Every year, the Blandin Foundation does an assessment of how the Blandin Broadband Communities projects. Here’s the update from Koochiching Technology Initiative …
The Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI) coalesced in 2018 out of a longstanding and growing recognition of the
importance of internet access and skills throughout the
community, which includes both Koochiching County and
neighboring Kabetogama region of St. Louis County.
Infrastructure is a major concern for the Koochiching County area. With a small and sparse population, affordable internet service in the region is scarce. The situation became more dire, when a major employer in
International Falls decided to close their office and transition their employees to work remotely. Many of the employees did not have adequate broadband connections to work effectively at home. The community responded.
One idea that sparked enthusiasm right away was to open a co-working space for use by the town’s displaced employees, as well as by the many local tourists who increasingly want to stay connected while on vacation.
This conversation led to the creation of Ballan’s iSpace, a
converted furniture store downtown. This family-run
business, a long-time fixture on main street, had been up for
sale for years. When the family heard about the BBC team’s
interest in developing a co-working space in International
Falls, they decided to convert the building themselves
without financial assistance from the BBC. The tastefully appointed converted space today is available 24/7 to members. Amenities include Wi-Fi, printing services, dining and event space, and a variety of office space options. As a component of the BBC program, the town’s Borderland Young Professionals group is offering scholarships to income-qualifying Ballan’s iSpace patrons.
The iSpace location proved its importance when the pandemic forced school closures in spring of 2020. Some students with no internet access need a safe place to study, so BBC funds were reallocated to the iSpace scholarship fund to allow those students a safe place to participate
remotely in online school.
KTI funded a total of 20-21-2 projects during the two-year project period, many addressing public internet access, training, opportunities for education and networking around technology and marketing, and promoting the area as a technologically vibrant place to live, work and visit.
Community exposure to cutting edge technology was another key focus. KTI funded projects through the library that included mobile internet device check-out, expanded its reference service to texting and live chat, Adobe Creative Cloud software for use in its new recording studio, and STEM classes and kits. They also funded the purchase of ten virtual reality headsets for checkout and use at the library for healthcare applications, including patient and family
education, student use, elder wellness and stress reduction. Adjusting for the 2020 pandemic, a Cleanbox sanitizing system was purchased to disinfect the units between uses.
In fall of 2018 KTI was invited to participate in the
Feasibility Charrette activity at the Border to Border
Broadband conference. They were paired with
Cooperative Network Services (CNS), and together over
the course of two days the community team and CNS
staff went through a mini-feasibility study process.
Conversations continued through the fall and winter.
Based on this work, Paul Bunyan Communications
approached the team, and with Blandin support, the
community surveyed potential internet subscribers in
the region. Based on this work Paul Bunyan applied for,
and was awarded, grant funding to expand services key
areas of Koochiching County and also the Kabetogama
region of St. Louis County (details on page 42).
The Blandin Broadband Community program has been a powerful catalyst and inspiration for us to form a strong and diverse team. We have allocated our Blandin funds across a strong slate of local projects which have launched us on a path to becoming our own version of an “intelligent community.” Our engagement with local leaders and stakeholders is strong and we thank you for your partnership in getting it all started.
– James Yount, Small Town Tech, Inc. & Koochiching Technology Initiative