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Nobles County makes strides in broadband thanks to Blandin Foundation

WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County has put its focus on inclusion over the last two years, creating a bevy of resources for immigrants and refugees who make the area as diverse as it is. Many of these objectives were accomplished thanks to grants from ...

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Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson (right, foreground) sits next to Blandin Foundation consultant Bill Coleman during Wednesday's meeting on broadband with local grant recipients. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County has put its focus on inclusion over the last two years, creating a bevy of resources for immigrants and refugees who make the area as diverse as it is. Many of these objectives were accomplished thanks to grants from the Blandin Foundation, which selected the county as a Blandin Broadband Community in 2014.

Blandin representatives met with Nobles County leaders at the Biotechnology Advancement Center on Wednesday to celebrate the many programs and initiatives made possible by grants from the foundation during the two-year broadband initiative.

“The work is never done, that's true in all aspects of community advancement,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for Blandin. “But it’s important that we pause, take a look at what we’ve done and celebrate a little bit.”

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Blandin’s goal is to provide internet to communities and areas that don’t have it. This is a pressing issue in Nobles County, as only 60 percent of the county’s population is considered served and less than 20 percent of the region’s land is served.

With grants from Blandin, the Nobles Economic Opportunity Network partnered with MVTV Wireless to create hotspots in eight sites within the county including Bigelow, Rushmore and Dundee.

There are only four towns in Nobles County with broadband access -- Worthington, Round Lake, Lismore and Brewster. The goal of the initiative was to make it so that no student should have to travel five miles to have internet.

Julie Foote of MVTV Wireless said the lack of reliable and affordable broadband in rural townships in Nobles County was identified pretty early on as a major issue. After installing the hotspots, many students in rural areas relied on them for internet access after school.

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“I like to see that they are still using it after school, and I’d prefer to think they are using it for doing homework,” Foote said.

In June, Blandin gave NEON a grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine how successful a provider could be in delivering fiber optics to all homes in the county.

“The study was instrumental in identifying the need for broadband in the county,” said Mark Loosbrock of Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co.. “And that need is tremendous.”

The study found it would take $20 million to provide fiber optics to all homes in underserved communities. Loosbrock said Lismore was willing to undertake the project, with a goal of creating a fiber loop around the whole county that would provide service to underserved communities -- assuming they were able to get a state grant approved.

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Blandin did much more than provide grants for broadband initiatives; the foundation was active in funding education initiatives and providing support for immigrant families as well.

Blandin partnered up with PC’s for People, a nonprofit organization that collects donated old computers, refurbishes them and makes them available to those who can’t afford a personal computer. PC’s for People distributed 500 computers to Blandin Broadband Communities across Minnesota, including 28 computers to school districts in Adrian and Ellsworth.

Blandin also worked with Thi Synavone, coordinator at Nobles County Integration Collaborative to help fund the Digital Literacy for Diverse Communities program. The program gave 47 participants training with basic computer skills in their native languages, including Spanish, Tigrinya, Amharic and Karen.

Synavone said the collaborative worked with JBS to teach workers how to log in to see their paycheck stubs online. The program also worked with Independant School District 518 to teach parents how they could email teachers or check on their kids’ grades and homework.

Sharon Johnson, director of community education said the school district was able to purchase a digital library from provider myON, thanks to a grant from the foundation, with a goal of giving accessible reading to adult students.

“So many of our refugee and immigrant students, when they’re learning English, are learning on a first- or second-grade level, so we felt that this was a possible way to expand and help families to learn to read together,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are more than 480 adult students using the digital library, 98 percent of which are immigrants or refugees.

Johnson said Blandin also helped provide a licensed teacher in the Adult Basic Education computer lab every Tuesday to assist people with digital literacy and give them more confidence when applying to jobs. Northstar Digital Literacy awarded 50 certificates to ABE students.

Many of the education initiatives focused on giving diverse populations the chance to become more technologically proficient. Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson was proud of Worthington’s diversity, citing that there are more than 50 dialects spoken in JBS.

“We’re probably the most diverse community you’ll see in rural America, I think,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty cool.”

In another example of assisting the community, Becky Strandberg of Round Lake worked with Blandin to help provide internet and computers to five Minnesota West students who did not have any access to either at their Round Lake apartment.

Nobles County has a few more months as a Blandin Broadband Community, so there are more plans in place to make more improvements.

WREDC Director Abraham Algadi said the organization plans to install fiber optic internet to the BAC in order to create a better infrastructure. Anne Foley, coordinator for Community Education, is working on an upcoming series called “Changing Main Street,” which will train community members about how to run a small business or how to transfer ownership of a small business if they are aging or just don’t want to run it any longer.

After hosting the forum that discussed so many community projects, Tom Johnson wrapped up the meeting by thanking the Blandin Foundation.

“If it wasn’t for Blandin and this program, I don't think we’d be nearly as far along on these projects or even started most of them,” Johnson said. “A fully connected community is just right around the corner.”

Bill Coleman, consultant at the Blandin Foundation, came right back at Nobles County leaders with kind words of his own.


“I think the work you’re doing with new Americans is tremendous,” Coleman said. “It's very warm and welcoming. Helping them become part of the community has got to be a super feeling for them and for you.”

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