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CTEP gets out of city bubble to learn about rural broadband

November 9, 2017

Can you imagine having to pay $800 a month for the internet? How about not having the internet at all…not because you can’t afford it, but because it simply doesn’t exist where you live? This is a reality that many in SPNN’s AmeriCorps urban community can’t fathom. Because we have an urban internet infrastructure we aren’t worried about whether we have the internet or not, or about exorbitant rates. However, CTEP Members Brandon Phan and Camilla Dreasher learned more last month about Greater Minnesota’s struggles to get the internet in rural areas. Below are their reflections from a Blandin Foundation conference they attended about what rural communities are doing to bring the affordable internet to the far reaches of our state.

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The Blandin Foundation recently hosted Border to Border Broadband: Bridging the Gaps - Expanding the Impact in Brainerd, MN. The two-day conference brought together county commissioners, economic developers, internet providers and digital literacy practitioners, and others to discuss strategies on expanding broadband across rural Minnesota. Another CTEP Member, Camilla Dreasher, and I had the privilege of represent the CTEP AmeriCorps program and to support the Blandin Foundation by live streaming and archiving the conference with Ann Treacy on the Blandin on Broadband blog.  CTEP also presented at the conference and shared how its program helps bridge the digital divide.

One of the most illuminating sessions, Is Rural Minnesota Poised for the Digital Age, Dr. Roberto Gallardo, an Assistant Director and Community & Regional Economics Specialist at Purdue University presented on the Digital Divide Index. This index combines a socioeconomic status, broadband infrastructure and adoption data to give micro level picture of county level disparities in broadband use. One can access the county-level data through a map of the United States, which paints a picture of a national patchwork of glaring internet discrepancies between neighboring counties.

Dr. Gallardo discussed the importance of access and adoption of broadband and its potential for economic growth to rural communities. Nearly everyone in Europe, he pointed out, has access to broadband whether they live in an urban or rural community. Sadly, this is still not the case in the United States. In Europe people can FaceTime family members, work, and access telehealth services from almost anywhere, regardless of geography. Europe’s internet ubiquity shines a light on how far we have to go in the United States in bringing affordable internet to each corner of the nation.

Overall, I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend this conference and assist Ann Treacy with documentation and social media. I had the privilege to learn about the difficulty of bringing broadband to rural Minnesota, the potential of broadband on economic growth, and the importance of programs like AmeriCorps CTEP in the digital age.

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Like Brandon I was lucky enough to recently attend the Boarder to Boarder Broadband conference in Brainerd Minnesota. One of the highlights was working with Brandon to help archive the conference by livestreaming the sessions (the archive can be found here). While I filmed I also got to hear many interesting speakers discuss the technology challenges faced by rural communities. Even though there are real, entrenched problems with the digital equity in rural Minnesota, all of the presenters spoke enthusiastically about the work they’ve been doing and the solutions they’ve found to work in their communities.

I especially enjoyed the session Building Bridges: Expanding the Impact with Cooperation, and in particular, Kevin Edberg’s talk on cooperatives’ role in bridging the digital divide in rural communities. Edberg, the Executive Director of Cooperative Development Services, a  nonprofit organization whose mission is to support new cooperatives in the Midwest, spoke  about co-ops’ past success bringing utilities to rural Minnesota and the potential of telecom co-ops to bring broadband to underserved areas. His speech is well worth a watch.

I was most struck by the history of cooperatives in the United States and the positive change they’ve brought. Kevin placed rural Minnesota's current struggle to get broadband in a historical context, including housing cooperatives’ fight to end housing discrimination against African Americans and electric co-ops bringing power to underserved areas in the early and mid 20th Century. Edburg’s underscored the importance of cooperation in solving the problem of rural internet access, and brought a real sense of optimism to what can be a disheartening topic.

Attending this conferenced exposed me to the systemic challenges facing rural Minnesotans, but it also left me hopeful about the future of rural broadband. The tools and ideas discussed at the conference will help me in my service with CTEP, but I believe the energy I gained by talking with such passionate and optimistic people will be even more useful.


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Brandon Phan is a second year AmeriCorps CTEP member at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center.


Camilla Dreasher is a CTEP AmeriCorps member serving at PCs for People. She works with people of all ages to improve their digital skills.