Golden opportunity for broadband on the Iron Range

Workers install high speed fiber optic cables for a 2015 Paul Bunyan Communication project. (PHOTO: Paul Bunyan Communication)

Workers install high speed fiber optic cables for a 2015 Paul Bunyan Communication project. (PHOTO: Paul Bunyan Communication)

Aaron J. Brown

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

Many people reading this have access to reliable high-speed internet access for less than $60 a month. You use this bountiful bandwidth to work from home, communicate with family, attend college, or help kids with homework.

But for people who live in rural townships throughout the Iron Range this service isn’t available. They pay twice as much for slower, more limited service. These people don’t number in the hundreds; they total tens of thousands within 20 miles of the iron formation. This lack of service absolutely stymies the retention and relocation of knowledge workers in the places they want to live.

Like me, Dr. Jarrad Bergren lives in Balsam Township northwest of Nashwauk in Itasca County. He runs a chiropractic clinic on Highway 8. He’s also a township supervisor and a member of the Balsam Volunteer Fire Department. Every aspect of Bergren’s professional and civic life is affected by limited internet options and expensive capped data plans.

When the county holds tax hearings at the township hall, they end up using Bergren’s cell phone as a hot spot so they can show tax records to concerned citizens. At the fire department, slow internet inhibits grant applications and the creation of training materials.

Bergren sees the worst impact at his business.

“I’m getting fined by the insurance companies now because I haven’t switched to electronic health records,” said Bergren. “I’m still doing paper records. Most others were required to switch to electronic by 2015, but I have no way to do that unless I have the high speed internet and data.”

Similar woes befall the Bigfork Valley clinic in Balsam just a few miles away, or the stores and halls along Scenic Highway 7 or Highway 65 north of Nashwauk. As an online college teacher I see dozens of students, especially single parents and working people, fall behind every semester because they live in an area with poor internet options.

Fortunately, one project on the agenda for tomorrow’s Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board meeting will make a difference. Not only will it improve the service available to rural residents and businesses; it will connect them to the same ultra high speed services available in town.

Last month the Minnesota Border to Broadband program announced that Paul Bunyan Communication, a non-profit cooperative, would receive almost $2 million for its Central Itasca County proposal. It was the state’s top-rated broadband project in 2015. I talked about this in a column last fall, explaining that the project’s strength was its grassroots origins. People from all walks of rural life put aside political and cultural differences to support this grant proposal.

The last piece is for the IRRRB to match a portion of the grant at tomorrow’s meeting.

One of the most compelling cases for this investment is the fact that three rural school districts overlap this service area: Nashwauk-Keewatin, Greenway and Grand Rapids. As the parent of three school aged students here, I am well aware that much of the homework and skills practice sent home with my boys requires high-speed internet access.

That isn’t lost on Tara Saxhaug, a fifth grade teacher at the middle school in Grand Rapids. She and her husband live in Balsam with two school-aged boys. Saxhaug sees the increased need for high-speed internet in her sons’ homework, and has even had to write notes explaining to teachers that they don’t have service speeds fast enough for some tasks.

As a teacher, Saxhaug is conscious that many of her students don’t currently have access to adequate internet. Many children’s families simply can’t afford the overpriced satellite and cellular data services, which can easily top $150 per month depending on data usage.

Saxhaug is excited for the possibility that the Paul Bunyan project represents.

“As a teacher it would also allow me greater opportunities to dive into the forever changing standards, debates, pedagogy and best practices that surround education,” said Saxhaug. “The boys would be able to benefit from some of the amazing resources that are available in math, reading and sciences.”

For 10 years, the Iron Range has struggled to catch up with the technological requirements of the 21st Century. The Central Itasca project is not the end of the road; it’s only the beginning. Gov. Mark Dayton has vowed $100 million from the state’s budget surplus to the Border to Broadband program. Other parts of the Range can replicate this success.

“People don’t even realize how many kids need this for school, or how many college students take classes from rural areas or people who work from home,” said Bergren. “There are more of us than you think.”

But the most important fact is that something can be done right now. Any delay would threaten the whole project, and put up the stop sign for other projects. No other company is ready to deliver service so soon. The local phone company told me I could expect service in five years …and that was ten years ago. Millions in public and private dollars can be invested in our region at a time when such funds are in short supply.

With IRRRB support tomorrow, momentum will shift dramatically. We must not stop here. From Central Itasca County, Paul Bunyan and other companies should be encouraged to reach every household in the region.

With 2016 coming, we do not yet have the Iron Range economy we want, but we can connect students, workers and entrepreneurs with the modern utility they need. It is our most important step toward a diverse and sustainable regional economy that no foreign steel dumping can take away.

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, Dec. 20, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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