While hoping for internet access, the wait for those last few miles can last for years.
As part of eight regional broadband discussions across the state, area leaders shared their successful and ongoing broadband projects. Otter Tail County community development director Amy Baldwin highlighted the county’s geographic and cost challenges as well as their recent work with the Blandin Foundation. The county joined the Blandin Community Broadband Program in 2020 after being rated the fourth worst in the state for broadband speed in 2016.
In 2016, 1.75% of households in the county had 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds, which increased to 67.02% in 2021, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Office of Broadband Development. At the township level, connectivity continues to vary with 30 of the 62 townships having less than 50% of households with the above speeds. Though this was again a large increase from previous years. In 2017, only one township in the county had 80-90% of households with those speeds and the rest had less than 50%.
“We’ve demonstrated that there are large areas of Otter Tail County that continue to not have access to quality, high speed internet,” Baldwin shared on Sept. 16.
The county has long had conversations on the underserved and unserved areas of the county, including by partnering with Arvig and Park Region Telephone Company for increased broadband access. While including upcoming projects, about 25% of the county is not served. One of the biggest challenges in funding these projects is the amount of households per mile, which shows the economic benefit for providers and the ability to receive grants. Carter Grupp, a Lead for Minnesota fellow who started in August, will also help apply state and federal funding to broadband projects.
The geographically large county can work against providing broadband resources, including with the lakes and hill areas, as Baldwin said. The seasonal residents in summer and snowbirds also impact the customer base for providers. West Central Initiative director of business and economic development Greg Wagner said clients and customers need to continue asking for these services to expand broadband.
The reality of technology came hard in the pandemic as more people and businesses needed to have these resources for education, healthcare and work. While the state has set speed goals for 2022 and 2026, Baldwin said she sees these goals as more of a minimum due to all of the connectivity changes during the pandemic. With the increased understanding of the need more funding is available, as researcher and contributor to the Blandin on Broadband blog Ann Treacy said. She’s worked in the industry since 1994.
When the county’s federal CARES Act funding became available, Baldwin said having ideas ready due to their work with community partners and the Blandin Foundation helped with the projects of tech packs, computers, smart rooms and public Wi-Fi locations with the Viking Library System.
The county’s broadband focuses include:
Increasing access for kids and schools to coding and STEAM career options, including an upcoming virtual career fair.
Helping businesses with tech assessments that include consultants and matching grants for aspects like new websites or reservation systems to strengthen their business.
Committing up to 25% ($2.8 million) of the county’s American Rescue Plan funds to broadband projects. The total cost for the unserved areas of the county is approximately $40-50 million, according to Baldwin. The county also used $200,00 of CARES Act funds for broadband projects, including Wi-Fi hotspots, equipment and resources for job seekers and students.
The broadband services are also part of the county initiative to attract new residents and address the workforce shortage. And as current and new residents come, Baldwin said she’s received some phone calls about inadequate internet service for residents to work from home.
“What do people need in our county to grow and thrive and locate here and remain here in what people consider basics? That housing, child care and then broadband. That when you're coming from other regions that have really strong broadband access that it’s just an expectation that you think you’ll be able to get it and that’s a really disappointing realization when you may choose to come here to Otter Tail County,” Baldwin said.
There are resources available to Minnesota families for free Chromebooks, monthly broadband service costs, and communities can apply for the Community Broadband Resources Accelerate program through Oct. 22. More broadband financial assistance opportunities are available on the DEED website.