From politicians to consumers, everyone agrees rural broadband is vital

By: Brian Todd – 3/3/21

DODGE COUNTY — When Mike Law moved to his house 10 years ago, there was one negative aspect to the 1920s-era farmhouse located between Kasson and Hayfield.

Aside from a new roof and a few other fix-it items, the property was served by slow internet service.

How slow? Try 3 megabits per second.

For someone who works for Minnesota IT Services, the central IT organization for the State of Minnesota, that’s slow.

“If I had some more intense work, I’d have to ask the family to get off Netflix or something like that,” Law said. “Really, only one person at a time could watch Netflix.”

Law’s internet is faster these days. In 2017, he wrote a letter on behalf of his internet provider asking the state to fund a grant for rural broadband expansion in his area. When that grant was approved, the provider, KMTelecomm of Kasson, ran fiber-optic lines to his area, increasing his speed more than twentyfold.

It’s a far cry from the days when someone clicking on a webpage that triggered a video popup advertisement would cause him to lose connection to his work if he was working from home.

Asking For More Dollars

Second District Rep. Angie Craig said she is confident the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act she helped introduce in the last Congress will get passed soon. It’s one of several measures, she said, that will help bring broadband to rural consumers and businesses.

“COVID-19 has really shown the disparities that exist when you don’t have access to the internet,” Craig said. “Broadband’s not a luxury anymore. It’s the infrastructure of the 21st century. It’s education, it’s access to heath care, it’s having the ability to start a small business wherever you live.”

Craig said she recently introduced new legislation to map where broadband is needed so federal, state and local dollars can go where they will do the most good.

“We have got to make this investment,” she said, adding that universal access to broadband is an issue with bipartisan support in Washington. “I think about so many parents sitting in the McDonald’s parking lot in my district as their children have done remote learning.”

State Broadband Numbers

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 157,000 homes do not have access to minimal broadband speeds, meaning a download speed of 25 Mbps. That includes portions of Dodge, Fillmore, Mower and Winona counties. And every county in the region has areas that barely hit that broadband minimum.

Minnesota Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, said that due to COVID-19, the realities of broadband access are becoming more well known as the public hears about students not having access to adequate internet during distance learning, and workers who have begun working from home face issues because of slow internet speeds.

Another area where COVID has brought change is telehealth. Before COVID-19, less than 10 percent of people had used some form of telehealth. Those numbers have jumped to 20 to 30 percent during the pandemic, she said.

But the problem goes beyond just the work and school issues brought about by COVID-19.

She pointed to the dairy industry where automated milking machines and cows with ID chips in their ears promise to be the future of dairy farms, but those systems need high-speed internet to work.

“When you don’t have high speeds, you can’t use any of those systems,” Haley said. “In Minnesota, 110 dairies have automated milking out of 2,000 dairy farms.”

Like Craig, Haley said broadband funding has bipartisan support, and she’s voted for a broadband funding package every session since being elected in 2016. Last session, she voted for the $40 million biennial broadband package that saw $20 million in grants handed out by the state at the end of January.

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Commission is asking for $120 million for the next biennium.

Haley said she’ll vote to approve whatever the capacity for installation is during that two-year cycle.

Projects For Internet Providers

Kathy Van Roekel, senior director of marketing for Nuvera Communications, said the company has two projects slated for Goodhue County this summer. Combined, the projects will cost nearly $3 million – roughly $873,000 in state funding – to reach just 248 customers who don’t have access to 25 Mbps download speeds.

“We had customers on 2 (Mbps), and that’s all they could get,” Van Roekel said. “It’s super problematic when people are trying to work from home or do school, let alone do entertainment functions.”

While the new internet speeds mean selling faster internet to customers, Van Roekel said the benefit is the new fiber-optic cables mean the company has infrastructure in place that will provide high-speed internet for many years to come.

Back at his rural farmhouse, Law said the new fiber-optic cables will serve customers for the next 100 years.

For those homes or businesses that will benefit from new fiber-optic cables run to rural areas this summer and in the years to come, Law said they’ll notice the difference immediately. “You’ll be able to do anything you want on the internet,” he said.

And when it comes to where to spend tax dollars, there’s no better investment than broadband.

“I’m sure they have a lot of competing requests for the dollars,” he said. “But I think this is a nice investment.”

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