Broadband gets a shot in the arm on the Iron Range with funds to help Paul Bunyan expand service

Good news according to Minnesota Brown

Today, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board approved a $1.25 million matching grant for the Paul Bunyan Communication broadband project in Itasca County.

The funding secures a project that will connect 1,250 households, 3,500 people and up to 100 small businesses with service as fast as 1GB/second.

The IRRRB vote was 7-1, with Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) offering the lone vote of opposition.

Aaron (Minnesota) Brown is a writer and longtime broadband advocate. He lives on the Iron Range. Earlier this week (in the Hibbing Daily Tribune) he painted the picture of broadband need in his area…

Like me, Dr. Jarrad Bergren lives in Balsam Township northwest of Nashwauk in Itasca County. He runs a chiropractic clinic on Highway 8. He’s also a township supervisor and a member of the Balsam Volunteer Fire Department. Every aspect of Bergren’s professional and civic life is affected by limited internet options and expensive capped data plans.

When the county holds tax hearings at the township hall, they end up using Bergren’s cell phone as a hot spot so they can show tax records to concerned citizens. At the fire department, slow internet inhibits grant applications and the creation of training materials.

Bergren sees the worst impact at his business.

“I’m getting fined by the insurance companies now because I haven’t switched to electronic health records,” said Bergren. “I’m still doing paper records. Most others were required to switch to electronic by 2015, but I have no way to do that unless I have the high speed internet and data.”

Similar woes befall the Bigfork Valley clinic in Balsam just a few miles away, or the stores and halls along Scenic Highway 7 or Highway 65 north of Nashwauk. As an online college teacher I see dozens of students, especially single parents and working people, fall behind every semester because they live in an area with poor internet options.

And to bounce back to the vote to support Paul Bunyan because I think it gets to the root of some of the differences in broadband opinions these days. Recent posts indicate that both commercial and community providers recognize the importance of broadband – the difference is the definition of speeds especially in terms of distinguishing between “served” and “underserved” areas.

The debate took several minutes and seemed to center on whether or not gigabyte service was necessary, and whether or not the IRRRB should be involved in funding projects like this.

As you may recall, I’ve been writing extensively about this project over the past week. I argued that Paul Bunyan was uniquely prepared to act quickly to connect rural residents with affordable internet. I also explained that the grassroots method in which demand for rural broadband was demonstrated by Connect Itasca was a model for other rural regions throughout Northern Minnesota and the Iron Range. My Sunday column explored the importance of high speed internet for people who actually live and work in areas with sketchy or no internet service.

So, those are my biases. I attended this meeting mostly as a citizen who might be able to access reliable high speed internet as a result of this project. But it was an interesting discussion of policy as well.

It was interesting to see Bakk’s response to this. His arguments first seemed to center around the fact that download speeds higher than 5MB or so per second were unnecessary for most people.

“I don’t need to download MRIs from the Mayo Clinic,” said Bakk.

He also explained CenturyLink’s position that new federal funding will allow that company to bring 10megabyte download speeds to a majority of its rural customers, including some in this same coverage area within five years.

The board called on Paul Bunyan representative Steve Howard to address some of those questions. He explained that households with multiple users often describe 5MB service as slow. Further, he explained that Bigfork Valley Hospital’s Balsam Clinic would need much faster service to better treat its patients.

This entry was posted in FTTH, Funding, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

1 thought on “Broadband gets a shot in the arm on the Iron Range with funds to help Paul Bunyan expand service

  1. It is interesting that the IRRRB board approval comes the same week that President Obama’s chief of staff is visiting to talk about the economic difficulties in Northeast Minnesota. Lack of broadband is significant across most of St. Louis, Koochiching, Aitkin and large parts of Itasca Counties. Senator Bakk’s response that “He does not have to download files from Mayo Clinic” could not be more self-centered. Does he wonder about the ability of his doctor who may live nearby who would have to download Senator Bakk’s medical records from the doctor’s home? Or an engineer needing to download or upload files from their home office? Or college professors, research analysts or any of a thousand professions that exist today or will exist tomorrow. 10/1 Mb does not meet a MN broadband standard that was set many years ago; it certainly will not do in the future. If prospective residents are choosing between St. Louis County and Beltrami or Crow Wing or Cook or Lake Counties, St. Louis County will not get its share of these residents without quality broadband in the countryside. The disconnect is troubling.

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