Nearly 70 years after its founding, through economic recessions and the changing tastes in home décor, Princeton, Minn.-based Crystal Cabinet Works is as busy as ever, crafting 1,750 cabinets each week out of 15 species of wood.
The company ships its cabinets across the United States, from customers just a few miles away in central Minnesota to celebrities in Hollywood. Yet the viability of Crystal Cabinet Works, which employs 430 people and projects growth of 20 percent over the next three years, depends, in part, on the random patchwork of Internet service in Minnesota.
Currently, the company pays for separate Internet service at each of its three locations in and around this city of 4,700, which sits in both Sherburne and Mille Lacs counties. Some of its Internet capacity is hosted by servers in the Twin Cities. Its drafters, meanwhile, are limited by bandwidth constraints, as are the dealers who use the Internet to share kitchen and bath designs with the company.
"At some point, if this is not addressed soon, it will become a serious business issue," said Sandy George, the company's IT director.
In numerous pockets of rural Minnesota, some close to or even in the Twin Cities region, many businesses and residents live with unreliable, slow or expensive Internet service, a problem that affects a wide range of people, businesses and agencies, including clinics that need to send immediate X-rays, college students who take online courses, and government agencies that issue licenses electronically.
The situation has been likened to the lack of electricity in rural areas before the massive federal electrification movement of the 1930s that helped to modernize farms.
According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, 11 percent of households lack Internet speed at the state goal: 10 megabits per second for downloads, 5 megabits for uploads. In the state's rural areas, that figure is 25 percent.
Internet service in Minnesota is provided by two types of organizations: for-profit companies that make money serving mostly populated areas — while struggling to serve rural areas — and cooperatives that have built networks over decades to serve the most rural regions. Many homes and businesses have fallen through the cracks in places where broadband service is either poor or nonexistent.
In 2014, the state of Minnesota handed out $20 million in grants for the spread of broadband access across the state. The funds went to 17 organizations, many of them rural telecommunications providers like Federated Telephone Cooperative in Big Stone County, which received $3.9 million.
So popular was the program that advocates returned to the Legislature in 2015, asking for $100 million for more broadband expansion. Gov. Mark Dayton ended up signing a bill that included just $10 million in broadband money.
Richard Baker, Mille Lacs County's community development coordinator, called the amount "disappointing." He added: "I spent three years living in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and people in the woods up there had higher speed than we have here."
Later this summer, Mille Lacs County officials will get the results of a feasibility study that they hope will create a road map for expanded service. Less than 60 percent of the residents in the county have adequate broadband service, Baker said.
During the recession, Crystal Cabinet Works cut its workforce in half but is now back to producing the volume it was before the downturn, according to George.
Speedy Internet service is needed for all kinds of Crystal initiatives: so drafters can efficiently share cabinet designs; so dealers can use iPads and smartphones at training sessions in the company's new Princeton training center; so the company can use more sophisticated software in the machines it uses to build cabinets.
"It really limits our options as a business in terms of the software and the other products we can use because of the limited bandwidth," George said. She is hopeful that the Mille Lacs County study will lead to a solution, saying she wanted to see "more of a community effort to push this local service."
Gregg Aamot is a longtime Minnesota journalist and college instructor. He is the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees" and teaches English at Ridgewater College.