How much is broadband investment worth? A lot of bratwurst

Global storefront? The Internet delivers business to Stittsworth Meats in Bemidji, Minn. Stittsworth Meats/Facebook

It’s become an article of faith that a rural community needs high-speed access to the Internet if businesses are going to thrive. But just how much difference does access to and use of broadband make?

There were two answers Wednesday at the Blandin Foundation’s Border to Border Broadband conference in St. Paul. One involved numbers and modeling and predictions. The other had more to do with bratwurst.

First, the numbers. A study commissioned by Blandin and released Wednesday says the southwestern Minnesota county of Lac qui Parle could boost business revenue $1.2 million a year by getting existing businesses to use more wisely the broadband access they already have. That could be achieved with an investment of between $120,000 and $145,000 by public entities to educate and train people, according to the study by Strategic Networks Group, a firm with its U.S. headquarters in Denver that Blandin hired.

Lac qui Parle County already has good broadband service via fiber to most residents. But SNG also looked at Kanabec County in eastern Minnesota, where broadband access is much worse. There, the study found, the potential gain is much greater. Business revenue could rise $18.2 million, according to SNG.

The difference? To achieve that, Kanabec County would have to get fiber optic lines throughout the county, probably at a cost of between $7.3 million and $11.3 million, and then make another investment in training and education for $175,000 to $225,000.

Blandin asked SNG to make the comparison by applying its multinational database to the two counties and, even without specific Minnesota surveying, generating some sense of return on investment. SNG based its estimates on data it gathers throughout the world about typical business use of the Internet and how much businesses typically can grow with a better understanding and skills about using the Internet.

“We hear about the digital divide for individuals,” said SNG president Michael Curri. “There’s also a digital divide for businesses. If you’re not online, you’re losing business share.”

Mediocre technology with good business practices is better than great technology that doesn’t get used, he said.

Meanwhile, a group of business people and local officials in northwestern Minnesota called Impact 20/20, did a study of their own. They found a dozen businesses making good use of websites, social media and other tools and asked them how much those efforts helped them.

The answer: A lot.

Stittsworth Meats, a family-owned, 21-year-old meat shop in Bemidji, Minn., said walk-in traffic tripled after owner Mychal Stittsworth started using Facebook. He posts photos of smoked salmon, ribs, brats and other products and lets the visuals speak for themselves.

Stittsworth Meats/Facebook

Weave Got Maille, a jewelry supply business in Ada, Minn., has customers in 56 countries.

A one-man operation called Lake of the Woods Outdoorsman is pulling in interest with a series of persona-creating videos on YouTube, making money via advertisers eager to take advantage of the popularity. “Fish on, Lake of the Woods, baby:”

Motivated by a study showing rural businesses lagging behind urban counterparts because they tend to use the Internet less, Impact 20/20 launched its work two years ago and this year plans to start running workshops to spread what the Stittsworth Meats of the world have learned.

The two studies show that while the debate continues over how to encourage better Internet service in underserved parts of the state, getting people to make better use of what they have is another front in the war.