Between March and June, around 20 Pine County residents, business owners, and officials took part in a 15-week program with the Blandin Foundation aimed at improving broadband access in the county.
Pine County ranks 84 worst out of the 89 counties in Minnesota when it comes to broadband access when measured against the 2022 state goal of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. That inequality was put on full display during the pandemic when families struggled to connect for work or school.
"We had students who had to go to McDonald's or pull up to city buildings in order to do their homework," County Commissioner Terry Lovgren told WCMP.
To solve this issue, and make the county more accessible and competitive, the group worked with the Blandin Foundation to meet with internet providers, survey the public, and conduct speed tests in order to map connectivity in Pine County.
The county is now tasked with putting what they have learned into action, which Pine County Economic Development Coordinator Lezlie Sauter says includes bringing the public up to speed.
"To the average person, anyone can get internet. Just get a hotspot from Verison or T-Mobile or get satellite through HughesNet," Sauter said during an interview. "We don't realize that's really expensive and not available to most people."
This includes educating the public on the types of broadband and the cost associated. According to a survey, most people do not want to pay more than $50-100 per month for their internet. Sauter says that some satellite internet providers charge upwards of $100-150 for service.
Along with education, Lovegren said community partnership will be important when courting companies to invest in the county.
"One thing that we learned through Blandin, if we can show that the people really want their internet service to be better, we are going to have a better chance getting the providers to help us to get that to our people."
To help put all of these pieces together, Pine County is currently looking for a broadband consultant. The Blandin Foundation is offering a matching grant to help pay for this consultant.
Applications for this consultant are available on the county's website. The deadline to apply is Monday, July 14.
WCMP's Joe Keyport had a sitdown conversation with both Lezlie Sauter and Terry Lovgren. You can listen to that full 16-minute interview on the On-Demand podcast.