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Assessment measures Kandiyohi County's readiness for broadband economy

Kandiyohi County has high readiness for boosting local economic and social development with information technology.

An assessment carried out on behalf of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project ranked Kandiyohi County at the top of a list of 11 participating cities and counties.

The county scored well on measures addressing the availability of broadband services and their business and household penetration. Kandiyohi County also earned a high score for having strong Intelligent Communities development, strategic planning and marketing efforts in place to promote wider use of information technology.

But the assessment also uncovered the county's main weakness: lack of computer and Internet access for the "digitally excluded" -- those with low incomes, low literacy or who are elderly.

Greater digital inclusion is one of the areas being focused on in upcoming months as the county starts implementing Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities initiatives, said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"I think we're going to see improvements," she said.

Kandiyohi County is among 11 demonstration communities chosen last year for the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project, an effort led by the Blandin Foundation to help communities prepare themselves for a broadband economy. The Economic Development Commission, which is the fiscal host, was awarded $100,000 in funding for the initiative.

The assessment, which was recently completed for all 11 demonstration sites, measures their individual readiness, based on factors such as education, employment, broadband availability and affordability, business start-ups and access to capital. It'll also help determine how much progress is made.

"They will do some more benchmarking at the end of the program," Spaulding said.

The assessment found that broadband services are widely available in Kandiyohi County and that there are a number of competitive service providers -- although it also noted that the monthly cost, $108 per megabit, is higher than average.

But despite the wide availability of broadband, many people are still being excluded, the report found. One of its recommendations: Increase public access to computers and training, especially for the digitally disadvantaged.

Local coordinators have already selected a handful of projects to help meet this goal.

In one of them, low-cost computers will be refurbished and redistributed to qualifying individuals who might not otherwise be able to afford their own computer.

In another, the New London-Spicer School District is developing a wireless network and iPad laboratory that can be used by the community as well as by students.

Other initiatives aim to bring computer access and training to underserved populations such as the elderly and the Somali community.

"The projects are all geared at outreach," Spaulding said.

The report noted that although change is likely to take many years, Kandiyohi County is "clearly an Intelligent Community success story in the making."

Overall, the assessment found that most of the demonstration communities had good access to broadband service and providers. Costs were higher than in urban areas, however, and many groups were excluded from Internet access.

The assessment also uncovered relatively low percentages of college graduates, indicating the rural demonstration communities might not be as competitive in a global economy. Increased opportunities for online and distance learning may be one strategy to help reverse this, the study's author suggested. The report also suggests taking a regional or even statewide approach to making higher education more readily available.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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