Wireless hotspot use increases, but a Band-Aid to county’s demand for broadband

WORTHINGTON -- The public desire for broadband today can be likened to the demand for electricity, indoor plumbing and the landline telephone a century or more ago.At one time, all of those were considered a convenience. Today, more and more peop...

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Bigelow’s City Hall has free public Internet service supplied by MVTV Wireless. (TIm Middagh/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON - The public desire for broadband today can be likened to the demand for electricity, indoor plumbing and the landline telephone a century or more ago.
At one time, all of those were considered a convenience. Today, more and more people are realizing broadband is more than a convenience - it’s a necessity.
Family farms have become businesses that require reliable, high-speed Internet; schoolchildren no longer learn from just books or do homework with pencil and paper. People seeking to create a home-based business in a rural area need the superhighway to not only build their business, but to stay in business.
Small towns and rural townships across Greater Minnesota will need access to broadband if they want their sons and daughters to stay in the area. It’s a discussion under way at the Minnesota Capitol this week, as state legislators consider whether to fund broadband expansion and, if so, to what extent.
There are four areas of Nobles County with broadband access - the cities of Worthington, Round Lake, Brewster and Lismore - with pockets of service in rural areas. Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services, which provides broadband access in Round Lake and Brewster, also made access available to residents living in a narrow band along Minnesota 264/Nobles County 1 between the two towns. Meanwhile, Lismore Telecom provides broadband to all of its rural customers.
The Nobles Economic Opportunity Network, a group comprised of county, city, school district, township and economic development officials, made county-wide broadband access a top priority soon after the group was established two years ago.
Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson, who leads the NEON group, said once broadband was set as a priority, he began looking for opportunities through the Blandin Foundation’s Community Broadband Program. In late 2014, the county was selected by Blandin to be part of a broadband initiative project, and in 2015, the county received a $9,500 grant from Blandin to create wireless hotspots across the county. MVTV Wireless, who provides wireless Internet service in areas across Nobles County, stepped up to provide a $9,500 match - essentially donating labor to install the necessary equipment and providing two years of free Internet service - to make the hotspots a reality.
Julie Foote, a rural Worthington resident working in sales and market development for MVTV Wireless, said the company’s president “knew it was the right thing to do.” 
“Our goal was to get these hotspots located so kids didn’t have to drive more than five miles,” explained Johnson.
Once the decision was made to create the hotspots, Foote said she was joined by Cheryl Janssen, a fellow NEON member and resident in Seward Township, as well as MVTV’s field manager, to scope out potential sites.
“(Cheryl) was instrumental in going out to many of the townships and conveying what the opportunity was and encouraging the townships to let us come in and put this project in,” Foote said.


Seven mobile hotspots

Since last fall, Foote said seven wireless hotspots have been created across Nobles County, with two more locations still in development. Sites are operational at the Bigelow and Rushmore city halls, Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in rural Rushmore, the Reading Community Center, and the Leota, Little Rock and Seward township halls. MVTV Wireless is still working to develop a hotspot at the Dundee City Park, and wants to find a location in Ellsworth.
The hotspots provide service in areas of the county that were either unserved, or where Internet access is either unreliable or unaffordable. Foote said anyone with a laptop or mobile device can access the free service from within 300 feet of the tower.
Since the hotspots were completed last fall, she said usage is starting to pick up, particularly in Bigelow, Reading and Rushmore. The locations are signed as a mobile hotspot and directions are provided to link into the system. Registration is requested to gain access.
“The hotspots are in township halls or community centers so the groups that are meeting at those locations can also use the service to better facilitate their projects,” Foote said.
The sites, however, aren’t typically open for public use on a regular basis. As a result, most people sit in their car to access the free Internet.
“It’s not horrible sitting in your car,” said Johnson. “We were seeing kids in cars sitting in front of the library. If they can get a connection closer to home, it would be better for them.”
Both Johnson and Foote agree that if volunteers could staff these sites, it would be ideal for people to come inside to access service - particularly in the winter months.
“Ultimately, if we get fiber to every home, then the hotspots aren’t needed,” Johnson said. “We have a five-year goal on that.”

Tracking need


Foote said Internet usage reported at the hotspots over the next two years will provide the county with some direction as it works to develop a case for county-wide broadband. It will also help MVTV Wireless decide whether to keep the hotspots in place until broadband is available. The company has already expanded into western Nobles County, and now has a request from Bigelow to provide service.
“Fiber would be the best option, but there are people who live three miles down a gravel road and it may not be feasible to get fiber … down that road,” Foote said. “That’s where we come in. We’re also going to be a customer of fiber. We need fiber throughout our network to continue to offer it to customers at the rising speeds that families and businesses need for the ever-growing broadband demand.”
Cheryl Janssen, the Seward Township resident who helped identify the hotspots in Nobles County, said her sons are in fields where technology is critical.
“For them to even consider being in rural Minnesota - rural Nobles County - Internet is a key component,” Janssen said. “Internet’s gotten to be just as important to the young adults as electricity and telephones are to the older populations.”
While Janssen knows of individuals using the new hotspots - particularly adults accessing online education programs - she said the hotspots are “a Band-Aid on a big sore.”
“At the same time, it’s a way to start,” she said. “It’s a way for the guy whose grove is on the wrong side of the house (impeding wireless service) to get another source for Internet access.”
Janssen said the townships are interested in improving Internet service for its residents, but they don’t want it to come from the township’s pocket. Residents say they aren’t fussy - wireless or cable to their home are fine, as long as it’s reliable.
For now, the hotspots are an option.
“They can now drive a mile instead of all the way to town,” said Janssen, adding that driving to town in her neighborhood means eight miles to Fulda or 15 miles to Worthington.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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