“Government is designed to step in and provide a service where the private sector can’t, or for some reason chooses not to.”

As broadband Internet accessibility has become more and more of a necessity in modern business and life, efforts are being made to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place throughout the country for high-speed Internet to be available even in the most remote and rural regions. But because of the high cost for little payback of stretching fiber optic cables to the small townships that cover Itasca County, telecommunication businesses have not made the investment to connect all Itascans.

It’s for that reason that the county itself has stepped in to create the Connect Itasca initiative. Itasca County Administrator Trish Klein, quoted above, feels that it is in the county’s best interest to make sure that area residents have access to high-speed Internet for a number of reason; in no small part because it “relates to our economic vitality.”

“Businesses simply can’t exist in an environment where they don’t have high-speed Internet,” said Klein. “If you’re within the city limits of Grand Rapids, you are covered. But if you’re outside of those areas, it’s a little more problematic.”

And it’s not just brick and mortar businesses that require this connectivity. Aaron and Christina Brown of East Balsam Township are Internet professionals; their jobs are conducted online. Because of this, Aaron has made the expansion of broadband Internet to rural Itasca County one of his pet projects, speaking out on the subject whenever possible, including taking on the topic on his popular blog, Minnesota Brown.

“[Christina and I] do a lot of home media production and web usage, and we need high-speed Internet to do a lot of what we need to do,” said Brown. “We have access to satellite Internet where we live, and we pay as much as we can pay to get the fastest and biggest package available, but it’s still capped every month.”

He added that they live where they do because they want to be close to family and to raise their kids in a comfortable environment, so they’re doing their best to make due with their jobs where they live. Even so, they still need to spend a certain amount of time at the Grand Rapids Area Library each week just to finish work.

The Connect Itasca mission is “to provide broadband Internet access to all Itasca County residents and businesses at speeds meeting or exceeding Minnesota’s state broadband goals of 10-20 Mbps download and 5-10 Mbps.” The first step in this process is to gather information from residents about their particular wants and needs for this project. The county has been joined by the Itasca Economic Development Corporation, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and the Blandin Foundation in order to help make this project possible, but time is of the essence.

Because of federal grants that are available for broadband projects, funding is not an issue for making this happen. But the grants won’t be around in a few more years, so Klein said they hope to connect Itasca’s rural residents as soon as possible. When asked what the biggest problem is currently for Connect Itasca, it turned out to be slightly ironic.

“The greatest hurdle is connecting with the people who are unconnected,” said Klein. “So the typical message that we at the county use to communicate with our residents are email or through public access television. But what we discovered is that people who don’t have Internet also don’t have email and they’re not watching our board meetings on ICTV.”

Connect Itasca has a survey that they’re asking residents to complete on their Internet use and needs. The survey is available online at connectitascans.servicezones.net, but it may also be mailed to your home by calling the county administrator’s office at (218) 327-2847.

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