APPLETON - Work comes before play in the countryside, so it should come as no surprise that economic needs are driving a growing appetite to develop broadband service in the five rural counties served by the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

Policy-makers in the counties see broadband access as critical to providing the economic and social competitiveness that constituents in the counties want, explained Dawn Hegland, executive director of Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, which serves Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties.

The growing interest is paying dividends. The Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband project recently awarded a $3.92 million grant to Big Stone County and Federated Telephone Cooperative to lay fiber optic cable to 1,072 sites in the county.

It follows the lead of Lac qui Parle County, which previously obtained $9.6 million in loan and grant funds to deliver fiber optic technology to an estimated 3,700 people. The county worked in partnership with Farmers Mutual Telephone to become a leader in rural, broadband access.

The RDC assisted Big Stone County in making its successful application for the Border-to-Border funding. It also assisted Swift County in applying for the funding. Hegland expects Swift County re-apply if the Legislature approves the funding to continue the Border-to-Border initiative.

Hegland said Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties are likewise working with the RDC office on this broadband initiative.

The five counties also plan to employ a consultant to assist them in finding ways to improve the existing public sector fiber ring in the region. Currently, a wide range of public entities in the region - such as municipalities, counties, public health offices, National Guard armories and schools - have broadband service lines. They hope to find out whether there ways to combine these separate lines and services to improve efficiencies and save costs.

The group is also looking at how counties might be able to back each other up by sharing IT and other services.

The Blandin Foundation is also working with the RDC on two fronts, Hegland said. It wants to develop opportunities for IT professionals to network and learn from one another.

It all takes money

The region is also considering how it can use online media to better convey the region’s attributes as a place to live and do business.

Hegland said one of the underlying challenges facing governments in the five counties is determining how big a role the public should play in funding the broadband infrastructure.

One thing appears certain: In sparsely populated rural areas, public investment is needed.

Kevin Boyer, president of Federated Telephone, told participants at a roundtable Feb. 5 in Fergus Falls that his company could not undertake the Big Stone broadband initiative were it not for the Border-to-Border grant award. There are only one to four potential customers per square mile in the area to be served. The return on investment would not be there absent the grant support, he explained.

“It’s time for my generation to ante up for the generations coming after,’’ said Brent Olson, Big Stone County commissioner, when speaking at the same roundtable. He likened the fiber optic project coming to the county to the rural electrification projects of the 1930s or arrival of rural telephones networks in the 1950s. Both required public-private partnerships, he said.