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Broadband in Rural Todd County

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

We live in an increasingly complex world of technology, dependence upon smartphones, high speed Internet, and other electronic devices. There used to be a time, not very long ago, when you could casually say you could live without those things. It’s not really true anymore. No more is this evident than in rural areas, where affordable broadband is limited, or non-existent. Driving to the highest point in the area and holding your laptop in different directions may not get you the best signal, not to mention, it’s inconvenient. This is exactly the problem the Todd County Economic Development Corporation has been fighting to change.

Perhaps the most important need for high speed Internet is its role in the ag commodities business. Farmers need access to real-time data, weather forecasts, trading markets. Our farmers are increasingly dependent upon high speed data to keep them on the competitive edge. Todd County leadership, in their 2030 Comprehensive Plan, released in 2009 stated, “Quality telecommunications infrastructure and services are essential to economic competitiveness and quality of life. Businesses, schools, health care providers, governments, and citizens are increasingly dependent upon high-speed Internet services.” They called for the deployment of fiber optic networks, and next-generation cellular network deployment in the study.

Rural areas have been slow to receive the benefits of broadband Internet connectivity. The ratio of residents receiving the service is much lower than urban areas where costs can be spread out among thousands of users versus only hundreds in a geographically broader area like rural Todd County. The tipping point was reached several years ago. In the spring of 2019 ground was broken in Browerville by the Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC). The project moved forward with a grant of $2.1 million through the USDA Community Connect program.

The Todd County broadband project is planned to connect nearly 600 customers, says Joe Buttweiler, Director of Business Development for CTC. Consolidated began operation in 1952 and like many small telephone companies, it has expanded to cover a small geographic region. “We're headquartered in Brainerd and serve a large portion of the Brainerd, Baxter, Nisswa, Brainerd Lakes region over into Little Falls,” says Buttweiler. “We started out in the telephone world and, of course, transformed that into eventually voice and DSL services, and then about 10 to 12 years ago, we started abandoning our copper plant and started installing fiber optics to all of our members.”

Why do we need broadband? That’s a question many people ask. There are more good reasons to have it than not. Among them are, broadband brings direct access to education and health care for residents who would otherwise need to travel long distances for classes or treatment. Telemedicine is a growing field for diagnosing medical issues. The increase of online classes from universities, trade schools, and even high school makes it easy to participate.

High speed Internet is critical to services that can be offered by rural municipalities and county governments and libraries. Reliable access to government websites and information services is convenient, and an important safety link in the event of an emergency. Having access to the world at the touch of a finger is powerful. Residents are rediscovering the local library as they log on and explore the world around them, from a safe distance.

“Some would say that broadband is defined by a speed, 10Mbs down by 1Mb up,” says Joe Buttweiler, Director of Business Development for Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) of Brainerd, Minnesota. There are many combinations that can provide tailored service to business versus residential customers, and for this reason CTC defines Broadband “as a technology,” says Buttweiler.  “At least from our perspective, we don't like to define broadband by a speed. We really define it as a technology.” He says there is resistance to this business model, but it’s what CTC and most for-profit, and not for profit co-ops use; VM, telephone co-ops, or electric co-ops all put fiber in the ground, because they believe it’s the best long-term investment.

There are other technologies that can provide a reasonable service today. Buttweiler calls them a band aid solution, like a fixed wireless deployment. “We can roll out some fixed wireless service to flat, treeless farm country pretty quick and inexpensive but the quality of the service might not be ubiquitous and the same for everyone. And it's going to change over time. As demand for services increases, that fixed wireless signal probably isn't going to be able to keep up.”

Minnesota is looked at as a leader across the country in broadband development. They were one of the first states to establish a state office, the Office of Broadband Development. Minnesota also has a statewide grant program that is looked at as a model across the country. “Federal and state grants are available, Buttweiler says, although he cautions, “They each have their own set of rules and requirements and scoring matrixes as they evaluate applications.”

Small businesses flourish in rural communities, as long as they have a dependable, high-speed connection to the Internet that allows them to work in their virtual worlds. Traditional core urban businesses are finding rural tax rates better, the towns more family-centric, and the Internet allows them to do their job outside of the city. Reliable, high-speed Internet service provided via fiber optics is making a difference in Todd County.

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