May 17—SPICER — Elected officials from Kandiyohi County and representatives from Charter Communications symbolically broke ground Monday on an $800,000 project that Charter said will bring broadband internet service to more than 350 rural, unserved homes and small businesses.
The event in New London Township was also a celebration of the partnerships between local elected officials and Charter Communications that made the project possible.
"As a company, we are very excited to (celebrate this partnership), and we really appreciate the partnership with Kandiyohi County," said Amanda Duerr, director of government affairs for Charter Communications.
The agreement between Kandiyohi County and Charter Communications includes nearly $240,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding that was secured by the county, along with more than $563,000 in private investment from Charter.
Charter operates in 42 states across the U.S., and has started focusing on rural broadband in the last couple of years, according to Patrick Haggerty, regional senior director of government affairs for Charter Communications.
He thanked elected officials of Kandiyohi County for making the project possible, adding, "I was sharing with one of the residents here that without the assistance and partnership of the county in regards to this project, this whole thing wouldn't happen with Charter."
According to Charter, construction began April 1 and is expected to be complete in the summer of 2022.
"We learned a lot from working with the county on this so that Charter can continue to work towards investments of this kind in Greater Minnesota where otherwise we just wouldn't be able to do a project like this," Haggerty added, noting he has gone from spending most of his time at the Capitol in St. Paul lobbying for expanding broadband to spending most of his time working with local communities to try to expand broadband.
"Charter really wants to be part of the solution to close the digital divide. We're making great investments here in Minnesota, where we serve approximately 170 communities and employ about 1,200 people," he said. "We're not the largest provider, but significant, and Minnesota is really important to us."
The digital divide is not only about access and construction of the broadband network, but also affordability and helping people understand how it can improve lives, Haggerty added, noting a government program, Emergency Broadband Benefit, that allows low-income people to have access to broadband for free.
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Roger Imdieke noted that the shortcomings of rural internet access were made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone had to work from home, go to school from home, and visit their doctors from home. Greater broadband access will allow young professionals to relocate to rural areas where they want to live and work, he added.
Imdieke told the story of Broadband Day at the Minnesota Capitol in 2020, which ended up being the same day Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared the COVID-19 emergency, and the thought that "maybe the silver lining of this thing will be more awareness of the shortcomings of broadband in our country, because that's the day we found out the kids would be doing distance learning," he said. "The thing that really has come to pass is the awareness has been good for all of us."
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Rollie Nissen also spoke, sharing similar thoughts as Imdieke, but also commenting specifically on the current avian influenza outbreak.
"I think when we had a meeting with Governor Walz and Senator (Tina) Smith and Senator (Amy) Klobuchar for the avian influenza that's attacking our turkey population, we found out then how important broadband is for for the turkey industry and especially during this epidemic, where it would be so much easier if they had good internet access to do some telehealth and other examinations for the turkeys so they could get the care, or maybe at least the veterinarians could look at the flock and look at symptoms without actually going from barn to barn to barn and spreading it," he said.
"Agriculture, as we know, is also dependent on good internet more and more everyday with GPS farming and all the other things we have," he added. "I'm just happy that we are moving forward."
Mike Jorgensen, area vice president of field operations for Charter, explained the significance of this project. "This really signifies new construction of a broad horizon and actually expanding our rural footprint," he said. "Last year in 2021, if I am correct, we extended our coverage to an additional 10,000 customers and businesses, and for 2022 we're on track for exceeding that."
What once seemed impossible was shown to be a critical need during the pandemic, which allowed for rural broadband projects to gain momentum and funding, he added.