Northwoods Update: Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative

We’ve been tracking the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative and their quest for improved broadband. Today I’m pleased to share an update from Jan Keough from CVII…

The Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative (CVII) is about a year and a half along.  Here’s an update on progress in our quest to bring broadband internet to the citizens of our nine township area. I wish I could report that fiber optic cable is being installed, but we’re not there yet! The feasibility study recently conducted for us by U-reka Broadband Ventures gave us new ideas and incentive to move forward.  Prior to that study, there were no improvements in sight! John Shultz and JoAnne Johnson (U-reka) provided an objective analysis and also some recommendations for next steps.

And just to let you know how bad it is “up here”…Judy and Lee operate a marketing business out of their home in Pequaywan Township.  It can take hours just to log into the internet and hours to send a moderate-size graphic on slow DSL.  A lot of people only have access to dial-up internet.  Medical professionals can’t work on their records at home because internet options don’t allow for encryption.  North Star Township spent several hundred dollars to rig up a tall antenna to be able to get internet to our fire hall through an ATT device!

Our goal is consistent with the State of Minnesota broadband goal of 10 Mbps (down) and 5 Mbps (up).  The good news is that U-reka study pointed us toward a short-term / long-term transition toward our goal, and many people in our townships are already seeing improved internet.  The two new satellite systems, Exede and Gen4, are far far superior to their predecessors, Wildblue and Hughesnet, and many folks have upgraded.  These two systems are delivering up to 12 Mbps down and 1-5 Mbps up, and the latency isn’t too bad.  I upgraded from Wildblue to Exede and I can now Skype and stream video and operate multiple internet devices at once.  If you don’t need encryption or VPN, we have found these two satellite systems to be pretty good.  Some, like my township, are starting to use ATT wireless from the local cellphone tower, but most have to install an expensive antenna to get a decent signal!  Both of these options are subject to data plans; the satellite systems seem to be more generous for a reasonable price.

The U-reka folks recommended that we continue to engage the providers, as the Connect America funds are being accepted and new partnerships between providers are forming.  We met last week with our electric coop, Coop Light and Power, to hear about their new fixed (tower-based) wireless system.  CLP wants to use the towers to improve their smart-grid approach to electricity management and delivery, but they also want to offer fast internet (up to 7 Mbps) as well.  With only a few new towers, they could cover many of our townships.  CLP is very interested in collaborating with Town Boards to site and market their system, and Normanna Township is actively working with CLP.  After last week’s meeting, other townships seem interested.  While not a wired system, a faster wireless internet that lacks the latency problems of satellite could be a short-term and economically feasible approach for our rural areas.

We are also scheduling meetings with Frontier Communications and with the Lake County fiber project, Lake Connections.  Our second feasibility study (Thanks again to the Blandin Foundation for financial support!), being conducted by Compass Consultants and to be completed in December, will provide us with engineering and business plans for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) + DSL.  If the DSL and fiber optic providers are interested in expanding into our townships, we want to offer assistance by providing engineering specifications and the business analysis.  We see a fiber optic-based system as the best solution for providing our citizens with 21st Century broadband options, but we know that it is very expensive, and we will need some partners.  We will be trying to meet with CenturyLink and Paul Bunyan soon.  We will be attending the Blandin Broadband Conference to meet people, hear about opportunities and tell our story!

Townships have unique challenges in attracting broadband at speeds approaching the State of Minnesota goal.  Like many townships in Minnesota and rural America, our area has very few anchor institutions except for our township fire departments and township offices.  We have no schools or hospitals or libraries or banks – our residents typically work, learn, participate in health care, and interact with businesses in Duluth, Hermantown, Cloquet and Two Harbors.  Township government is ill-equipped to bond or otherwise fund major infrastructure projects.  Our normal business is fighting fires and emergency service, grading and plowing roads, and some have cemeteries.  Adjacent cities and our county (the largest in Minnesota) are not interested in funding broadband projects for rural areas.  All we can do is try to convince partners (including providers) that we can assist them with a market for internet.  We are reminding providers, as well as state and federal programs, that rural townships have students, teachers, seniors, small businesses, and all the same needs as city residents for modern applications of the internet.  Townships can be good partners in designing and promoting broadband!

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