Broadband Efforts in Aitkin County – Wifi filling the gap between the haves and have-nots

This month I am traveling with the Blandin crew to visit various Iron Range Broadband Communities – communities that have been making a concerted effort to improve broadband access in their area. This week we stopped by Aitkin to talk with the folks on the front lines. It was fun to hear about what a difference better broadband and better tools are making. A highlight was the woman who was able to get her GED through remote studies and is now able to take college classes – what a game changer!

Here are notes on the different projects…

Long Distance Learning

PCs for People distribution meant they were able to get computers to students. One recipient got her GED online – facilitate through the home computer in Deer River. Thinking about telepresence for teaching. We’ve been successfully been having online classes since the beginning of January (3 weeks). Now students have access to the teacher all week – otherwise the schedule was set by location.
What classes? Reading skills, Start your career, Money management. These classes prepare them for GED, Acuplacer (college) and computer skills for the workplace.
Great in better weather.
What speeds do you need? Not much – 10 Mbps
How do students take to technology?  We are experimenting together. It’s nice to have students in the classroom to start. But there are students who are whiz kids who have been showing me new things. And there are some students who need a little bit more help. Running an application or getting sound to work are tasks that can be a hiccup.
Students can also access from home. Some just use the cell access through the phone.
Which students qualify? 17 or older and unenrolled from high school. SO 20s, 30s, 40s or older
Seniors are able to use the program too – for employment programs
Lessons learned: I had fear about teaching online. I was nervous. That fear can show – I just wish I had known the technology better before I started. Teachers need to know the subject they’re teaching. So it is with technology too – but technology constantly changes.
See an up tick for customers using technology? It’s been fantastic – it means I can see people more often. Suddenly I can see people in Aitkin more often.
There is an option to meet privately with students online – so I could help them get signed up with SNAP or other private transaction.
This gives the ability to do adult basic education classes in places where we couldn’t do before.
We can archive and save.
Outside of the classroom – We have diverse people on the foundation board – in lots of locations. Remote access opens the door to easier meetings.

East Central Regional Library Mobile WiFI

14 mobile hotspots to check out – will be available soon.
Planning on 3 week checkout period – and if there’s no one waiting you could keep it longer
We anticipate no charge for patrons.

Aitkin HS – WiFi on the buses

4 portable units – for buses going to activities after school; otherwise going to the buses going the longest routes
The use Exede and it’s been working well.

WiFi to increase bandwidth at Long lake Conservation

Two problems – not enough bandwidth coming in
They use Exede and it works well
WiFI access shows up at about 25 Mbps – so people can make presentations
It’s been one of several positive changes that has helped turned things around both for staff but also economically
This works because our services has better data caps, you can do different logins, and we ask visitors to leave their smartphones at home.

WiFi at Berglund Park
Continuation of previous project
Recently upgraded the park in many ways
WiFi is almost as necessary as water.
Working on Hill City too. Line of sight was difficult to get with the trees so they’re working on government buildings – if they can get 8 access points they can make it work. Just need the order fulfillment. Working on tower over ethernet.
Just need SCI to extend fiber.

Programming workshops that can use the conference centers
Be nice to bring in a speaker or something that can be conferenced into all locations.

Aitkin County Landing Page
Includes a calendar that draws from local high schools and other resources
Includes Public Notices.
Using Google Calendars to create the compilation.

PCs for People
82 computers distributed

CAF 2 (Frontier & CenturyLink) only requires 10/ Mbps service – where state definition/goal of broadband is 25/3. So there’s a disconnect. We did some surveys. Everyone in CenturyLink area had issues. Frontier businesses were in marginally better shape. Realtors have lost sales in Aitkin County due to poor broadband.

We had $450,000 (over 3 years) for projects for broadband projects that would meet state speeds. We asked providers to extend broadband. Mille Lac Energy & CTC got a state grant and that helped the industrial park. SCI also got a grant in the first round near Shamrock (Big Sandy Lake) – it’s the top valued township because of the prices of the home. They did Bridge Road. The response was so good they looked to expand. We were working on just a little bit more fiber into the ground. We also did another grant with SCI near Mill Lacs lake – it will be done next year. We know we’re successful because CenturyLink is now coming to us to talk. We say – if you want to do it, we’re happy to work with you. The 927 exchange will be upgraded from CenturyLink. We had one customer go from dialup to DSL and they were happy.

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