Business North looks at Broadband champions on the Iron Range (MN): Blandin Foundation, NESC and IRRR

Business North takes a look back at broadband projects on the Iron Range. Starting with a wide lens…

“In 2010, internet connectivity in rural places was spotty and underutilized,” said Mary Magnuson, the Blandin Foundation’s grants program officer for rural placemaking. “Minnesota was ranked No. 23 in the U.S. for speed, and broadband was defined as 768 kilobits-per-second download and 200 Kbps upload – just enough to support slow video streaming.”

The broadband landscape across Northeastern Minnesota, and the state in general, has changed significantly since then, according to Magnuson, with gains made for providing access to high-speed connectivity. It comes at a time when such internet connections have become critical in business, education and often in day-to-day life.

“As of May 2022,” she said, “88.07% of Minnesota households have access to the 2026 state goal of 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload,” Magnuson said. “More people are working online, going to school online, seeing healthcare specialists online, and solving more of today’s challenges through solutions made possible through high-speed broadband internet.”

And calling out local champions, such as the Blandin Foundation…

Broadband was a long-term investment for Blandin Foundation, according to Magnuson. Since 2004, Blandin Foundation invested nearly $5.3 million in grants and leveraged more than $17 million to support 850 projects implemented across 61 counties and five tribal nations in Minnesota.


Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) in Mountain Iron, one of nine Minnesota service cooperatives, has designed and built a fiber-optic backbone for underserved and unserved areas.

NESC initially built an 865-mile fiber optic network across St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Carlton, Pine, Itasca and Aitkin counties. The Northeast Fiber Network originally tapped a $43.5 million federally funded grant/loan project in 2010 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities.


When Whitney Ridlon joined the Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation (IRRR) in 2014, the agency was evaluating broadband infrastructure needs across the region. The agency partnered with Blandin Foundation and Blandin Broadband Communities to better understand existing broadband assets, such as the NESC “middle mile.” Legislation created by the state further enabled the IRRR to work with communities to meet the state’s broadband speed goals.

Since 2015, IRRR invested $5.6 million in broadband infrastructure connecting 6,617 households, with a total investment of $23 million.

This entry was posted in Blandin Foundation, IRBC, IRRRB, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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