WILLMAR — Expanding high-speed broadband to all corners of Kandiyohi County has been a dream and challenge for many for more than two decades.
"This is an ongoing issue. It is a task we are constantly struggling to fix," said Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl, during a work session of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners. The meeting Tuesday was specifically about broadband issues in the county.
With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package enacted by the federal government in March, the county could find itself with an influx of federal funding, an estimated $8.38 million, which early guidance says can be used for broadband projects.
The County Board work session was scheduled Tuesday to make sure the commissioners were up to date on county broadband challenges and opportunities.
"So when we get the federal American Rescue dollars, hopefully we can use some of those dollars for broadband, we can hit the ground running," Kleindl said. "We want to be ready. Today we are at the starting blocks. We are putting our foot on the race and we are going to kick it off."
Broadband internet access is critical for many aspects of day-to-day life, including telehealth, education, economic growth and even property values. Many farmers need high-speed internet to operate their high-tech farming equipment, and more and more businesses of all sorts are turning to web commerce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made those needs even starker, as both students and adults had to remain at home for extended periods, trying to work and attend classes virtually.
According to the Blandin Foundation, Kandiyohi County ranks 48 of 87 counties for access to internet speeds of 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload — the state's broadband goal for 2026. Kandiyohi County has improved its ranking over the past few years, as some service providers expanded their reach to other areas in the county, though mostly to areas of higher population density like the larger cities and around the most popular lakes. This still leaves many households and businesses struggling without broadband access.
"A lot of those areas are rural areas," Kleindl said. "It doesn't mean those people that live in those areas don't need broadband."
Greater Minnesota counties can have success in providing the vast majority of their residents and businesses with high-speed internet. The Blandin Foundation, using information from the state Office of Broadband Development, ranks Lac qui Parle, Swift and Big Stone counties in the top seven in the state for access. More than 98 percent of those counties' residents have access to high-speed broadband, thanks to major investments and cooperative projects.
"They had vision and leadership," said Michelle Marotzke, economic development professional with Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. "They had the vision years ago that this is something that could work."
The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission Broadband and Advanced Technology Committee has been working since 2005 to bring broadband expansion projects to the county. In 2017 the work came close to success, but the bottom fell out at the last minute.
"We were devastated for a while, but we are now back at it," said Connie Schmoll, EDC Business Development Manager.
Officials are now working on a new project with Federated Telephone Cooperative, to bring high-speed broadband access to Arctander, Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. The project is estimated to cost between $6,818,656 and $7,626,906 depending on the size of the service area to be included in the new project. The plan would provide broadband to nearly 600 properties.
The county has already approved a $25,000 grant to each of the townships for broadband expansion and Federated has said it will provide 25 percent of the project costs. All four of the townships are also on board, estimating to pay around $1,945,597 in total.
"Everybody will need to have some skin in the game," said Commissioner Corky Berg.
The EDC is also applying for a state Border-to-Border broadband grant for about 50 percent of the project costs. Without the state grant, which is very competitive, the project will not be possible, Schmoll said.
"We have to secure the funds," Schmoll said.
To make broadband expansion possible, the county also needs the assistance of its residents.
"We know how important it is to get broadband out. We need citizens' help to do that," Kleindl said.
This could mean writing letters to legislators, providing letters of support to the EDC and participating in the state internet speed test. In 2020, residents were urged to take the speed test. And while some did, more is needed.
"It is important for us to know where the underserved, unserved people are," Kleindl said. "Do your part."
The EDC is also reaching out to the cities it serves, even those already served by high-speed broadband, for their support. At Monday's Willmar City Council meeting, the council approved a letter of support for the Border-to-Border broadband grant application.
"I would love if the city of Willmar would say 'yes, we support broadband anywhere in Kandiyohi County,'" Schmoll said at the council meeting. "It is a benefit to the city of Willmar, to our economy, our healthcare and our schools."