Broadband issue fills rural halls, demands action in 2016

Fiber optic cables being installed. (PHOTO: Johnnie Pakington for BT, Flickr CC)

Fiber optic cables being installed. (PHOTO: Johnnie Pakington for BT, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

My neighbor John Kannas set up extra folding chairs in the Balsam Township Hall but even those wouldn’t be enough.

Last month, John told me that Paul Bunyan Communication was preparing to apply for a grant to expand fiber optic internet lines in parts of Balsam, Lawrence and Wabana, a block of rural townships in east central Itasca County. I’ve lived in Balsam for 10 years, working as an online college instructor and independent media professional. Residents here contend with almost unusable dial-up connections, thin DSL corridors or expensive, limited satellite service. So when word went out that fiber-to-the-door service might be coming, people showed up in droves for the Aug. 20 meeting.

The township supervisors said it was the biggest audience for a township board meeting that anyone could remember. (About 40 by my count, each one of them representing a spouse or neighbors back home, too). There were more people there to talk about rural internet than when tax levies were being set or even when the roads break up in the spring and the school bus gets stuck.

Moreover, a quick scan of the assembled citizenry revealed exactly zero hipsters. No nerds with pencil protectors. No goth kids on skateboards, either. Grey haired, flannel-clad and camouflage-festooned, the crowd was representative of the township’s population. You would never get these people on the same side in a presidential election, a religious discussion or a debate over the best make of pickup trucks. Nevertheless, we all agreed that it was long past time to extend broadband service to our community.

Paul Bunyan’s grant application for rural Itasca County is among 44 proposals submitted to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for communities across the state. The agency’s Office of Broadband Development said the project requests total $29.06 million.

“With grant requests nearly triple the available funding, it’s clear that the need for investment in rural broadband access is significant,” said Lt. Governor Tina Smith in a recent DEED statement. “The $10.58 million available this year is a start, but it’s essential that the Legislature provide sufficient funding next session.”

Under the program, entities can use the funding to pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of expanding broadband service in unserved or underserved regions of Minnesota. The maximum grant available to any single entity is $5 million. The Paul Bunyan request in rural Itasca County would connect more than 1,200 under and unserved households. DEED is set to announce grant winners in November.

“The Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program is serving an important need throughout Minnesota by providing access to high-quality, high-speed broadband service to our citizens, businesses and public buildings,” said DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben. “The increase in applications during this funding round is a reminder that there are still a number of communities that lack high-speed broadband access.”

Last Tuesday, voters in House District 3A cast ballots in the DFL primary for the special election to replace the late State Rep. David Dill. While the election drew attention for the same old controversies about mining, every single candidate agreed that rural broadband would be needed to expand the economy of rural Northeastern Minnesota. The Republican and independent in the race have said the same. In fact, we’ve reached peak lip service on this issue among the entire local legislative delegation.

It’s time to stop stalling on rural broadband. Private companies and cooperatives are ready to step in and serve the demand. All they need is a little help to expand into more remote areas. DEED can do more. Meantime, the IRRRB should ensure that every household in the Taconite Tax Relief Area has access to broadband service.

It’s time to stop shrugging and muttering that cell phone data plans are good enough. They aren’t. We need lasting, affordable, high-capacity connectivity to address the economic problems of our times. In a year where mining and logging have lagged, it’s time for us to use new tools to create jobs and opportunity. We have bipartisan consensus to expand the Border to Broadband program in the 2016 session. Every single grant on this list should be funded. Why shouldn’t they? It’s 2015.

Broadband is an economic issue that touches citizens where they live. Those are the issues that get people of different backgrounds and opinions to show up at township halls to speak their mind. Of course, people also vote in those same township halls. Believe me, no incumbent would want them to vote angry.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. It’s important for ordinary people to show up and speak up for rural broadband. As I recently documented, some of those paid to lobby for broadband for clients claim that regular folk don’t care about this issue–and then steer limited money to a few clients. That shouldn’t be the message legislators heard. Thanks for writing this, Aaron.

  2. Flaherty & Hood lobbyist Dan Dorman wrote in a comment in a Watchdog article about Annandale (his client for which he had secured 20% of the original amount that Dayton vetoed since the need was more broad; ” “In many cities, the loudest push to upgrade does not come from residents, rather from the businesses and industries demanding and needing better service. ” Perhaps among his clients, but if that’s what he’s telling legislators as a broadband advocate for his clients, then articles like this one, that illustrate the broad and deep popular demand for broadband, need to get out–and legislators should hear from individuals, not just lobbyists who have to juggle several clients’ conflicting interests.

  3. Sally, you’re somewhat mistaken: The CGMC and GMNP are membership organizations, which count EDAs, cities, initiatives, foundations, nonprofits, RDCs, and businesses as members. Those “regular folk” seem to care about the broadband grant program — a program that the the GMNP helped draft. Annandale doesn’t have a lobbyist this session; a private provider finally agreed to expand to their city.

    This issue is dominated by enormous and well-funded industry opposition, which constantly spreads misinformation. They fear city owned broadband infrastructure (well described here the most, because it results in better service at lower prices.

    Communities often seek money for bonding projects or other infrastructure. If a bonding bill or infrastructure is not adequately funded, that should be the larger problem — not the fact that a particular city sought funds for its infrastructure. With broadband, it’s abundantly clear that its recent funding is far from adequate.

  4. At least in Itasca county Paul Bunyan is taking up the call and working on a solution. They already have a significant portion of the county wired with excellent service. Nobody is picking up the ball on this in St Louis County.

    We do have the government funded “Middle Mile” system. It’s pushing fiber all over the county but so far there’s absolutely no benefit to individual potential subscribers. Even people who live right on a line can’t get service from it. It seems to be geared to be an exclusive system for government entities like schools and townships. At the least there should have been stubs set up at each house and crossroad they passed for future service expansion.

    Centurylink seems to be showing no interest in wiring up the county. They’re not even maintaining their copper phone lines very well in rural areas.

    Northern Electric Coop could have been a driver in getting their customers wired (fibered?). They have access to favorable loan terms and tax treatment and they already have pole line and buried cable easements all over the county. Instead they chose to become a dealer for satellite internet that started out fine, but quickly bogged down as customers were added.

    Nationwide the rural market for broadband is largely unserved. For the entity that figures out how to tap this market cost effectively there’s a ton of money to be made. Instead of the various ISP’s beating each other over the head in the cities, maybe one of them should look outside town for a new market they could have all to themselves.

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