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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Stepping up the communication in 2020

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 7/29/20

With all the struggles Americans have to face these days, I feel privileged to live in the great north woods of Minnesota. Linden Grove has a whopping population of 130. The nearest city, Cook, which …

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Stepping up the communication in 2020

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With all the struggles Americans have to face these days, I feel privileged to live in the great north woods of Minnesota. Linden Grove has a whopping population of 130. The nearest city, Cook, which provides for most of our necessities, hovers around 563. The view out my window mostly consists of trees and regular visitations from does and their fawns, an occasional buck or black bear and many, many birds. As I’ve said before, it’s our little piece of paradise.
And then, as is true with all things, there is a downside of rural living. I notice it most when I try to engage in social activities with challenges heightened by the pandemic. No longer can we engage with friends face-to-face. We aren’t able to sit for hours over coffee “chewing the fat,” as Grandpa used to say. You know, sharing stories about our pets, our kids and their kids, the coolest booth at the Farmers Market, or the latest coming out of Washington. They always include recent COVID statistics. And after five long months, the bad news seems only to be getting worse. All those visits must now happen by phone.
Recently, a new subject has soared to the top of my conversation list — one that has tampered with my very ability to stay connected, even by phone, with friends and family. My little piece of heaven has been plagued by what many call a poor signal. It keeps cutting out or my texts fail to send. I’ve read that we in the Northland sorely lack reliable access to just about every form of communication technology that exists. Here’s a glimpse into my world.
My story begins with a twist. The way I describe it is that “I entered the 20th century just in time for the 21st.” I was one of those “back-to-the-landers” who, in the late ’70s followed John Prine’s advice and “moved to the country to build a little home.” Our little home was nestled at the end of a road and didn’t acquire electricity until 1997. But once having access, we quickly adjusted to the amenities — like running water, a toaster, the washing machine and eventually, the most difficult adjustment for me of all, satellite TV. In 2010, I decided to return to college to obtain a graduate degree. That’s when I first discovered the world wide web. I knew what it was but had no idea how far it could take me! (Now we had two satellite dishes on our roof!)
Backtracking a little, in 2004 I was hired for a job that required me to carry a cell phone. It was another moment of surrender as I’d never felt I needed one. But “what must be, must be” and I got a simple flip phone. It wasn’t long before I had to admit this little device was certainly a huge convenience. My end-of-workday routine suddenly included a quick call home just to “check in” with dad and the kids. Routinely there’d be a request. Of course, I could pick up some milk or toilet paper (or treats) on the way home.
So, back to the here and now… as some may recall, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the log house where we raised our children (the place without electricity) slowly saving the cabin from the clutches of entropy. I needed a phone in case of an emergency and my AT&T cell service was almost useless. I decided to invest in a landline. After seven months, it too had proven unreliable. After countless hours with customer service agents (nothing but pure rigamarole) and four fruitless visits from repair techs, the landline was more a headache than a help. I decided to just disconnect. So now what?
I shared my tale of woe with my adult sons. As they were listening patiently and also sharing their frustrations with trying to stay in touch with me, they were also assessing my needs, the costs, and alternate ways to get me some service. Out came the identical message. “Mom, if you would just get a smartphone you’d probably get more reliable phone service, plus internet, and pay a lot less money.” My question was, “How?” That opened the door to the next level.
One son loaned me his TracFone and set me up with a pre-paid phone card. It included a “hotspot” that enabled me to use my laptop “almost anywhere.” Good-bye, AT&T. Hello, Verizon. Voila! Now I could talk on my phone from inside my house. No more would I need to don my mukluks and parka to wander down the driveway at -40F seeking a signal to receive a call or send a text. Now I could respond to emails promptly, research an issue, read an article, or listen to my son’s latest recording project. I could even view photos of my grandson standing next to his father, now a whole head taller — a surprise after being separated for months due to the need for social distancing. Wow, has he grown. And so have I!
I must admit, the learning curve has been steep with many boulders to be moved, and a few landslides dodged. My sons are encouraging me and helping to back me out of those periodic “box canyons” I find myself in. I am progressing. According to John, my tech-stress level is noticeably less. “A big relief for me!” he said. No more Century Link or HughesNet, two companies so big that customer satisfaction is no longer guaranteed. And the kids were right. The costs are so much less now.
My new missive is “Old moms can learn new tricks.” The real test will come when I navigate Verizon’s “customer service” labyrinth. I’m not looking forward to that. But one thing I’m sure of, it’s time to approach telecommunications and high-speed internet needs in the same way we did in the mid-1950’s when rural communities in northern Minnesota didn’t have electricity. Our government made sure we got it. It’s time we fully support Border-to-Border Broadband. Now that’s something we should all look forward to!

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