Building broadband infrastructure for jobs in Greater Minnesota


“The world is a lot flatter now than it used to be,” said Steve Larson, a regional adminsitrator for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). “If you are a small rural community, there are not only companies in the metro area, there are companies all over the world that can compete for products and services you provide.”

A key to that competition is access to high-speed internet connections, which requires new infrastructure and training throughout much of Greater Minnesota. That access can help increase access to jobs throughout the state.

“If you can work with social media—if you can do marketing—there are more opportunities,” said Ann Treacy, an information professional (and TC Daily Planet Board member). “There are few jobs out there for which computer skills are not a requirement. Access to computer skills makes a huge difference.”

According to the 2010 Connect Minnesota Business Technology Assessment, 27% of MN businesses allow employees to telework. Also in Minnesota, 20% of employed adults report that they telework. Teleworking could also provide an additional boost to the state’s workforce, as 17% of retirees, nearly three out of five unemployed adults, and almost one-third of homemakers say they would likely join the workforce if empowered to do so by teleworking.

The Blandin Foundation, a recipient of millions of dollars of federal funding, has been leading the charge to expand broadband infrastructure and usage in rural Minnesota. Federal stimulus funding has supported this effort to help businesses and individuals  increase broadband use. The effort integrates government, nonprofit, educational, and business entities to change the whole ecosystem of the way businesses operate in rural areas. From mapping the quality of broadband connection, to providing computers to people without them, to offering trainings on internet usage for people and businesses, the effort has been a huge collaboration that organizers hope will strengthen businesses and allow individuals to gain skills for employment and get connected to work options.  

Ann Treacy does a lot of work in rural Minnesota helping people to use the Internet to meet their goals. Working with the Blandin Foundation, as well as with some of Blandin’s partners, Treacy leads workshops both through Blandin’s Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) which has $7 million devoted to its broadband adoption program. She also works with one of Blandin’s partners, and the Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace (MNREM) doing webinars for businesses that focus on sustainable energy. There are in total 20 partners working on the MIRC project, with 11 demonstration communities that each get $100,000 from Blandin to facilitate broadband adoption. 

Treacy emphasized the importance of access to infrastructure for broadband in rural Minnesota, as well the need for training in everything from the basic computer skills to social media and website skills.

“Our goal is to get people to use the Internet,” Treacy said. “We also want to create jobs.  Jobs have been created for the development of the program. The hope is that by doing the training, people will be able to build up skills to get jobs.”

Besides MNREM, which has been doing webinars, the University of Minnesota extension program has been doing trainings at different communities, working a lot with main street businesses.

Hans Muessig, Program Director for the U of M’s Extesnsion Center for Community Vitality, with MIRC, said the general role of the U of M’s extension program is to support business use of the internet to market, to sell, and to support customers. “We help them become more efficient,” he said. 

The extension program also hopes to build capacity within communities to use the internet to market themselves to visitors. 

“We’ve put together a series of approximately 25 workshops,” Muessig said. The workshops are from beginning level to advanced, and focus not so much on the how-to of using the internet, but the why.  “We aren’t going to teach them Google analytics. We show why Google analytics is a real nice tool to understand who is visiting their website,” he said. Through the U’s program, seven educators have been working around the state, doing workshops and one-on-one consulting, talking to businesses about individual challenges.  For example, businesses are learning about tools such as constant contact that facilitates email communication with their customer base. 

Muessig said in some cases, businesses don’t know where to start. “There’s a group of business people out there that don’t know how, they don’t know why—they are afraid of the Internet. Part of the challenge is to convince those people, to make the Internet simple enough for them to use.” For example, a mom and pop café might tweet their lunch specials each day, rather than getting 20 calls a day about what their lunch special is. “The café doesn’t need a 10-page website,” Muessig said, “There are simple, bite-sized ways for people to start.”

One issue that the extension project speaks about with businesses is the opportunity for them to use employees or contractors who telework or telecommute. “If a community has put in broadband, you’re attracting professionals who can do telework,” Muessig said.

Minnesota’s DEED, another one of Blandin’s partners, has had as a goal of developing broadband infrastructure for quite some time. Steve Larson, a Regional Administrator for DEED, said the office is using Blandin funding to develop skills needed for individuals to conduct job searches and career explorations online. They are developing digital literacy curriculum for training workshops for job seekers. 

One of the reasons for the success of the broadband adoption project, said Larson, is the enormous amount of collaboration between the private, government, and nonprofit sectors. “This regional alignment is rather a novel concept,” he said. “Having all these entities work together in an aligned fashion over a particular goal isn’t something that has happened in the past.”  With the scarcity of resources, the recession, and the reality of a global economy, Larson said, organizations, businesses and agencies are much more willing to partner together. 

Other partners in the MIRC program include PCs For People, who refurbish computers and give them to folks who haven’t had computers before, and Minnesota Learning Commons (MLC), partnering with MSCU, the U of M, and Department of Education along with Public K-12 schools. The MLC has been helping communities develop online programs, and facilitating digital education, such as online courses for bilingual individuals who want to become certified as interpreters. 

While the main focus of the MIRC project is broadband adoption, Ann Treacy said in many ways broadband adoption and broadband infrastructure go hand in hand. “It’s not economically feasible to put infrastructure in a community where people don’t want it,” Treacy said. “So often the infrastructure and adoption have to go hand in hand. There will always be areas that will require some help.”

Connect Minnesota is one organization that has been doing some mapping of broadband across the state. They have also been accepting testimonials from people across the state about their broadband usage. Jessica Ditto, from Connect Minnesota, provided a couple of comments people have submitted.  One woman, from Duluth, said that she couldn’t get broadband at home, because there were no providers.  However, some people have responded that broadband access has increased in greater Minnesota.  

A woman from Baster said: “My husband and I purchased a small computer store in Brainerd MN 10 years ago.  At that time there was no broadband available in this area.  Since then, broadband has become ubiquitous.  This has allowed us to develop a cloud computing platform utilized by business throughout the state and even internationally.  We can now run our business from the lakes area and reach customers everywhere.  The potential positive economic impact that broadband holds for rural areas is astounding!”

Another commenter, from Detroit Lakes, said: “I used to be tied to doing work at my office computer because of company firewalls, etc. Now I can find wireless access in a lot of places (not all) and work from my laptop or access information on my Blackberry. My children are in high school and they are good students. However, I can’t imagine how they would complete their homework without broadband access. They are always looking something up, downloading an article or picture. Students without broadband access at home are at an extreme disadvantage. Broadband for all is necessary to prepare students to compete in a global economy.”

To read more about Blandin’s initiative, check out the Blandin on Broadband blog, to which Treacy contributes.