Worthington gets help from Blandin to increase Internet access

Thursday, November 20, 2014

By Prairie Business

Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson announced Tuesday that the county is one of 10 in Greater Minnesota selected by the Blandin Foundation to be part of a two-year broadband initiative. The Blandin Broadband award will be made official today during a program in Brainerd.

While there are no direct grants associated with the award, Johnson said grants will be available through an application process down the road. At this point, the county’s selection means assistance from Blandin in determining local broadband needs and how to get high-speed Internet to every household in the county.

Nobles County is considered largely underserved when it comes to Internet access. The state standard is a 10-megabyte download speed and a 5-megabyte upload speed.

Right now, the city of Worthington has those speeds available through multiple providers. In addition, Round Lake and Brewster, along with those who live along Nobles County State Aid Highway 1 that connects the two communities, are served by Southwest Broadband; and Lismore, through Lismore Telecom, provides fiber access to every home in its community.

“The rest of the communities are considered underserved, and we know for a fact that there are areas that are unserved,” Johnson said. “Down by Lake Bella, they can’t even get cell service.”

The application to Blandin was developed through the Nobles Economic Opportunities Network (NEON), a group of county, city, township, school district and economic development officials, among others.

“We really don’t have a clear picture yet,” Johnson said of the plans moving forward.

Blandin will begin working with the 10 counties in January.

Johnson is hopeful all areas of the county will have access to high speed Internet within the next five years. The state’s goal to bring broadband to all homes will likely be pushed to 2019 or 2020.

Johnson said a public-private partnership is key in increasing broadband access locally.

“The county doesn’t want to be the major funding source,” Johnson said. “If we can partner with some of the providers — Southwest Broadband and Lismore Telecom are key groups.”

Still, the county realizes that the availability of broadband in rural areas can greatly impact economic development.

“A lot of companies allow working from home now, and so many businesses start up in the living room,” Johnson said. “We’re bringing up a higher-tech generation — we won’t keep anyone if we can’t support them. We need to allow our students access so they can do their homework efficiently.”

Johnson said Nobles County’s inclusion in the Blandin program will “make a huge difference” and put the county in line to qualify for state grants for broadband.

“If we, cities and townships, can work together and Blandin pulls us all together, the opportunity is incredible,” he added.

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