I’m happy to share the following press release from the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative. I’ve been lucky enough to work with these folks a little bit. It’s been fun to watch how far organized passion can get a community in terms of finding a way to improve broadband access. Their journey may provide a roadmap for other communities that are not getting the broadband they need…
Cloquet Valley Townships Seek Improved Internet Access for Residents
In an era where being “wired” is a critical part of health care, education, employment, entertainment and information sources, those in areas with no or limited Internet access can be left behind. Seven rural townships north of Duluth are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. Through an alliance, called the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative (CVII), these townships are trying to find a way to bring high speed broadband Internet service to their residents.
The St. Louis County, Minn. townships of Alden, Ault, Fairbanks, Gnesen, Normanna, North Star and Pequaywan have formed a joint powers board to coordinate their efforts. Two “unorganized townships” are also included in this initiative. According to Janet Keough, chair of CVII and also a township supervisor for North Star, “having rural townships take on such an initiative is unique, since these efforts usually take place at the city or county levels. Rural townships such as ours lack population density and the anchor institutions such as hospitals, schools or major commercial operations that tend to attract high speed Internet providers.”
One of the initial activities of the CVII was to conduct a survey of area residents concerning their current Internet service and their desire for improved access. Overwhelmingly, the results pointed to dissatisfaction with the current level of service, as well as high interest in subscribing to better services. According to Scott Mead, Supervisor for Pequaywan Township, “school children in our township need broadband Internet to do their homework and in some cases, receive virtual classroom training; our kids are at a real disadvantage”. Kimberly Grubb, Supervisor for Normanna Township noted “Working families in Normanna Township need broadband to help balance work and home life. High speed Internet could be used to manage finances, apply for jobs, order supplies, pay taxes, and work from home when children are sick or school is closed.” A goal of the initiative is to achieve border‐to‐border broadband access at speeds recommended by Governor Dayton’s Broadband Task Force.
In order to be “shovel‐ready” for broadband improvements, the Initiative is conducting two broadband feasibility studies. The CVII Team has contracted with U‐Reka Broadband Solutions in Stillwater to conduct an objective analysis of all potential Internet providers, including wireless and wired sources. “CVII is leading the way for other rural communities to follow by taking the matter of poor broadband connectivity into their own hands. They are not relying on the provider community to bring them a solution but instead building a case to entice providers to bring higher‐speed internet service to their community. We are very pleased to be working with the CVII team and assisting them in improving the high‐speed internet situation in the area.” according to John Schultz, President, U-reka Broadband Ventures.
A separate study to examine the engineering and business infrastructure and the cost of fiber optic based internet is being conducted by Compass Consultants of Perham, Minn. Gregory Rise, VP of Engineering for Compass stated that “Compass specializes in developing plans and designing deep fiber systems capable of triple play services – Telephone, CATV, and Broadband primarily in rural areas of the upper Midwest. These systems include both (FTTN) fiber to the node for DSL, as well as (FTTH) fiber all the way to each home and business. The Cloquet Valley area, much like most rural areas in the region, has been forgotten when it comes to broadband by most incumbent communication service providers, and there are even areas that we will be looking at that do not have basic wired telephone service or wireless service. For short‐term solutions, Compass will be looking at the existing copper plant to determine what speed broadband it will support with extension of fiber to the node. The broader long term scenario will be designing FTTH, but we know that will take outside financial support”.
Throughout this effort, the Blandin Foundation has provided advice and technical support through its Blandin Broadband Initiative. Since making rural broadband use and access a focus in 2003, the Blandin Foundation has partnered with leaders in more than 60 communities and 80 organizations across the state. At the core of every one of the hundreds of project emerging from this work have been two core objectives: sustainable broadband adoption and enriched quality of life and place. “Broadband is essential infrastructure today,” said Allison Ahcan, Director of Communications at Blandin Foundation. “The challenge of staying relevant in a highly connected world is especially true for rural communities focused on becoming and remaining strong and vibrant.”
Funding for the studies is being provided by a grant from the Blandin Foundation and a grant from AgStar Financial Services. “ AgStar is committed to enhancing life in rural America,” explained John Monson, Senior Vice President of investments in rural America for AgStar. “This is a unique endeavor and we commend these townships for their initiative. It’s essential that a solution is found to relieve the barriers residents in these townships face. High‐speed Internet access is truly a critical component to success in an ever‐changing economy.”
Matching funds were made available from a partnership between St. Louis County and Lake County. Each of the Townships has also committed funding and personnel toward this joint effort. Offered by St Louis County 5th District Commissioner Peg Sweeney: “Our goal throughout this process has been to make it possible for the people living in the townships in the Cloquet Valley to have access to acceptable Internet service, and so we’re happy to work with CVII to help make that happen.” And from Paul Bergman, Lake County Commissioner: “Lake County supports the undertaking of these townships. As the current providers of internet services try to make small, short term improvements to upgrade their service, CVII understands that this will not meet future needs and the best way to make a true redundant high speed network is through fiber optics. Keep up the great work as your township association is being watched all over the country for its uniqueness.”