For Range broadband, entrepreneurs may hold the key

In rural Texas a 24-year-old entrepreneur has figured out a way to expand broadband internet access to residents who aren’t along the cable routes of big providers while making money in the process. J.W. Breeden, who wrote his business plan in high school, works out of his parents basement and has a plausible vision of creating a broadband empire from right there. I was interested to learn that he uses a series of microwave radio towers, not unlike the old kits we used to broadcast nearby sporting events on the radio. This specific technology might be difficult to use in some areas, but it’s intriguing none the less.

Laylan Copelin, writer of the business profile piece where I read all this, opines:

Broadband is to this generation of rural Texans as the railroads, farm-to-market roads and interstate highways were to their forebears: They get bypassed at their peril.

So if a smart kid from Texas can create an affordable, privately delivered broadband network (at this point including about 300 clients, including some businesses and public entities), where are the developers here in northern Minnesota? Between Iron Range Resources, which can provide a truly unique public financing source, and the millions in grant funds accessible by cities and nonprofits, it stands to reason that rural broadband is logistically possible — if not by microwave, than through some other means. The townships north and south of the core Iron Range towns enjoy more population density than rural Texas. The availability of fast internet outside the towns would be attractive to entrepreneurs and e-commuters in a vast array of industries and professions, if marketed correctly.

Fact is, this region is wrapped up by Qwest and other private providers who do a great job in the towns, but aren’t interested in expanding outward because of the cost of expanding down a huge network of roads with expensive cable. I still believe they’d make money, but not in the short term. Stockholders wouldn’t approve. Meantime, rural residents are held over the barrel by satellite providers, who can (often) deliver solid download speeds, but are technically limited in upload speeds. One of the challenges I face right here at the blog in introducing a revenue-producing podcast is the challenge of uploading media from my home. Furthermore, satellite provider prices make them affordable only to the middle class, which is not the growth sector on the Iron Range where median income is well below the state average. (Six figures is a fortune here, an absolute fortune).

The Range keeps funding power plants that won’t be built and slick new railroads for mining companies capable of paying their own way. Thirty years from now these ideas will seem like a cataclysmic joke. Private small business development is the central ingredient in economic diversification and growth on the Iron Range. Much of the economic growth will be in fields dependent on fast, reliable internet connections. Iron Range Resources has only scraped the tip of the iceberg on this and the towns and state leaders aren’t moving fast enough.

This is a great opportunity for public leadership, but absent that it’s still a great opportunity for private entrepreneurs. I lack the technical knowledge, but if you’re even remotely interested in finding a way to light up northern Minnesota’s internet grid, contact me and I’ll try to help.


  1. I agree 100%. The lack of broadband(other than satellite) was a major consideration for my wife and I when we decided to pass up an opportunity last year to move to Virginia (my wife’s hometown) from the Twin Cities. Not only would I have needed it for my job, but I also cannot image not having it when our daughter starts school. This needs more attention from Iron Range Resources if the region is going to attract educated professionals to the area. These are the people who can help grow the economy on the Range.

  2. I share a similar concern with public broadband initiatives. We’re doing the small amount of broadband we do simply based on private funding and investment because it doesn’t seem the public sector (state/federal gov’t) is interested in simple support mechanisms. Even the broadband stimulus fund grants were so complex only experienced grant writers and large corporations with staffs could try for the money. What ever happened to the KISS philosophy?

    BTW thanks for picking up on the feature about us!

  3. Hey, thanks so much for commenting. Your profile was circulated around a community of folks trying to get rural broadband going in northern Minnesota. Sometimes it’s so frustrating that a story like yours seems like a Super Bowl win.

    Agreed, the grant structure has made it more confusing not less. If the darn thing was regulated and incentivized like a utility that might work, but instead we’re still in the wilderness (literally). Some kind of simple incentives for expanding fast Internet to people and places needs to happen, though, or the high speed hubs will snatch up all the opportunity. Thanks again! And good luck. If we didn’t have so many trees and mine dumps here we could invite you to build a northern division!

  4. There are a handful of companies on the range doing this already. Access Broadband out of Virginia, Range Broadband in Hibbing, The Chisholm bank has fixed wireless service for Chisholm and north.
    The channels freed from the digital tv switch may well be used in the future for rural internet access, as that frequency is better suited for such use.

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