Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Blandin funding helps in rural expansion for internet service

Melissa Roach
Posted 2/15/18

REGIONAL - One year ago the Blandin Foundation awarded funding to improve broadband access and technical training and support for the communities of Cook, Orr, and Nett Lake. Joining together as the …

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Blandin funding helps in rural expansion for internet service

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REGIONAL - One year ago the Blandin Foundation awarded funding to improve broadband access and technical training and support for the communities of Cook, Orr, and Nett Lake. Joining together as the “Grizzlies Community,” they were one of ten Blandin Broadband Communities selected for two rounds of grant funding.

One year later, the Grizzlies Community has plenty of progress to report, even as some challenges remain.

Establishing a Wi-Fi hotspot in Cook has gone largely according to plan, said Cook Library Director Crystal Phillips. The library is the local hotspot, and it’s proven popular already. “The hot spots are kind of a big deal,” said Phillips. “We have had a waiting list for people to check them out. People can’t believe that it’s really what it is…that it’s Wi-Fi, and it works.” So far, the system has worked well, with few problems, according to Phillips. “We see that people in town seem to have sufficient access. The hot-spots are huge for people living out in the townships because we have such a large rural patron base that use the hot spots.”

The grant also enabled purchase of a SMART-TV for library class instruction as well as five hot spot mobile internet access units for library patrons to check out.

Establishing a hotspot in Orr has faced a bigger challenge. The ORR Center is the designated hotspot location in Orr, but the lack of broadband capacity in the community has proven an impediment to setting up the system. “We aren’t technically a hot-spot, as we don’t have internet in our building yet,” said Wendy Purdy, ORR Center President. “CenturyLink doesn’t have capacity to add any new customers in Orr.” The telecommunications company is adding new fiber to its local network, which should clear the way by summer to finally connect the ORR Center, located in the former Orr School.

For now, Bois Forte IT Director Randy Long has been setting up temporary hotspots when the ORR Center needs the access for classes and other programming. The grant also helped the ORR Center purchase laptop computers and a SMART-TV on wheels for its classes.

Education and training is also part of the initiative. Phillips and Long created curriculum and, along with local media specialists, have taught a variety of internet use basics and computer classes that have been offered at the Cook Library, North Woods School, ORR Center, and at Nett Lake. In addition to the mobile hot spots, the Cook Library also received laptops which they have recently been put to use for coding classes. Every Thursday evening since last fall, Cook resident Theresa Drift has been teaching the “Coding for Kids” class using the laptops. “We are learning how to build apps right now through code.org. It’s a lot of fun.”

North Woods School is also part of the Grizzlies Community. Principal John Vukmanich described the school’s role in the community investment project as having two main components. “First, is the potential for increased rural internet connectivity. The majority of our student and family base at North Woods School is very rural. As more of our systems and education platforms become technology-based, internet connectivity is more important than ever. Second, is utilizing community education as a vehicle to address the technology needs of adults, and even kids if the interest and need is there. An increased knowledge base with our adults, parents, and community will help our kids to be better digital citizens.”

Initially, a variety of classes were offered, some more popular than others. “The hardest part was identifying community needs,” Long said. Looking to the future he said the group will be offering more in the form of business based or computer education classes, as well as identifying individuals in the community for refurbished computers. As for the success of the project, Long said it’s better than he expected. “Over all, it’s been great!”

Addressing a need

Reliable high-speed rural internet access is a problem shared by many rural communities across the state. Last year at the beginning of the effort, Bill Coleman of Community Technology Advisors spoke of the importance of communities working together. He said extending broadband to every house was much like the mid-20th century push to get electricity to every farmhouse. “This is a challenge for communities, even statewide. There is so much rural area right outside these towns, how far will the communities reach out is up to each community to look at the cost,” he said.

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snowshoe2

Blandin Paper company and foundation over time has done more than any company I know of doing so much for the community in so many ways. One of a kind.

Friday, February 16