Bridging the digital divide « Back to Search Results

With the advancement of technology, the internet has become an integral aspect of daily life. Because it’s instrumental in how people work, communicate with one another and gather information, the U.S. government now views access to high-speed broadband as a vital public utility, much like phone or electrical service.

But a digital divide exists between rural and urban populations. Thirty-nine percent of people in rural areas still don’t have access to high-speed broadband (compared to 4 percent in urban areas).

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) is working with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) to remedy this disparity. With the help of a $1.76 million Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) grant, they’re teaming up to bring broadband internet to an area southeast of Aitkin.

MLEC serves over 14,000 members in the area, half of which are seasonal lake homes. It’s one of the most underserved broadband locations in the state. Its rural nature and many lakes complicate the development of internet infrastructure and make it nearly cost-prohibitive.

It will cost $3.45 million to develop the fiber infrastructure. MLEC and CTC partnered to come up with a 50/50 match for the DEED grant. MLEC will own the fiber infrastructure and offer the XStream fiber internet services. CTC, a telephone cooperative, will provide wholesale services for the internet and offer phones services to members.

Construction for the first phase of the project began this summer. By the end of the year, 106 miles of fiber and 890 passings — potential connections to residential homes — will be installed.

People who previously had spotty DSL connections or had to pay for expensive cellular connections will have speeds up to 1 gigabit at an affordable price, according to Stacy Cluff, MLEC information systems and technology administrator.

“There’s lots of excitement from the community and everybody wants it in their area,” she said.

MLEC has long recognized the importance of internet access for rural regions. The cooperative was the original dial-up internet provider for the Aitkin area in 1997. In 2014, the co-op started looking into what it would take to provide fiber internet to members. After applying for an unsuccessful grant through the FCC, it forged a collaborative plan to secure the eventual DEED grant.

“Partnering with CTC helped give us the push and experience needed to move forward,” Cluff said.

Phase 1 of the project lays the groundwork for the future. After the completion of the initial infrastructure, MLEC and CTC plan to continue expanding access to fiber throughout the area.

Bridging the digital divide in the Aitkin area is an important step to facilitate economic growth.

“It will bring people up here. They can work at home from cabins. They will be staying here and spending money in the communities — and possibly it will attract more businesses to move into the area,” Cluff said.


Fast Fact Image

Elk River Energy Recovery Station converts refuse-derived fuel to electricity, helping to meet Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard.