According to Wagner, a group of citizens, interested in broadband, has been meeting in Aitkin County for some time. Recently, they’ve gotten together with representatives of other area counties to form the East Central Regional Broadband Coalition. Besides Aitkin, the counties also include Mille Lacs, Pine and Kanabec.
“It’s hard for a county working on its own to make progress and the coalition makes sense since we’re all in the same boat,” Wagner said.
They’ve held workshops, a conference and informational sessions on the issue, then decided to join an even bigger group, the Central Woodland Broadband Coalition.
“There’s strength in numbers. We hope [Internet] providers will look at the issue,” Wagner said, explaining that the problem seems to be that the population in counties like Aitkin is so spread out, the potential for profit is marginal.
Wagner said members of the original Aitkin County group are interested in reviving the local broadband task force.
“Our state’s history of economic success has shown us how vital a solid infrastructure is to building a strong business climate. Broadband access is an important part of that 21st century infrastructure. Broadband accessibility is an issue that is critical to growing our state’s economy – particularly in Greater Minnesota. As long as there are inequities in access to broadband in Minnesota, we will see those same inequities reflected in our schools, hospitals and businesses,” Gov. Mark Dayton said recently.
And spoke to several providers in the area…
Internet providers are working to address the issue. Mike Martin, executive director of the Minnesota Cable Association said the issue in rural areas like Aitkin is population density. Martin said it’s simply not cost-effective for companies to build the infrastructure needed to offer broadband to areas that are as sparsely populated and spread out as Aitkin County. Homes per mile is an issue along with seasonal residency – a less than “dependable” market for providers.
“I’m not surprised by Blandin’s figures,” Martin said, adding, “Even with subsidies [like a possible state matching grant of 50 percent] companies still won’t break even when you consider the high cost of construction and maintenance.”
The first to bring dialup Internet to Aitkin County, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) introduced high speed internet with fixed wireless and satellite broadband as demands changed.
“Today, this is still the only technology available to many people,” said MLEC Supervisor of Engineering and Technology Stacy Cluff, adding, “To meet customers’ needs today, a fiber network would be ideal but the cost to deploy this is extremely high due to the distance between homes. MLEC has been looking for ways to expand with, without funding, it will be challenging.”
MLEC has applied for grants including the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in 2009 and, most recently, through the FCC Broadband rural experiments program. To date, Cluff said, MLEC has not been selected to receive a grant.
“Currently, we are working to find faster alternatives to fixed wireless and have begun experimenting with the TV White Space spectrum, which uses old analog TV frequencies. We will continue to look for opportunities that would allow us to start a fiber network but there are many financial challenges to make this happen,” concluded Cluff.
Senior Charter Communications Manager Kimberly Noetzel said, currently, Charter offers residential customers in Aitkin a 60 Mbps Internet connection with a 99.9 percent reliability rating.