Response to coronavirus exposes lack of high-speed internet across Minnesota

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Louis Parenteau often jokes with his children, saying they are “living like hillbillies” in their northern Minnesota home.

The family lives 10 minutes from Mountain Iron, along a two-lane highway, but has no access to the internet.

“We basically have to use a hotspot from our [cellphone] service and it is limited,” Parenteau said.

With both of his sons home for an extended period due to the state-mandated closure of schools, the family faces tough decisions about who can use their limited data to get online.

“If my wife is trying to talk to her family in Germany and my son is trying to do his homework, we kind of have to make a choice,” Parenteau said.

School leaders across the Iron Range are now trying to figure out how their rural students can learn online when they can’t even get online.

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As the state of Minnesota takes drastic measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, those precautions are exposing the state’s limitations when it comes to high-speed internet access for all.

“We have many pockets here with no internet,” said Dr. Reggie Engebritson, superintendent of schools for both Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Louis County. “I think many people assume everybody has it and we don’t.”

It’s not just an issue on the Iron Range. A 2019 survey of Minnesota communities found nearly two-thirds of the state is underserved or unserved by broadband providers, according to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.

Hundreds of families on the Iron Range don’t have internet access at home, according to Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association for Municipalities and Schools. The organization advocates at the state legislature for broadband funding and expansion.

He said getting service to parts of northern Minnesota is difficult and expensive.

“Part of it is geography,” Giorgi said during an interview, pointing to the bedrock the mining industry relies on. “The cost is three to four times higher than in southern Minnesota.”

The state legislature has worked to fund broadband expansion, as part of the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. But those funds are capped at $5 million per project.

“There is no e-learning in rural Minnesota and without that funding, there’s not going to be for a long time,” Giorgi said.

The lack of access has led school leaders across the region to come up with drastic measures to make sure students are connected.

At Merritt Elementary, students cleared items from their lockers on Monday. Since technology, like iPads, is often useless in a home without internet access, students took home stacks of stapled worksheets instead.

“I’m having to package up pencils for kids to make sure they get home so they can do the paper and pencil test,” Dr. Engebritson said.

In Virginia, Minnesota, students without internet access will be allowed to park beside the high school to access the Wi-Fi network using their devices to do assignments from inside their cars.

“It’s like the McDonald’s drive-thru,” joked Dr. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of schools, explaining how the process would work.

But Dr. Schmidt also admitted this is not an ideal situation.

“This is not normal, what we’re doing. But it’s one of those things, you do what you got to do, so the kids and the parents can get Wi-Fi.”

School leaders believe it will take a significant investment from the legislature to help remedy the situation.

“We’re not talking about being in another country,” Dr. Engebritson said. “We’re all together here in Minnesota and it’s 2020.”

But the coronavirus outbreak is threatening to delay broadband development even more. Earlier in the legislative session, Governor Walz proposed an additional $30 million in grant money for expansion.

Last week, that funding was cut from his supplemental budget as part of the state preparations to fight the spread of the disease.