MANKATO — Blue Earth County is set to look into its rural broadband needs after receiving a $25,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation.
The Blue Earth County Board signed off on the grant Tuesday morning. The money will be used for a feasibility study that will identify where broadband access is lacking throughout the county and recommend potential solutions to get rural areas up to speed with other cities.
"We really are trying to get input from the broader community to say, 'What is the need? How can that need best be met?'" County Administrator Bob Meyer said.
County officials plan to hire telecommunication consultants with Finley Engineering using the grant and county funding to conduct the study later this year. The county also is meeting with local internet companies to see what they would need to expand broadband across the area.
Almost all of Blue Earth County's internet options meet the state's immediate high-speed goals — at least 25 mbps downloads and 3 mbps uploads by 2022. Yet only about 14 percent of the county was equipped to handle at least 100 mpbs download speeds and 20 mbps upload speeds.
Commissioners have looked at broadband issues in recent years but stepped up their concern last year in response to area economic development issues.
In recent years, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has given tens of millions of dollars in grants to smaller communities and counties to install broadband infrastructure, which includes fiber networks. Lawmakers allocated $35 million in 2017 toward high-speed internet grants.
Larger communities and rural areas haven't received as much attention from the state. Larger cities generally have more than one internet provider and thus more competition to improve high-speed infrastructure. In rural areas, homes and farms aren't close enough together to install fiber networks in a cost-efficient manner.
"It levels the playing field," Commissioner Colleen Landkamer said concerning the county's broadband efforts. "It's critical to our businesses, kids can do homework, all of those things that really enhance the quality of life across the county."
Board Chair Will Purvis noted many area farmers are more reliant on technology, including GPS, automated farm equipment to plant crops and internet-controlled buildings to feed and care for livestock.
"The farmers talk about the No. 1 thing they're worried about when they're getting ready for planting season is how their GPS is working," he said.