Rock County chat: broadband made work, school and healthcare seamless during COVID

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Rock County is green throughout, which means they are served with speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. As Superintendent Todd said, they are like Little House on the Prairie with broadband. And that level of broadband means the pandemic is an inconvenience but not a stopper.

I spoke with librarian Calla Jarvie, Kyle Oldre at the county, Superintendents Todd Holthaus and Craig Oftedahl and Jane Lanphere at the Luverne Chamber of Commerce. I could keep this quick and say I asked if broadband was a help or a hindrance – they said help, dropped mic and left the room. Everyone had heard stories from other counties but in Rock County, they are set.

What’s the difference in Rock County? They have fiber to the home. They ranked number one for county coverage of broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up with 99.93 percent having access. They have received two MN Broadband Border to Border grants. [Addition – one grant was for $5 million and they county put in $1 million; the other had a smaller impact on the county becuase they were part of a 20-county middle mile project with an MVTV grant award.] The primary provider is a cooperative, Broadband Alliance, which attendees at the meeting today made sure to call out for their support.

So what does that mean? In Kyle’s house it means that his wife (a media specialist with a local school) and two sons (one home from college and one in high school) could all work online at the same time. They could even stream music while they did it. It really means everyone who could work online (based on their job requirements) could do it from home – no matter where they lived in the county.

The schools had a handful of students without access but that was a device and/or affordability problem. So they worked with the provider to get lower cost access. They worked with a local grant and with PCs for People to make sure everyone had a computer. As most of us will remember in March, schools had two weeks to prepare to move classes online due to the pandemic. That was enough time for Rock County to get the infrastructure ready because the work was minimal – but as someone pointed out, you can’t get fiber to everyone in two weeks.

The schools used Zoom to host classes and Schoology as a Learning Management System. They didn’t need to worry about paper packs for those without access. They are waiting to hear whether they will have class in person, distance or a hybrid – but it sounds like a likely solution will be in-person for grade schoolers and hybrid for high schoolers. They are prepared for the handful of folks who want to opt for online and for any changes in the plan based on COVID changes.

The libraries are open now, but even during the shutdown they were able to offer ebooks and special read-aloud events via Facebook.

Healthcare has moved online, which has been a boon. With changes in policy and reimbursement, nearly everyone has moved to online care. That has opened the door to greater mental healthcare coverage as counselors can now be located anywhere. It has improved privacy and has been a time saving for patients and their loved ones.

Civic engagement has never been easier, as county commission and other meetings have moved online. That makes it easier for citizens and county employees to pop in and see what’s going on.

Local businesses are doing well too. For many businesses it’s just been a matter of moving folks to work from home. For retail and restaurants, it’s been a matter of using online channels to sell and promote their business. Apparently one restaurant has done well promoting take-and-bake meals. And more and more local businesses are using social media.

Broadband has kept folks living facilities, such a nursing homes, in touch with each other and the outside world. It’s been a social lifeline to seniors who have otherwise had strict COVID quarantine rules in place. And that social connection is essential.

Everyone talked about how having sufficient broadband has allowed them to collaborate and innovate. They are living the future! It was fun to talk about the things that we’re glad to see change – like the option to work at home, telehealth and civic engagement. We’d all like schools and restaurants to open but recognize that life can continue seamlessly until they do.

They have had inquiries from potential new residents, including some from the Cities. When you’re top of the chart for broadband, you can attract people from anywhere.

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