With COVID-19 and Gov. Tim Walz’s “Stay at Home” orders forcing Minnesotans to work and study from home, a lack of access to broadband in many rural areas throughout the state is being felt more acutely than ever before.

Expanding access to broadband has been a priority of local legislators and a rare issue of bipartisan consensus at the capitol. Current state law has set a goal of ensuring that every Minnesotan has reliable access to the internet. The goal is to achieve universal coverage with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. In 2026, those targets will rise to 100 Mbps per second and 20 Mbps per second, respectively.

Leading the charge to expand broadband access been Gov. Tim Walz. The first greater Minnesota resident to be elected governor since Rudy Perpich in 1986, Walz served as representative for the largely rural 1st Congressional District before his election. Earlier this year, Walz allocated more than $23 million in funding for rural broadband projects and asked the legislature for an additional $30 million. In announcing the grant awards, he said that internet is far from a luxury for rural Minnesotans.

“We all know this is far more than just a nice-to-have thing or Netflix streaming in your home,” Walz said at a Capitol news conference. “This is an economic development tool. It’s absolutely critical to equity in education and opportunities across the state of Minnesota.”

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 employment and educational opportunities previously reserved for big city residents.

Rice County Commissioner Jeff Docken has long championed boosting access to high -peed broadband in his mostly rural district. Docken, a farmer, believes that high speed internet has become an invaluable tool for agriculture, small businesses and telecommuters. However, Docken doesn’t expect the state to come near its goal of hitting 100% broadband connectivity by 2022. At best, he said that a five- to eight-year timeframe would be more realistic.

“Right now, there’s no way the infrastructure could get in place by 2022,” he said.

Galen Malecha, who represents most of Northfield on the Board of Commissioners, said that in the southeast and southwest corners of Rice County there’s no broadband service at all and no plans are in the works to cover those areas. Malecha pledged that the board would continue to work on the issue until every Rice County resident has satisfactory access to broadband. However, he said that the economic equation makes attracting providers a challenge.

Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann said that during the “Stay at Home” order, unequal access to internet was felt acutely by the district’s rural residents. Hillmann said that given how essential the internet is to modern society, such a discrepancy has deeply unfair and unequal effects that must be remedied.

“I have felt for a long time that access to high speed internet should be treated like a utility, no different than telephone access like heat, water,” Hillmann said. “But you can’t expect a private vendor to lay out a tremendous expense to serve 4-5 customers. There has to be public investment., as there was with rural electrification.”

Locally, portions of both Rice and Steele counties remain under served. Mike Wilker of Jaguar Communications said that the further a person gets from Owatonna, Northfield or Faribault, the greater challenge they are likely to have connecting.

“As you get farther outside bigger towns, service is not as good or in some cases nonexistent,” he said.

Jaguar, which was recently purchased by Indiana-based telecommunications firm MetroNet, delivers voice, video, and broadband telecommunication services over its 2,000-mile long fiber optic network ring. Currently, Jaguar covers a wide service area, including all or part of 13 counties throughout southern Minnesota. With backing from the state and federal governments, Wilker said Jaguar is working to expand and improve its coverage further, one customer at a time.

In western Rice County, Blue Earth-based BEVCOMM is working to expand and improve its services. CEO Bill Eckels said that the company recently completed an improved network for Morristown residents and is in the process of hooking them up to it.

BEVCOMM recently purchased Lonsdale Telephone Co., which serves Lonsdale and Morristown. In January, the governor announced that BEVCOMM has been awarded more than $2.5 million in grant funding for three separate broadband projects.

Roughly two thirds of that funding went to a project that will boost broadband speeds in northwest Rice County, northeast Le Sueur County and southern Scott County — an area which includes 417 households, 88 farms, 59 businesses, and 4 “community anchor institutions.”

Other local projects have struggled to acquire funding in recent years. Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted said that with state grant funding limited, dollars have tended to go to areas seen as “higher priority” than Rice County.

“We know there’s underserved areas, but when you’re competing for a small pot of money it’s a challenge,” she said. “We’re not as underserved as some other areas … so we tend to miss out.”

Without access to broadband, many rural residents are instead being forced to turn to satellite providers like HughesNet. While it can provide basic service, Northfield Schools’ Hillmann said that it’s expensive, and quality is sometimes iffy.

“(Wireless) is better than nothing, but it’s expensive and comes with many limitations,” said Hillmann. “It doesn’t provide the same quality of bandwidth that you can get in the city.”

Still, technology is improving, and wireless broadband is beginning to take up a larger and larger share of the market. Regionally Northfield WiFi is leading that trend, with towers in eight local communities providing service to city and country residents alike.

While the technology has enabled rural residents to access levels of speed they were unable to access previously, it does come with challenges. Northfield WiFi co-owner Nate Lyon said that trees, hills and other barriers can pose particular challenges to getting a customer a strong connection.

However, thanks to its unique service model the company has been able to invest its own money into expanding services, rather than waiting for any sort of grant funding. As a result, it’s been able to expand services much faster than other companies.

“America is so far behind because people spend so much time waiting for grants,” he said. “We see a need and we work to cover it.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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