Virus exposes Minnesota’s broadband gap

Despite being closed the Virginia Public Library put their wifi password on the board to help residents who need internet access to be able to use the system from the curb.

Two more counties in northeast Minnesota will be participating in crowdsourced broadband speed testing in partnership with the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, an effort aimed at gathering data for project funding.

Itasca and Koochiching counties announced the partnership with RAMS on Thursday about a month after St. Louis County first launched the effort.

The test is aimed at finding a baseline for internet availability and using the data to help locales across the county apply for grants and inform state and federal governments to try and increase funding opportunities. The test takes about 30 seconds by going to https://expressoptimizer.net/public/.

In a virtual press conference Thursday, State Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls announced the partnership by saying the COVID-19 pandemic proved broadband connectivity is still “woefully inadequate” in greater Minnesota. Ecklund previously authored a bill seeking broadband funding during this year’s legislative session.

State Rep. Sandy Layman of Cohasset, a co-sponsor of the bill and past author of broadband efforts, said the pandemic has forced Minnesotans into online schooling, health care and more, with varied degrees of access to broadband.

“We don’t have the connections we really need to have to do our work and live our lives in Minnesota,” she said. “The pandemic has put us all online. Those of us without connections are really left in the dark.”

RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi said speed testing launched in Koochiching County on Tuesday and is up to 255 tests performed. Itasca County started Wednesday, both with the goal of reaching students during the final weeks of distance learning to get an idea of broadband speeds and gaps.

Giorgi said St. Louis County has performed 6,500 tests since beginning in early April. Data will be coordinated with an Iron Range-based group putting together a feasibility study.

“We’re going to have tremendous data to use in that study,” he said. “I fully anticipate a couple of townships and cities applying for broadband projects later this summer and early fall. We’re going to see the dividends of that right away.”

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