August 14, 2020 at 11:52 a.m.
Walz was on hand with Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove and others to announce that North Branch was among 23 cities and counties to be recognized as a Telecommuter Forward! Community.
The group explained that the need for telecommuting was great prior to COVID-19 when this telecommute bill was passed, but it’s an even greater need now. Grove said nearly 705,000 employees were working from home prior to the pandemic, but numbers are now showing that over one million workers are doing some form of remote work, which represents over one-third of the state’s labor force.
In the proclamation, it’s stated that the communities, which also included Chisago County as a whole, will commit to coordinating and partnering with broadband providers, realtors, economic development professionals, employers, employees and other stakeholders to promote the availability of telecommuting options in their region.
City Administrator Renae Fry welcomed the officials saying, “We identified North Branch as a place to work, live and play and our staff has been committed to provide individuals with the tools to work from home.”
Walz followed up, “This comes from a combination of realtors, telecom and private sector businesses and schools. We don’t want a gap in connectivity for anyone,” he said. “ We want to thank the vision that went into this. The city of North Branch has made a case of high quality living and still being able to participate in the economy the way you choose to.”
Flanagan noted that telecommuting was already a wave that was coming, and that COVID-19 “...laid bare many of the inequities in telecommuting, including broadband and other resources.”
She went on to say the need for telecommuter communities is greater than ever and that even post-COVID-19, it will remain important.
“Even for more ordinary days, which allow us to take care of a sick child or go to a dentist appointment,” she continued. “Telecommuting also broadens opportunities and options across Minnesota. We are incredibly grateful to these 23 communities who are stepping up to support telecommuters. As we look forward, telecommuting is going to be a part of our equation.”
“We know that more Minnesotans than ever before are telecommuting for work,” said Grove. “As we help Minnesota’s economy recover from the pandemic, telecommuter-friendly policies add new opportunities for civic engagement and collaboration among Minnesota’s businesses, entrepreneurs and communities.”
Grove did also say that DEED wanted to make sure that broadband grant dollars were getting to Telecommuter Forward! communities in the future. Since 2014, DEED has awarded over $105 million in broadband infrastructure grants to fund 140 projects across Minnesota, with the goal being border-to-border broadband access.
North Branch Mayor Jim Swenson, who was passionate about the designation, said, “We as a community want broadband in every house. We have a plan for the community, and we are ready and willing to be the leaders in the state of Minnesota because we have a very strong plan. I couldnt be happier to have everyone here today.”
The telecommuter friendly designation puts the city name in front of legislators, which City Administrator Renae Fry says the hope is this coincides with funding for wireless Internet. Right now the state assists fiber or in the ground service improvements. The plan, referenced by Mayor Swenson, calls for wireless projects. Minnesota grants and aid currently are meant for certain types of systems, and North Branch is pursuing a fixed wireless system.
Fry said the city doesn’t need millions, the costs for 30 to 40 towers to form a grid, is the hold-up now. Due to fiber’s cost to service the more rural areas of North Branch, erecting towers for point-to-point internet systems is the most feasible option to improve on local broadband, Fry continued.
North Branch has been negotiating with about three Internet service providers and Fry also mentioned that MN Senator Mark Koran has been an “advocate” for the needs to correct poor service in the area. There is no specific legislative bill introduced yet for qualifying wireless in programs.
The telecommuter friendly community list is one step in that direction.