Providing high-speed internet in rural Minnesota today is as vital as providing rural electricity was some 80 years ago, said Jason Hollinday, planning director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
That’s why the band has taken the unusual step of creating its own broadband company to provide fiber-optic internet service throughout its reservation, about 20 miles west of Duluth.
“We’re giving people the tools to live in the 21st century,” Hollinday said. “It’s like when they were electrifying the rural areas. This is the modern version of that.”
The band has created a corporation, Aaniin, to build and provide fiber-optic service to all residents of the reservation, whether or not they’re tribal members. Main lines are in the process of being laid and should be completed sometime in November; workers then will begin the process of running fiber-optic lines to as many as 1,800 households on the roughly 39,000-acre reservation.
Only a handful of tribes nationwide have created their own broadband providers, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development. But the trend toward rural communities providing their own broadband service is growing, she said.
“We are seeing communities and providers leaning in and finding a lot of good solutions,” MacKenzie said. “And others are getting even more creative in looking at ways to solve what they see as their community needs on their own.”
The state has a goal of seeing that every Minnesota resident has access to broadband service with a minimum download speed of 25 megabits (Mb) per second and upload speed of 3 Mb by 2022. By 2026, the goal is to make upload speed of 100 Mb and download speed of 20 Mb available to all.
Currently, about 82,000 rural households lack access to the broadband speeds set in the 2022 goals, according to data from MacKenzie’s office. About 243,000 households don’t meet the 2026 standards.
Broadband access will provide a wide array of benefits to Fond du Lac residents, Hollinday said.
“People will be able to take online classes, go back to college,” he said. “That’s something they’re not able to do right now.
“High school students can do homework from home. I hear stories of students driving to the local community center and sitting in the parking lot to do their homework on a wireless hot spot.”
Broadband is an important tool for economic development, he added. And broadband is critical for telemedicine, a growing aspect of health care.
“It’s all sorts of different avenues to look at,” Hollinday said. “Or if you simply want to play games and watch Netflix — the entertainment side.”
Creating a tribal-owned broadband company also will allow young tribal members the opportunity to learn technical skills they can use on the reservation or elsewhere. And it offers the band a new source of income, potentially making it less dependent on revenue from its two casinos, the Black Bear in Carlton and the Fond-du-Luth in downtown Duluth.
“It’s going to be a huge benefit,” he said.
The state currently has 117 broadband providers, MacKenzie said, and the broadband office has invested in more than 100 projects across the state, including Aaniin. Where once legislators had to be persuaded of the values of broadband, that’s no longer the case, MacKenzie said.
“It’s very rare anymore when I talk to legislators that I have to convince them why this is important,” she said. “It touches everyone in every way.”