Local leaders drive rural broadband
$6.6 million project shows resources, local focus boost local use
GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – Through the work of local leaders in dozens of rural Minnesota communities, more than 250,000 rural Minnesotans have been introduced to online resources to find jobs, continue their education and strengthen their businesses.
Connecting rural Minnesotans with tools they can use to plug into the benefits of broadband was a key goal of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project, a $6.6 million broadband adoption and use project in rural Minnesota between 2010 and 2012. The project was funded through a $4.8 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and $1.8 million in MIRC partner matches. Blandin Foundation administered the grant on behalf of the initiative partners.
Now complete, the MIRC project brought a network of resources and support to rural Minnesota individuals and communities—especially those unemployed and seeking employment, small businesses, coalitions of government entities, and local leaders. It leveraged resources of coalition partners to extend small business technical assistance and training, distribute refurbished computers to low-income families, train individuals and businesses, and create and deliver courses for knowledge workers.
A group of 11 rural “MIRC demonstration communities” received $100,000 each to identify and implement nearly 100 projects that fit local broadband needs and helped communities boost their overall ability to participate in the Internet-based economy.
“Rural towns, cities and counties stand at the threshold of the broadband economy,” said Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), who helped demonstration communities evaluate their broadband readiness. “They already have the sense of place their residents treasure. Through broadband services, they have the chance to add the richness and complexity of life that their urban neighbors have long enjoyed.”
Efforts like MIRC are one factor in Minnesota’s ability to boost rural broadband adoption and use. During MIRC, the collective growth rate in broadband subscriptions – one measure of adoption and use – was 10 percent across rural Minnesota. In the 11 MIRC demonstration communities the collective subscription growth rate ranged from 10.3 to 15.9 percent, helping those communities close the rural broadband adoption gap.
“The communities that experienced the fastest growth [in broadband adoption] reported higher percentages of awareness and participation in MIRC activities,” said Dr. Jack Geller of The EDA Center at the University of Minnesota – Crookston and lead MIRC researcher. “Such evidence allows us to conclude that overall, intervention works. It’s hard not to connect the MIRC project … as a contributor to Minnesota’s leading position in rural broadband adoption.”
Local leaders drive progress on broadband in rural communities. In MIRC demonstration communities, dozens of leaders gathered community members to plan and implement nearly 100 local projects, including:
- Boreal.TV in Grand Marais, a new local-access online video site that connects residents of and visitors to this far-flung northeastern Minnesota community with live video streaming of local activities from government meetings to local sports events.
- Lac qui Parle County in far west-central Minnesota created the Computer Commuter — a mobile computer lab (retooled hotel shuttle bus) that brings free broadband access to communities in one of Minnesota’s most sparsely populated regions.
- The University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality (CV) conducted training for more than 2,400 small rural Minnesota businesses on how to use high-speed internet for marketing, sales and operations. Businesses that participated in training had a bigger digital presence than those who did not, according to CV’s follow-up research.
“Blandin Foundation is all about Minnesotans imagining, leading and growing vibrant, resilient, rural communities,” said Dr. Kathleen Annette, CEO of Blandin Foundation. “Though rural broadband faces challenges, local leaders are making inroads. ‘Plugging in’ to broadband allows the small businesses, government entities and individuals in communities from Worthington to Thief River Falls to Grand Marais to fully engage in the new global economy.
“We applaud and stand with rural leaders with the vision of a strong, connected future, who know that to reach their vision they have to do it themselves, but they can’t do it alone.”
About Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities
The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded the $4.8 million grant to Blandin Foundation on behalf of 30 coalition partners in 2010. Through this Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant, Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) coalition brought a network of resources and support to rural Minnesota individuals and communities – especially those unemployed and seeking employment, small businesses, coalitions of government entities, and local leaders.
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Robert Bell commentary on demonstration community indicator performance: