Federal grant to urge broadband adoption wraps up

Three years ago, the federal government started funneling more than $200 million in stimulus money into Minnesota to make it easier for residents to use the Internet. Most of that money is paying for private companies, cooperatives and local governments to lay fiber and install other hardware in places like Cook and Lake counties in the northeast and Lac qui Parle County and the Windom area in the southwestern prairie.

The aim of those projects is to make high-speed Internet access available to people who can’t otherwise get it or who have service that doesn’t measure up.

But a lot of people have access to broadband yet don’t use it. So about $5 million also went to the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids to encourage residents and businesses to get on board the 21st Century’s transformational means of communication. That money has now been spent and the project known as Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities has wrapped up. What did it buy?

Jim Bacon takes a remote class at the Cook County Higher Education building in Grand Marais, one of the communities helped by the Blandin Foundation broadband project. MPR News Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Blandin picked 11 places to focus its efforts and enlisted the help of non-profits, regional development commissions, University of Minnesota  Extension, state agencies, the Intelligent Community Forum and others. As a result, in those communities schools got better computer equipment, local governments enhanced services available online, hundreds of business operators received training in how to put their stores and services on the digital map.

A senior housing complex in Benton County developed ways for residents to connect with family members, an American Legion post in Morris became an Internet center and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe created computer labs to help its temporary jobs program. Those are just a few of the 100-plus projects Blandin has identified.

A big question, though, is whether the money moved the needle on adoption.  An analysis of the project by the Economic Development Administration Center at the University of Minnesota Crookston says it did, at least to some extent.

The number of broadband subscriptions in all of rural Minnesota rose by a little more than 10 percent during the time the project was in effect. In almost all of the 11 communities Blandin focused on, the increase was greater — almost 16 percent in Cook County and almost 13 percent in Thief River Falls, for example. Leech Lake band adoption grew more slowly than rural Minnesota overall, by less than 10 percent.

So, given that both the availability and the adoption of broadband continues to rise, were there lessons learned and does the need remain for this kind of help with adoption?

Yes and yes, said Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin’s director of public policy and engagement, when I asked her today.

The biggest thing she would do differently is reframe the whole debate. “I probably wouldn’t talk about broadband,” she said. “I would talk about innovation and opportunity. Broadband is not the end; it’s the means.”

When you ask people in rural Minnesota what’s important to them, they say jobs, economic development, health care, safety and schools, not broadband. “But broadband enhances and enables all of them.”

Getting people together from different walks of life to talk about how broadband can do that was among the biggest achievements of the project, Joselyn said.

One piece of evidence of the project’s value at least in Blandin’s eyes: The federal money is used up, but the foundation put $1.5 million more of its own money into a second cohort of nine communities and is taking residents through some of the same training and orientation.

The Minnesota project wasn’t unique, by the way. Vermont ran a similar project focusing on 24 small rural communities. You can see the conclusions that state drew and projects conducted here. And the National Telecommunications and Information Administration put together a toolkit for communities trying to extend broadband adoption, based on what people learned in the Minnesota, Vermont and other projects.

For more on the efforts to extend broadband availability and adoption in Minnesota, see our Ground Level broadband page.