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Broadband providers connect on rural needs in Todd and Wadena counties

Providers pointed to the needs of education on internet services and funding sources available, starting projects early and financial barriers.

High speed fiber optic internet concept
Broadband projects are ongoing in Wadena and Todd counties to bring more internet access.
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WADENA — As internet connectivity improves due to years of projects and increased awareness, broadband providers pointed to the needs of education on internet services and funding sources available, starting projects early and financial barriers.

Providers have worked to decrease rural connectivity gaps in Wadena County with recent projects in Wadena and Staples. Huntersville and Nimrod areas have also noted interest in fiber.

CTC director of business development Joe Buttweiler, West Central Telephone Association marketing director Geri Salmela, Arvig director of business development and sales Dave Schornack and Community Technology Advisors founder Bill Coleman shared during the Todd Wadena Development Summit in March.

A few miles of fiber remains to be laid in the city in 2022.

A recently formed broadband coalition in Todd County expanded from the northwest portion to the whole county. Coleman said the project started with the Blandin Foundation Accelerate program , which includes a 14 week planning process with weekly meetings in the communities. The state has a 2026 speed goal of 100 megabits per second (mbps) for downloads and 20 mbps for uploads, which 14% of Todd County meets as of October 2021.

Residents are encouraged to complete a broadband survey and speed test on the Todd County coalition website. Surveys are also available at Bertha City Hall, Browerville School, local CentraCare locations, The Independent News Herald and John’s Computer Shop in Long Prairie. These surveys help show the demand and how communities are willing to help with projects, as providers said. If you decide to add services after the project, it is more expensive.

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Buttweiler said education and relationships are constants of rural broadband projects, though some conversations will begin fresh with new leaders due to redistricting following the 2020 Census.

“All of our customers have access to fiber and the people that move here are just amazed by it,” Salmela said about West Central. “But there’s some areas that we’ve surveyed where people feel like they’re doing OK because they have a hotspot but they … just don’t know what they’re missing, and they just put up with buffering and low internet.”

To meet the project bandwidth, townships, cities and counties need to be involved. The project funding is competitive as areas submit their needs to providers and providers then decide which projects will score well in state and federal funding programs. Towns have used federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help with project costs.

“That’s not going to go very far because I think the demands and needs for those dollars are so huge out there,” Schornack said about the state Border to Border Broadband Development program and federal infrastructure bill. “The county commissioners and the residents need to be educated on how can they obtain those funds.”

Broadband challenges aren’t disconnected from the supply chain impacts and workforce shortages. Buttweiler said CTC “hardly can get an application” for technicians, engineers and accountants, and providers agree it’s been hard to get applicants who qualify. For example, less applicants are available in the area after the technician program at M State Wadena closed several years ago. Salmela and Schornack said a “big bubble” of employees are also eligible to retire in the next five to eight years.

If your area has a broadband need and you’re ready to work on a project, you can reach out to a provider by phone or their website. Providers encourage people to get started now.

A federal program is available to help with internet costs , which covers $30 of your monthly bill. You can apply online at acpbenefit.org/ or by calling 877-384-2575.

Rebecca Mitchell is a Multimedia Reporter for the Wadena Pioneer Journal and Perham Focus. She loves capturing local stories through words, photos and videos, and providing resources for the community.
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