INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – After more than 30 years of doing business in this longtime mill town, Optum Health plans to close its health care claims office this summer.
The good news is the company’s 90 workers can keep their jobs. The bad news is that offer is good only if they’re able to work remotely. And those who live outside the city limits may not have access to the high-speed internet service they’d need to keep earning a company paycheck.
Optum says its intention is to keep all of its workers on the job, and it will do what it can to help those in need of technical upgrades. City and county leaders are looking at setting up a business center where people lacking broadband — whether Optum employees or not — could get their work done.
Such predicaments have Minnesota politicians taking a new look at rural broadband. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has made the issue a major talking point as she begins her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Gov. Tim Walz has promised he’d attack the problem like a “moonshot.” Meanwhile, a Republican-sponsored bill with bipartisan support is making its way through the Legislature, promising $35 million a year in each of the next two years for rural broadband upgrades.
All the talk about addressing the issue is encouraging, broadband advocates say. But with one in five rural Minnesota households still lacking access to high-speed, wired internet service, there’s a long way to go.
“They did it in the ’30s with electricity. They did it in the ’50s with telephones. This is the electricity of the 21st century,” said Anne Schwagerl, an organic farmer in Browns Valley on the South Dakota border.
Schwagerl and her husband grow grain and raise pigs. And in her view, internet access is as essential to farming today as a good tractor.
Schwagerl got high-speed internet on her Prairie Point Farm in 2017, after Big Stone County sold about $4 million worth of bonds on behalf of Federated Telephone Cooperative. The co-op, which had been unable to get funding through traditional channels, used the money to install high-speed broadband for its customers and will repay the county over 20 years. The project also received a $3.9 million grant from the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development program.
“It made a huge difference in our ability to be efficient in our operations,” said Schwagerl, who is secretary of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “We can access up-to-the-minute market data and make good decisions.” Schwagerl also sells her hogs direct to consumers, something that wouldn’t be possible without good internet service.
Some 140 miles north, in Ada, Minn., Edie Ramstad had been trying to run a worldwide internet company on dial-up service.
Ramstad owns Weave Got Maille, which makes rings, tools and other supplies for chainmaille jewelry. Her dial-up service was so slow, Ramstad said, that her employees sometimes had to drive to Fargo, 45 miles away, to upload product images to the company website.
“We could always tell when the kids got out of school,” she said, “because we’d get booted off [the web].” It was so frustrating that several times Ramstad considered shutting down the business with its 16 employees.
Last year, Ramstad found an internet provider willing to run lines to her business. But at $800 a month, it’s expensive — and even at that, she said, the service isn’t as good as a typical city-dweller would have in his or her home.
“It used to be that broadband was a competitive advantage. Now, it’s a cost of doing business,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for the Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids, Minn. “We believe that broadband and the skills to use it are fundamental to healthy communities.”
Blandin has worked with almost 100 Minnesota communities and invested more than $10 million in broadband initiatives. The current proposal for state broadband funding, Joselyn said, “is really a victory in Minnesota in that it has gotten a lot of bipartisan support.”
Still, the governor’s “moonshot” would simply return annual broadband spending to its 2016 level of $35 million. That number dropped to $20 million in 2017 and to zero in 2018 after then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the Legislature’s omnibus spending bill. In the budget negotiations that followed, broadband was left on the cutting-room floor.
The key difference is that the current proposal runs for two years, said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. Anderson Kelliher chaired the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband under Dayton and was also CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association.
“It really is important to remember that all the money that has been appropriated in the past was one-time funding,” she said. “It is a good spot for one-time dollars, but it really does need a commitment.
“I think what the governor is doing is making a real commitment to reaching these goals,” she said. “It’s a show of, ‘We’re really going to do this, we’re going to make this happen.’ ”
No e-learning on snow days
In International Falls, where the economy has been based on timber and tourism, officials are hopeful about what a higher-tech future could bring.
But they’re cautious about painting too rosy a scenario in a town where generations of residents have gone to work at the paper mill.
“We don’t have a real strong entrepreneurial culture here, that people are going to look to create their own realities,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority. “That’s a long-term shift.”
It’s a shift that can’t come too soon for Jackie Edwards, who lives on a family farm in rural Renville County near Hector, Minn., some 80 miles west of the Twin Cities.
“My husband works in agriculture and is obviously in need of broadband for that, as well as for our four children,” she said. The family has satellite internet service, but it’s expensive — about $90 a month — and unreliable.
“Our internet just gets really slow and everybody’s frustrated,” she said. “When you talk about e-learning, it becomes an issue. In a snowstorm, it’s likely we don’t have internet.”
Neighbors just 2 miles away have fast fiber internet, “but we fell just short,” Edwards said.
And that’s the problem, Anderson Kelliher said. “A lot of the places that are left to build broadband in Minnesota are more challenged — more physically challenging to deploy the broadband, and therefore more expensive,” she said.
State broadband investments, she added, are “really for the hardest portions of the state. We don’t want people left behind,” she said. “It is a tool that people expect nowadays.”