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Border to border broadband is goal for rural counties

It’s high time that Minnesota was a leader in broadband,” Senator Matt Schmit told a crowd of community leaders from across the state gathered in St. Paul this week. “Broadband is the essential infrastructure for the 21st Century. Without it, rural Minnesota is not firing on all cylinders.”

In a summit convened by Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation and sponsored by 30 partners, Schmit and an array of other speakers shared their perspectives on the state of broadband in Minnesota, especially in non-urban and rural areas.

Last week at the Border to Border Broadband Conference, David Collins from Hubbard County Regional EDC presented on a panel with Senator Matt Schmit about the rural broadband imperative.

Driving home the common theme among speakers that rural broadband access and use is a Minnesota economic imperative, a study unveiled at the conference illustrated that targeted investment can yield economic return of up to ten times the cost.

A $120,000 investment in Internet-enabled applications and processes at small and medium-sized enterprises in Lac qui Parle County in southwestern Minnesota, for example, could yield an economic impact of nearly $1.3 million, according Michael Curri, president and CEO of Strategic Networks Group (SNG), Inc. Curri and colleagues were commissioned by Blandin Foundation to assess two very different rural Minnesota counties and apply SNG’s models that have been employed in regions across the globe to illustrate potential direct, indirect and induced impacts of targeted investment.

While Lac qui Parle County enjoys 100 percent broadband coverage, Kanabec County in the central part of the state struggles with broadband coverage for only 27 percent of its population. Potential for economic impact is even greater there, found Curri. Investment of $11.3 million in high-speed fiber to every home and $175,000 to drive broadband utilization with businesses in targeted industry sectors could generate new revenues of more than $18 million and savings of $2.1 million, for a combined impact of nearly $20.4 million, he said.

“Where the ‘business case’ might end for investing in broadband infrastructure, for example in rural areas, the ‘economic case’ for public investment can be made when economic benefits (increases in gross domestic product, jobs and tax base) offers a positive return on investment to the region,” Curri said.

In Goodhue County, residents say broadband access and consistency vary widely despite high cost and significant demand, said presenter and editor/publisher Terri Lenz of the Kenyon Leader news organization. “It’s like ordering lobster and getting mac and cheese — and still paying for lobster,” she said.

“We all come from somewhere,” said Representative, House Majority Leader and Nurse Erin Murphy. “Some things you should be able to count on – information is one of them. For example, if you need a chest tube, you should be able to get it no matter where you live. Technology, broadband, makes that possible.”

In a pre-conference training session for community leaders, owner of Community Technology Advisors Bill Coleman, coached that, “If you want to be positioned for the future, start someplace.” Coleman travels the state working with community leaders to explore the potential for local broadband access and use as part of the Blandin Community Broadband Program. “Persuade, be the squeaky wheel, get some action going. Don’t wait for fiber to every home before you start tackling broadband,” he said.

In another report unveiled at the conference, researcher Ann Treacy looked at lessons learned from 11 recent broadband feasibility studies communities across the state have undertaken. “Cookie cutter approaches to rural broadband expansion planning do not work,” she concluded. “Local feasibility studies and custom solutions demonstrate great value, as does communities learning from one another.

“What actions can we begin together today to accelerate the achievement of Minnesota’s broadband goals and beyond?” asked Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for Blandin Foundation at the close of the conference. Answers are being compiled in an action agenda that will be posted at the conference website, available through www.bland, along with all results and recordings of the conference.