On Wednesday October 9, Senator Tina Smith hosted a roundtable discussion in Granite Falls with local leaders and rural community advocates in an attempt to get to the root of rural needs in the broadband game.

The Senator opened the meeting “ I am so thankful you ALL are here this morning, I am here to check in with you”. Smith, who introduced the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands Act (RURAL Act) aiding cooperatives impacted by new tax codes in keeping their ability to get broadband implementation grants without affecting their tax-exempt status said, “I want to understand better how I and the federal government can be a good partner with you as we work to expand broadband in small towns and rural areas”.

Smith detailed her understanding of the negative impacts of insufficient or nonexistent broadband access “If you don’t have access to broadband you can’t get your homework done, you can’t work remotely for your job, your healthcare systems don’t work, you have trouble recruiting people into your community.” Her focus as of late is combating and correcting false data on where broadband actually exists. “We have a federal government pushing out a significant amount of money but sometimes it’s pushing out that money based on maps that are not at all accurate about where there is coverage, or there is coverage but it’s pitiful. It’s a few drops of water coming out of a pipe. It doesn’t begin to meet the needs of the community” . The Senator was quick to point out that even though Minnesota broadband coverage maps makes it appear most households are serviced “there are still 145,000 households that don’t have it, that doesn’t even count the households sitting at the end of the pipe with a few drops, not able to do what they need to do.” Participants went around the table, taking two minutes each to detail there broadband access concerns and interests.

A Provider Perspective was present with MIDCO’s Andrew Curley, the company serves 118 primarily rural communities in Minnesota. Curley stated “As a business we participated in the FCC’s CAF program and received about 40 million dollars, 27 of that in Minnesota, 2.3 million right here in Yellow Medicine County which is how we managed to build out our fixed wireless network to provide over 120 speeds.” Dawn Hegland, Executive Director at Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission spoke to her access concern of “We are creating a patchwork of haves, have little and have nones.” She went on to say, “Think about the road system, we have an interstate system that covers an entire county, state roads that feed in, county roads and city roads feed in, there really is this hierarchy but they all connect, what we are creating now is layers that don’t connect”.

County Commissioner John Berends detailed a story of working with an AG businessman that was in a rural area “He used basically 1980s’, 1990s’ technology, database on a fixed desktop computer, paper and a wire telephone. He wanted to grow the business but he was in an internet death zone where he was getting 10.1 if that. So he moved to Walnut Grove right next to the Arvig, the telephone company, took a vacant space and converted it into an office building, some of the suites are now rented out, we have the highest speed we can get from them and we are maxed out. We cannot expand anymore.” Berends offered another tool to the group in combating bad map coverage data “NACo put together an App, Test It. it logs in the actual speed at any location” the commissioner was tasked to “Test IT” as part of his service with the Minnesota Association of Counties.

Senator Smith asked “What is the comparison in the way we distribute electricity? What can we learn from how we distribute electricity?” Mayor Dave Smiglewski spoke to the quasi private cooperative fashion in which the cities electric coverage was provided and the regulations that keep it reliable and functional “ There may be something to draw from that. We don’t have brownouts because of that.” Senator Smith considering the remarks noted,“With broadband it is private sector driven versus utilities which are essentially regulated monopolies, it’s a completely different economic model but maybe there is something to learn from that.”

The Senator closed with “thanks you,” press responses, and photographs before moving onto the community of Montevideo for a “Rural Economy Tour.” In Montevideo the Senator spent some much deserved time in community of Montevideo taking a “Rural Economy Tour”. The Senator visited three local businesses; Dryer Doctors, Montevideo Family Dentistry, and Ice Castle Fish Houses in the late morning, finishing with a meet and greet at the Montevideo City Hall. Senator Smith has conducted numerous rural community tours around the state. In August, she announced plans to lead a “new bipartisan Rural Economic Working Group”, in the U.S. Senate to spotlight what is working in rural regions, and where local leaders, businesses and schools are collaborating to overcome challenges in order to create economic development. She said she “will work to bring successful local ideas and partnerships to Congress and to spur efforts aimed at restoring rural economic prosperity in Minnesota and across the nation.”