VIRGINIA, Minn. – Three-quarters of the Rebarich family sat parked under the golden arches of the local McDonald’s, focused intently on their electronic devices and almost basking in the speedy Wi-Fi.
In the passenger seat, 14-year-old Colton donned headphones while drawing musical notes on an iPad for his school choir class, caramel frappé sitting nearby. In the back, 11-year-old Kaitlyn talked on a video conference with her math teacher. Their mother, Nancy, sat in the driver’s seat checking her e-mails and doing some banking on her phone.
Amid the deadly COVID-19 scare, where Minnesota and most other states have imposed stay-at-home orders to keep the virus from spreading, more and more students, teachers and businesses are being forced to work online from the safety of their homes.
But for the Rebariches and many rural Minnesota households who aren’t hooked up to high-speed internet or who experience spotty or sluggish connections, that’s made day-to-day work and studies much more challenging, highlighting more than ever the great divide in rapid internet access — now considered a staple.
“It’s not a luxury, it’s a utility,” said Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools in northeast Minnesota. “Until we consider a broadband a utility, I don’t know if we’re going to accomplish the goal of getting everybody connected.”
For the Rebariches, getting a reliable connection means making a 15-mile trip into Virginia from their rural Embarrass, Minn., home almost every day — sometimes twice a day — for hours at a time so that Colton and Kaitlyn can best keep up with their classwork. While they have always been annoyed with a patchy cellular internet connection available at home, the global pandemic has exacerbated their plight.
“It’s very frustrating and very stressful,” Nancy Rebarich said. “Trying to coordinate the kids, what time they’re supposed to be on for a video conference with their teacher, how long we’re going to be in town for.”
The Rebariches are among the 16% of rural Minnesota households that don’t have access to wire line internet service with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to estimates from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. That speed is typically enough to watch videos and participate in teleconferences, depending on how many devices are online, and those who don’t have at least that are considered “unserved” by state standards.
Far more rural households struggle with higher speeds that are still considered “underserved” on a state map.
For years, making sure everyone gets connected — whether it’s because of utter inaccessibility, inadequate speeds or lack of affordability — has been a priority for rural areas at the state and national legislative levels.
“Every year we take this on as an ongoing issue,” said David Hann, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships. “We kind of liken it to back maybe in the 1930s, when electrification was not everywhere, there was this big movement for rural electrification. It was a big deal.”
Now a necessity
The COVID-19 crisis has made internet access invaluable for more everyday needs.
Patients are seeing doctors through telemedicine. Office workers are telecommuting. Children and teachers are connecting through online learning.
While fiber connections to the internet are generally considered best for modern connectivity, other options might include cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) connections, fixed wireless connections through antennas, mobile cellular and satellite service, all with varying degrees of reliability.
The confusing array of possibilities and quickly changing technology sometimes befuddles residents, some of whom aren’t sure what they need and what is available and some of whom can’t afford the steep prices that might come with bringing it to their houses.
In many cases, with rural populations spread out, it’s not economically viable for private internet companies to invest in trenching fiber into the ground or building other infrastructure for just a few customers.
The state Legislature last year approved a $40 million Border to Border Broadband bill to give grants to local communities, authored by Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, with bipartisan sponsors. Ecklund said he and others are working to add to that total.
On a federal level, in response to the pandemic, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., introduced a “Keeping Critical Connections Act” that would provide $2 billion to help small broadband companies add and make upgrades to internet service for students and low-income families.
“You just can’t have some kids be able to learn and some not because they don’t have access,” Klobuchar said.
As COVID-19 spreads, some private companies have signed on to a national pledge to refrain from disconnecting service, making Wi-Fi hot spots available where they can and offering reduced-cost service.
In many rural areas, schools are getting creative about bringing internet to their students, too, whether it’s by beaming Wi-Fi into school parking lots, providing Wi-Fi on school buses that deliver food to students on their rural routes or sending home mobile hot spots.
Fourth-grader Michael Zakrajshek has a school-issued hot spot and iPad at his rural Chisholm, Minn., home. But cellular service is so spotty among the tall pines and birch trees surrounding his house that he and his mother, Tawnya Heino, often end up taking the devices to the end of their driveway in search of a better signal.
Even then, they often are unsuccessful at connecting for video conferencing with Michael’s teacher. Sometimes they use Tawnya’s phone.
On a recent morning, mother and son shivered in a midmorning chill while trying to connect for about 15 minutes before finally getting through.
“It’s not fun out here,” Heino said. “I don’t want to sit here and try to connect all day long.”
For many rural Minnesotans, it’s not only access to the internet that is an issue, but also the quality of service they can get.
Some rural leaders said they believe customers aren’t getting the speeds that they should be, especially now when systems are overloaded during the pandemic.
Nathan Redalen, who lives about 11 miles south of Rochester, said he pays about $95 a month for internet but has trouble FaceTiming his grandchildren through an iPad. When his daughter, Kelly Young, came from California to spend time with her parents, she had to rent a co-working space in town to work remotely because the internet wasn’t fast enough.
Redalen, a retired county employee who owns beef cattle and is a township director, said he didn’t think he’d have to rely on internet.
“But it’s getting to the point where we could sure use it,” he said. “We’ll get on [the computer] and here we’ve got messages from four to five days ago that we never could receive.”
Actual speeds delivered to customers are often slower than the speeds the providers advertise. For that reason, some rural leaders question the accuracy of a map of Minnesota with areas considered “underserved” or and “unserved.”
Klobuchar was also part of legislation — recently signed into law — to improve federal broadband coverage maps by collecting more accurate data and creating a process to challenge the accuracy of it.
Any steps taken to address connectivity problems during the pandemic will only help make things more equitable for the future, broadband leaders say.
“For our office and the administration, digital equity is such a high priority,” said Angie Dickison, broadband development manager in the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. “We rely on it now more than ever.”
The need will only continue to grow as professionals use the internet for all sorts of things, including telemedicine in outlying rural areas, she noted.
The pandemic might also get more people interested in working from home in rural areas, said Hann, of the township association.
“I think it’s going to create a much bigger demand for high-speed access around the state,” he said. “I’m hoping this will become an incentive to the Legislature to provide the funding needed.
“I think it’s become very, very clear that the access to high speed internet is ... essential.”