The electric and telephone cooperatives teamed up and received a $1.7 million Border-to-Border project grant in 2017 from the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development for a project in southern Aitkin County.
The grant has been used to install fiber from MLEC headquarters in Aitkin, past about 800 homes, ending at MLEC’s Spirit Lake substation. Approximately 400 members are signed up and 180 members are connected at speeds up to 1 Gig up/1 Gig down, which accounts for close to a 50 percent take rate. This is significant, Zelenak explained, because 45 percent of MLEC’s 15,000 members are seasonal.
“Aitkin County has the highest senior citizen rate of any county in Minnesota,” Zelenak said. “Keeping our aging population in their homes longer through the use of telemedicine will increase their quality of life and reduce their exodus to neighboring cities and towns.”
MLEC recognizes the importance of high speed internet service so its rural members have access to the same educational opportunities for children and adults wanting to further their education and training.
“Rural school children are at a competitive disadvantage when trying to get into colleges and trade schools,” Zelenak said.
Lack of sufficient high speed internet also hinders opportunities for increased economic development and jobs for rural communities.
“High speed internet access is a deal breaker for those working from home or starting a home-based business, and for manufacturing companies or other businesses to locate here,” Zelenak said. “Economic development does not exist without high speed internet access.”
According to Zelenak, broadband is as transformative to rural communities today as electricity was 80 years ago. “MLEC does not see rural Minnesota growing and prospering without the basics, and the basics are becoming good internet access.”