VIRGINIA — Rob Ecklund was on a working group call this week to discuss Minnesota’s unemployment insurance with fellow legislators when Zoom, an online video conferencing host, crashed.
The moment brimmed with irony for the DFL state representative from International Falls, who self-describes as not technologically savvy, but is also the leading voice in the Legislature on issues of broadband connectivity.
As cases of COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, and precautionary measures to slow its spread across Minnesota have been put in place in recent weeks, the state is facing a new reality: Schools are closed, thousands of employees are working from home, including at the State Office Building in St. Paul, which he described as a “ghost town.”
For Ecklund, living in a rural city along the Canadian border, his district is a hotspot for the broadband discussion because of its lack of access and, well, community hotspots. He can think of four people within a couple of miles of his home struggling to work from their apartments and houses because of internet service.
“We’re using it everywhere we can,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “A lot of people are using it from home. It definitely shows our border to border broadband is not sufficient.”
On the Iron Range and rural St. Louis County, broadband gaps are commonplace.
It’s estimated that hundreds of families lack internet connection at home and a statewide survey in 2019 show nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans underserved or not served by internet providers.
Expanding broadband access in Greater Minnesota was among the top campaign priorities of Gov. Tim Walz, and in May 2019, he signed a $40 million grant program to improve access over the next biennium.
Last October, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan appointed a 14-member broadband task force that included Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, and Jim Weikum, the mayor of Biwabik and executive director of the Arrowhead Library System.
For Giorgi and RAMS, the broadband issue has been among their calling cards in the last year and mandated school closings this week only accelerated the effort.
In a letter sent to RAMS members on March 18, Giorgi offered a temporary solution that members could act on to help students connect while they’re out of the classroom, through the Northeast Service Coop in Mountain Iron, which said it was willing to increase bandwidth and install Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots, town halls or other locations where their fiber network is in place.
“Many schools, city halls and town halls have taken steps to minimize Wi-Fi signals into their parking lots or adjoining spaces to assure there is not an abuse of the broadband,” Giorgi wrote. “During these trying times, we believe those circumstances can be mitigated and you can at least provide students with locations to access Wi-Fi.”
The Arrowhead Library System encouraged its members to provide free Wi-Fi access while they are now closed. Its headquarters in Mountain Iron, along with libraries in at least Mountain Iron and Virginia are following the advice, with Virginia posting its password on the sign outside the building.
At Virginia Public Schools, providing Wi-Fi access to students in need was in the early stage of the district’s contingency planning. They’re using the state mandated closing period, which runs through at least March 27, to fully develop distance learning plans. The technology department emailed a survey to parents Wednesday seeking to gather information about access, providers and data caps on services, while outlining where school-issued service is available.
In Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Louis County Schools, the broadband challenge stretches to the region’s more remote areas. At an emergency school board meeting March 16, Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson said teachers were making special arrangements for students lacking access, including sending home packets of assignments and lessons.
Ecklund said Thursday the $30 million he proposed for broadband funding this year may not be possible as the Legislature’s focus remains on the coronavirus response and bonding, but said another dose of funding is still possible.
Last year the state had more than $75 million in broadband requests and the pandemic situation is only opening more eyes to access gaps, he said, noting some areas that were up to speed five year ago are becoming underserved as technology changes.
He added that $30 million a year in the base budget is a target figure, but said the high amount would need a sunset clause once the system is built out.
“We’re getting there,” Ecklund said. “What we’re getting to now is out in the areas where the driveways are a quarter-mile long and the homes are really spread out. We’re getting to the tougher and tougher places to serve. We may need to work quickly when this whole coronavirus settles down.”