Pandemic spurs internet upgrades Groundwork laid pre-COVID

“If you’re looking for a silver lining in this pandemic, improved broadband service in Le Sueur County is one.”
– Barbara Dröher Kline

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Le Sueur County has spent $1.7 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to improve the speed and reliability of internet service throughout the county.

It might seem like a cause-and-effect situation, as stay-at-home orders and mandated distance learning highlighted the need—or lack of—good, quality internet access. However, the groundwork, which made the county’s large-scale improvement projects possible during 2020, was laid by a small citizen task force, years prior to the pandemic.

The movement began in early 2018 when Barbara Dröher Kline of Union Hill was running for the Minnesota House of Representatives District 20A seat. She and her husband had moved to the area in 2016 and were frustrated with their slow, unreliable internet service. Their frustration grew after learning their neighbor had a fiber internet connection (built with a state grant), which allows for better, more reliable internet service—a service the Dröher Kline household was not eligible for because of the telephone area in which it is located.

After attending a regional summit on broadband, Dröher Kline met with her county commissioner, John King, and County Administrator Darrell Pettis about the opportunity to work with the Blandin Foundation, a rural foundation that supports local broadband planning.

Dröher Kline wrote the first county grant in May 2018, which was denied.

“We didn’t have the necessary infrastructure in place, but instead of dropping us, Blandin had us meet with Bill Coleman, one of the foundation’s community consultants, who was able to help us get organized—get the maps and plans we needed,” Dröher Kline explained. “We created a steering committee, called and met with internet service providers in the area, as well as township officials, and county officials to discuss the issue.”

Dröher Kline didn’t win the election that fall but remained committed to the cause.

In the fall of 2018, members of the steering committee traveled to the Blandin conference and learned about feasibility studies.

In December 2018, the county board approved another grant application for $25,000 of matching funds for a study. It was approved by Blandin.

Then, in 2019, the county partnered with the Blandin Foundation to conduct a feasibility study that included the mapping of the county’s internet services to determine the most efficient way to bring broadband service to all areas of the county.

While the study was successful, the work required to bring broadband to the entire county proved daunting. “It was way too much for one project, so we started looking at it in chunks,” Dröher Kline explained.

Meanwhile, members of the committee asked local service providers how to improve services in Le Sueur County.

After many discussions, MetroNet (formerly Jaguar Communications) and Bevcomm representatives agreed to apply for state funding to bring high-speed fiber lines to large swatches of northeastern Le Sueur County.

The application for Lanesburgh and Derrynane Townships, by Bevcomm was successful. The effort, which was backed by the townships, won Border to Border grant money from the state with township and county matching funds. Today, approximately 500 households in the county’s northeast corner have fiber internet connections to their doors.

In early 2020, Le Sueur County was…

To see  more on this story pick up the November 11, 2021 print editions of The New Prague Times, Montgomery Messenger or LifeEnterprise papers.

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