Northern MN co-op to further expand fiber network

Crews install new Paul Bunyan Communication fiber optic lines on a Balsam Township road this week. This is the road that leads to MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters. (Aaron J. Brown)

Crews install new Paul Bunyan Communication cables on a Balsam Township road this week as part of the Central Itasca Fiber Project. This is the road that leads to MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters. (Aaron J. Brown)

As I pointed out in July, Paul Bunyan Communication continues working on its Central Itasca Fiber Project. In fact, this week they’ve been laying cable on the little dirt road that leads to MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters in Balsam Township.

Readers know that I’ve long advocated for ubiquitous high speed internet as a means of economic diversification for rural Minnesota. You also know that I struggle with the costs and limits of satellite service as an internet-using professional on my old family land here in Itasca County. So I’m excited. Yet, I’ve learned to scale back my enthusiasm somewhat. For one thing, the project will take several more months to go live. For another, certain parts of my region have yet to be included in such a project.

Well, many of my neighbors can breath a little easier. Paul Bunyan, a telecommunications cooperative based in Bemidji, announced its 2016 grant proposal for the state’s Border to Border Broadband initiative. It includes many of the areas that were trimmed off last year’s plan for budget reasons.

Those areas may be seen here:

Paul Bunyan Communication 2016 state Border to Border Broadband grant proposal (Part 1)

Paul Bunyan Communication 2016 state Border to Border Broadband grant proposal

The Paul Bunyan grant proposal also adds new territory in Harris Township south of Grand Rapids, seen here:

Paul Bunyan Communication 2016 state Border to Border Broadband grant proposal

Paul Bunyan Communication 2016 state Border to Border Broadband grant proposal

The co-op is also planning additional expansions outside of its grant request. As you can see from its map, PBC plans to expand down the River Road and Highway 2 out of Grand Rapids next year as well.

PBC’s broadband project here in Itasca County provides a refreshing contrast to the more beleaguered broadband projects up in Northern St. Louis and Lake counties. The project here has, excepting for bad weather, remained on schedule.

I’m not sure what the magic formula would be to increase affordable options for high speed internet in Northern Minnesota. But based on this experience, I’d favor a co-op like Paul Bunyan. I spent more than a decade waiting for CenturyLink to invest in its alleged future projects. Further, the unpredictable cost overruns of projects that form strictly to fit within grant parameters portend an unworkable model. If anything, PBC ought to be spurring its competition to wake up. Which is a good thing.

Paul Bunyan will again seek support from residents in the affected areas to encourage the state to adopt its project in the next cycle, which will allocate $35 million in state broadband resources. This shows a marked increase from the smaller pool of money available last year.

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