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Regarding rural internet speeds: 'We’ve got the trickle right now'

Internet speeds agonizingly slow in township areas across Wabasha County.

The map shows the served (green), underserved (purple) and unserved (rose) areas of Wabasha County for broadband access. Contributed image / Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

KELLOGG — A million dollars won't get the job done, but the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners hopes it makes a dent in the gap between internet have's and have-not's across the county.

Comparing her internet service to a shower with no water pressure, Gretchen Miller said, "That’s the trickle. We’ve got the trickle right now. We don’t have the full speed."

MORE READING: Government funding helped rural economies survive pandemic

Miller, one of several county residents from the West Newton area south of Kellogg along the Mississippi River, said she's tried different internet providers, and called customer service multiple times, but the infrastructure to bring faster internet to her home just isn't in place.

"It sounds like such a first-world complaint, but COVID has exploded these issues," she said.

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Living slowly online

Right now, she said, it's just her and her husband, Mark Miller, who use the internet, although that will soon change as the couple's two children, ages 4- and 1-year-old, use more internet services. Already, her son gets frustrated when his favorite show, Team Umizooni – a show that teaches math concepts to preschoolers – buffers.

"I don’t know how many times he yells upstairs, 'Mom, it’s not working,' because it’s buffering, and I have to tell him to wait," Miller said.

And when work-from-home became more common during the pandemic, the speed of the internet in her neighborhood slowed even more. Miller said they're lucky to see a download speed of 0.8 megabits per second and an upload speed of 0.1 mbps.

"When you're on a webpage, you’ll have it slowly block in," she said. "You’ll see the words, and you’ll wait for the image to load. You can read, scroll down and scroll back up, and it's still not there."

The county investment

Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante said the county board voted to commit $1 million of its $4.2 million American Rescue Plan money to expanding rural broadband access. While counties across the country still have questions on the federal guidelines for spending those funds – Plante said the county will hire a consultant to ensure it follows those guidelines to the letter once their hammered out – he envisions a grant program where internet providers can apply through a request for proposals, letting the county know what projects they prioritize in rural areas for their clients.

Michael Plante.jpg
Michael Plante, shown in this January 2014 file photo, was offered the position of county administrator for Wabasha County in a reconvened meeting Wednesday nigth. (Post Bulletin file photo)

"Land-wise, a significant portion of the county is either unserved or underserved," Plante said. "Primarily, we're good in the cities. Population-wise, a substantial portion does have those internet capabilities. But businesses and families in the more rural areas need access to that."

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According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, underserved areas are places with wireline broadband of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, but less than 100/20 Mbps. Unserved areas are places with no wireline broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps.

The West Newton area qualifies as unserved.

"All of our famers in the area are businesses, and businesses are clamoring for better internet," Plante said.

So are families who use the internet for education, whether they are using some distance learning model or just using the internet for homework research.

Plante said expanded rural broadband will put a dent in the lacking coverage and allow for future expansion in some areas.

Other spending priorities

Not everyone was supportive of the plan to spent $1 million on rural broadband. Wabasha County Commissioner Brian Goihl said that between the lack of guidance from the federal government, the fact that the county has until Dec. 31, 2023, to put plans in place and another three years for project completion, and other pressing spending needs in the county, he'd prefer to spend the $1 million on other projects.

Wabasha County Commissoner Brian Goihl
Brian Goihl

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"I think we should spend the money internally first," Goihl said, pointing to everything from recapturing lost revenue, to spending on highway projects. "I support broadband, but there's other priorities."

Goihl pointed to Wabasha County Road 86, which runs north of Plainview toward Thielman before terminating at Minnesota Highway 60 near Dumfries.

"We had to cut it out of the budget because we just don’t have the funds to fix it," he said.

Greatest need, biggest benefit

Still, rural residents – four of them at the county board meeting last week – lobbied for rural broadband funding.

"I try to work from home occasionally," said Laura Schmoker, who spoke during the meeting. "We get 1.5 (Mbps) for speed. My son also works from home, but we can’t work from home at the same time."

Schmoker said that in her house, you can't have one person on the internet if someone else wants to stream a Netflix show.

"We’re not the only ones in Wabasha County with this problem," she said.

Miller added that having to go to Rochester for work means she ends up shopping in Rochester for groceries rather than driving to Wabasha for groceries. That, she said, is one of the many economic impacts that the county will enjoy if more people have access to high-speed internet.

"We need to look at where’s the greatest need, where can we get the biggest bang for our buck," Miller said. "This is the future, and we need to advocate for this stuff for our future."

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