Austin teams up with Blandin to improve the Internet connectivity in the Austin area
An effort to bring stronger high-speed internet service to Austin and the surrounding area is gaining momentum following a meeting Thursday, led by the Blandin Foundation.
Featuring leaders and citizens from across the region, the effort is aimed at the end result of improving Internet infrastructure using grants from the new Blandin Broadband Community Vision program. Austin is one of six participating Minnesota communities.
Grant funding reaches a maximum of $ 100,000, and while it is not enough to answer all of the questions, it suffices to initiate a process that, once in motion, can nurture and help develop the community and answer a common question.
“Expanding access to technology, whether it’s internet connectivity, devices, digital literacy,” said Jayne Gibson, executive director of Austin Aspires, to the more than 40 people attending Zoom Thursday. “This is not a new conversation in our community. “
The meeting took attendees through the key areas important to achieving this goal, and city leaders spoke directly about some of the smaller goals as well as many challenges.
The time was followed by breakout sessions where people considered current resources, challenges and opportunities.
Increasing broadband access to the region has been a goal for a number of years, dating back to the 10-year period of Vision 2020. But it has also been at the heart of funding challenges.
It has improved, but much of the Austin and Mower County area still struggles to get reliable coverage once outside of Austin.
“There has been progress in our broadband in the county,” said Austin Public Library Director Julie Clinefelter. “This is the minimum level of broadband, but we are moving in the right direction. “
The library was one of the first beneficiaries of Vision 2020’s own broadband efforts, with grants earmarked for the purchase of wireless access points in 2015.
The library has since worked with the Austin Public School District to expand this through more grants, but there is a sense of temporary feeling to this route as well.
“It’s all based on grants,” Clinefelter said. “This money can disappear.”
Improving broadband is also critical to the growth of the Austin workforce. Workforce Development Career Planner and Employment Awareness Specialist Mike Postma said Hormel Food Corps., Mayo Clinic Health Systems-Austin and the new Nu-Tek facility under construction. construction were leaders in this field.
But he also pointed out that the workforce needs to be strengthened and that without improved infrastructure, Austin could run out of skilled workers to fill positions at these companies. As Austin’s workforce improves, it still lags behind.
“It’s not unique to our county, but all of Minnesota,” Postma said. “We have a labor shortage. The only answer to that is to add more people to our counties and cities. “
However, using the most recent data from 2019, Postma pointed to a disturbing trend in Austin. The number of people who actually have access to the Internet and the racial disparity that accompanies this trend.
These figures include:
• 90% of people have computers at home, but 10% do not have broadband;
• Of the more than 1,000 African Americans in Austin, 87% have computers, but 24% do not have broadband; and
• Of the more than 800 multiracial families in Austin, 99% have a computer, but 37% do not have broadband.
Without a connection, it’s even harder for people to apply for jobs, let alone bolster Austin’s workforce.
“An email address is the first point of contact,” Postma said.
This lack of broadband is compounded when you consider that another major barrier for some is language, which can directly interfere with those who immigrate to the area.
“We have a lot of families who don’t have email,” said Kristi Beckman, Education Equity Integration Collaboration coordinator. “If they have an email, they can’t read it in their language. This can be a barrier to calling a business to even set up the Internet.
But there are some positive developments that may support what Austin and Blandin are trying to do. With the passage of President Joe Biden’s $ 1,000 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, Minnesota is set to receive $ 100 million for access and an additional $ 100 million for digital literacy, Bernadine Joseplyn says by Blandin.
This puts Austin and the other five communities in a good position to advance broadband initiatives.
“I encourage you to think both big and small,” said Bill Coleman, broadband community coach for Blandin.
Another meeting will take place on December 1, which will focus on brainstorming. The hope is that some of these plans can be implemented in early January.