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Rural broadband to continue expanding in Wadena, Otter Tail, Todd counties

It's only been about a year since Ross Olson recalls the Bell Hill Recovery Center near Wadena was connected to broadband internet through West Central Telephone Association (WCTA). Just last fall, he finally was connected to broadband at home as well.

"I've gotten so used to it," Olson said. He can't remember how he functioned without it.

Whether through training via webinars or submission of paperwork online, Olson now enjoys dependable service across the world wide web at work and streaming of videos for his grandkids at home.

That's a pleasure many in rural areas in the region are waiting to enjoy. One large project WCTA is taking on this spring is Wadena Rural Phase III. It's a project set to serve 189 unserved households and 13 unserved businesses within Compton Township in Otter Tail County as well as portions of Wadena Township in Wadena County and in Stowe Prairie Township in Todd County. In a funding partnership with the State of Minnesota and several regional development organizations, West Central Telephone Association will improve broadband service levels to 1 Gbps, exceeding the 2026 state speed goal. Students and instructors will be able to complete their work from home; healthcare professionals will have access to medical records and the ability to provide telehealth services; and businesses and farmers will have access to applications and online tools to boost their efficiency.

The total eligible cost of the project is $1,805,390, a local match is $902,695 and the Wadena Rural Phase III grant is worth $874,581.

Another nearby project by WCTA is in northern Todd County.

This last mile project will serve 209 unserved households and 6 unserved businesses within portions of Staples Township and Villard Township in Todd County.

Marketing director for WCTA, Geri Salmela said WCTA recently had a meeting involving residents in the new fiber area in Phase III and about 75 residents came out to show they were interested in getting the fiber to their home.

Salmela said with fiber going in the ground this spring they expect people to become connected to the fiber-optic network by the fall.

Salmela said it's surprising how many people still don't have coverage in rural areas. Many in the region don't have great cell phone coverage either.

"There are huge pockets that have no access," Salmela said.

According to Broadbandnow, a website that tracks broadband coverage in Minnesota, about 85 percent of Minnesota residents have access to 100 mbps or faster broadband.

Salmela said as customers get connected it's important for them to reach out to state representatives and let them know the difference it makes in their lives. That could be key in making sure more funding is approved for the remaining rural areas of the state that are left to deal with spotty, hit and miss connections or none at all. Salmela said normally projects would be funded for the year, but that has not happened this year, leaving her skeptical if the next projects planned could get necessary funding.

She suggests residents contact Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and let them know that the Border-to-Border grant project is very important to them. She also suggested contacting area legislators to show them the need.