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Minnesota County Leaders Unite in Push for Internet Access

The St. Louis County Board of Commissioners are rallying around the need for better access to high-speed Internet service. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the gaps in digital equity.

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(TNS) — Cars huddled outside the public library in Babbitt after dark. A family pulled up to McDonalds in Chisholm, using the free Wi-Fi. Development in the city of Rice Lake suffering for lack of requisite Internet.

During a workshop session Tuesday, St. Louis County commissioners weren't voting on anything, but they committed to one thing for certain — broadband Internet expansion. "We've got to be better than this," Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, said. "We need to do better. We have seen firsthand that broadband is lacking in so many areas." Jugovich was one of the commissioners who shared anecdotes about the lengths they've seen people go to find good Internet connections in rural St. Louis County.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a long-standing inequity in rural areas, they said, unifying the board in the name of action. "They need access," Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said, describing those cars outside the Babbitt library. "The timing is right for us to develop some type of plan where we can be a player in the game."
The idea of the St. Louis County Board solving broadband access hasn't been something that's come up with any regularity. But having seen it themselves, the commissioners expressed fatigue with waiting for state and federal programs, which have long promised fiber-optic solutions in rural places.
McDonald noted the "talking and talking" about a massive federal infrastructure bill, which hasn't materialized despite several years of political promises. State solutions are progressing, but haven't reached most rural places — where service won't generate enough megabits to stream video in what has become a virtual meeting world.
"It seems like it's been studied to death," Commissioner Keith Musolf said. "How do we get to actions? What is that pathway?" Musolf represents the areas outside Duluth, including Hermantown, Proctor and the city of Rice Lake, which he said was "was less than half covered with broadband."
"It's close to Duluth, even, where we have these issues," Musolf said, wondering when the next pandemic will come to send families and their work and education back online.
To that end, the board was met with a first-of-its-kind proposal which would bring St. Louis County into the broadband arena. Dubbed "Form 9000," it would set goals to help fund broadband expansion to reach all county residents by 2023 with 25-megabits-per-second service, and 100 megabits per second by 2027. Upload speeds of 3 megabits per second and 20 megabits per second are included in the proposal.
Form 9000 is the draft of a program that's been proposed to the board by county administration.
The board wouldn't vote on it for some time. "We have set an internal goal of having the program finalized by Sept. 1, 2022," Matthew Johnson, planning and community development director, wrote in an email.
"Our rural areas are so far behind and shouldn't be," said Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth. In the end, all seven commissioners spoke in favor of the county taking a role in broadband expansion. They discussed partnering with the county's 70-plus township boards as well. "There's some opportunity for us, hopefully with the state looking like it will contribute some substantial funding to broadband development, and also, hopefully, a federal infrastructure bill," McDonald said.
©2021 the Duluth News Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.