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Narrowing the Digital Distance in Northwest Minnesota

October 9, 2012

A 2011 survey of manufacturing companies in Northwest Minnesota turned up a startling finding: 25 percent of available jobs were left unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers, particularly in the fields of science, engineering and production.

Knowing that knowledge workers are essential to the regional economy, a group of government and business leaders developed a coordinated action plan to foster economic prosperity. The group, Impact 20/20, identified three pillars of its mission: improvements in education, workforce training, and broadband access.

It’s the third area that caught the attention of Richard Sjoberg. The longtime Minnesota cable industry executive believes broadband is an essential component of economic advancement. And now, he’s putting his network where his beliefs are.

Sjoberg’s company, Sjoberg’s Cable, is the primary Internet provider in a program designed to help disadvantaged families catch up in the era of broadband. Working with the non-profit Blandin Foundation and other partner companies, Sjoberg Cable is helping to subsidize the cost of computers and broadband access for low-income families in several northwest Minnesota communities. The program, Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC), offers qualifying applicants refurbished computers for a nominal cost, along with digital literacy training and discounted monthly broadband service. Area residents started signing up in November 2011.

The program is designed to address a reality of the “digitally distant” rural environment. Although overall computer ownership and broadband connectivity are relatively high in the MIRC territories (74.3 percent and 64%, respectively), the presence of computers falls to 42 percent in area homes with annual incomes of less than $25,000. Internet access among those homes is even lower, at 34.6 percent. (Minnesota Rural Intelligent Communities Baseline Report, 2010).

Sjoberg, who served on the originating committee that designed the program, believes broadband is instrumental in the rural U.S. economy of the future. “This is a way to give back to the community and help people who want a chance to improve their lives,” he says. “It’s a way to help some kid get a better chance at life and be more productive and employable. It’s a way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Others agree. The Blandin Foundation believes that “encouraging the use of broadband is a critical component for increasing the technological vitality of Minnesota’s rural communities.”

Helping close the “digitally distant” gap isn’t just about giving back to the community, though. It’s also good business. Sjoberg says he’s convinced that as more people experience broadband, natural market demand will rise – a sort of virtuous cycle that creates sustained opportunity for all. To that end, his company began extending availability of its high-speed Internet service to several hundred homes in 2012 with funding support from the U.S. Broadband Investment Program.

“In all humbleness, I think programs like this and Connect2Compete will be looked upon as breakthroughs in educational and societal transformation,” says Sjoberg. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”