Seeking to gather information from the public about their experiences with broadband service and discuss the possibility of improving and expanding high-speed access, a group of community leaders recently held a series of forums called called Connect AnokaCounty .
Being a resident of Oak Grove, who experiences periodic outages from Comcast, I attended a meeting to express my concerns as well as learn more about plans to seek federal grant funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Under current guidelines, Anoka County is eligible to apply for funding because there are areas of the county that do not presently have broadband accessibility.
Although it was a rainy Thursday evening, ten people attended the gathering. Refreshments consisted of cookies, coffee and water. The meeting was held in the Community Room at Anoka City Hall. Mustard colored blinds hang in the floor to ceiling vertical windows, which nicely offsets the patchwork tile floor. Visitors sat at six-foot-long eggshell colored tables, on dark blue plastic scoop chairs with metal legs. An Anoka history timeline hung to the left, denoting the rein of various public leaders. In the front of the room was a wall length mural of historic Anoka photographs in sepia tone. Attire was business casual.
The meeting was moderated by Cindy Kevern, Anoka County Director of Information Services. Special guest speakers included Matt Schmit, Anoka County Broadband Coordinator, Anoka County Commissioner Robyn West, and Milda Hedblom, Director of the Telecommunications Forum at the University of Minnesota H.H. Humphrey Institute.
After introducing the speakers, Kevern was seated and Schmit arose to speak. He announced that the county had a three prong approach to learning about the needs of the community: a phone survey of 900 residents; a written business survey distributed through the chambers of commerce; and three community meetings. “We’ve interviewed the big guys to the small guys,” he said. “This should give us a good measure of current service, needs and interest from all corners of the county.”
Commissioner West, who also has served on a governor’s special communications task force about interconnectivity issues, revealed that bringing Minnesota “back to the future” through widespread use of fiber optic cable was the first consensus that they came to.
Access to reliable Internet service is a necessity to Minnesota’s status in the global marketplace. People want and need to be able to telecommute. And unless all schools are connected, it is difficult to provide consistent, timely and relevant education to children.
Schmit even commented that the Internet is a major player in healthcare. “With the growing use of Electronic Medical Records, people need to have access to the Internet because it is a helpful tool to access information, communicate with providers, and allow people to take charge of their health in a better way,” he said.
From listening to some attendees, I was surprised to learn that there is a three-mile radius in Anoka where businesses have been relying on satellite credit card swipe services (which, apparently are unreliable) in order to conduct business. In addition, these long established businesses are also not able to update their Web sites, fulfill Internet orders, or conduct online customer service because of this issue.
In all, most of the attendees seemed hopeful that the county would pursue a fiberoptic infrastructure to provide broadband.