Coalition’s research reveals broadband now a mainstream technology, but stubborn challenges remain

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn.– A report released today by the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) coalition finds a dramatic growth trend of 64 percent of all rural households adopting broadband (high-data-rate Internet access) technology compared to a six percent adoption rate nine years ago.

The MIRC initiative is a $6.3 million effort comprised of 19 statewide partners, including 11 demonstration communities. With a central goal to increase the use of broadband technology across rural Minnesota, the survey results are a benchmark to guide and measure investments in these communities’ access and adoption.

The report pays special attention to 11 communities that are partners in the MIRC coalition and which have agreed to share learning from their increased efforts with other communities. These “demonstration” communities are: Cook County, Thief River Falls, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Grand Rapids Area, Benton County, Stevens County, Willmar, Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, Worthington, Windom and Winona.

Over the next 24 months, the MIRC partners will build on the report’s findings and be engaged in a substantial effort to support rural communities, small businesses and residents in their adoption and enhanced utilization of broadband technology.

Change Drivers
Commissioned by the Blandin Foundation in support of MIRC partners and their overall initiative, the report reflects rural Minnesota’s approach toward broadband. As part of the overall reporting and evaluation strategy, the Blandin Foundation partnered with the EDA Center at the University of Minnesota – Crookston to conduct the initiative’s evaluation. Data for the statewide study was conducted through telephone interviews across rural Minnesota by the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy and Development. Data for the demonstration communities was collected by the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota – Morris.

Researchers used three key parameters to identify broadband access, use and adoption: home ownership of a working computer, Internet connectivity in the household and purchase of a broadband subscription.

Age and income levels are key factors as well in regards to computer and broadband use. More than 80 percent of rural Minnesotans age 55 and younger have a computer compared to less than 40 percent of those older than 65. In many rural Minnesota communities, the number of elderly residents is disproportionately high, posing a significant barrier to further gains in adoption of broadband use.

Report findings confirm the strong positive correlation between income and adoption, with higher levels of income leading to higher levels of technology adoption. Specifically, respondents who reported a household income of at least $50,000 were twice as likely to report having a computer in their home or having it connected to the Internet than those reporting incomes of $25,000 or less.

Use of broadband has grown from six percent in 2001 to 64 percent in 2010. Contributing to the overall dramatic rural growth in broadband is an increase in availability, primarily from smaller private companies, public entities and rural cooperative providers across Minnesota. The survey results also cite competitive pricing, an increased commercial and governmental provision of online services, and policy positions of regional and state groups and foundations.

At the same time, the MIRC report indicates that 61 percent of Minnesota rural dial-up users who have not switched to a broadband connection cite its expense. Slightly more than 20 percent reported that broadband was not available where they lived, while 15 percent reported that they did not connect to the Internet often enough to justify the cost.

The report observes the fact that a lack of home computers creates a ceiling and obstacle to broadband access and use for many. Accordingly, increasing the number of home computers will be a key factor in advancing broadband strategies. One of the MIRC partners, PCs for People, specifically is focused on providing lower-income residents with a refurbished computer and sufficient training, so that they can access the power of broadband.

To view the complete MIRC report, go to: www.blandinfoundation.org

The Demonstration Communities
The MIRC report finds that of the 11 demonstration communities surveyed, Cook County has the highest computer ownership at 83 percent, with Worthington the lowest at 61 percent and the rural statewide average at 74 percent. Combining both broadband and dial-up connections, Worthington also presents the lowest Internet connectivity rate at 56 percent, Cook County the highest at 75 percent and the rural statewide average at 70 percent.

Results suggest that Cook County is a region with unique broadband access challenges, reflecting the lowest broadband adoption at 50 percent. Cook County’s lack of broadband access soon will be remedied through the construction of a countywide fiber-to-the-home network, to be constructed and operated by Arrowhead Electric, leveraging federal stimulus dollars.

The highest broadband adoption of the 11 MIRC communities surveyed was Winona at 69 percent, with the rural statewide average at 64 percent.

The MIRC Report indicates that 61 percent of Minnesota rural dial-up users have not switched to a broadband connection due to the expense of broadband. Slightly more than 20 percent reported that broadband was not available where they lived, while 15 percent reported that they did not connect to the Internet often enough to justify the cost.

Over the next 24 months, the MIRC partners and residents of the 11 communities surveyed will be engaged in a substantial effort to educate, train, promote and assist rural residents and small businesses in their adoption and enhanced utilization of broadband technology.

ABOUT MIRC
The Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities Coalition is a coalition of 19 statewide partners total, including 11 demonstration communities. Funded in large part through an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant, the work of the coalition is focused on bringing the full promise of broadband technologies to rural Minnesota communities, businesses and people. Blandin Foundation serves as the administrator of the MIRC initiative.