Looking at the map from the Office of Broadband Development (OBD), Koochiching County is looks unserved, but 68.8 percent of the population has access to speeds of at least 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. On the ground that means if you are in International Fall, you are served but get just three miles away and folks report they have trouble streaming Netflix. Fortunately most folks do live in town but for those who don’t there are some barriers. Affordability is another barrier exacerbated by COVID.
Koochiching County has been working on getting better broadband for a while. They are well organized and engaged through Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI); they are a Blandin Broadband Community. They have done innovative work in providing access in the homeless shelters. They have been active in getting residents to take the statewide speed test. Last year, Paul Bunyan Telephone was awarded a Border to Border grant that will help deploy FTTH to about half of the currently unserved households. But that project competition date is a year from now (2021). So while good news it doesn’t help today.
Today I got to speak with Jim Yount, Isaac Meyer, Ariana Daniel, Derek Foss, Jaci Nagle and Kathy LaFrance – all from social services, healthcare, the county and an IT business. Everyone recognized that broadband was a help; they mentioned that there were “holes in the service” where residents lack broadband access and some areas where cell coverage wasn’t good but that didn’t seem to be the major issue – affordability was. The County is especially concerned with affordability and making sure that access is equitable.
Ariana and Isaac both talked about strides to reach folks on the far end of the digital divide. Ariana is Executive Director of Servants of Shelter. She noted that at the onset of the pandemic less than 25 percent of their guests had a device aside from their phone. That makes it difficult to go to school, work or fill out necessary paperwork to get assistance. So they have been working to get affordable laptops through KTI. They have also been working on training guests on how to use the devices and making sure they have access while on site.
People experiencing homelessness were especially vulnerable during the strict shut down due to COVID. When libraries closed many lost their connection to broadband, which meant a break in some services and often the loss of social connections. It increased the onus on shelter and housing providers.
Jaci talked about the business of the County. They had two days to shift everyone from onsite to remote work. They did it but it was precarious. They were successful because they were prepared. But such a shift was unchartered water. Same with Derek in the healthcare world. It was thanks to broadband and Webex that they were able to even put together an Emergency COVID Response team. Meeting remotely they were able to assess needs and come up with solutions. The solutions were made more difficult because the access is not ubiquitous. Swaths of the county, especially Western Koochiching are served by satellite only. Also worth nothing, Koochiching is a border county, so not much relief or connectivity coming from the North.
The COVID Response team came up with a mobile emergency network – a redundant network that could be used in a healthcare facility if there was an unexpected outage.
Making healthcare work remotely was not only a healthcare concern, but as Isaac pointed out an economic concern as healthcare is a local industry. Insurance waivers to promote telehealth have been a boon and there are hopes that they will continue even in a post-COVID world to help with mental health especially.
We spoke briefly about local business. It seems to be going well. They have actually seen an increase in new residential recruits to the area from out of state. The beautiful Northwoods and broadband have been a draw.
There are some difficulties now with getting devices and technology tools, but that is not limited to Koochiching. There are also challenges with training, especially with seniors. Koochiching is looking for a COVID-appropriate way to deploy intergenerational learning. (We’d all love to hear that!) They see that more of life has moved online Kootasca Social Services has seen online traffic triple and calls to 211 have also increased. But as Jaci noted, people have also gotten nicer. People are ready to help each other and everyone, most notably policymakers are recognizing the import of broadband, which everyone thinks will help drive resources to improve coverage throughout the county.