A look at broadband needs in rural MN: Walnut Grove, Redwood County and Pine County

MN Public Radio takes a look at broadband on the frontlines in rural Minnesota. In Walnut Grove…

The 31-year-old crop insurance adjuster works on a computer set up in his living room, but sometimes he has to travel to the library in a neighboring town for a steady internet connection. Other times, he uses a mobile hot spot. He gets by, Malmberg said, and others he knows, work with less.

“Up until four years ago, I think, my parents had dial-up,” he said. “They basically have dial-up still. They have 3.5 megabits per second is their [download] speed. No Netflix, no Amazon Prime. Only email, and the occasional YouTube video.”

In Redwood County…

“Internet is now as necessary as electricity and water,” said Briana Mumme, Redwood County economic development coordinator. “I mean, like these are just part of how we do life. You just have to have access to it.”

About 90 percent of households have a computer statewide, according to the Blandin Foundation, and 81 percent have a laptop; 76 percent have a smartphone and 59 percent have a tablet. But, there are many areas in Minnesota, Mumme said, where access to high-speed internet is limited and working remotely and distance learning have run into problems, which was the case for one college student she knows who moved back home during the pandemic.

“In order for him to attend school, he literally had to drive to his grandparents house, back into town where the bandwidth was bigger or more robust,” she said. “So he could actually do school.”

In Pine County…

Other rural counties are also competing for better broadband and have seen the shift in how their communities are viewing the necessity for it. Lezlie Sauter, Pine County economic development coordinator, said COVID-19 revealed a lot of disparities where better internet access was needed in northern Minnesota.

“I think that the pandemic opened up our eyes to, ‘we have to be able to pivot and do work online,’ ” Sauter said. “I don’t think our community was prepared for it. I think some people were, but most of us viewed the internet and broadband as a luxury and it’s something we use to stream video and Netflix and all those things. But, we did not see how important it would be to keep conducting business.”

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