Often compared to the quest for rural electrification in the 1930s, the push for high-speed Internet access in rural areas continues across the United States
Federal and state programs have provided billions of dollars to bridge the digital divide in sparsely populated areas. Charitable foundations also invest heavily, such as the American Connection Corps. ACC is particularly focused on supporting its fellowship program, which engages young people in rural areas to work with local community leaders on broadband development, digital access and digital literacy.
ACC is part of Lead for America, an organization co-founded in 2018 by four college-educated young men interested in returning to and revitalizing their home communities. One of the co-founders, Benya Kraus Beacom, returned in 2019 to her family’s sixth-generation farm near Vaseka, Minnesota. Bicom, who had considered a career in international relations, changed her interest after her junior year in college, when she spent a summer at home.
“I understand the challenges here [in a rural community] And got to know more about my family and the ethos here,” Bicom said. “I also got to know my grandfather better before he passed away. He is a role model for me and my family. I realized I needed to change my plans. I want to do what my grandfather did and be proud of it. “
Beacom contacted Tina May of Land O’Lakes Inc. Vice President of Rural Services, who share similar interests in small community development. The cooperative has also been working to improve digital connectivity in rural communities. They decided to pilot a cohort and, along with Mayo Clinic, Midwest Dairy and Scoular, placed six ACC Fellows and Fees in the cities of Redwood and Ottertail counties, Ojibwe communities, Mille Lacs Band, East Iron Range and Warroad in August 2021. Ermon.
Today, ACC has 250 fellows in 40 states. In Minnesota, fellows are working in more than 30 communities, including Waseca and Koochiching counties added in 2022. Land O’Lakes is the organizer of the event, called the American Connect Project, which has grown into a 1,765-member coalition of business leaders investing heavily in broadband. The Connect Partnership advocated for passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocated a historic $65 billion in broadband funding.
Redwood County is on fire
When fellows start working in communities, they have three focuses – broadband development, digital access and digital literacy. Beacom explained that they worked to coordinate all the suppliers in the area, obtain accurate digital maps, work with engineering firms to determine the fiber needed, and engage with the community.
In agricultural Redwood County, Patrick Garry spent his first fellowship year with local county staff and County Economic Development Coordinator Briana Mumme work together.
“As a 23-year-old, I was in charge of the county’s broadband program,” Gary said. “Briana has helped me navigate my way through the community. She has great community knowledge and respect, and it was definitely a catalyst for our initiative.”
Mumme provided a strong local background, while Garry provided a high-energy focus for the task. Within a year, they worked with local internet providers to set a far-reaching goal: to provide gigabit-class fiber to every home and business in the county.
“We want a network that can rival Chicago, New York City and the Twin Cities,” Gary said, adding that it would be a generational investment. “We adopted the motto ‘Bold Today, Bold Tomorrow’.” Rural success is measured in generations, not years. The community hopes to lay the groundwork for the next generation of young people to start a new chapter in rural America. “
The largest project currently underway in the county, called Project Cadillac, aims to provide fiber optic service to 30 percent of the county. The $4.4 million project brings together the county’s America’s Rescue Program funds, internet provider donations and the state’s border-to-border grants. In terms of population, it serves 1,870 structures that make up the eight cities.
“This project and initiative represents a community effort to change the trajectory of rural communities,” said Gary, who is completing his second year of fellowship in Chicago. “If you look at the numbers, Redwood County is a shrinking community, businesses are closing and young people are leaving. This project represents the first step in challenging the narrative and rewriting the future. It shows that great ideas and groundbreaking initiatives can Happening in rural America.”
tucked up aoteere county
ACC Fellow Carter Grupp, based in Fergus Falls, Otterer County, also has an impressive first-year resume. He helped set up 10 Zoom rooms and developed an app to use them. He developed STEM curriculum and toolkits for three county libraries. He launched a speed test campaign to get real data on how Internet Service Providers are serving his community.
Data reported to governing bodies does not always reflect actual speeds on offer, making tools such as speed tests important in planning and applying for broadband funding. As with most data, the more of it the merrier. The results show that the county’s sparsely populated rural areas are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
While the fiber installation is pending, Carter has expanded his digital inclusion reach to county residents of all ages, with three pilot projects in his second year as a fellow. The first pilot focuses on improving the comfort of older adults using technology. Through Fergus Falls Community Education, Grupp teaches free technology usage classes to senior residents. They are encouraged to bring in any equipment and get help using it. Other communities and counties heard about these classes and wanted to provide similar instruction.
“I’m looking for tech-savvy high school students who can help with this,” Grupp added. “I hope Minnesota realizes that this is not just for seniors, but for underserved communities.”
These days, his biggest concern is computer science as a potential career for high school students—his second pilot project. Grupp teamed up with Luke Heine, who works at Microsoft, to host the first remote statewide youth computer science training program, the Northland Hackathon, last year. The educational event teaches young people how to code, designs their own apps and websites, and showcases job opportunities at companies like Meta, TikTok or Microsoft. Last year, more than 30 high schools participated virtually. The 2023 event is scheduled for April 23.
“Minnesota ranks last in the U.S. for offering computer science programs in high schools,” Grupp explains. Of the 24% of high schools that offer programs, the majority are located in the Twin Cities.
“It’s an opportunity for rural kids to meet people like them and build and grow something cool,” he said, adding that they’re looking for more partners to help support the statewide internal efforts.
Grupp’s third pilot project focuses on modernizing small businesses and equipping them with technology tools to improve their digital access. He is currently working with the county’s economic development agency, Greater Fergus Falls, on technology development training and opening co-working spaces.
“We need broadband access to live in rural Minnesota,” he concluded. “We need to modernize rural areas and agriculture with technology-related equipment and tools. This is a real problem of our time.”
To learn more about the American Connection Corps, visit Lead for America’s American Connection Corps.
To learn more about the Northland Hackathon, visit northlandhackathon.com.
To learn more about Minnesota’s efforts to provide broadband access, visit the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.
New Director of Broadband Development appointed
Bree Maki are appointed by the Governor. Tim Walz became the new director of the Office of Broadband Development in October.
Maki is the Senator’s Senior Director of Outreach and Director of National Broadband and Telecommunications Outreach. Tina Smith. She previously served as an office administrator for the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District.
As part of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Office of Broadband Development helps residents understand broadband availability and how they can work together to improve the availability and use of high-speed broadband services.
Since 2014, DEED has awarded more than $176 million in broadband infrastructure grants with the goal of enabling border-to-border broadband access.
Source of Maki project: DEED