I am delighted to share a guest blogger post today from Janet Keough town board supervisor for North Star Township and Chair of the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative Steering Committee. Jan is part of a crew in Cloquet Valley that is working towards better broadband…
The Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative (CVII) is an effort by seven rural townships north of Duluth to bring broadband internet to our region. These townships (plus 2 unorganized townships) are located between two big fiber optic projects (Lake Connections and North East Service Coop) but so far are not being included in their development or in development by any of the private internet providers.
Internet to our citizens is, at this time, provided by dial-up, satellite, and a patchwork of low-speed DSL and wireless. This is a grass-roots effort by rural township government and interested citizens. With advice from many experts, including Bill Coleman and the Blandin Foundation, the CVII team developed educational materials and distributed them to citizens in the area.
The team developed a questionnaire to gauge the level of satisfaction with current internet access and interest in paying for improvements. The Blandin Foundation team (thanks Ann and Bill!) turned the questionnaire into an on-line survey. The CVII team used the on-line survey, plus door to door distribution, mailings, and newsletters for distribution. The results showed strong dissatisfaction with current internet access and also showed a very good market for improved broadband. We took this on the road to various providers, but generally got the message that our population density is too low.
The next step was to conduct a broadband feasibility study to understand the details of what it would take to expand broadband and what it would cost. Grants were obtained from AgStar Financial Services and from the Blandin Foundation, and St Louis County and Lake County facilitated the matching funds. At the same time, the ad hoc team developed a joint powers agreement among the townships to create a single organization to promote and leverage broadband internet. We all realize that individual rural townships simply don’t have enough people to attract the infrastructure for broadband, and we have to work together.
We are embarking on two feasibility studies. The first study will provide an objective analysis of the capacity, capability, monthly cost and pros and cons of all the potential broadband provider types. The second study will provide an engineering analysis for fiber to the premise and fiber to the node with DSL to the premise. These two options are likely the most expensive to deploy, yet would yield the greatest capacity and capability for broadband levels at or above the Minnesota state standard. Both studies will give us valuable information for our town supervisors and for our citizens to understand the costs and benefits of various types of broadband internet. And we can use the results to further convince providers that it is feasible and profitable to build in our region.
A real challenge for rural townships such as ours is the limited capacity and capability of rural townships to initiate broadband projects on our own. Our townships do not have an “anchor” city, county, hospital or school within our borders. We are a tiny part of St Louis County, that already has areas of broadband deployment – our situation is, rightly, not viewed as county-wide, although our county has a lot of rural under-served areas and other townships in a similar situation.
Our government offices have very limited administrative capability; town supervisors, clerks and treasurers all work on part-time schedules – most less than 10 hours per month. There are no full-time administrative staff. Rural townships are typically in the business of fighting fires (by volunteers), grading and plowing roads, and some have cemeteries. We have no larger organizations with deep capabilities and deep pockets to seek the large sums required to deploy broadband infrastructure. However, within our townships, our citizens are small business owners, doctors, lawyers, professors, public and home school children, fire departments, and seniors, all needing high speed internet capability and capacity, the requirements of which are growing daily.
When we look across the broadband development landscape, we see mostly cities, counties, telephone companies, and electric coops in public-private partnerships to develop broadband infrastructure. We are likely not unique in Minnesota, since the state has many rural areas that are under served for broadband. One good thing that rural townships have is neighbor-to-neighbor relationships and trust among our citizens. These relationships will be valuable for communication, education and promotion, if and when we can find partners to work with us to leverage broadband. We have received a great deal of encouragement in our strategy, and we are hopeful that we can demonstrate a good market and an unfilled niche for broadband from one or more providers.