The internet has become increasingly central to modern life. Everything from watching a movie to paying your bills to sharing family photos with friends relies on access to the internet. In more recent years, broadband internet has emerged as the new benchmark for meeting the needs of an ever more technologically demanding world. Lack of high-speed internet, therefore, is a make-or-break issue for many rural communities -- something that residents of Yellow Medicine County are already fully aware of.

Last Friday, the County brought together roughly a dozen business leaders, public officials, and concerned residents in the first ever Broadband Task Force. The event was held at the recently opened Medea’s Cafe in Clarkfield. Over coffee and sweet rolls, the group discussed the internet challenges facing the county and strategized various solutions.

Yellow Medicine County Commissioner Ron Antony highlighted a recent report commissioned by the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (UMVRDC) which found that internet access in Yellow Medicine County was near the worst in the entire state. He shared his worries that the county was quickly “becoming an island,” and added that expanding access to high-speed internet was “the number one priority in the county going forward.” County Commissioner John Berends echoed Antony’s remarks. He said that the issue was “not just about going on Facebook.” Rather, lack of access negatively hurts local business and farmers who have come to rely on technology to remain competitive.

UMVRDC Senior Planner Kirk Bustrom (who helped author the broadband report) also spoke during the meeting. He underscored the connection between access to internet and economic well-being, explaining that it was “one of our top priorities in terms of economic development.” According to his report, 58% of residents in Yellow Medicine and Chippewa Counties rate their internet service as being “poor” and 77% “lose connectivity or dependability of their internet sometimes or frequently.” These numbers become all the more glaring when you consider that 89% of respondents said that they have 6 or more devices that use the internet.

In strategizing solutions, much of the conversation turned to fiber-optic cable as a means of expanding access to high-speed internet. Nevertheless, Antony was careful to add that “we need to partner with many different technologies” and not just look at one option at the expense of others. One option is to create a “fiber backbone” running east to west along the county, making it easier for residents in rural areas to connect to a reliable internet source without the more expensive “fiber to the door” option. County Administrator Peg Heglund, who has been spearheading the initiative, stressed the importance of residents reaching out to their elected officials, adding that doing so “means so much more.”

She also highlighted a recent report commissioned by the County from Finley Engineering. The report estimated that it would cost roughly $20 million to $22 million to lay the fiber optic network necessary to fully meet the needs of the county. The report concluded that it would take 955 miles of roadway to serve the 1,862 homes and businesses in the rural areas currently without broadband. Finley also outlined ‘hybrid’ options that mix technologies and provide more limited coverage, but at a substantially lower cost.

Commissioner Antony told the assembled task force that although the County had no plans to dedicate levy (taxpayer) money towards any future project, they County government was in a unique position to bring partners together to develop collective solutions. “To make something like this happen, you need a group of dedicated local champions,” he added, thanking Heglund personally for her role in creating the Task Force.

Ultimately, the group agreed to meet again next month to continue the conversations they had started. They agreed to pursue grant opportunities that might make future projects financially viable and bring more people (including current internet providers) to the table. Heglund expressed optimism that the Task Force would be able to create a short-term plan which would address lack of broadband in Yellow Medicine. She also hoped that this work would foster greater involvement from local residents, adding that “the best thing will be to have people come in and ask, ‘what can we do?’”