Swift County Chat: Broadband made COVID life easier – except in Appleton

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Swift County is *nearly* green throughout, which means they are *mostly* served with speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. (In fact the rank fourth for coverage!) There are a couple spots of red and those include Appleton, which is the second largest town in the county after Benson, the county seat.

Swift County is well served because in 2015, Federated Telephone (now Acira) got a $4.9 million MN Broadband grant to bring FTTH to the county. Appleton is not served because at the time they were considered served and did not qualify for the grant-funded upgrade. Today I spoke with Librarian Cindy Hendrickx in Appleton and Amanda Ness, from County Admin not in Appleton. It was two tales of one county!

An important lesson here is that a policy decision made defining served, underserved and served areas years ago has caused the digital divide in Swift county. In the Task Force meeting earlier this week I heard someone say they were hesitant to update the speed goals because so many didn’t reach the lowest goals (25 Mbps up and 3 down) and to move that goal post would mean making it even harder to get to ubiquitous coverage. And while that’s true, keeping the barrier low helps reach the goal, on the frontlines it doesn’t help. Those lower speed goals (because they turn into definitions that impact funding) hold some areas back.

Amanda told a story that will make many readers jealous. She has fiber. When the schools moved to distance education in the spring she had family come from Little Falls to stay with them because they had better broadband. Their home connection served three adults working and four kids going to school.

Her work at the County wasn’t disturbed. Because the county had technology in place and most folks had adequate access at home, they were able to pretty seamlessly move everybody to a home office. It has worked really well for some and they are thinking about remote options even post-COVID. Others found it didn’t suit their work. And a handful scrambled to find the broadband they needed.

Cindy was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The library was closed for five weeks. She and her husband tried to work online from home but they couldn’t work at the same time. For example, if one was on a Zoom call, the other couldn’t check Facebook. To get her work done, Cindy was able to get special dispensation to go to the library. But she had patrons in Appleton who weren’t able to do that – households had issues working and going to school.

The library turned up their Wifi for “remote” patrons. (People probably in the parking lot.) They have a few computers to check out and the school had some hotspots. But they are expensive and cover nine counties, which means they had to choose a mobile provider that worked best but that doesn’t mean it works everywhere. So there are homes where it doesn’t work. There are kids without the devices they need.

During the summer the library was open (and still is) but only half the hours as usual. They did summer programming with outside book club and “make and take” projects that used both digital and traditional media.

Kids in Swift County are in school now. But both Amanda and Cindy expect that could change any time.

We spoke briefly about other sectors. Telehealth has been more prevalent; but not available to everyone. The hospital in Benson apparently set up a room where people could get online to use telehealth applications. Businesses have done what they could with reduced hours. They didn’t know of any restaurants or main street businesses that had closed but it was tough. And there is CARES funding available for small businesses.

It sounds like there are been some real estate inquiries from people looking to move into the area now that they can work online. But they aren’t looking in Appleton. And we talked about the need for human contact, especially for older citizens and how much easier that is to provide safely with broadband.

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