The Mille Lacs Messenger reports…
Economic Development Manager Mike Wimmer was in the midst of his last day when he presented to the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners for the final time on Nov. 1. He highlighted challenges counties across the state and country are facing, challenges like workforce issues, child care availability, and broadband access, as well as housing.
Wimmer spoke about current grant applications in review for greater broadband access, a need rather than a want in an increasingly online world. According to a letter Chair Genny Reynolds signed in August in support of an SCI Broadband grant application, “nearly 40 percent of households in Mille Lacs County lack access” to broadband that would meet the state’s goals for 2026.
He spoke about technology options…
Wimmer talked about the developing technology of 5G, a wireless option, which he called “promising,” but he encouraged the board and county to continue pushing for fiber-to-premises connection “as far as possible.” At this moment in time, the new technology is costly. Fiber-to-premises, or FTP, is more reliable and can provide more consistent speeds, even during “network congestion or outages due to obstructions or inclement weather,” according to a CNET article comparing 5G to wired connection.
He brought attention to East Central Energy’s recent decision to begin exploring broadband options. He believes the cooperative is “in a good position to tackle” issues concerning connectivity in low population-density areas. ECE’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution to “enter the broadband business,” according to a press release from ECE.
Ty Houglum, vice president/chief information officer of ECE, said the Oct. 27 board decision came after “nearly a year of hard work, including grant applications, a feasibility study, meetings with local entities, additional research and learning from other co-ops that offer broadband.” The release also stated, “the co-op plans to prioritize unserved and underserved locations” throughout their 14-county service area.
On the heels of ECE’s release, the Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative announced on Nov. 2 that they received nearly $3.8 million as a Rural Development investment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The money will allow MLEC to “deploy a fiber-to-the-home network to connect 473 people, 15 farms and nine businesses to high-speed internet in Aitkin and Crow Wing Counties.”
MLEC will partner with Consolidated Telecommunications Company on the construction of the announced project, which is expected to begin in late 2023; the release also noted the cooperative will “make high-speed internet affordable by participating in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.” Additionally, a map of the project is available for viewing at www.mlecmn.net/fiber.