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Getting on the online railroad: Northwest Minnesota officials try to help rural businesses use broadband better

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Business has been doubling every year at Weave Got Maille, a maker of chainmail jewelry in Ada, Minn., and owner Edie Ramstad gives all the credit to broadband access to the Internet.

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“The Internet is definitely 100 percent responsible for this,” she said without a trace of exaggeration. Even her inventory control system is online, she said.

Ramstad started the company two years ago in the town of 1,700, located in a mostly rural area between Grand Forks and Fargo. From there she’s doing business in 56 countries. Recently, she said, she had spoken to customers in France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and that was not unusual.

But getting to this point has taken an enormous investment in time, according to Ramstad. She had to teach herself how to develop the inventory control system, a system to streamline manufacturing and various social media campaigns — “I don’t sleep much,” she said. What Weave Got Maille does is so different from other businesses, she said, she didn’t know where to turn.

WeaveGotMaille.com and that of others who have successfully harnessed the power of broadband Internet were featured recently in a report by Impact 20/20, a group of northwest Minnesota economic development experts. The goal was to inspire businesses that have not gotten online to do so soon.

The other goal is to provide the kind of training that Ramstad never had.

Global connection

“A Study of Business Broadband Use in Northwest Minnesota” argues that broadband is as important to rural communities today as the railroad was to them a century ago because it connects them to the rest of the world.

But rural businesses tend to be less connected online compared to their urban counterparts, the study said, citing data from Connect Minnesota, a nonprofit group with ties to state economic development officials. Among rural businesses in the state, 58 percent have their own websites and 69 percent say they have employees who use broadband. Among urban businesses, those numbers are 79 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Access to broadband remains a challenge in some parts of northwest Minnesota. While some area counties have some of the state’s highest access rates — Beltrami County is at 98 percent, Clearwater County is at 99 percent, along with Red Lake County (100 percent), Polk County (85 percent) and Pennington County (91 percent) — others have some of the lowest — Norman County, where Ada is the county seat, has 20 percent and Mahnomen County has less than 15 percent, according to the 2014 annual report from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. The state average is 75 percent.

The state defines broadband Internet as download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 6 mbps.

Beltrami County has been on the forefront of high-speed Internet access for years. In 1998, it became of the first counties in Minnesota, and in the country, to receive high-speed Internet service as Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative began to upgrade its existing telephone network and started construction on a new communications network around the city of Bemidji, according to Brian Bissonette of Paul Bunyan Communications.

By 2003, the cooperative’s 3,500 square-mile service area had high-speed access, including nearly all of Beltrami County, along with portions of Hubbard, Koochiching and Itasca counties. And with the advent of fiber-optic technology, the cooperative’s service area has since grown to 4,500 square miles.

Echoing what’s happening in Beltrami County, Michelle Landsverk, a Fosston business consultant who wrote the Impact 20/20 report, said lack of access to broadband is becoming less of a problem in rural areas, especially inside towns where most businesses are.

The issue now is getting more people to use the broadband that’s available, she said. “There are some people that never will adopt some of these methods but I think there are a significant number that just needs to see how they could do it, to see there is a good return on investment,” she said.

Luring customers

The 12 businesses profiled in the report reported that they have gained from their investment, saying they found more customers online and increased their profits. Three Bemidji business were profiled in the report — Stittsworth Meats, Italian-themed restaurant Tutto Bene and rice/grain producer InHarvest (formerly Indian Harvest).

Tom’s Tackle in Baudette made back the money invested in its online business in about a year, according to David Wiersma, who runs the family-owned business making fishing lures.

His father Dean Wiersma started the business in 1959, but it wasn’t until last month that it got its first overseas order, he said. It was such a surprise, he couldn’t decide at first if it made sense for his company to expand its market to Europe. He ultimately decided it did, he said.

It’s a good problem to have. Before Tom’s Tackle got online three years ago, domestic retail orders were rare, mostly by word of mouth. The company primarily sells wholesale to retailers. Now, customers send in orders from Alaska to Florida, according to Wiersma.

He said the company is connecting with customers better than ever on Facebook, YouTube and its website, TomsTackleInc.com. Customers would ask questions, learn about new products and make special requests — a customer recently asked for a fishing lure in a non-standard weight, and Tom’s Tackle made it for him.

But getting online wasn’t simple for him either, he said, though he wanted to get his business online. “We knew it for a number of years, we just didn’t really know where to go or who to contact.”

There wasn’t a professional Web designer in a place as remote and rural as Baudette, 100 miles by road from the nearest city of 10,000, and he didn’t know where to start looking for one in any other city, he said. Ultimately, he got help from Tessier, who started his online business in 2011.

A 2013 survey of Minnesota businesses conducted by Connect Minnesota found that 38 percent have trouble finding workers with computer skills.

That was Ramstad’s problem, too.

“Unfortunately, I had to teach myself,” she said. “I have made every mistake along the way, some of them twice.”

Sometimes she used Google to find a solution to a problem and, if she knows where to ask, she’ll ask. She has taken online classes that she found out about at an Apple Store, she said, and, recently, she called on the University of Minnesota-Crookston’s Center for Rural Entrepreneurial Studies for help.

“It’s really networking, trying to find people,” she said.

According to the Impact 20/20 report, time and money were the biggest investments the profiled businesses had to make to take advantage of broadband Internet. For those building websites and online manufacturing like Weave Got Maille, it can be costly. Some profiled businesses spent as much as $30,000. But for those using social media, the cost was minimal.

If she had to convince a reluctant business owner, Ramstad said, she would tell them: “Just believe in it and do it. It will happen. ... The people are out there and they’re looking.”

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