McGREGOR, MINN. – Casey Jelinski was sure it would be easy to run a graphic design company from her new home when she moved with her family to Aitkin County from the Twin Cities area a decade ago.
But internet speeds were shockingly slow. Sometimes it took hours to upload files to clients in China and Europe. She’d occasionally drive more than 60 miles to Duluth and check in at a hotel to work.
“It never dawned on me that it would be such a detriment to my business,” Jelinski said of inadequate broadband access. “There’s no reason for it.”
A recent switch to a DSL connection helped, but Jelinski worried about her business’ future. The family moved to De Pere, Wis., last week — after Jelinski confirmed that it has great broadband access.
In Aitkin County — which at 27 percent has the least broadband coverage in Minnesota — and across the U.S., reliable, speedy internet is increasingly essential for work, health care, education and social connections. But as President Donald Trump’s administration looks to clamp down on federal spending, there’s deepening uncertainty about the flow of federal dollars necessary to bring faster internet to lower-population areas.
“The outlook [for rural broadband improvements] is not positive” under Trump, said Milda Hedblom, a lawyer, broadband advocate and digital studies professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Hedblom said she’s worried that the president, a former businessman, will naturally favor big private companies over municipalities and local collaborations. That could mean he’ll steer federal broadband funds to big providers that are averse to expensive rural projects, she said, since the return on investment isn’t as quick or as large.
About 22 percent of households in rural Minnesota — 202,000 homes — lack access to fixed, nonmobile broadband service at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 mbps, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. Minnesota is ahead of the national average: 39 percent of rural residents have no access to those speeds, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Trump’s budget, released May 23, proposes $1 billion in cuts from U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development spending — including some funding for broadband infrastructure. Instead, he wants $160 million in new rural economic infrastructure grants that would include broadband money — along with many other projects. Half the money would be set aside for Appalachia; broadband’s share was not specified.
Trump also plans a $1 trillion infrastructure package— which he is expected to detail on Monday — and his budget lists broadband among priorities that include “surface transportation, airports, waterways, ports, drinking and waste water.” It added that “federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution,” however, and promised to “fix underlying incentives, procedures and policies.” Exactly what that means is unclear.
Some rural broadband advocates say the infrastructure initiative could be the best bet for future federal grants.
“Our message to communities is get ready. Those with civic infrastructure [in place] to respond to opportunities … are going to be in the best position to benefit,” said Bernadine Joselyn, public policy and engagement director for the Grand Rapids, Minn.-based Blandin Foundation.
Joselyn, who serves on Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on Broadband, said that Blandin has worked with more than 70 communities on broadband expansion and has issued more than $8.6 million in grants.
Dayton requested $60 million in funds for the state’s Border-to-Border matching grant fund for the next two years. The Legislature pared that back to $20 million.
Danna MacKenzie, director of the state Office of Broadband Development, said that the benefits of rural broadband are indisputable. “All sides have recognized the importance … to economic development across the state,” she said, and places like Aitkin County are at a “significant disadvantage” that must be reversed.
MacKenzie is keeping an eye on Washington. “I can’t say I have confidence” in what the Trump administration will do, she said. “I can just say that we are monitoring it.”
Uncertainty about government funds has prompted new approaches to leveraging grants and raising awareness:
• Member-owned rural electric cooperatives are installing broadband to fill voids left by mainstream providers.
About 100 of the nation’s 900 co-ops “are involved in some way,” said Martha Duggan, who handles regulatory issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “We’re very local … and very focused on economic development.” She hopes funding will be included in Trump’s infrastructure plan and the 2018 farm bill.
• The Minnesota Farmers Union called broadband “an essential utility” in an April report to state officials. Gary Wertish, the group’s president, said it’s time for a broad national initiative. “The state can’t do it on its own,” he said.
“We’re trying to compete in a global economy and if we don’t have access to broadband, we’re left behind again,” Wertish said.
• Communities are pooling resources and clout. Six southwestern Minnesota counties (Chippewa, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Pipestone and Yellow Medicine) are working with the Southwest Regional Development Commission and in May received a $123,800 Blandin Foundation grant to study ways to fill broadband gaps.
Change is also coming — slowly — to Aitkin County.
The Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative and Consolidated Telephone Company in 2016 received a $1.75 million state grant to extend service in the county. A matching amount will come from users. Two other providers recently got FCC funding. The Blandin Foundation also is helping to improve technology access in the county.
“It’s going to improve our existing businesses and enhance our ability to bring in residents and businesses,” said Ross Wagner, Aitkin County’s economic development director. The county has come up with $450,000 from its budget over the next three years to support broadband projects.
Nicole Eld, executive director of the McGregor Area Chamber of Commerce, said that local resorts provide Wi-Fi services for their guests, but other businesses need broadband to succeed.
“If you can’t get on the internet, you can’t do your job,” she said. Employers have trouble recruiting workers and real estate companies have a hard time selling properties that don’t have broadband, she said. School buses were recently outfitted with Wi-Fi so students can do online homework during the ride home.
Eld is planning a high-tech meeting facility at her office on Maddy Street. But she can’t get online at home.
A dozen miles away in tiny Lawler, Mary Pepera offers Wi-Fi at Jackson’s Hole, the busy bar she owns. But when the phone is in use, the ATM stops working, and dart league standings are unavailable. At all hours, cars that don’t belong to customers park outside, tapping into the bar’s Wi-Fi.
Broadband access would let Pepera update a dormant Facebook page to promote her business. She hasn’t dared think of other possibilities in the online world, she said: “We don’t really know what’s out there.”
Bob Marcum does have a sense of what he’s missing, and it annoys him. He lives in Lawler and chairs the Salo Township Board. He’s been trying to get broadband for years and once — as a joke — made a motion declaring a provider a “public nuisance.”
He’s tried almost everything to stay connected: He has a landline, a cellphone and a satellite phone. “If you’re going to be part of the modern world,” Marcum said, “you’ve got to have broadband.”
Wagner said there are finally signs of progress: Trenches are being dug in parts of Aitkin County and small flags hint at future work. But after years of waiting, he’s wary and a little skeptical.
“We’ll believe it,” he said, “when it gets here.”