East Central Energy (ECE) starts fiber construction in Dalbo, Ogilvie, Braham and Pine City (Isanti and Kanabec Counties)

Isanti-Chisago County Star reports

East Central Energy is proud to announce that construction for ECE Fiber started on May 8, 2023. Construction will consist of installing both overhead and underground fiber lines, starting in the Dalbo area before moving to Ogilvie, Braham, and Pine City throughout the remainder of the year.

The cooperative first explored providing fiber internet services in 2019 but it wasn’t until November 2021 that the ECE Board of Directors made the decision to move forward with a full fiber-to-the-home project. Since then, the co-op has developed ECE Fiber and is advancing toward bringing reliable internet services to some of the most underserved counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

This is big news for an area that’s been working on broadband for a long time. Last year Isanti and Kanabec Counties were in the bottom 10 served counties in Minnesota. ECE has been working hard to make it happen…

Fiber construction is scheduled to take place over the next five years, covering all of ECE’s service territory. Construction plans have been confirmed for 2023 and are in motion until the ground freezes later this year. Moving forward, ECE Fiber will solidify areas each summer to be constructed in the following year and updates will be shared on ecefiber.com….

ECE members are encouraged to visit ecefiber.com and sign up to express interest in fiber internet services, and to review package tiers and prices. By signing up online, members will be notified as ECE gets closer to building in their area and receive updates via email.


Paul Bunyan Communication to bring Gigazone to Grand Rapids, Warba, Marble, Calumet, and Waukenabo Township in Aitken County

Big news from Paul Bunyan Communications for Aitken County…

Paul Bunyan Communications will be expanding its all-fiber optic network the GigaZone®, in 2023 to over 2,500 more locations in areas of south Grand Rapids, Warba, Marble, Calumet, and Waukenabo Township in Aitken County.
“We are excited to continue our efforts to bring gigabit broadband Internet to those currently without reliable Internet access in our region. Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a vital component of everyday life and our cooperative continues to expand our network to bring this essential access to more homes and businesses right here in northern Minnesota” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.
Anyone interested in getting connected to the all-fiber optic broadband network should sign up for service now. That can be done online, over the phone, or in person at our Grand Rapids Customer Service & Technology Center. To check to see if a specific location is within an expansion area, visit https://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/availability-map/ Paul Bunyan Communications will be also mailing more information to those within the 2023 plans as construction is about to begin in their area. Construction will take place over the summer with services expected to be available by winter.
“This will be a huge service improvement for everyone in the project areas. It is very challenging for those who don’t have true high-speed internet available at their home or business. As more and more students and employees work from home, many people are learning how critical upload speed is for their job or school work. Unlike many other providers, our speeds are symmetric, the same speeds are available for upload and download. This will be a game changer for these areas.” added Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications Information Technology and Development Manager.
The cooperative’s services will become available once the network is operational including GigaZone™ Internet with its unprecedented broadband speeds of up to 10 Gig and low cost unlimited local and long distance GigaZone™ voice telephone service. There is no membership fee to join Paul Bunyan Communications, membership is included by subscribing to either local phone service or GigaZone™ Internet service.

Last year Aitken County ranked 77 out of 87 for MN broadband county ranking with 5527 households unserved. This deployment will make a difference!

4,000+ Attend GigaZone Gaming Championship in Bemidji MN

News of the GigaZone Games makes me happy every year…

An estimated crowd of over 4,000 attended the GigaZone Gaming Championship & TechXpo on Saturday, April 22 at the Sanford Center. The event featured free gaming, numerous gaming tournaments, over 35 technology exhibitors, door prizes, and special guest Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple. This one-of-a-kind regional gaming event showcases Paul Bunyan Communications’ IT and web development team which custom built and integrated much of the online technology and leverages the speed of the GigaZone one of the largest rural all-fiber optic Gigabit networks in the country. The entire event was run off a single residential GigaZone Internet connection.
Mathew Wagner of Duluth won the 6th annual GigaZone Gaming Championship and the top prize of $500. Shawn
Haines of Grand Forks secured second place and $400. A total of 76 of northern Minnesota’s best Super Smash Bros.
Ultimate players competed on the main stadium stage in the GigaZone Championship Arena.
In addition to the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Tournament, there was several other open tournaments including Fortnite, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Madden 23, and Overwatch 3v3, Rocket League 3vs3 plus high score competitions in Pac-Man, Galaga, and Donkey Kong. There were also two tournaments for juniors 13 and Magic the Gathering Booster Drafts, “Wow. When we first envisioned this event, we wanted to grow it so we could have a true arena e-sports event. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would grow so fast and that we would have Steve Wozniak the co-founder of Apple join us. It has been incredible to see the attendance and enthusiasm for the event! By adding the TechXpo, we were able to connect a wide variety of students and potential job seekers with schools and businesses that are utilizing the latest in technology every day right here in northern Minnesota. It was awesome to see so many people from all over come for the fun!” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.
“Our cooperative continues to expand one of the largest rural fiber gigabit networks in the country and that brings many advantages to our members. The GigaZone provides extreme speed and low latency which are critical for the best online gaming experience and the GigaZone Gaming Championship & TechXpo showcases just that,” added Leo Anderson, Paul Bunyan Communications Technology Experience Manager.
“A huge shout out to our entire team for putting on one of the most unique events of this type in the country. Thank you to all of the exhibitors that were a part of the first ever TechXpo and our local partners, we couldn’t do this without them. We’re already looking forward to next year!” added Brian Bissonette, Paul Bunyan Communications Marketing
This Paul Bunyan Communications event includes the talents of many local partners including NLFX, Accidently Cool Games, Northern Amusement, the Sanford Center as well support from several regional and national partners.
For more information on the GigaZone Gaming Championship visit www.gigazonegaming.com 

EVENT Mar 29: MN Senate to debate Omnibus that includes broadband funding

At this time of year, meetings are always subject to change but here’s what I have seen:

The meeting in hybrid, so you can join online or in person. Yesterday at the MN Broadband Task Force, we heard about the need to get state funding because the big federal funding (BEAD) is not going to cover the costs of getting sufficient broadband to everyone AND because that funding will not be released for several years, which means Minnesota will miss some construction seasons if we don’t get state funding.

EVENT March 27: MN Broadband Task Force final meeting

The last meeting of this iteration of the MN Broadband Task Force happens tomorrow…

Governor’s Task Force on Broadband

Monday, March 27, 2023

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.


10 River Park Plaza

St. Paul, MN  55107

use main entrance, plenty of free parking


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10:00 a.m. – 10:05 a.m.  Welcome, Task Force Introductions, and Approval of Minutes from February 22 meeting – Teddy Bekele, Chair, Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband

10:05 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Welcome from Comcast –  Kalyn Hove, Regional Senior Vice President, Midwest Region

10:15 a.m. – 10:20 a.m. Legislative Update – Deven Bowdry, Government Relations Coordinator for DEED

10:20 a.m. – 10:40 a.m. Office of Broadband Development Update – Bree Maki, Executive Director

10:40 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. NTIA update – Tom Karst, Federal Program Officer, Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth

11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.  Break

11:15 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. National Skills Coalition Digital Equity Presentation – Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, Senior Fellow, National Skills Coalition

11:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. “Around the Table -Thoughts of Wisdom” from the outgoing Task Force members

12:15 p.m. – 12:20 p.m.  Public Comment, Other Business, Wrap-up

12:20 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.  Lunch

Broadband expanding in Cuyuna Range area (Crow Wing County)

The Iron Range Resources & rehabilitation enewsetter, The Ranger, reports

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) is expanding its broadband fiber optic network to approximately 500 unserved or underserved homes, businesses and community institutions within the Cuyuna Lakes area. All locations will have a minimum service of 250mbps download and upload, with service of 1Gbps download and upload available. Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation supported the project with a $742,850 Broadband Infrastructure grant to CTC. The total project investment is over $5.7 million.
“The existing communications infrastructure throughout the Cuyuna Range is outdated and does not meet the needs and demands of families, schools or businesses,” said Joe Buttweiler, CTC’s chief strategy officer. “This became very apparent with the onset of the pandemic and during the past three years when education, health care and the overall economy became incredibly reliant on broadband.”
The three largest employers in the area are Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, Crosby-Ironton School District and Graphic Packaging International. They represent industries that have come to depend on fast, reliable broadband for daily operations as well as providing online services such as telehealth and distance learning.
Buttweiler explained that access to broadband is as imperative today as electricity was 75 years ago. A reliable fiber optic network is the backbone necessary to provide rural residents, businesses, schools, community centers, remote workers, farmers and visitors with access to the benefits of unlimited bandwidth, cost efficiency and reliability. Residents in the Cuyuna Lakes service area do not currently have access to quality or affordable internet service for everyday needs and essential services.
CTC’s network infrastructure is anticipated to evolve into the future. The newly serviced locations from the project will have the capability to be upgraded and grow with CTC as it works toward broadband services of 2, 5 or even 10Gb.
Other project partners include the State of Minnesota’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)-CV Broadband Grant, Crow Wing County and CTC.
CTC is a member-owned cooperative established in 1952 and based in Brainerd, with additional offices in Baxter and Crosby. It has 16,000 residential and business members and 75 employees that serve as local support teams across northern Minnesota. It originated as a telephone service provider and has since added television and internet services for homes, businesses, cabins and apartment buildings throughout the state.
Email Whitney Ridlon for Broadband Infrastructure grant information, or call her at 218-735-3004.

Paul Bunyan Telephone awarded $10 million in ReConnect funds for networks in Hubbard, Itasca, and St. Louis counties

Senator Smith reports

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN) announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $10 million in federal funding to expand access to high-speed broadband in Northeast Minnesota. These investments, provided through the ReConnect program and funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will help connect 3,529 people, 35 farms, and two public schools across Hubbard, Itasca, and St. Louis counties. Klobuchar’s legislation with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) to expand high-speed internet nationwide served as the basis for major broadband funding included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“This federal funding will make a real difference for communities in Hubbard, Itasca, and St. Louis counties, allowing thousands of families to access critical opportunities online while enabling farms to connect to new technologies such as precision agriculture,” said Klobuchar. “As co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’ll keep fighting to close the digital divide and help all Minnesotans reliably get the high-speed internet they need.”

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century – it isn’t just nice to have, it’s necessary if we’re going to build an economy that works for everyone,” said Smith. “ReConnect funding helps connect communities in greater Minnesota who have been left out of the digital economy. I am proud of our work to secure this funding, which will bring us one step closer to our goal of ensuring every Minnesotan – regardless of their zip code – has access to high-speed broadband.”

EVENT Feb 21: OBD hosts Your Role in Creating Minnesota’s Digital Equity Plan

From the Office of Broadband Development…

Throughout 2023, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is developing a statewide digital equity plan to improve internet affordability, access to internet-enabled devices, and availability of digital skills training. This plan will help direct millions of federal dollars to Minnesota for future digital inclusion initiatives.

Everyone has an important role to play in the planning process.

On Tuesday, February 21, at 12:00 p.m., please join us to learn from OBD Executive Director Bree Maki and Digital Equity Program Lead Hannah Buckland about some special opportunities to contribute to the plan, including through Digital Connection Committees, a grant round, and regional gatherings.

This webinar will be recorded and distributed afterward.

To request accommodations, please contact hannah.buckland@state.mn.us by February 16.


USDA announces funding (loans) to support rural electric grid: 6 in MN

The USDA reports

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the Department is investing $2.7 billion to help 64 electric cooperatives and utilities (PDF, 175 KB) expand and modernize the nation’s rural electric grid and increase grid security.

The implication is that infrastructure could be broadband improvements too – certainly means more infrastructure. There were six awards in Minnesota:

  1. McLeod Cooperative Power Association
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 288 consumers, and build and improve 74 miles of line. This loan includes $2,039,629 in smart grid technologies. McLeod is headquartered in Glencoe, Minnesota, and serves 6,975 consumers over 1,921 miles of line in seven counties in central Minnesota.
  2. Beltrami Electric Cooperative
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 1,480 consumers and build and improve 225 miles of line. This loan includes $1,317,000 in smart grid technologies. Beltrami Electric is headquartered in Bemidji, Minnesota serving portions of Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca, and Koochiching counties. The area is served through over 3,500 miles of distribution line and covers approximately 3,000 square miles with 21,772 consumers.
  3. Red Lake Electric Cooperative
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 299 consumers and build and improve 54 miles of line. This loan includes $104,000 in smart grid technologies. Red Lake Electric is headquartered in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota and provides service to 5,704 consumers over 2,642 miles of energized line through six counties in northern Minnesota.
  4. PKM Electric Cooperative Inc.
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 342 consumers and build and improve 119 miles of line. This loan includes $1,074,000 in smart grid technologies. PKM Electric is headquartered in Warren, Minnesota and serves 3,955 consumers through 2,298 miles in three central Minnesota counties.
  5. Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 1,846 consumers and build and improve 1,631 miles of line. This loan includes $3,628,271 in smart grid technologies. Minnesota Valley Electric is headquartered in Jordan, Minnesota and serves 44,411 consumers across a 968-square-mile service area, encompassing nine counties: Blue Earth, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Le Sueur, Rice, Scott, Sibley, and Waseca.
  6. South Central Electric Association
    This Rural Development investment will be used to connect 188 consumers, and build and improve 76 miles of line. This loan includes $1,679,250 in smart grid technologies. South Central Electric is headquartered in St. James, Minnesota, and serves 5,928 members through 2,467 miles of line in eight counties in Minnesota.

Beltrami Electric Cooperative gets $22.7 million USDA loan for smart grid technology (Polk County)

The USDA reports

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the Department is investing $2.7 billion to help 64 electric cooperatives and utilities (PDF, 175 KB) expand and modernize the nation’s rural electric grid and increase grid security.

Investment included Minnesota…

USDA is investing in 64 projects through the Electric Loan Program. This funding will benefit nearly 2 million rural people and businesses in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Here are some details…

Minnesota’s Beltrami Electric Cooperative is receiving a $22.7 million loan to connect 1,480 consumers and build and improve 225 miles of line. The loan includes $1.3 million for smart grid technologies. Beltrami Electric is headquartered in Bemidji, Minnesota. It serves 21,772 consumers in portions of Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca and Koochiching counties with 3,500 miles of distribution line covering approximately 3,000 square miles.

And hope for the future…

In the coming months, USDA will announce additional energy infrastructure financing. The Biden-Harris Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act provided more than $12 billion to USDA for loans and grants to expand clean energy, transform rural power production, create jobs and spur economic growth. This funding will help make energy cleaner, more reliable and more affordable.

East Central Energy (ECE) officially enters the broadband business

Big news from  East Central Energy (ECE)

During their October 27 meeting, East Central Energy’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution for the cooperative to enter the broadband business.
Vice President/Chief Information Officer Ty Houglum shares, “The board’s decision comes after nearly a year of hard work, including grant applications, a feasibility study, meetings with local entities, additional research, and learning from other co-ops that offer broadband.”
The cooperative urges patience since there are still many details to consider—as well as supply chain issues and multiple grants waiting to be awarded. ECE’s 14-county service area is roughly the size of Connecticut, and because some areas already have internet, the co-op plans to
prioritize unserved and underserved locations.
Houglum cautions, “While the co-op is excited the board approved our efforts to invest in continued growth and economic development for generations to come, this next chapter will take time. Changing the landscape of rural America is not an overnight task.”
Additional updates will be shared as ECE solidifies its broadband plan. Members are encouraged to regularly visit eastcentralenergy.com.

I spoke to Justin Jahnz and Ty Houglum at ECE about their plans in February. They had clearly done their work…

They estimate that the cost to bring fiber to their members is between $250-320 million; they have 123,000 residents (in MN and WI). They are expecting a 10-12 year return on investment with 35-40 percent financing. That patient investment is what helps a cooperative invest in something like this as long as it’s also an investment in the community.

Update on East Central Energy’s push to get better broadband to Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec, and Pine Counties

The Isanti-Chisago Country Star gives an update on East Central Energy’s journey to providing better broadband to residents within ECE’s electricity service area, which includes around 65,000 members over 14 counties, including Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec, and Pine Counties. Here’s an abridged look at the timeline that Isanti-Chisago Country Star provides…

  • ECE’s Board of Directors, back in November 2021, approved moving forward with developing a plan for a full-fiber-to-the-home project. According to a press release announcing the plan, ECE stated that the cost of such a project could be as much as $300 million. Because of that, ECE Vice President Ty Houglum stated that the only way ECE could make it work would be through appropriate outside funding.
  • During the June 15 North 65 Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Jahnz expounded on that position.
    “What we’re doing right now is a campaign to raise awareness that ECE is a great candidate to provide fiber-to-home across our service territory,” Jahnz said. “We are working with state and federal folks to talk about why that’s important and why we can be the best option for that.”
  • Jahnz said that in March, ECE applied for its first grant, which is for “a little bit of Wisconsin, a little bit in Pine County, a little in Kanabec, stretching over to Mille Lacs and up to Aitkin.” (see shaded area on map)
    He said that one grant would be $48 million in scope, with it equally being divided between the grant and a low-interest loan.
  • Besides that snafu [LTD Broadband may get RDOF funding – but I’ve written about that before], however, Jahnz is confident ECE will be able to obtain funding for a majority of its members’ areas.
    “To date, the area that we’re talking about, no one wants to go,” he concluded. “Even with funding, no one wants to go there. It’s one thing to get the money to build it. It’s another thing to have the wherewithal to maintain it, take care of it, repair it. We’ve been here 85 years, and I think we do a pretty good job of standing things back up when they fall down.”

Litchfield gets fiber from Meeker Cooperative (Meeker County)

Litchfield Independent Review reports

Litchfield residents will soon have another broadband Internet access option. Meeker Cooperative is in the process of installing fiber optic cable throughout the city. Work began in the northeast quadrant late last month and is expected to continue through September.

Cooperative Director Tim Mergen and Luke Johnson appeared before the Litchfield City Council Monday evening to explain the project. Council members appeared most concerned about the disruption to city streets, alleys and front yards caused by laying the cable and installing access boxes.

I know regular readers who have been working tirelessly to get broadband to their area will envy the problem of the deployment process, but it’s good to see folks’ reactions…

City resident Connie Lies told the council that she and others object to not only the digging, which is temporary, but also to the inconvenience of having stakes and metal boxes in their yards. Mergen and Johnson reiterated that the cooperative would be repairing the excavation damage. Most of the main line work is being done within existing frontage easements, but the cooperative is using some rear yard and alley easements where available. “Our contractors are trying to clean up on a weekly basis, weather permitting,” Mergen told the council.

Meeker Cooperative, which supplies electricity to rural areas within and around Meeker County, has been laying fiber optic cable in rural areas within its service area, over the past few years. However, it has also made several other urban installations, including in Paynesville and Eden Valley, Mergen and Johnson said.

EVENT Mar 30: Broadband Bill hearing in House – Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance & Policy

Looks like this will happen immediately before the MN Broadband Coalition Day on the Hill

Wednesday, March 30, 2022 at 8:30 AM

Chair: Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr.
Location: Remote Hearing

HF 14 (Ecklund) Broadband grant program money deposit transferred.
HF 4375 (Ecklund) Commissioner of employment and economic development required to prepare and submit federal fund application, and money appropriated.
Additional items may be added to the agenda.
**If you are interested in providing written or oral testimony please email the Committee Administrator by 5 pm the day before the hearing.
CA: Owen.Wirth@house.mn
This remote hearing may be viewed via the House webcast schedule page: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp

EVENT Mar 22: Talking Broadband in Cloquet

Pine Journal reports

Talking Broadband in Cloquet, 6 p.m., Cloquet Public Library. Join City of Cloquet staff to share your broadband stories, and to hear about results from the recent Cloquet Broadband survey, and completion of the Blandin Broadband Communities Program. This will be the first of two sessions on broadband in the city.