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The bid for broadband: Nobles County, others seek more -- and faster -- internet access

WORTHINGTON -- A lack of high-speed internet is one of the biggest issues farmers and other rural Minnesotans have to deal with. Although Worthington residents have access to a high-speed connection, much of rural Nobles County does not.

Nobles County was ranked 35th out of the state’s 87 counties in internet service, with 59.3 percent of its households having a broadband internet connection, according to a study done by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Minnesota has set a goal that by no later than 2026, all businesses and homes in the state have access to a broadband provider with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.

By those speed standards, approximately 71 percent of households in the state have access to an internet connection that fast, according to the study. In rural areas, that number drops to about 52 percent.

Nobles County fares better than nearby Murray County and Pipestone County — 41.6 and 44.5 percent of households are served, respectively — but doesn’t do as well as Jackson County (68.9) or Rock County (66.3).

Rock County received $5 million in grant funds to expand internet services to unserved and underserved areas in 2014 under Gov. Mark Dayton’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Jackson County received federal funds from the 2009 stimulus, which covered much of the county’s populated areas with internet fiber.

For Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Abraham Algadi, getting rural areas of Nobles County served is a top priority in his mission to stir economic development in the region.

“We see this as an essential prerequisite in the 20th century economy,” Algadi said. “It’s essential like water, like sewers, like streets, police and fire departments. Look at the role the internet plays in education, in the workplace, at home. Broadband becomes a common denominator that connects all these things.”

Not only does Algadi want to have all of the county served, he wants internet speeds to increase. A 2011 study from Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and Chalmers University of Technology found that doubling the broadband speed for an economy increases GDP by 0.3 percent. This would equate to a $5.4 billion increase to the U.S. GDP.

Algadi said providing both more service and faster service would make Nobles County and Greater Minnesota a more attractive place to start a business.

“We can give our state a competitive advantage by providing infrastructure such as broadband,” Algadi said. “I think there's a responsibility on the part of our leaders to recognize that every year we do not have access to basic internet, we’re adversely affecting the chances of business startups.”

Algadi said the lack of service in rural areas hurts farmers harder than anybody else.

“Nobody is more rural than farmers,” Algadi said. “By the very nature of being a farmer, you have to be far enough away from a city center to have enough land to farm. So if we keep saying we value the farm economy, why don’t we think about giving farmers a decent internet connection?”

For many farmers in rural areas of Minnesota, a solid internet connection is not easy -- or cheap to find. Algadi pointed out that without internet connections, farmers are at a disadvantage because they do not have access to the internet’s many resources. Not only that, but those in rural areas without broadband are at risk of not having their opinions heard, according to Algadi.  

“Having quality access to high-speed internet and to broadband gives political voice, so rural Minnesota is not excluded from the ongoing discourse,” Algadi said. “It has an equalizing effect in a democracy where we value free speech.”

District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who represents Worthington and much of Nobles County in St. Paul, was in Worthington Wednesday for a meet-and-greet event. He said he often complained his internet connection at home in Mountain Lake was not good enough -- a common problem for Minnesotans in rural areas.

“It’s not just Nobles County, it’s Greater Minnesota that needs to have access,” Hamilton said. “We need to make sure we have that connectivity.”

Dayton proposed that the state spend $100 million on expanding broadband in its bonding bill during the last legislative session. Republicans disagreed, cutting that number down to $35 million, citing that there was too much spending in the bill to begin with.

“It’s not that broadband isn’t a priority,” Hamilton said. “It’s about having a balanced budget, and we only have so much money to spend.”

Algadi said he hopes he can help form a private-public partnership to create a ring of fiber, along with multiple wireless towers, to provide rural areas of the county with high-speed internet. The plans are in place, but the funding is not there yet. Lismore Coop Telephone Co. would be willing to work on the operation — which is estimated to cost at least $20 million — if a state grant is approved.