Rural Broadband About More Than Surfing Internet

Dalton Fitch likes videos, no surprise for a 10-year-old boy.

But for him, watching videos and using other technology is more than pleasure.

As a youth who suffers from autism, technology is a way that Dalton can connect to the rest of the world.

“He is extremely interested in anything visual,” his mother, Kirsten Klang, said. “That is how he learns.”

However, Dalton usually cannot connect to the internet for videos and other online aids because the family lives in a northern Minnesota area without wired internet service.

“He is so smart,” Klang said. “But I just don’t have the resources to get him as much internet as he could use.”

The satellite internet service Klang uses is spotty, at best, and costly for how little good it provides.

The boy’s story illustrates a push to expand high-speed Internet, known as broadband, in rural Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton set a goal of making broadband available to every home and business.

Massive geographic gaps remain in wired broadband service that meets state guidelines across greater Minnesota.

The state’s goal, under law, by 2022 is for everyone to have access to internet capacity of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits upload speed. The state Department of Employment and Economic Development says 252,000 homes remain without access to wired high-speed internet service.

Since 2014, state grants combined with local government, federal government and private money have added more than 25,000 homes and 3,000 businesses to those getting adequate broadband. The U.S. Census Bureau reports there are are about 2.3 million households and 490,000 businesses in the state.

This year’s state Legislature approved spending $20 million to expand broadband, although that was just a fifth of what a broadband task force recommended.

The government and private investments mean that not everyone’s story is like that experienced by Klang and her son.

“In general, we are seeing the momentum and the interest in the program increase,” Executive Director Danna Mackenzie of the state’s Office of Broadband Development said about state broadband construction grants.

State grants can be used for up to half of construction costs, but Mackenzie said that percentage may need to rise as homes become more expensive to reach.

Private telephone companies have launched most of the new broadband service, but Mackenzie said rural electric cooperatives also are interested in getting involved with telephone cooperatives. “This is a new model we are excited about.”

Projects that cite health care, education and economic development benefits receive extra credit when state officials split up grants.

Mackenzie said that broadband expansion is too new for many success stories.

Kristi Westbrock of Brainerd-based Consolidated Telephone Co., better known as CTC, may not have a book full of success stories, but she said it is easy to see the trend.

Area economic development agencies and real estate agents keep asking if specific areas have broadband.

“They are not moving to a place without broadband,” said Westbrock, the telephone cooperative’s chief operating officer.

CTC is laying fiber optic cable to every home and business it can in its service area.

Rural areas in Fairview and Fort Ripley townships recently were connected. In Fairview, she said, there was little mobile telephone service and only dial-up internet, which hampered operations at a fire station that needed better connectivity.

CTC looks at how broadband can help businesses and government operations, Westbrock said, but homes also are vital to the co-op’s plans.

More people are launching home-based businesses because of improved internet, she said, and many farms and businesses report that broadband has lowered their operating costs.

Broadband is available in a few large blocs of rural Minnesota, notably from East Grand Forks to Grand Rapids, in much of Lake and St. Louis counties and several counties in the west-central part of the state.

Despite successes around the state, Klang said that lack of a dependable high-speed internet connection hurts her son socially and behaviorally. She noticed a difference after the family returned to her parents’ rural home in 2014, after enjoying a good internet connection while living in Eveleth.

There is no therapist nearby, she said, but if good internet was available, her son could see one “with a laptop computer and a face-to-face video call app like Skype or Facetime.”

Looking ahead, she said, Dalton likely will face the same problem a nearby cousin in high school deals with: He has to drive to a friend’s house in town to do required homework on a computer.

Now, Dalton likes to watch bears on video, Klang said. She finds success in getting the boy to do things, like try a new food, if she tells him he can watch bear videos.

“I just don’t have that tool,” she said. “It is like taking something big out of the arsenal.”

Klang does not sound optimistic about getting that tool. “We are in a vortex that nobody wants to serve.”

State goals

Minnesota law sets goals for broadband:

  • By 2022, all Minnesota businesses and homes should have access to broadband that provides minimum download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and minimum upload speeds of at least three megabits per second.
  • By 2026, each home and business must be served by at least one provider with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.
  • Minnesota be in the top five states offering fast broadband universally accessible to residents and businesses.
  • The state be in the top 15 when compared to other countries for broadband penetration.

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More Minnesota broadband information is available at: https://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband/