Getting rural businesses to see Internet value

ST. CLOUD — Nearly a third of the people in the United States are without a high-speed connection to the Internet.

Some can’t get access; others can’t afford it. But the greatest portion of those unconnected to the Internet say the reason is they aren’t interested and see no need.

I sat in St. Cloud on Wednesday with dozens of people from around Minnesota who are trying to change that notion. They were brought together by the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality. The center is working with some of the federal stimulus money awarded last year to the Blandin Foundation to increase Internet use among Minnesotans. The center’s role is to increase activity particularly among Minnesota businesses.

“We have a lot of small businesses that serve the area and they’re not so into technology,” said Ben Anderson, executive director of the chamber of commerce in Thief River Falls in the northwest corner of the state. “They still think of Thief River Falls as their home town and they serve the people who live there.”

The hope of Anderson and others is to raise the sights of those business people to understand how the Internet can help them survive and thrive. The fear is that if they don’t, communities will be sapped of their young people, their economies, their vibrancy.

Creating web pages to market and sell is one obvious strategy. But a cafe might gain a customer or two simply by tweeting the day’s lunch special each morning. A town might raise its profile by expanding its Wikipedia entry. A business might simply want to make sure it shows up in the right place on a map when potential customers search for it with Google.

To that end, in the four months ending in March, the center has conducted 66 workshops in 18 communities, contacting 597 businesses and more than 1,000 individuals. Some of those people were already deep into their web presence and social networking. But others needed to know how to move a mouse and how to connect to the Internet in the first place.

This is the flip side of the federal stimulus money. Most of the attention has focused on infrastructure — deploying fiber or wireless networks to provide access where it doesn’t exist or could be better. The $5 million Blandin received is aimed at getting the unconnected to see value in adopting use of the Internet for communicating, finding jobs, getting customers, dealing with government and staying engaged as the world changes.

Julie Foote, the project’s workshop coordinator in Jackson and Nobles counties, talked about the challenge in a diverse place like Worthington, where perhaps one family member works in a meatpacking plant and others are starting small businesses in town. “The goal is to help those people sell widgets out the front door as well as out the back door globally.”

The five workshops held so far in Stevens County in western Minnesota have drawn people “from age 20 to their 70s,” said Carolyn Peterson, that community’s workshop coordinator.

It’s hard to measure effectiveness, although, interestingly enough, in the Arrowhead region’s Cook County, one of the state’s least wired places, Danna McKenzie said the county tries to keep an inventory of websites, email users, Google maps and the like that pertain to the area. After each workshop held there, those numbers have risen, said McKenzie, the county’s IT director.

The other challenge is to create a process that continues after the federal money runs out in a year. Can these communities keep the effort going by, say, nurturing local experts and consultants who can be tapped? And, even harder, how does anything learned in these 18 towns get transferred to hundreds of other Minnesota cities?

Here’s where the workshops are focusing:

MIRC map.JPG

Here’s a National Telecommunications and Information Administration chart on technology adoption. The pink line shows the gradually increasing percentage of households with Internet connections. The shrinking gap between the pink line and the green line represents the replacement of dial-up connections with broadband connections.

adoption of technology chart 2.JPG

And here’s NTIA data on why people don’t use the Internet. Although the total numbers continue to decline, the proportion of people citing lack of interest grew as a reason last year.

Internet use reasons 2.JPG

For more on Minnesota and broadband, see our Ground Level topic page on the subject.

  • Bill Coleman

    Nice article on the Blandin project and the UM Extension work with business.

    Having more local businesses using technology also will provide motivation for local residents to get online and use technology tools. People love local content.

  • Dave Peters

    Bill — It’s interesting to contemplate what all that term “local content” includes in this context. It can be what local newspapers traditionally have produced but now there’s the ability for everybody to start “publishing” anything they think will interest their neighbors.