Compared with the rest of the world, the United States isn’t very well connected. The information highway slows to a crawl before it reaches much of rural America, including Cook County, but efforts are underway to change that.
There’s a nationwide push to expand broadband internet access in rural areas across the United States. One of the leaders of that effort is Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar. She advocated for broadband investment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and last week, Klobuchar sponsored a broadband summit in Minneapolis that was attended by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski. Also invited to participate in the summit was Gunflint Trail businessman Bruce Kerfoot, owner of Gunflint Lodge.
“It was a hearing that she called to give Minnesota people the opportunity to express their feelings about the need that we have for broadband service,” says Kerfoot. “And she wanted to hear what the differences would make to us. First off, broadband will enable online reservations to be made, which is a competitive requirement these days. And as we continue to be in a position of not being able to offer that, we’re just losing lots of business. This whole electronic age of technology is moving so fast.”
Senator Klobuchar has compared the importance of bringing broadband service to rural America with earlier efforts in U.S. history to expand electricity, phone service, and the interstate highway system. Kerfoot agrees.
“I look at it as just as significant as bringing power to the country. It’s going to be a dynamic change. There’s just so much at stake in this issue, because it will impact all our lives, whether we’re private parties or whether we’re businesses. It will make us competitive. It will make our lifestyle more enjoyable. It will raise safety levels in a variety of places. Like I said, it’s as important as bringing electricity to our community.”
Expanding broadband access throughout the country is currently a national priority, and has the potential to affect not only businesses, but also hospitals, schools, law enforcement, and government agencies. Billions of dollars in federal stimulus money is being made available for broadband infrastructure projects and studies, and earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted $43.5 million to the Minnesota’s Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) to install fiber optic cable in 8 Minnesota counties. The grant is part of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program. Danna MacKenzie is Cook County’s Information Systems Director and a longtime broadband advocate:
“Two weeks ago, Northeast Service Coop did, their board of directors did vote to accept the grant from the USDA for their round 1 grant application, which builds over 900 miles, 915 miles, of fiber optic backbone in 8 counties," says MacKenzie. "And Cook County is included in that. And there are over 200 sites that will be connected for sure. Over a thousand sites are being evaluated to be connected. Sites we know for sure that will be included in Cook County include the hospital/clinic facility, the courthouse, and ISD 166. We also have about a dozen other sites in Cook County that are being considered to also be included in that first round build out."
The USDA is currently considering a second grant application from Northeast Service Cooperative , which would fund a continuation project called Arrowhead Connect-Cook County, and will extend fiber out to homes and businesses.
“Northeast Service Coop’s second round application is to extend the services from that backbone to all of the homes and businesses and institutions in Cook County," says MacKenzie, "and that’s called the Last Mile Fiber Project grant, or fiber-to-the-home.”
The USDA is expected to announce the second round of grant awards the week of September 7th.