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Fourth grader Lily Dotson works on an iPad during class at Midway Public School. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)

Rural broadband leads way to a ‘connected society’ in places like Inkster, ND

INKSTER, N.D. – Midway Public School, in many respects, is just the kind of rural school most North Dakotans would expect.

Nestled among the farm fields of northern Grand Forks County, it serves a tiny student body relative to schools in cities like Fargo or Grand Forks, averaging a comparative handful of pupils per grade. High school students play 6-man football in a co-op team with Minto; the superintendent splits his time with Larimore.

But the school’s small size and rural setting haven’t put it behind the technological learning curve. Teachers there describe online math resources and coding coursework, and young students thumb through tablets during class or tap away at a laptop. School officials recall Midway’s slow march into the internet age: first with dial-up internet, then with copper wire, and then, about five years ago, with fiber optic cable.

Nowadays – in North Dakota and beyond – the internet is as common in everyday education as the chalkboard.

“It’s our job to teach them to use (the internet) responsibly,” Midway Superintendent Roger Abbe said, “whether they have access at home or not.”

Midway’s classrooms are an example of the benefits local communities reap from a high-speed internet connection. But it’s far from the only way that the internet – often considered as important as roads or electricity – have become to modern communities. There are implications for healthcare, which increasingly relies on telemedicine, and for business development concerns. There are smart farming applications and unmanned aircraft implications. The list goes on.

A recent report in The New Yorker profiles a Kentucky community that saw a surge in internet-dependent, work-from-home jobs after developing a hyper-fast internet grid – at Apple, U-Haul, Cabela’s and the like. That’s exactly the kind of future Abbe can see for rural parts of North Dakota.

“That’s something schools like us have to be ready for, too, and hopefully be benefiting from,” Abbe said. “The more internet … can be accessed throughout the state, the better it will be for rural schools, because it may draw in more people to our rural schools.”

The school is already getting ready. Jason Keating, a high school principal at Midway, said students there are learning about psychology, agriculture astronomy and the like through the North Dakota Center for Distance Education, and Keating himself teaches a math course that’s broadcast to students in Hillsboro. That all depends on strong broadband in the state – the kind developed by federal programs, telecommunications companies and a state with its eye on the future.

North Dakota officials argue that the state has done well in the internet age. Duane Schell, the state’s chief technology officer, cited an internet database that he said shows 100% of North Dakota residents have “access to mobile broadband,” which means they can tap into the internet wirelessly. And 90%, he said, have access to one-gigabit broadband, a particularly fast service . A May report from the state’s information technology department shows North Dakota was recently listed second in the country for “internet access” (as of this month, it was ranked 11th, with Minnesota ninth and South Dakota 43rd).

Schell said North Dakota’s high spot on the list has to do partly with local providers working hard to take advantage of federal programs to help expand North Dakota’s network. The state’s geography helps, too; North Dakota is a comparatively easy state to link up to the internet – flat or rolling fields in many areas.

“It’s a lot easier to plow fiber in North Dakota than it would be in a state like Montana or Wyoming,” Schell said.

There are questions about how precise those connectivity numbers – 100% wireless broadband access, 90% with access to particularly fast broadband – can really be. In some measurements around the country, telecommunications providers are shown providing internet access to an entire region or census block – despite only serving the barest number of customers within it.

“I think I’d be naive to say that it wasn’t over reported a little bit, just because of the mechanics of how it works,” Schell said. But he said that, “based on what I know, and based on the conversations I have with citizens,” the official numbers don’t appear to be far off the mark.

But for the remaining 10% of the population that struggles to connect with fixed high-speed internet, Schell sympathizes.

“Obviously that is not a good situation to be in,” he said. “We don’t have a massive population that are affected this way, but for those that don’t have it, it’s a massive – ‘inconvenience’ is probably too soft of a word, but it’s definitely an impact on their life. Our society today is definitely a connected society.”

Part of the problem, Schell said, is in rural areas around major North Dakota communities.

“There’s a common provider that exists in those regions, and that provider has not been as aggressive in those federal programs as the rural telcos have,” he said. “The rest of the story is … (in) some of our most rural and remote areas. As a provider, (telecommunications companies) are out there to make a living. In some of these rural and remote areas, the business case (to expand) has become exceedingly challenging.”

There’s a slew of hopeful solutions to the problem. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., introduced a bill with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to establish an “Office of Rural Broadband” in February (Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is a co-sponsor). In an interview earlier this month, Cramer ran through a lengthy list of benefits that come along with boosting rural broadband capabilities. Those benefits are most notable in “precision agriculture,” a term that broadly refers to farming techniques that use vast swaths of data or are boosted by drones or automation.

Cramer, along with other U.S. leaders, also is closely eyeing the development of 5G technology – essentially the latest network for faster internet – not just as a matter of local infrastructure, but of geopolitical importance.

“Building our infrastructure, whether it’s in developing countries in Africa, or in developing countries, in eastern Europe, South America, central America, I think it’s important that the United States has the technological advantage and the marketing advantage,” he said.