“If I were the hugging kind, I would hug you.”
I had clearly unnerved the surveyor on my township road, but I knew why he was there. He was mapping the route for new fiber optic cables near my home.
You can see the little flags all over the Itasca County countryside. The markers show where Paul Bunyan Communication’s new Central Itasca Fiber Project will connect to my home, which is also where my wife and I work at least half the time.
These lines will allow me to take on bigger media projects. These lines will allow me to grade presentations faster for my online college students. Moreover, these lines will allow our family to co-exist in peace as our three boys grow old enough to do online gaming and, we hope at some point, homework.
But that’s hardly the main reason to be excited. This project will connect the up to 1,200 households, 3,500 people and 100 small businesses to reliable, high capacity, high speed internet for the first time.
Even more importantly, the presence of high speed internet allows rural areas to attract *new* residents and *new* businesses. It educates students and serves seniors who often don’t have a choice about where they live.
Simply put, high speed internet projects like the one in Itasca County this year connect the Iron Range to an economy in danger of moving on without us. Broadband alone doesn’t equal economic diversification, but it is a crucial element in inviting new ideas and entrepreneurship to a region like ours.
“Broadband isn’t nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone, everywhere in the state,” said Lt. Gov. Tina Smith in a recent press release. “This new investment will connect small businesses to customers, students to learning opportunities, and patients to their doctors. This is an important investment, but we have a long way to go before we achieve the governor’s goal of border-to-border broadband internet access. Next legislative session we need to build on this progress so that all Minnesotans have access to the basic infrastructure of the 21st century.”
“Broadband is an important economic development tool,” added Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Shawntera Hardy. “Communities that have strong broadband systems in place are more likely to attract new residents and businesses.”
After a smaller budget this year, Minnesota’s Border to Broadband grant program will invest $35 million in regional high speed internet projects for next year. That could connect up to 12,000 households all over the state, including some in our region. That is, if we on the Iron Range are ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
The 2017 grant application period opens this Friday, July 22 and remains open through Oct. 3. Businesses, government units, certain nonprofits and tribes are all eligible to apply.
The main goals are to reach unserved areas that have no high speed options, and underserved areas, where some options exist, but none of them fast enough for important aspects of business and online services.
Paul Bunyan Communication has already announced plans to expand its fiber optic coverage in Itasca County next year with a mix of its own capital and possible new grants. Rural residents on the central and eastern Iron Range should push their regional providers to get into the game. We are long past the time we should accept “we’ll get to it in five years” as a reply.
One thing is certain. After years of delay and a decade of misunderstanding about the importance of broadband in the future of a region like ours, we see great progress.
It’s almost enough to make you hug a cable installer on a country road.
Almost. This is Minnesota, after all.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 17, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.