Sherburne County Chat: Broadband is OK, not a big hindrance nor a big help with COVID

Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Sherburne County is a mixed bag of served, underserved and unserved. They rank 49th in terms of county coverage at speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

It’s surprising given their proximity to the Twin Cities but the market has driven deployment, which means densely populated areas are served and other areas aren’t. But in terms of COVID response, they have one advantage and that is good cell coverage (with limited hills), which means you can get households decent coverage with mobile hotspots. But mobile hotspots don’t build for the future.

I met today with Dan Weber and Bruce Messelt from County Administration, County Commissioner Raeanne Danielowski, County Commissioner Tim Dolan, and David Roedel from Public Works. I have to say that these guys are no broadband freshman. They have upperclassmen experience and knowledge. They are acutely aware of the state, federal and industry policies that make things go smoothly and make things hard.

Five years ago the county had a feasibility study done. Subsequently, they have received some MN Broadband grants; they have (or are) taking advantage of opportunities such as the State Telecommuter Forward program and the chance to use CARES funding for broadband. They have seen COVID dramatically increase the need for broadband and it are reignited a fire under the team.

They recognize that broadband deployment has largely been led by the providers and that has left some holes. They are looking for ways to work with providers, such as building out conduit as they do construction to make it easier and cheaper for providers to extend services.

Not only has COVID reignited the interest in deployment but across the county people have experienced forced adoption as schools, jobs and services move online. COVID has accelerated the pace of technology adoption but the acceleration hasn’t been unilateral so the County is still required to provide services online and offline for folks who don’t have technology. It’s a tricky and expensive position.

The move to telework has also been uneven. They are working on managing productivity and equity of/in access. Some jobs are easier to do online; some jobs and more difficult. The county has had success with virtual interviews, visitations and courtrooms. While field social workers are finding that they would like to visit their clients, maybe not always but sometimes. Also, not everyone in a department has access at home, which leads to different workloads based on broadband access, which can create an imbalance that isn’t fair and/or doesn’t produce what needs to get done. They are working on fair solutions that get the job done.

Somewhat related, some folks have access to broadband but choose not to get it or choose lower tier services. Sometimes that’s a budget issue, sometimes it’s a priority issue, sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of needs. Especially for people working for the county, there are questions about who should pay for household connectivity.

They are also learning that while five years ago, they were focused on getting broadband to the businesses, now they are finding that the businesses are often at home. So they are full circle to looking for ubiquitous coverage and realizing that the county/community will need to get involved in a public private partnership if they want to see areas that aren’t economically viable get access.

The good news is that Sherburne is the fastest growing county in population. While there was a slow down in 2008, growth has caught up and new development is happening. Broadband follows new development; and development follows broadband but as growth continues those paths seem to catch up to each other.

Finally, right now schools are using a hybrid model for education for sustained continuity. It offers some wiggle room if COVID numbers increase. But they also have students who elect an distance-only path. So the schools and teacher accommodate them. In the spring they had homes without access and without devices but they were better able provide for those students because mobile hotspots worked for all of the students. That has not been the case for other counties.

It seems like the situation in Sherburne is that everything is OK but it’s not good. The difficulty with that is that it’s easier to let OK go than to let a problem fester. Hotspots work for the students but again, it doesn’t build infrastructure. I think it was Commissioner Dolan who said that 25/3 just isn’t enough anymore. They need to change the metrics, they need to focus on coverage for homes and businesses.

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