The state of high-speed internet – or lack thereof – is one of many 21st century issues facing Aitkin County.
Now, with the help of the Blandin Foundation Accelerate program – a 15-week program that helps both educate the community and develop the best solutions – the county could potentially be making some strides forward.
Over the 15 weeks of the Accelerate program, communities work together to discuss broadband development options, gather information from the communities on need and demand, analyze the data and then determine what the next steps should be moving forward.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development 2020 map of broadband services, most of Aitkin is either unserved or underserved in terms of connectability.
There are small swaths of blue on the map, meaning the area has wireless broadband of 100 M/20M – the first of which is the download speed and the second the upload speed.
The “M” stands for megabits per second. The blue areas of Aitkin County generally surround the most populated areas, including the cities of Aitkin and McGregor.
Among the progress made in Aitkin County through the 2017-20 Iron Range Broadband Community:
• A Wi-Fi hotspot in Jacobson Community Center
• High-speed broadband at Long Lake Conservation Center
• Increase MyChart usage at Riverwood Healthcare Center
• Community conference centers with computer lab, smart boards, digital equipment and community education
• Wi-Fi networks for Palisade
• Wi-Fi at Berglund Park in Palisade
• Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at East Central Regional Library
However, while the cities are addressed, much of the population of the county lives in the more rural areas.
“I think some huge progress has happened over the last few years,” said Mark Jeffers, the executive director at Aitkin Growth Inc. and one of the community leaders working on the Accelerate project. He added that the next step is to begin connecting the outlying areas.
That’s where the Blandin project comes in. Jeffers, along with city and county leaders, is working on education first and foremost. He is to educate themselves and the public about not only what is available but also what meets the 100M/20M goal for the state of Minnesota.
“That’s part of the issue,” Jeffers explained. “It depends on which provider you’re with. It depends on whether it’s broadband high speed, or if it’s cable DSL.
“There’s a lot of variations in that,” he added.
Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin, said that many providers are trying to sell what they have – which may or may not be what the county needs.
“Most of the people in the space are trying to sell something,” Joselyn explained. “It’s challenging for local officials to find their way forward.”
While Wi-Fi access will oftentimes serve some needs, Joselyn said, it’s nowhere near all needs being met. The solution, she explained, is fiber optic connections. Those connections, however, are often expensive, which she conceded is a huge challenge for rural areas.
“This is not a prom date, this is a marriage,” Joselyn offered as an analogy. She said that you need two of three options for internet connectivity – good, fast or cheap – and that good needs to be one of the two.
“Communities need to be ambitious,” she said.
The need was shown over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, as many businesses and schools went to a “work from home” or “distance learning” model.
While workarounds were eventually figured out for many in both the work and school communities, the response also showed how much was still needed.
“The pandemic has certainly shown us we need robust internet,” Joselyn said, adding that the Accelerate program should at least educate the participating partners on their options.
Jeffers said he’s also hoping for progress.
“What I think the best part of it all is, is that we can identify by community what the biggest needs are and have actionable progress to solve it,” he explained. “There are still people working on this, and working really hard to solve a long-term issue.”
The Blandin Foundation remains involved in order to address the need, as it has through facilitating its Cyber Partners program – teaching people how to use and participate through high-speed internet – and the Accelerate program.
“We’ve been working in broadband for almost 20 years,” Joselyn said. “Without out access to broadband and the skills to use it, there’s no future in rural communities. It’s absolutely critical.”
To view the current infrastructure map available through MN DEED, go to mn.gov/deed/assets/infrastructure-grant-aitkin_tcm1045-134106.pdf.