Vote could bring fiber-optic broadband access to farms

Linda Kramer
Linda Kramer and her family run a farm in rural Sibley County, about 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. She's volunteering to make sure the Sibley-Renville County Broadband project becomes a reality.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

The Sibley County Commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to join what could end up being a $70 million publicly-owned broadband project.

Many residents in central Minnesota and other rural parts of the state deal with less-than-modern Internet speeds. Some use dial-up connections. Tuesday's vote affects everything from school technology programs to the county's multimillion-dollar agriculture industry.

Linda Kramer and her family grow corn, soy beans, even a little wheat. The family's farm is on 1,100 acres in rural Sibley County, about 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.

Kramer pays about $60 per month for Internet access that by today's standards is archaic.

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"My husband on the farm needs to send files... He'll throw them in an email, send it out, let it run overnight, come back in the morning and two-thirds of them haven't gone through," Kramer said.

For the last year, Kramer has volunteered to make a broadband project in Sibley and Renville counties come to fruition. Right now 10 cities are on board. And by the looks of it, they will get their high-speed access.

But that still leaves about one-third of the county's population without a fiber-optic connection.

"That's a lot of us who need this to go through and we'll be left behind," Kramer said. "Because if the cities get this now it's going to be very difficult to ever get it out to the rural areas in the future."

Earlier this month, Sibley County commissioners were scheduled to vote on the project. But at the last minute they decided they wanted to see stronger support to ensure it was financially viable.

Jeff Nielsen
Jeff Nielsen is the general manager for United Farmers Cooperative. He says farming is now a high-tech business. Efficiencies from technology can translate into thousands of dollars in savings and profits for farmers.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

The decision shocked project supporters into action. Fearing that getting fiber-optic cables to area farms could be in jeopardy, volunteers redoubled their efforts. They made phone calls and went door-to-door to churn up support.

So far, over 50 percent of the residents said they would take some combination of phone, Internet or cable TV service from the broadband project. In parts of rural Sibley County it's closer to 80 percent of residents.

It's not just because they're interested streaming Netflix and spending more time on Facebook, although that's part of it.

Jeff Nielsen, general manager of United Farmers Cooperatives, said farming has evolved into a high-tech business. For example, new mapping software allows farmers to determine areas in their fields where they can grow crops in higher densities. The software programs are written for individual fields and downloaded into computers right on the tractor.

That efficiency and convenience can translate into thousands of dollars in savings and profits for farmers.

But getting the software from the developer to each farmer is a challenge.

"Typically what we may do now is physically take the drive to the farm. So drive it there with $4 [per gallon] gas. Drive it out there. Here ya go. Plug it in. Go," Nielsen said. "Most of these farms don't have high-speed capabilities. They'll grind away for 20, 30 minutes trying to download these files and you don't know if you've got them. So that's really the bottleneck."

Jeff Bertrang
Jeff Bertrang is principal at GFW High School in Winthrop. He says some of his students don't have a high-speed Internet connection at home.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

Area schools also have something to gain from the rural broadband project. Two years ago, GFW High School in Winthrop gave every student an iPad. But Principal Jeff Bertrang said the benefits of the technology are limited if students don't have access to a fast connection at home.

"If you have more access to the Internet, the more information you'll find, the more in-depth your research can be ... You get a better educational outcome," Bertrang said. "It's kind of like you get out of it what you put into it and if you limit their access they can only get so much out of it."

No one seems to dispute the need for better Internet service. But not everyone is on board with the plan. The city of Arlington voted not to participate.

Arlington Mayor Jim Kreft said the city already has numerous Internet providers. Plus, the project relies on a high percent of residents switching from the service they already have — numbers that will be difficult to achieve, Kreft said.

"The city of Arlington doesn't believe the business plan makes any sense," Kreft sad. "We think that ... the business would fail."

If the plan fails as Kreft and other city leaders predict, the city could lose thousands of dollars, he said.

On Thursday, all participating communities will vote to authorize the sale of bonds to pay for the project.