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“A very rude culture shock”

How one homebuyer found herself working remotely, without internet.

An aerial photo of Barbara Drӧher Kline’s home in Le Sueur county, Minnesota, where her fight for high-speed internet began.

Barbara Drӧher Kline thought she knew what she was getting into when she moved halfway across the country and bought a 1890s farmhouse in rural Le Sueur county, Minnesota. Contractors advised her to tear the house down, but she loved a fixer-upper, especially after she had refined her remodeling skills on her previous home in California, a redwood log cabin near San Francisco.

Drӧher Kline wasn’t scared by a rural lifestyle either. Both she and her husband, John Kline, had roots in the state, and he had grown up nearby.

The plot twist was something even HGTV had not prepared her for: slow internet.

The internet service provider for her new home, Frontier Communications, offered outdated technology with frequent outages and notoriously poor customer service.

Over the next two years, from 2016 to 2018, she would jump between various internet companies, trying to secure the high-speed connections she needed to work remotely. The experience even inspired her to run for state office.

It’s a scenario that is playing out across rural Minnesota and the country as realtors and rural home buyers alike learn to navigate the limitations of the internet in an ever-remote world.

Drӧher Kline’s home office in Le Sueur county, Minnesota.

Leaving the internet question blank

The couple purchased the home after it had been foreclosed, and they knew it had issues: a broken well, water damage, aging heating and cooling systems. Still, Drӧher Kilne said, the lack of high-quality internet came as a shock.

“We just assumed there would be something…we lived in a canyon in northern California, and we had a bunch of different options there,” she said.

Realtors are legally required to disclose lots of information to prospective buyers, like whether the house runs on a septic tank or certain potential hazards like flooding or earthquakes. Internet, however, is less regulated than other fields.

The standard system for communicating information about a home occurs through a platform known as the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), but county associations and states have different rules about what a realtor must disclose.

A sample of real estate associations in California, Minnesota, Virginia, and Pennsylvania finds that real estate agents only officially need to disclose whether an internet connection exists — not whether the connection is any good.

The National Association of Realtors, which provides recommendations for MLS systems, did not respond for comment.

Benjamin Reeves is a Keller Williams realtor who works in both rural Virginia and Pennsylvania and has served as an advocate for rural internet. As a member of the leadership team of the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors, he pushed to expand the way the MLS classifies the internet, so that realtors could disclose whether the connection was” fiber, satellite, DSL, or other,” but he explained that realtors often leave the field blank anyway.

Rural MLS systems, he added, are “a little less aggressive with what is required” because there are fewer real estate transactions and therefore they receive less scrutiny.

Drӧher Kline stands beside the 1890s farmhouse and she and her husband remodeled. The home was replete with problems when they bought it, but the poor internet access came as a shock.

Reeves said the fields regarding the internet should be mandatory for realtors and emphasized the importance of education: “You as a realtor should have a basic understanding... you should know what DSL, dial up, fiber are.”

If not, he said, homebuyers like Drӧher Kline can face “a very rude culture shock” upon realizing that their home has a slow or nonexistent internet connection.

Among surveyed realty associations in Minnesota and California, realtors agree that the MLS should provide more ways to disclose information about a home’s internet connection but are hesitant to call for another mandatory field.

Across the board, realtors emphasize the shared duty of homebuyers and realtors to avoid assumptions and ask informed questions throughout the process.

“The deeper knowledge of what’s going on and why I don’t have signal here, people don’t dig into that knowledge,” said Gwen DiMarzio, president of the Central Valley Association of Realtors in California.

“We’re so used to instantaneous gratification—I want to get on the internet right now—that we don’t think of that infrastructure. We assume it’s all been put in place.”

A “pissed off” neighbor wants the extra mile

When Drӧher Kline started facing challenges with Frontier, she decided to switch to a wireless internet service provider, which offers a connection through cellular towers much like the data on a cellular plan. It proved to be a temporary solution because the service faltered when the weather was bad and at night, when demand was higher.

In 2018, she learned that a telecommunications company, Bevcomm, had received state funding to lay fiber-optic internet cables in Le Sueur county, but the project missed her home by a half-mile.

“That really pissed me off. That’s how I really got into the broadband planning stuff,” she said.

Bevcomm lays fiber internet across rural Minnesota, including in Le Sueur county.

She struck a deal with Bevcomm: she would pay $2,700 of the cost to extend service to her home and the company picked up the rest, an estimated $3,000 - 4,000.

“We were that close, so we could afford to do it, and now it would be double that. Most people can’t afford to do that,” she said.

When she ran for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2018, poor internet was one of the bread-and-butter issues that motivated her, and something her neighbors echoed.

While she lost the election, a tide started to turn, at least in her county. Individual requests like that of Drӧher Kline became fodder for a larger public-private partnership between Bevcomm, Le Sueur county, and the state. As part of that deal, and many other similar projects, Bevcomm contributes roughly 25 percent, the state gives 50 percent of the funding, and the county covers the rest, said Bill Eckles, the CEO of Bevcomm.

A warehouse in Le Sueur county where Bevcomm stores fiber.

Still, Eckles said the margins for the company are in “the low single digits.”

“It’s not great, but it’s positive so at least we can do it.”

The wires are just a start, though. Unlike Norton, many residents, especially older ones, need support learning how to use or trust technology.

With the advent of a state broadband grant program and the recent influx of COVID-19 relief dollars, Eckles said Bevcomm has seen fewer calls from neighbors like Drӧher Kline, and more counties that come forward with proposals of their own.

But Drӧher Kline is still worried about the math. Now she sits on the Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, where she’s working to change the funding formula to lower the burden on taxpayers and encourage more companies like Bevcomm to serve rural counties like hers.

Drӧher Kline at home

Photographs by Mike Madison

This project is supported by Humanity in Action and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. It was written by Adam Echelman.