Carlton County residents adjusting to the realities of working or learning remotely have encountered a similar problem since the COVID-19 outbreak sent many people for extended stays in their homes: Internet access.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, vast swaths of rural Carlton County are either unserved or underserved by broadband internet services.
An unserved residence lacks any connection to a broadband network and underserved areas have access, but at speeds unable to support video chats or other frequently used online tools required for working and learning remotely. Most underserved areas of the county have download speeds of 25 megabits per second and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
Video chats, streaming services and other modern internet tools typically require 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.
“We are fortunate in our state that most of our communities do have access to high-speed, reliable internet service,” DEED Broadband Development Manager Angie Dickison said. “But the pandemic has made us even more acutely aware of the areas that are lacking — particularly at a time when so many of us need high-speed internet for distance learning, telemedicine and telecommuting.”
Brenda Nyberg, a grant writer for the Carlton County Economic Development Department, knows firsthand about the problems with slow or unreliable internet service. A Cromwell resident, Nyberg has been working remotely for most of the past two months and her three sons have been trying to continue school from home, putting enormous pressure on an area of the county that is underserved. Nyberg said she recently found out she can get internet access from Frontier, but potentially not at the speeds the family needs.
They are still investigating the service, but have been using an AT&T hotspot to access the internet.
“There are four of us trying to be online at the same time, and it is really tough,” Nyberg said. “It’s definitely not ideal. The speeds are slow, it’s unreliable, you get kicked off. It’s just really hard to have any long term connectivity.”
While larger cities and those relatively close to the I-35 corridor like Cloquet, Carlton and Moose Lake enjoy ideal speeds, the more rural communities like Cromwell, Wrenshall and Kettle River are underserved at best.
“There are some areas of the county that have phenomenal internet service and there are small pockets throughout the county that just haven’t been reached yet by a provider,” Nyberg said. “We’ve talked with MediaCom and CenturyLink. MediaCom has been receptive on some smaller projects, it just all depends where they are already at with their projects and if it makes sense for them financially to expand any further. It’s expensive to put fiber in the ground.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s “Border-to-Border” broadband infrastructure aims to ensure every home in Minnesota has access to 25/3 speeds by 2022 and 100/20 speeds by 2026. Dickison said the governor’s broadband task force estimates the state needs to spend $35 million per year to achieve the 2022 goal.
The program received $20 million in 2019 and 2020, but the Minnesota Legislature adjourned without approving a bonding bill for 2021. Walz is expected to call a special session in June for the Legislature to finish its work.
“We are hopeful for the potential of additional funding as we have bipartisan support,” Dickison said. “Everyone understands how important it is to have affordable and reliable internet service.”
In the meantime, the state awarded more $600,000 to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to bring broadband internet service to residents on the Fond du Lac Reservation in 2019 and nearly $570,000 to help Frontier expand service between Cromwell and Kettle River.
Dickison also encouraged unserved or underserved residents to contact DEED.
“In terms of areas of the county that lack those speeds we do encourage individuals to reach out to us,” she said. “We work with broadband providers to find options if they are available and to create partnerships to get infrastructure deployed where it is needed most.”