With the need greater than ever, Rice County and even the city of Faribault have taken steps in recent days to improve access to high-speed internet in rural areas.
At its Oct. 13 meeting, the county Board of Commissioners approved two agreements with private companies to use federal CARES Act funding to expand internet access. The larger of those agreements was with Nuvera, a Prior Lake-based internet service provider. The fiber to home project is slated to go online early next month, providing high-speed coverage for 106 homes in the rural Webster area. The total project cost was estimated at $612,350 by Nuvera, with county CARES Act dollars covering $200,000 of that.
In its request for funding, Nuvera included requests from several local residents as well as Sen. Rich Drahiem, R-Madison Lake, who represents the area at the state Capitol. Draheim lives in a portion of rural Le Sueur County with limited internet access and has pushed hard for more funding to expand access at the capitol.
“High speed internet access is an important piece of life in Minnesota and expanding access to it in rural Minnesota is very important,” Draheim wrote. “It will impact our businesses, homes and schools and bring greater prosperity to the 20th District.”
Without rural broadband, advocates say that rural communities effectively find themselves locked out of the 21st century economy. When communities gain access to rural broadband, residents can enjoy opportunities previously reserved for big city residents.
Before the pandemic hit, only about one in six Americans worked remotely even part of the time. At the pandemic’s peak, that exploded to about half of all Americans according to the Brookings Institute, though that has gone down since.
With many patients too scared to see their doctor in-person, telemedicine has also exploded as a result of the pandemic. Almost overnight, local providers like Mayo Clinic Health System and Allina Health went from providing almost no care virtually to using the technology for most appointments. While the technology to provide a significant amount of health care virtually has been available for years, the need has never come along until now, and both providers and insurers had been slow to embrace it and not until March 30 did the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would reimburse physicians for telehealth visits the same as for in-person visits.
Local schools have been among the most affected by the transition, with many families struggling to afford or access the internet they need. Faribault Public Schools ESL Coordinator Sambath Ouk said that for many families who have lost jobs during the pandemic, even reduced price internet is difficult to afford.
“You’ve got (families) that have lost jobs and are struggling to pay rent,” he said. “You’ve got to meet your immediate needs first.”
Ouk said that the Faribault Public Schools have helped families access affordable internet and was hit with a deluge of requests for internet hotspots. With only about 15 hotspots left, Ouk worries the district is about to run out.
“I am very, very nervous we won’t have the resources to meet the needs for our families,” he said.
Nuvera’s President and CEO Glenn Zerbe, said that public-private partnerships to expand internet access in rural areas are common. That’s because the cost of extending the service to each individual household is often exorbitant in rural areas.
“With the state, when we do border to border grants it’s typically 2/3rds private money, 1/3rd public money,” Zerbe said. “Federal grants tend to be more 50/50.”
Zerbe said that while service is currently available in most of the area covered, it’s not fast enough for the increasing needs of many telecommuters, students and others. To Zerbe, federal and state goals for speed are too far out, even if the state were on track to hit them.
“Our standards are higher than those,” he said. “We don’t think those have kept up with current demand.”
NorthfieldWiFi is the other local firm that has received backing from the county as it works to improve internet access. Founded in 2006, the company provides high-speed broadband internet to residents located in rural areas throughout the region using cutting edge fiber through the air technology.
Co-owner Nate Lyon noted that without having to lay cables underground, the process of getting high-quality broadband is much cheaper, enabling the company to skip the line for grant funding and overcome barriers faced by traditional broadband providers. The technology comes with both opportunities and challenges. Lyon noted that trees, hills and other barriers can pose particular challenges to getting a customer a strong connection, in most cases a direct view of the tower is needed for the technology to work.
To expand its service, Northfield WiFi needs access to area towers so it can install its equipment. At its Oct. 13 meeting , Faribault’s City Council signed off on plans to install six NorthfieldWiFi antennas on the top of the water tower located at 1225 Parshall St.
According to council documents, staff were willing to rent space on the tower for NorthfieldWiFi’s use after determining that it did not conflict with the tower’s operation. The lease will run for five years, starting at $2,500 and increasing by at least 3% each year. While the city itself has robust internet access, many neighboring rural areas have limited to no broadband access. Lyon said that he’s heard from potential customers in those areas clamoring for help.
NorthfieldWiFi also reached an agreement with Rice County that will enable it to access about $89,000 in CARES Act dollars to help cover the cost of installing its equipment on several area towers in rural portions of the county.
Included in the packet prepared for the county board was a map showing the status of broadband internet in Rice County. It showed that while Faribault, Northfield and a large area surrounding Lonsdale are well served, many rural parts of the county are not. The map showed that Richland, Shieldsville and Wheeling townships are particularly poorly served, with many residents having no access to broadband whatsoever. Several other townships, including Morristown and Walcott have many “underserved” areas.
Despite the lack of internet in all of those areas, Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted has said that when up against other jurisdictions, Rice County has a hard time competing for those dollars because it isn’t seen as “high priority” compared to other jurisdictions.
As for NorthfieldWiFi, its projects are designed to focus on reaching customers in those most underserved areas. Just one transmission location will be built out upon initially, with more added subsequently as coverage gaps are determined.
Lyon noted that the use of CARES Act dollars is limited, and only going to cover the cost of the equipment for each site. Internal equipment costs and lease agreement costs will still be paid for by NorthfieldWiFi.
Still, that’s enough to enable the projects to proceed full steam ahead. County Commissioner Jeff Docken, whose district covers rural western Rice County, said he was pleased that thanks to CARES Act funding, much needed advances in internet speed are coming.
“In just a short period of time, it looks like we’ll increase our coverage all over the county,” he said.
Taking a quick break between votes, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar took part in a conference call with Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation Wednesday to discuss how small businesses and childcare providers in the area are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday she turned her attention to southern Minnesota cities, speaking with several of the region’s mayors, including Faribault’s Kevin Voracek.
“The fact that we have always had a strong economy in southern Minnesota has really put the lack of childcare and housing under the magnifying glass,” the DFL senator said. “But I know you’ve still had your economic hits and that they have hit hard in different ways, particularly in tourism and hospitality.”
Even before the pandemic, southern Minnesota has a serious lack of childcare, but since COVID-19, the issue has become even more severe.
While Klobuchar said she is strongly advocating for another COVID-19 stimulus package, she wanted to learn more about the immediate impact the first package had on the region and how more of it could be helped. SMIF President and CEO Tim Penny said foundation staff has put in a first class effort on top on their regular workload to deliver relief to areas in need.
“We’ve received some funding from the Minnesota Council on Foundations and other donors, along with some of our own money, to put together $255,000 for recovery grants for early childhood care,” said Penny, a former Congressman. “With that, we were able to put 520 grants out the door, roughly 480 to in-home providers and the others to center providers.”
According to Rae Jean Hansen, SMIF vice president for early childhood, the grants were only able to cover about one-third of the providers who requested relief funding.
“We had to cut off the funding once we ran out, but we have been trying to support them in a lot of different ways,” Hansen said. “Many are struggling with having less kids while gaining additional expenses, it’s an every day kind of changing thing.”
One of the programs SMIF has been able to offer has been a series of virtual trainings to help providers keep up with their ongoing education requirements. The final piece of this first round of trainings concluded Thursday, though they are looking to do more in the near future.
“The social and emotional impact on the families and the kiddos has just been hard to manage,” Hansen said. “We do have a current grants program right now to address some issues using $200,000 of funding from the Minnesota Department of Education, but we know we will be overwhelmed with requests, so we are looking at partnerships moving forward to help meet the needs out there.”
Penny said SMIF is hoping to do another round of grants for early childhood education providers early next year, though it may depend on if Congress is able to pass another stimulus package.
Klobuchar also asked how small businesses are faring. Penny said SMIF received some Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars from the state to assist small businesses, but they were only able to help about 900 of the 5,000 applicants.
“We are working on getting the final grants out the door for that program, and in total we’ve provided about $9 million in help over the last month,” Penny said. “But the need is about five to six times greater than the funding that was available.”
Pam Bishop, SMIF vice president for economic development, said some of the greatest needs she saw from businesses aside from needing help with paying bills came in the forming of e-commerce needs. She said many applications asked help learning about technology and bringing their businesses online.
“We had to figure out how we could help educate and bring people the knowledge of how the pandemic is changing how business happens,” Bishop said, adding that the Prosperity Initiative specifically looked at helping bring minority business owners online. “These individuals are still trying to grow and expand and many do not have access to the simple technology needs we take for granted now.”
Chat with mayors, administrators
On Thursday, the senator took a few minutes to talk with mayors and city administrators from four southern Minnesota cities. Klobuchar held the virtual event as a way to get a sense of the needs in greater Minnesota amid the pandemic as she continues to lobby for a new federal stimulus package.
Faribault Mayor Kevin Voracek and City Administrator Tim Murray were on the call, along with city leaders from Austin, La Crescent and Windom.
Klobuchar opened up the call by saying she believes that residents of greater Minnesota and other rural areas across the country haven’t gotten enough attention from policymakers, due largely to case counts that have stayed lower in rural areas. In addition to rising case counts, Klobuchar noted that the rural hospitals and small businesses which form the economic backbone of many southern Minnesota have been put under particularly grave distress by COVID-19.
In Austin, longtime Mayor Tom Stiehm lamented that many small businesses have been forced to shut down, in some cases for good. Others have been so desperate to open back up that they have failed to adhere to COVID-related guidelines.
“It’s been a tragedy for a lot of people,” he said. We’re not here to put businesses out of business, but we will demand compliance when it comes to state masking guidelines.”
In Faribault, several local bars and restaurants have been forced to close amid the pandemic, including one of the city’s most iconic establishments, Grampa Al’s. Klobuchar said that beefed up testing could help the state to reopen safely and is something lawmakers should prioritize in any stimulus.
“It shouldn’t just be the NBA or the Big 10 that’s doing that testing,” she said. “Having enough testing so everyone can do it could make a big difference.”
Compounding the issue are the unsolved issues greater Minnesota has faced in recent years with affordable housing, childcare and access to high speed internet all lacking. Providing assistance in those areas could go a long way toward helping families get through the pandemic, Klobuchar added.
As a silver lining, Klobuchar noted that the pandemic has led to a rapid increase in the use of telecommuting, as well as online learning and telemedicine. She said that as long as region has the broadband infrastructure to accommodate it, the pandemic could open up new opportunities for rural communities to grow.
“People across the country could start to realize that they can enjoy the benefits of their small towns, while still doing jobs in other places,” she said.
Voracek, along with the other mayors, delved into how Faribault has utilized the CARES Act’s funding for the betterment of the community. Faribault, which received almost $1.8 million in CARES Act dollars, moved as quickly as it could to assist struggling businesses.
“We decided to make sure that we supported our community before we supported ourselves,” he said.
Additional assistance was doled out, with another $150,000 for small businesses, $400,000 for local nonprofits and $200,000 in direct housing assistance. Even after all of that, the city still had about a $500,000 remaining, which it put toward public safety and other eligible expenses.
Voracek said that by supporting local businesses, the city moved to ensure its tax base would remain strong in future years. He also praised local manufacturers for taking the pandemic with the utmost seriousness, highlighting Daikin Applied’s policy of shutting its factory down for a “deep clean” after a positive test.
Murray noted that the impact has been felt differently by businesses within the local economy. On one end of the spectrum, Murray noted that Trystar, a manufacturer of temporary electrical power units, has moved into a roomy new facility amid record sales.
On the flip side of the equation has been the city’s hospitality industry. Overall, Rice County has one of the largest hospitality industries in southern Minnesota, but funding provided by the state and federal government has not been enough to prevent the industry from weathering severe damage.
“Our restaurants, bars and hotels are really hurting,” he said.
Voracek closed out the call by thanking the senator for her efforts to get funding for rural broadband initiatives that are particularly needed in the age of telecommuting, online learning and telemedicine. He noted that without that aid, expansion of broadband in low population areas is often impossible for companies and their partners in local government to afford.
For her part, Klobuchar promised to fight for a robust program of assistance for local governments in any federal stimulus. However, she noted that negotiations between President Donald Trump, a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-majority House have failed to produce consensus.
House Democrats have pushed for and passed a bill of more than $2.2 trillion in stimulus, which would include aid for local governments. However, Senate Republicans have only been willing to agree to a roughly $500 billion package that doesn’t include that funding.
Notably, President Trump has in recent days favored a larger stimulus closer to that preferred by House Democrats than the one backed by his fellow Republicans. Regardless of where negotiations end up, Klobuchar said it’s very likely that any agreement would have to include support for local governments to secure bipartisan support.
“We’ve got the head of the Federal Reserve say it would be tragic if we didn’t have a bill,” she said. “We need a bridge to where we have a vaccine.”
Being a farmer is hard work, and living through a pandemic doesn’t make the job any easier.
The Farm Business Management program, available at South Central College, could benefit farmers as they navigate tough decisions, and thanks to Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding fro the federal government, enrollment could become more affordable. As part of Gov. Tim Walz’ $7.7 million plan to support farmers, agriculture producers and meat producers negatively impacted by the pandemic, the program will receive $250,000 in scholarships.
South Central College is one of eight colleges throughout the state to participate in the program, employing 16 FBM instructors who served 612 farmers last year. These instructors work one-on-one with farmers and producers to help them set goals, identify resources and improve operational skills.
Brad Schloesser, SCC’s dean of agriculture and director of the Minnesota State Southern Agricultural Center of Excellence, met with officials from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Northern Agricultural Center of Excellence this week to establish plans. He expects to start taking applications for the scholarships in November.
Scholarships of $1,400 will be available on a first come, first served basis, which allows students to enroll in the FBM program at 75% of the full cost of tuition. He anticipates roughly 175 farmers across the state will benefit from the scholarship.
“My hunch is there’s probably more demand out there than what we’ve got resources for,” Schoesser said. “If exceeding the number of applications, we’ll surely share that with those who make decisions and advocate on behalf of those who are producing.”
Shloesser noted a wide range of challenges farmers and producers may have encountered, and continue to encounter, during the pandemic. Some have dealt with broadband issues, and others developed health concerns, namely in terms of mental health.
Even before the pandemic, Schloesser noted circumstances like weather and farming market weighed heavily on the minds of farmers, contributing to mental health concerns. In partnership with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, FBM provides a contracted mental health service to farmers.
“No other state in the whole country has those types of support efforts like we have here in Minnesota,” Schloesser said.
On a typical day, FBM instructors visit the farms of their clients and tailor their work to whatever the farmer or producer needs, whether it’s help with starting an operation or using technology to obtain mental health counseling. During the pandemic, FBM instructors have conducted online video calls. Farmers and producers enrolled in the FBM program might seek information on farming practices or cash flow needs, or they might want to know more about producing new grains or raising different livestock. They might seek advice on barn construction, land drainage or manure application.
Faculty members may have their own areas of expertise. Some are more passionate or experienced in livestock, others in crop production and others in transitioning farms from one generation to the next. Schloesser said some FBM students are interested in transitioning into organic farming, and some might produce non-traditional products, like cabbage, to use for sauerkraut.
“All individuals are well-prepared to assist farmers,” Schloesser said of the FBM faculty. “This program will provide farmers some relief and may stimulate awareness.”