The focus on broadband is a commitment West Central Telephone, Consolidated Telephone Company and area leaders and organizations have been in, and will continue, for the long-term.

Both cooperatives encourage new projects in unserved areas, as West Central CEO and general manager Chad Bullock and CTC director of business development Joe Buttweiler shared on March 12. During the Todd Wadena Development Summit, attendees thanked the providers for working on broadband issues.

“Our focus has been to the unserved areas,” Bullock said. “But it’s been a steady crawl.”

These are areas that need internet service as more and more of daily life includes online aspects. At CTC, Buttweiler said the membership base has increased to 4.6% over the last few years, with a boost during the pandemic as healthcare visits, church services, school learning and work have come online.

While CTC is searching for new Todd and Wadena county projects, West Central will begin their rural Staples phase two project this year. They received a $465,050 grant from the state for 56 unserved locations in Wadena and Cass counties.

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Wadena County district 2 commissioner Mike Weyer is excited about this project being completed in the Thomastown area. He said the project last year came about 2 miles from his home and is expectant of this one to finish providing service.

The second phase is expected to start as soon as possible and have fiber in the ground by this upcoming winter, according to Bullock. The service will include 1 Gbps download and upload speeds when completed.

“That should fill in the last remaining last gap of unserved area in Wadena County,” Bullock said. “We’re really getting down to the point where Wadena County has very few rural gaps left.”

The optical fiber that both cooperatives use provides the same download and upload speeds, instead of a high download speed and low upload speed. The cooperatives try to stay ahead of the needed projects to provide more access, increase internet speed and add quality services.

“It’s not just the demand for broadband, but it’s also the reliability of the fiber optic connection that’s incredibly important,” Buttweiler said.

With the high costs for broadband infrastructure, the cooperatives regularly partner with one another as well as with Sourcewell and the state for grant funding. The grant programs are a competitive process, and are requiring more entities like the township or county.

The sooner you can work with a provider on a project the better, Buttweiler and Bullock said. And though this is a year-round effort, the cooperatives have a shortened work timeframe because of winter, as Bullock said.

Households are also asked to try going online to a map that tests your internet speed, and if you can get your address there as no internet then more areas can be helped.

“We need more granular and accurate mapping so we actually know where good reliable broadband service is,” Buttweiler said.

A host of lobbying efforts are also important to keep broadband projects moving forward. Minnesota has typically had up to $30 million toward broadband projects yearly and some legislatures have hopes of $120 million over the next biennium, as Buttweiler said. He sees this news as exciting but also that other states are taking the pandemic as a time to see the value in broadband by making $200-400 million available for projects.

The next round of federal funding coming to the counties, townships and cities is another area where Buttweiler sees partnership opportunities for broadband projects.

Here are some broadband happenings in Minnesota:

For more information, visit the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development website or call 651-259-7610.