WILLMAR - Kandiyohi County is taking fresh aim at a long-sought goal of widening the availability of high-speed internet service, especially to neighborhoods that remain unserved or underserved.
The County Board voted Tuesday to help fund an engineering study that will examine the feasibility of bringing broadband to rural homes and businesses in Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships.
The ultimate goal is another shot at grant dollars from the border-to-border program of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"We have a process ahead of us. This is one step," said Connie Schmoll, business development manager with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
The study, which will take about four weeks to complete, is estimated to cost $18,740. The County Board's vote on Tuesday commits Kandiyohi County to one-fourth of the cost if all the partners agree to go ahead with the study. The three townships are expected to decide within the next few weeks on contributing the remaining 75 percent.
The effort brings new energy to the quest for better broadband throughout Kandiyohi County.
The county continues to lag "far behind" most neighboring counties in broadband availability, Schmoll said. Large swaths of rural Kandiyohi County don't have broadband at all, while the service in many other rural neighborhoods is inadequate.
If Kandiyohi County is to be economically competitive, high-speed internet must become accessible countywide, Schmoll said.
"Broadband is still critically important for many things," she said, pointing to needs that range from precision agriculture to telemedicine and e-learning.
The county and the Economic Development Commission had high hopes two years ago when the state Office of Broadband Technology awarded a $4.9 million grant to help develop broadband in rural northern Kandiyohi County. But the project struggled to reach fruition and was abandoned in the summer of 2017 after the county's broadband partner, Consolidated Telecommunications Co., withdrew its participation, forcing the county to forfeit the grant money.
"It was so close and it didn't happen," said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.
It was a setback but advocates for local broadband never gave up, he said. "We agreed we weren't going to quit. ... We're trying to find the tool and the mechanism to do this."
What's different this time is that the proposed project has multiple partners - the three townships, Kandiyohi County and telecommunications provider Arvig - willing to take the lead. The proposed service area is also more geographically compact.
Grassroots efforts like this are probably what will be needed in the future to expand broadband in rural Kandiyohi County, said Commissioner Harlan Madsen.
In many counties that have achieved wide broadband coverage, "the townships were integral," he noted.
"It does require partnerships," Schmoll agreed.
She said she had approached all of the townships about their interest in partnering on a potential broadband project. "These three townships came forward," she said.
The feasibility study will help answer key questions about demographics, engineering and the cost of expanding high-speed internet within the three targeted townships. The results will help the townships decide whether to move forward.
It is the first phase in what is likely to be a long process, Schmoll said. "We have to start somewhere."
Commissioner Steve Ahmann urged citizen engagement, not only in verbal support of the project but in agreeing to become paying subscribers as well.
"The team has to be all in," he said.
Kandiyohi County can't afford to pass up this new opportunity to improve broadband availability, said Commissioner Corky Berg.
"We just can't sit back and be the weakest link in this part of the state. ... I think we have to do everything to try to make this work," he said.