Chisago County chat: broadband has been a help and hindrance in pandemic planning

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), you can see that Chisago County has very uneven access to broadband. Many areas (including some of the green area) have fiber to the home; while other areas (in pink) are completely unserved lacking broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps up and 3 down. According to the OBD, 84.34 percent of the county has access to 25/3 or better.

As part of the annual county broadband profiles I’ll be doing later this fall, I am trying to touch base with a few counties to see what it feels like on the frontlines of the county. Big thanks to Nancy Hoffman, Sara Peterson and Dan Omdahl from Chisago County for meeting with me today to talk about their experience – specifically in terms of whether their broadband connections have been a help and a hindrance in pandemic preparation.

Nancy and Sara work for the Housing & Redevelopment Authority – Economic Development Authority (HRA-EDA). Dan works for Boston Scientific. Normally, he would go to the office but has been mainly working from home since the start of COVID. Both Sara and Dan have kids in school.

I was struck immediately when Dan explained that his service “while sounds pretty good” at 25 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, really wasn’t enough now that his son was on Zoom for classes much of the day while both he and his wife worked from home. I think many people are finding that to be the answer. The MN broadband speed goal is 25/3 by 2022 but COVID has accelerated and exacerbated the need for faster speeds. Dan explains that the asymmetrical was fine when downloading or watching videos was a main activity online but now that people need to work, we need symmetrical connectivity.

Dan also noted that his speeds at home are as good as they are because they are close to the node. Meaning they are near the place where broadband come via fiber into the community and is then redistributed via DSL to the houses. The speeds are greatly reduced based on distance from the node. So a few houses away, they will not see speeds of 25/1. Part of Dan’s frustration is that federal funding (CAF 2) recently went into upgrading the fiber, but that doesn’t help much when the last mile is DSL.

Nancy and Sara are both able to work remotely. They miss the personal contact but the office has recently moved to SharePoint and because they have connectivity at home, devices they need and the office software infrastructure, they can get their jobs done. Their clients, which include many small businesses, are not always as lucky. There has been a push to get businesses to start selling online or moving transactions online when possible but they need the connectivity, skills and devices to make it happen. You can look back to the map to see where that probably works better than other areas. I did some e-marketing consulting with a dozen or so businesses and I know I met in person with two because they did not have adequate broadband to support a Zoom call.

School is another issue. Sara said that it works. Her daughter can get her work done; it’s not best case scenario but it’s working. Dan’s son has missed classes due to outages at their home. Apparently they have been down 9 times since the pandemic hit – only for a couple of hours, but that mans classes get missed. He mentioned that he has neighbors who have been down for much longer.

The community is looking at perhaps opening a satellite local for students (and maybe others) to work. They have hotspots and devices to give to kids who need them but even the hotspots don’t work in all areas of the county. Chisago has been innovative in getting better broadband to the county and they continue to strive for more but for now – it is county with two tales. One story for folks with broadband and a different one for those without. Dan has been working to improve connectivity in Franconia. They did a survey last year and have been following up with people more recently. Turns out they have already heard from people who have moved rather than try to thrive with inadequate broadband.

There were some silver linings. Dan likes not going into the Cities for work every day. Sara likes the efficiency and Nancy notes the cost saving in gas alone.

*I am looking to connect with different counties and tribal communities for similar chats. (Learn more.) Please let me know if you are interested.


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