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Study Finds Rural Communities Quickly Realize Benefits Outpacing Costs of Broadband

A recent study by the Blandin Foundation shows three out of five counties would see the annual collective benefit from broadband.

(TNS) — With growing talk and debate on how to expand broadband in the Mountain State, leaders might want to look to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for a path forward.

A recent study published by the Blandin Foundation and completed by Treacy Information Services and Community Technology Advisors, "Measuring Impact of Broadband in 5 Rural MN Communities" takes a look at the efforts in a variety of rural counties spread throughout Minnesota and how those efforts have paid off.

The demographic similarities between Beckley and southern West Virginia with one county in the study are striking.

Using formulas to predict future values, gathering community data and host community interviews, researchers with the study traveled to Beltrami, Crow Wing, Goodhue, Lake and Sibley counties in Minnesota to get an on-the-ground perspective of the issues.

While their results varied based on how far along the counties were on implementing their strategies, what could be told was that access to broadband has had an impact on all of the counties.

Researchers found using formulaic forecasts that three of the five counties would see the annual collective benefit from broadband great enough to surpass public investment in just one year.

A fourth county, Sibley, would take just over a year to reach that mark and the last, Lake County, the least populous, taking just over six years.

While the forecast points to a quick success, only one of the counties has had access to broadband long enough to show concrete progress.

With a 2010 population of over 44,000, Beltrami County, more specifically, Bemidji the county seat, moved to get broadband early and currently has over 99 percent of its residents able to receive 100 Mbps Internet service.

Much like Beckley, Bemidji is considered the gateway to its region, northwest Minnesota and much like southern West Virginia was built on an extraction industry.

The northern city is the birthplace of the American folktale hero Paul Bunyon and came into existence as a lumber town.

Like Beckley, Bemidji is home to a small state university, a technical college and a small Christian College. While smaller and younger than Raleigh County, Beltrami County has a nearly identical poverty rate.

Much of the broadband success of Bemidji is due to Paul Bunyon Communications (PBC), a member-owner cooperative telecommunications company that borrowed $100 million in federal funds to create the area's "Giga Zone" — an all-encompassing fiber-to-home program.

Along with PBC, a community partnership also launched the city's "Launch Pad," a local co-working space and incubator aimed at local entrepreneurs in a historic building in the city.

As for payoff, researchers forecasted a combined household benefit of over $38 million annually with an increase in residential real estate value of over $100 million.

During their in-person interviews, researchers also found what was labeled as a "booming" town.

The local state university's enrollment was up for the third year in a row, and a local meat shop owner had grown his business from three to 27 employees which he credited to broadband access and digital marketing.

The general manager of Aircorp Aviation, a company that restores World War II-era aircraft using large digital files to reproduce antique parts, reported that his company's revenue was $4 million a year instead of between $300,000 and $400,000 that could be expected without broadband access.

Shop owners from the city's Main Street also reported that broadband assists in their sales, with as much as 90 percent of their sales coming from the online market.

PBC has also used the high-speed Internet to draw in tourist and potential employees to the area through a hosted gaming championship that required fast Internet speeds.

While lagging behind the other counties in broadband deployment, Lake County residents also told the researchers that broadband has helped tourism in their county.

Located on Lake Superior, members of the counties recreational business owners reported guests staying longer if they could use broadband to complete work assignments.

A local campground that installed high-speed WiFi also reported to researchers that they had a record number of campers despite a rainy summer season.

In their findings, researchers pointed towards the necessity of broadband for rural communities to survive and the need for planners to look towards future demands and not just what is needed now.

Researchers also pointed to the rewards of getting past the initial broadband installation phase.

"When economic developers and community leaders are able to devote their time and attention to implementing innovative, tech-based economic development strategies, rather than on improving broadband access, it gives them a distinct advantage over unserved counties where local teams spend countless hours pursuing broadband deployment and struggling with limited bandwidth and unhappy residents and businesses," the study said.

While a guide, the study itself highlights the need for communities to find their own way.

"Smart communities plan from the future," it said. "They work to get ahead of the curve by studying demographics, technology shifts and trends. Rather than trying to catch up to what others are doing, they are leading."

The study is available for viewing on the Blandin Foundation's website.

©2018 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.