IRRRB OKs major Itasca broadband project

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board met Monday, Dec. 21, 2015 to act on a number of issues, including a major rural broadband project in Itasca County.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board met Monday, Dec. 21, 2015 to act on a number of issues, including a major rural broadband project in Itasca County.

Today, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board approved a $1.25 million matching grant for the Paul Bunyan Communication broadband project in Itasca County.

The funding secures a project that will connect 1,250 households, 3,500 people and up to 100 small businesses with service as fast as 1GB/second.

IRRRBThe IRRRB vote was 7-1, with Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) offering the lone vote of opposition.

About a dozen people from the affected areas in Nashwauk, Lawrence, Balsam and Iron Range townships drove over to the meeting south of Eveleth. They cheered the result when it was announced.

The debate took several minutes and seemed to center on whether or not gigabyte service was necessary, and whether or not the IRRRB should be involved in funding projects like this.

As you may recall, I’ve been writing extensively about this project over the past week. I argued that Paul Bunyan was uniquely prepared to act quickly to connect rural residents with affordable internet. I also explained that the grassroots method in which demand for rural broadband was demonstrated by Connect Itasca was a model for other rural regions throughout Northern Minnesota and the Iron Range. My Sunday column explored the importance of high speed internet for people who actually live and work in areas with sketchy or no internet service.

So, those are my biases. I attended this meeting mostly as a citizen who might be able to access reliable high speed internet as a result of this project. But it was an interesting discussion of policy as well.

It was interesting to see Bakk’s response to this. His arguments first seemed to center around the fact that download speeds higher than 5MB or so per second were unnecessary for most people.

“I don’t need to download MRIs from the Mayo Clinic,” said Bakk.

He also explained CenturyLink’s position that new federal funding will allow that company to bring 10megabyte download speeds to a majority of its rural customers, including some in this same coverage area within five years.

The board called on Paul Bunyan representative Steve Howard to address some of those questions. He explained that households with multiple users often describe 5MB service as slow. Further, he explained that Bigfork Valley Hospital’s Balsam Clinic would need much faster service to better treat its patients.

Ironically, the clinic *does* need to transmit large medical imaging files, a process that can take most of a day with its current level of service.

Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) had recently talked to the state broadband office about this project and offered a number of pieces of information in the proceeding. He said the key benefit of the Paul Bunyan project was that it was ready to go as soon as the frost was out this year. Lueck’s district is the least connected in the state and this exchange showed he’s been exploring the issue in earnest.

Bakk, and other board members, did argue that the IRRRB wouldn’t be able to afford to connect the whole region, particularly if Century Link moves on plans to connect most of its service area. But consensus formed among most that this project was ready to go, and should be approved.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) said that cooperatives like Paul Bunyan are the reason rural areas got phone service early in the 20th Century. Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) said she’d heard from many people in the affected area, and was convinced of the benefit to school aged kids, families, and people who work from home, including employees of the Delta Reservation Center in Chisholm.

“In 2016 and 2017 this board will have many difficult challenges,” said Board Chair Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township). “This project gives us a tool for economic diversification.”

Anzelc called the vote. Only Bakk dissented. Later, Lueck advised Commissioner Mark Phillips that the agency shouldn’t entertain projects unless they had exhausted federal funding opportunities first. That seemed agreeable to Phillips.

Rural Itasca County residents gather to celebrate after the IRRRB vote on Monday, Dec. 21. (Aaron J. Brown)

Rural Itasca County residents gather to celebrate after the IRRRB vote on Monday, Dec. 21. (Aaron J. Brown)

In other business, Hibbing Taconite, ArcelorMittal, United Taconite, and Northshore Mining received production tax rebates for capital investments.

A rebate for Magnetation was tabled on a motion from Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia). The issue there appeared to be the fact that Magnetation owes the agency money as it continues to work its way out of bankruptcy. Company officials said that Magnetation is fighting for its survival, but board members decided to go with Metsa’s motion 7-1, with Anzelc the lone “no” vote.

The board also approved the following public works projects:



Project Description

Grant Award

City of Babbitt

Improvements to Birch Lake Landing Area


City of Biwabik

Additional funding for prior infrastructure improvement project


City of Cohasset

Expansion of Minnesota Diversified Industries


Cook County

Expansion of airport runaway


Fairview Range

Construction and remodel of the Fairview Range Behavioral Health Unit


City of Grand Rapids

Construction of Kiesler Health and Wellness Center


Lutsen Township

Redevelopment at Superior National Golf Course


Morse Township

Road and site development for new collaborative emergency services facility for Towns of Fall Lake and Morse





  1. Trish Harren says

    Thanks so much Aaron for sharing your skills to create a unified voice for those without high speed access. I know you were a lone voice in the woods advocating for broadband long before I ever knew it was an issue. Passion and perseverance pay off!

    Trish Harren

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