Accessible Broadband is Advantage in Wadena County
Friday, April 16, 2021
Broadband internet service has reached a level of requirement that not many thought necessary prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many rural counties in particular face the difficulties of providing fast internet speeds as more residents must work from home. But Wadena County, despite being the 59th-most populated of Minnesota’s 87 counties, is one of the best counties in the state for broadband access. A major player in that standing is West Central Telephone Association (WCTA), a local telecommunications provider headquartered in Sebeka.
As communities across the country learn to deal with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access has become even more important.
“Broadband access is the gateway to many opportunities that otherwise would be too distant to achieve,” Chad Bullock, WCTA CEO/General Manager. “Broadband is the great equalizer of our day, allowing anyone to thrive in their education, health or business.”
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (Mn DEED) Office for Broadband Development manages the state goal that all Minnesota businesses and homes have access at minimum download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of three Mbps (25/3) by 2022. A second goal is for all to have access speeds of 100/20 by 2026. WCTA began significant expansion activities in 2015 to meet those goals. In 2017, MnDEED reports Wadena County had 45.69% of households served with 100/20 speeds and 88.23% with 25/3. Prior to their expansion, many areas in Wadena County were defined as unserved by Mn DEED, indicating households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds that meet the 25/3 threshold.
“Many locations were not able to even get 5/1 and had to rely on expensive cellular hotspots with data caps and spotty coverage or expensive and unreliable satellite internet,” said Bullock. “Many had such antiquated copper infrastructure that they were not even able to make a phone call let alone have access to internet service.”
Fast Internet in Wadena County Now
WCTA began expanding their fiber network into many rural locations within Wadena County in 2015. They brought fiber to the premise within that expansion area to allow broadband speeds up to 1 Gigabit, along with Internet Protocol TV, phone service and security and surveillance system options. In total, WCTA now covers a territory of 753 square miles with roughly 1,800 miles of in-ground fiber.
MnDEED indicates as of April 2020, Wadena County has the following percentages of households served with the specific broadband access in :
|Speed||Wadena County||Rural Mn County Average|
|1Gig / 1Gig||73.86%||23.57%|
The 1 Gig percentage for Wadena County places it as the tenth best county in Minnesota.
Critical to Community
Expansions and improvement of broadband access are critical to WCTA’s business model, but even more important with the impact of COVID-19 on schools, healthcare and daily life in general. Bullock said 57 new individuals, mostly in Wadena County, added broadband for the first time and that immediately helps level the playing field for those students and teachers in the community. Broadband enables more access to distance learning and online classes so persons of all ages can raise their education levels. Whether a student is seeking to finish high school or seek post-secondary schooling like an Associate Degree, fast internet speeds allow them to do so at school or from home.
“Before the pandemic, we heard from area teachers that had some students who could email them or login into a class portal to get help with homework once they had broadband,” he said. “Now, schools can use more technology in the classrooms and send kids home with work that is done over the internet.”
Rural economies can be stimulated with broadband access as well. College graduates are more likely to move back to rural areas and start a business. Existing business owners can maintain their operations by managing remotely as opposed to shutting down. Healthcare can be impacted by broadband access in a time when telehealth and e-visits with medical providers are becoming more mainstream. More people have access to their doctors without leaving their homes with broadband access which can save a patient time and money. Office visits for a routine check-up could cost $175 while an e-visit is typically $40 or less.
And broadband access plays a role in general activities during the pandemic more than ever. Having broadband enables them to order food, supplies, clothing and other necessities online without leaving their home. Apps like FaceTime and Skype enable family members to check in on each other and still see friends.
“For some, going out now is more of a risk, said Bullock. “During the cold, snowy Minnesota winters, broadband allows remote work options when it may be unsafe to travel.
WCTA continues to determine which areas need their fiber network so neighboring communities and individuals have the same capabilities and opportunities as those in their service area. The company plans to install 83 route miles of fiber in the rural Staples area covering parts of Wadena and Cass Counties and partner with the Economic Alliance, Region 5, Sourcewell and other businesses like Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative to help bring broadband to unserved areas or at least be a resource.
“People want to live, work and play in rural areas like those in Wadena County and with broadband they can,” said Bullock.