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Fond du Lac takes steps to close the digital divide

CLOQUET, Minn. – Step into any gathering place on the Fond du Lac reservation – the Sawyer Community Center, the powwow grounds, the Mashkawisen clinic, the Tribal Center – and you will be able to access high-speed wireless absolutely free.

The name of the free wireless is Maada Ookii, which means “to share something.”

Two years after becoming a Blandin Broadband Community, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has completed four broadband initiatives and vastly increased Internet connectivity on the reservation:

E The band created 13 hotspots with free Wi-Fi access across the reservation – covering about 10 square miles – that also extend to about 40 nearby homes. Download speeds exceed the state’s broadband goals.

E In a program coordinated through the Cloquet Public Library and PCs for People, the band distributed 49 refurbished computers to income-qualified families, who also completed training for the computers.

E Band members and other community members can take free Internet and computer training classes or work one-on-one with a computer training specialist. Classes range from Internet safety to basic computer skills or more advanced classes in Excel and Word, as well as buying and selling online and blogging.

E Ten young people on the reservation spent two weeks at App Camp, creating their own apps, which all were related to the Ojibwe culture.

“We understand communities need to be connected to thrive in the new knowledge economy,” the Blandin Foundation’s Bernadine Joselyn said, explaining that the foundation’s mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities.

Fred Underwood, IT director for the band, explained how things have changed in the 16 years since he started working for the reservation.

When he began, there was no Internet. Then the band installed a business network for all band-owned businesses, the school and the Tribal Center, but there was still nothing for regular community members.

“Internet connectivity in rural Minnesota is just abysmal. Depending where you live on the reservation, you may have Internet access. On the edge of Cloquet, there is cable, then some DSL access. But a lot of places have no affordable options,” Underwood said, noting that satellite Internet costs upwards of $200 a month.

“With this project, we put in Wi-Fi access on the top of buildings, and they’re reaching speeds of 30 megabytes (per second) for downloads and 10 megabytes for uploads,” he added. “They’re more like ‘super hotspots.’ And they’re completely free and accessible (for) anyone to use however they want to use it. Because no one tells you how to use your electricity, do they?

“In my personal view, we live in an era where the Internet is a utility; it’s not a luxury.”

The people at the Blandin Foundation agree. Fond du Lac was one of nine communities chosen for the nonprofit’s most recent round of broadband grants, and the band received a $75,000 grant to help implement the goals that a local committee selected.

Consultant Bill Coleman worked with five of the communities selected by Blandin. He said Fond du Lac chose a good combination approach of improving access to the Internet and training activities.

“I think the emphasis on youth and skills is really good, very future-oriented,” he said, referring to the App Camp. “Plus, when kids learn something, they bring it home and share those skills with other family members. They realize what’s possible and parents see how important it is.”

Fond du Lac planning director Jason Hollinday agreed.

“I think (the broadband projects) will make a big difference,” he said. “They’ve already raised awareness of what the Internet is and what it can be used for. It opens up opportunities for education, entertainment, work and more.”