided to use those funds to reimburse the city for public safety expenses related to COVID, which created a budget savings that the city could then use for the wireless installation. At a cost of about $100 per household, it was considerably cheaper than other types of broadband expansion.
“Internet is the new required utility,” Fry says. “The economic development implications are huge.”
Cook-area project increases high-speed internet access by 2023
In Cook and nearby areas of St. Louis County, a $692,000 project will add high-speed internet to about 300 business, city, and residential locations by 2023. The city contributed $8,000 toward the project, the state grant was $311,000, and Paul Bunyan Communications invested $380,000.
Cook, Orr, and the Bois Forte Reservation paved the way for the project with $100,000 in Blandin planning grants between 2017 and 2019. Crystal Phillips, director of the Cook Public Library, was deeply involved in the planning for the tourist town near Lake Vermilion.
Only a small portion of Cook’s 575 residents live along the state highway, she says, where internet service is good. Other options have been limited.
Summer residents and visitors to Lake Vermilion expect good internet access, but in Cook the library is the primary way many people access the internet.
The library circulated five hotspot boxes with unlimited data that people could check out for a week. The grant that paid for them has expired, and the Friends of the Library now pay for three hotspots. But with the demand created by COVID, getting unlimited data on new devices was almost impossible, Phillips says.
“We’re a small library, but a busy one,” she says. “During COVID we had the wi-fi on 24/7, with people parking around the library to use it. We have five computers and thousands of computer uses each year. People come in just to check their email. I had one gentleman who didn’t check his email for a year [because of COVID].
“We take [internet] for granted, but our towns are small and remote and we don’t have a lot of options. This is going to be amazing, and a real opportunity for businesses. It should be reliable and much more affordable.”
Underserved locations in Fillmore County to benefit from broadband partnership
Preston’s coming fiber-to-the-premises project will give high-speed internet access to 231 unserved and 26 underserved locations in rural Fillmore County. The partnership between the state, Preston, Fillmore County, and MiBroadband, LLC will cost $3.37 million, with a state grant of almost $1.2 million and a local match of $2.2 million. Preston’s contribution is to provide land for some of the facilities linked to the project.
Preston City Administrator Joe Hoffman says the project will mostly benefit the rural side of the city, where there’s an industrial park and soon, a new state veterans home.
Tourism is important to Preston, and many residents work in Rochester 30 miles away. Hoffman says the broadband project has the potential to make the city of 1,300 more attractive to those who can work remotely and want to live in a pretty rural area.
“We see people from the Twin Cities area who say that instead of vacationing here, they could live and work here,” he says. “And we hear from businesses all the time about how important internet access is for them.
“Broadband is essential for home, e-commerce, and education. We want to stay relevant as part of rural Minnesota, and we need to make sure people have the resources they need.”
More information about the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development and its grants is at https://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband. The office welcomes phone calls, too.
For details about the Blandin Foundation’s broadband program, visit www.blandinfoundation.org/programs/broadband.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.