Iron Range recovery requires connection to bigger world

This map depicts the Paul Bunyan Communication rural internet proposal. Solid colored areas are primary, while striped areas are secondary and will be connected last, contingent on project costs. (PBC)

This map depicts the Paul Bunyan Communication rural internet proposal. Solid colored areas are primary, while striped areas are secondary and will be connected last, contingent on project costs. For perspective, the brown stripe in the lower middle is Scenic Highway 7, while the dark green area to the right is Highway 65. (PBC)

Another winter day turns white in the woods of Northern Minnesota. Snow to shovel yet. Over in the sleepy mining towns, some excitement. Last night, the city of Virginia opted not to ask the group holding clothing-optional parties at the Coates Hotel to just go away. Lots of debate. 4-3 vote.

“We need to bring back the city the way it was 30 to 40 years ago,” says one of the three opposing councilors. He’s talking about naked parties and moral certainty, though there certainly were naked parties in the ’70s along with a lot more sexual harassment. It was just that we weren’t connected to the outside world as much, sometimes not even really aware of what life was like for others in our own communities.

The Iron Range lets out another collective sigh. Those of us below the median age of the Iron Range wonder if this mythical time 40 years ago was as good as they say. We’re beginning to suspect that it might just have been that the people in charge now were young, then. And who wouldn’t want to be young again? Who wouldn’t want a world of bright colors, stability and belonging, when all we know now is economic decline and change?

The problem is that the Iron Range and surrounding region is building a world trapped in deathbed regrets. In fact, deathbeds are the greatest growth industry here and among the largest employers. (Though, to be fair, customers remain alive right up to the very end). In order to truly recover from this or any future downturn, we of the Iron Range must get up out of the figurative bed and do something.

On Monday, Iron Range leaders have one shining opportunity to do something progressive with long term economic, community and educational benefit.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board will consider the matching funds for a rural internet project here in Itasca County. Paul Bunyan Communication is proposing gigabyte service — fiber optic cable to the home — for 1,250 households, 100 businesses and about 3,500 people in Nashwauk, Lawrence and Balsam Townships, along with the edges of Taconite.

Paul Bunyan Communication responded to the work of Connect Itasca, a citizen- and county-led effort to demonstrate the very real demand for high speed internet in unserved parts of the region. PBC put together a proposal that was scored best among all the projects awarded grant funding from the state’s Border to Broadband program last month. That proposal was based on a partial match from the IRRRB that the non-profit cooperative had worked out with agency staff.

All it really needs is board approval. Some members have pledged support, while I am hearing that others have reservations. I’d really like to address those reservations here.

One of the biggest things I’ve heard, confirmed by Paul Bunyan staffers I’ve talked to, is that CenturyLink is protesting elements of the project. The area’s biggest phone company says that the project is redundant and that they will be able to use federal funding to provide a more limited form of broadband in the near future to the areas that aren’t covered.

I contest this assertion. I’m only aware of about 12 households that overlapped the two service areas, out of 1,250-1,700 proposed. The vast majority of the Paul Bunyan proposal is in unserved or severely underserved parts of the Taconite Tax Relief Area. The definition of broadband that counts is the one used by the private sector, not the one written on an underwhelming federal grant application.

Second of all, 12 years ago I was a thinner, younger man who had just started writing about the importance of rural internet in Northern Minnesota. Ah, those were the days. A Qwest representative (Qwest being the corporate predecessor to CenturyLink) told me that internet in this same area was “just five, six years away.” This claim has been repeated over and over in subsequent years, and while CenturyLink has rolled out some DSL and limited speed internet products in recent years, the product is inferior and most of this new service area remains uncovered.

CenturyLink says it now has access to federal funding in order to really do it this time. This time for real. But that funding requires them to build out nearly everywhere, a massive proposition that will require new investment that hasn’t been specified yet. Their timeline is again numbered in years, the vague kind of years without numbers attached. Really, I suspect they are concerned about ceding territory to a competitor, plain and simple. I would posit that they had the chance to invest in the future of this region 5, 10 and 15 years ago and were either too slow or too cheap to get the job done. I’m ready to try something else.

Why on earth would Iron Range lawmakers forego a modestly-priced opportunity to expand rural internet in our region? Out of loyalty to a phone company? That doesn’t make sense.

The Paul Bunyan project is already matched. They have a time certain deadline of completing installation by the end of June 2017. And they have a track record of doing exactly what they propose. I don’t need this to benefit Paul Bunyan. I don’t work for Paul Bunyan. I’m not getting paid for any of this, not even for writing this thing you’re reading now! I don’t really care what logo is on the trucks. This is about outcomes.

Look, just read the economic news. Today, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reports 7,200 new jobs in the Minnesota economy in November. That means about 32,000 new jobs so far in 2015, including almost 1,300 new jobs in the Duluth region, which includes our area. All of this happened despite the loss of almost 900 jobs in the logging and mining sector, nearly all of which are centered in our specific Iron Range region. Everyone else is doing very well. In fact, cities surrounding the Range stand ready to accept our retrained miners laid off in the coming year.

Without action, the Iron Range region is simply going to be left behind, forgotten, unless we promptly act on our own accord. And though it might seem to some I just want faster internet out here at MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters*, I assure you that my feelings on this are research-based. Economic development people who have succeeded elsewhere all assume that your region has high speed, ubiquitous access to the internet, especially in the places where new residents would want to live most.

And really, none of this is terribly revolutionary. The IRRRB has backed broadband projects before, including ones last year connecting people in the Side Lake and rural town halls and fire halls all over St. Louis County. In fact, the IRRRB broadband spending last year connected fewer households than this year’s Paul Bunyan proposal and cost more. So, really, the only hangup I can see is an inter-company squabble between Paul Bunyan and CenturyLink and the fact that the households are located in Itasca County, not St. Louis. These are no reasons to halt a well-crafted public-private partnership. In fact, to think so is simply outrageous to me.

But I try not to be outraged. It’s time to shovel some snow. The future will come one way or the other. The question in the hands of mortals like us is what kinds of values will we hold in the future? What kind of economic tools will our children have in a modern economy? I’d like to think that a citizen-driven project would have more weight than corporate lobbying. I’d like to think my kids would have the same tools available as any other kid on the Range.

I choose to believe that the board will do the right thing here. I honestly do. But perhaps, dear readers, you’d like to check in on them. Just to make sure. If you live in the map area above, contact the board members individually.

The meeting will be held at 11 a.m. at the IRRRB headquarters south of Eveleth on Highway 53. Some of my neighbors and I will be attending. Maybe some of you would like to attend, just to see how all this works. I think it will be a proud day for the future of our region.


* I live in one of the striped areas on the map above, thus I am not assured of getting the service being proposed, at least not at first. Furthermore, “getting service” simply means paying the same for the same internet people get in town. The reason this project came out first is because of the citizen involvement of Connect Itasca, which made the case for private investment. What matters most is that we invest in expanding our broadband infrastructure wherever we can, as soon as we can. My feelings about this project are the same as those proposed in other places. I will happily support similar projects in other parts of the Iron Range.


  1. Hi Aaron,
    I wanted to correct you on the 10/1 reference. CenturyLink does not have to match the federal dollars being provided through the Connect America Fund. They do need to commit to extending broadband almost everywhere since they accepted these funds. The 10/1 reference that you might have heard about is that they are only required to deliver broadband at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. They have said in many public meetings that they are aiming for the 25/3 new federal broadband standard, but are not required to do so. They have six years to make these improvements, but have not announced their build-out schedule so it could be next year or five years from now. As this project is getting squeeky, I suspect they would build it sooner rather than later. In contrast, Paul Bunyan will build a network that will deliver 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gig download speeds and very fast upload speeds (if not a Gig, it will be plenty fast), in 2016 for a very affordable price. They will also offer voice and video services. And I believe that customers will be members of the PBC cooperative and receive those additional benefits.

  2. Outrage. Outrage, and more outrage! I’m over in St Louis County along highway 21, and our experience matches yours. Perhaps we are a few years ahead — I can only hope. The phone company’s (Frontier Communications, which has become a curse word in our house) DSL service is way too slow, and has been oversold to boot. Eight years after negotiating with Frontier to install DSL service here, our internet speed is worse than dial-up. Lake Connections is installing fiber, but the project is way behind schedule. If we hadn’t bought our house at the height of the bubble, we’d have been off the Iron Range in search of better internet years ago. Alas, we did buy our house in July 2007 so we’re stuck, and it’s horrible to feel like fleeing a place in which you’d planned to grow old. Give me broadband internet or give me death!

  3. The IRRRB project you speak of in St Louis County runs right along Hwy 21, and is ONLY available to government entities, like town halls. Pretty much a waste of the fiber cable network if you ask me. I’d be very interested to know how many entities that line services. Now, Lake Connections is laying down new fiber over much of the same area in order to get businesses and residences hooked up.

  4. Zach Raskovich says

    your thoughts on the funding for the rural broadband experiment award for Paul Bunyan?

  5. Seems pretty clear that a public-owned network is the way to go, rather than being endlessly jerked around by various private entities–who should not be getting Federal money without giving an appropriate equity interest and voice in management…..

  6. Jessica Gunderson says

    I lived in Virginia and had century link. I recently moved to Grand Rapids & now have Paul Bunyan. I always had issues with my internet. Now I call it one of the perks of moving ☺️

  7. In a couple of days we will finally get high speed internet. It will be WiFi through the power company. It will be fairly expensive but given the lack of cell phone coverage I think most folks will want it, but I think we should help those with limited funds get access. We need everyone to have access to information, nothing beats knowing what is going on when it comes to voting for better leaders.

  8. Over here in the Finland/Silver Bay area, we finally got fiber installed and connected this year through the publicly owned Lake Connections utility, which was funded through a federal grants and loans tied to Obama’s Stimulus Act . Although the project has hit many problems along the way – missed deadlines, scheduling problems, contractors that screwed up, etc. – everyone that I’ve talked to has been very happy with the results now that the fiber is installed. Downloads and uploads are ridiculously fast. Netflix streaming is flawless 100% of the time. Skype works well as is only limited by the other user’s bandwidth. It’s better than service I’ve seen in parts of the Twin Cities.

    We had some broadband over the phone lines before this, but it was very limited. We were also served by Qwest/CenturyLink around here. Apparently part of the problem was that the phone lines were SO old in many places that the broadband signal sent over the phone lines could only go a certain distance. So I had neighbors near the main trunk road that could get so-so broadband, but the rest of us further down the road could not.

    Like you, we kept getting promises to get more broadband from Qwest/CenturyLink, but no freaking delivery. The truth is that a build-out to a very rural area does not return enough profit to a for-profit publicly traded corporation to make it worth while.

    MediaCom then decided to wage war on the Lake County fiber project for a while to try to derail the project. They sent ridiculously large FOIA requests over and over to harass the county and try to find dirt. They sent political mailers to county residents trying to stir the pot and get folks to rise up against the “fiscal risk taking” of the county board. It was a hassle.

    But most of us saw through the corporate deception. It was common sense that if MediaCom and Qwest/CenturyLink were going to roll out broadband here, they would have already. They had their chance, and they didn’t take it.

    So stick with the Paul Bunyan project – but expect some turbulence along the way. Good luck.

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