The 15-week Community Broadband Resources (CBR) Accelerate program has come to an end. On July 13, Economic Development Coordinator for Aitkin County Mark Jeffers presented the findings of the program along with next steps to the Aitkin County Board of Commissioners.

The goal of the project is to educate community leaders and policymakers on the available broadband resources and to assess community internet needs in order to ensure quality internet access to all residents, businesses and visitors.

The program included more than 45 leaders from Aitkin, Kanabec and Pine counties, as well as the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy.

“Aitkin County has made broadband a priority,” said Jeffers. The CBR Accelerate program team identified four main priorities: speed and reliability, economic development, connection to loved ones and telemedicine.

People need the speed for Zoom meetings, long distance learning and entertainment-like streaming movies and television. Every business needs access to a fast and reliable internet in order to connect and compete in today’s markets. This past year has demonstrated a great need for quality internet services in order to connect with loved ones and attend telemedicine visits.

Going into this program, Aitkin leadership knew that internet access and service was substandard, but they didn’t really know how bad it was. Aitkin ranks 81st out of 87 counties in the state when it comes to the availability of high-speed internet throughout the state.

During the information and data collection period of the program, a survey was sent out to residents in Aitkin, Kanabec and Pine counties and the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy. More than 2,400 people responded to the survey, including 930 people from Aitkin.

Of all those surveyed in Aitkin County, 8% did not have internet services. Of the 70% surveyed that do have internet service, 22% only had access through a cellular phone.

Among those without access to the internet, 44% reported that there was no service offered at their location and 13% reported that what was available was too expensive.

The survey also found that 43% of households in Aitkin have at least one member of the family working from home,12% that operate a business at home and 19% that attend school full-time.

Ninety seven percent of residents thought that there were not sufficient internet service providers available at their location.

On January 30, 2020 the Federal Communications Commission launched the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), dedicated to connecting millions of homes and small businesses in rural areas to high speed internet networks. RDOF held a competitive auction and awarded bidding providers the rights to build broadband networks in specific areas.

Most of the territory up for bid in Aitkin was given to LTD Broadband, a non-local provider. LTD Broadband was founded in 2011 and its mission is to bring “reliable, affordable broadband to rural areas.” The provider has more than 2,100 tower sites in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin, servicing over 50,000 square miles.

Aitkin County Board Commissioner Brian Napstad expressed concerns regarding RDOF activity in the county. RDOF bids went to the lowest bidder, and in some cases, the bids don’t make sense.

“A rural passage averages $9,000 per home, so if you have 15 homes in an area that’s $135,000,” Napstad said. He said that the fact that the bids were so low reduces the board’s confidence that the jobs will actually get done.

RDOF providers get six years to build out their networks. During this time, RDOF areas are off limits to other providers and no other grant dollars or funding sources can be used in those areas. This means that local providers that know the area and are familiar with its challenges will not be able to work in those areas as well.

“Our hands are tied,” Napstad said.

Jessica Seibert, Aitkin County Administrator, said, “We are trying to push the federal government to make sure that these providers are certified.”

“We can’t sit on our hands because they are tied,” Jeffers said. “We need to push with our legislators, run speed tests and continue to work on submitting grants to work with local providers.”

The Aitkin County Board of Commissioners approved a request from Jeffers, in collaboration with MLEC, to apply for the upcoming National Telecommunications and Information Administration Grant, due Aug. 17. The county will be applying specifically to the Federal Broadband Infrastructure Program – a $288 million program designed to build partnerships between cities and counties with broadband providers in order to lay the infrastructure and execute the deployment of internet services to areas lacking in broadband.

The county will be applying for $7 million dollars in funding and has marked territories both inside and outside of RDOF areas. Napstad expressed concerns that the “duplication of benefits” might tie up the grant process, but commended Jeffers for pushing forward and exploring all venues for making broadband access a reality in the county.

Protocols for the grant application require a public hearing for community residents to voice any concerns. The board approved a public hearing for Aug. 10 at 11 a.m. at the Aitkin County Government Center.

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