WILLMAR — One of the lessons learned over the past year is how important reliable, high-speed internet is for people trying to live, work and learn from home. A survey conducted in Kandiyohi County last year of internet availability and usage showed many were not happy with their internet as the pandemic added significantly to the data being used at homes across the area.
"It was not meeting the needs. People were going into work, even though they shouldn't, just to give the internet to their children to use for their school," said Connie Schmoll, business development manager of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
Schmoll this week updated the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on broadband development in the county. The presentation at Tuesday's board meeting was a mix of bad and good news.
"We have a long ways to go in Kandiyohi County. We are behind the mark as far as the counties in the state of Minnesota," Schmoll said.
The good news is there might be fiber broadband expansion on the horizon. Late last year LTD Broadband was one of the winners of the Federal Communications Commission Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction.
Internet providers submitted bids on the kinds of broadband projects they could do and the costs. Winning bidders are eligible to receive funding to make those projects a reality.
If LTD moves forward with the project in Minnesota, the company is looking at areas inside Kandiyohi County.
"They are going to be providing fiber in a large portion of the south part of the county," Schmoll said.
While that would reduce the number of underserved households, there would still be pockets of need.
"Our northwest portion of the county still has a lot of work left to be done," Schmoll said.
There is some positive news on that front. The Federated Telephone Cooperative has been allowed to expand its service area.
"They are interested in Kandiyohi County, to move into our county, especially the west side and northern area of our county," Schmoll said. "That was a huge plus."
Schmoll is hoping to bring together a fiber broadband project with at least three rural townships in partnership with Federated, which has said it will provide 25 percent of the project costs.
A similar project that never quite got off the ground in Dovre, Hamre and St. John's Townships was estimated to cost close to $4 million and the service provider was only willing to provide 15 percent of the cost.
A Border to Border Broadband Development Grant from the state, if awarded, could provide up to 50 percent or $5 million toward a project. However, the state Legislature has not yet approved funding for another round of grants for this year, Schmoll said.
"If they do that, we need to be ready with a shovel-ready project," Schmoll said.
Schmoll is also asking for the county's support by providing $25,000 to each township involved in the project.
"Now we are starting to bring the cost down for the individual resident," Schmoll said.
It would fall to the townships and their taxpayers to make up the difference not covered by other funding sources. Numbers presented at Tuesday's meeting estimated each property would pay $255.70 per year for 10 years for the project, not including a monthly bill for internet services from the provider.
"Unless there is local investment in these projects, it will not go through," Schmoll said.
While no official action was taken at the meeting regarding broadband expansion, the County Board and administration are behind expanding broadband across the county.
County Administrator Larry Kleindl said even if every township in the county wanted that $25,000 for a broadband project, the county could financially make it work.
"The most rural areas will benefit the most," Kleindl said. "I am really excited about having a formula like this. I think we can make this work."
Commissioners have heard from constituents about businesses deciding not to come to the county due to the lack of broadband or families burning out phones because the only internet they have is the hot spot provided by a cellphone.
"From an economic development perspective, we are really going to be held back," said Commissioner Roger Imdieke. "If we don't have adequate broadband services, internet services, so people can work from home, they are going to take jobs where they can."
The consensus on the board was broadband expansion needed to be a priority of the county.
"The viability of our rural areas is literally at stake here," said Commissioner Steve Gardner. "I don't believe that we as a board can afford to be bashful about supporting financially the efforts to bring broadband to all of these underserved areas."
For related stories, see Broadband or Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.