Hooking up: Broadband in Minnesota

The postcard from Paul Bunyan Communication is official confirmation that MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters will be getting broadband this year.

The postcard from Paul Bunyan Communication is official confirmation that MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters will be getting broadband this year.

On Saturday, a postcard arrived in the U.S. Mail.

Perhaps ironically, this small piece of snail mail told us that MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters in Balsam Township, Minnesota, would be connected to high speed fiber optic internet access later this year.

It’s official. Paul Bunyan Communication’s Central Itasca Fiber project currently includes my rural neighborhood. You can see the company’s final proposed map here.

We weren’t sure if we’d make the cut. Initially our home was listed in the “secondary” area, a region only to be served under ideal market conditions and probably not right away. But we live in an area that connects two primary zones, so Paul Bunyan Communication decided to include us at the last minute.

Others weren’t so lucky. Hundreds of folks, many of whom had advocated for the project at the local and state level, were in secondary areas that won’t be served this time around. Paul Bunyan says they’d like to serve those areas next year, if they are successful in securing new funding.

Thousands more across Minnesota live in places unserved or underserved by broadband. As I’ve written many times before, broadband is a modern utility — on par with electricity and phone service. Places that have utilities, especially places where school aged children or working people live, should have the same ability to pay for access to the high speed internet service as other customers.

We don’t know how much Minnesota will spend to expand access to broadband internet this year. We do know that the legislature will allocate more than they did last year. The question of how much goes to broadband remains unanswered amid a shortened legislative session now drawing to a typically dysfunctional high-drama conclusion.

Gov. Mark Dayton asked for $100 million in new spending for his Border to Broadband initiative, the same program that funded Paul Bunyan’s expansion in Itasca County. The DFL Senate has included $85 million for broadband in its proposed budget.

The GOP House, which whittled last year’s broadband investment down to less than $20 million, is proposing $35 million this year. However, some of the funding is dedicated to things like creating wi-fi hotspots on school buses and other alternative ways to access the internet without expanding the network.

Even as the House pumps the brakes on Dayton’s more ambitious, comprehensive proposal, it bears mentioning that they did improve from last year.

The reason why is simple. Broadband is a big, big winner of a political issue in rural Minnesota. As I wrote late last year, the people who show up to meetings about new broadband access aren’t hipsters wearing Bernie Sanders shirts (though there are some, to be sure), they’re literally a cross section of a whole rural community.

Minnesota Republicans might be loathe to spend money on anything that resembles a social construct, but they have to acknowledge that if they’re going to build a majority based on rural Minnesota they need to avoid being labeled anti-broadband. Even conservatives use Netflix and video conferencing for work.

Doing nothing on broadband would jeopardize the 10 rural seats the GOP won in 2014 to wrest control of the House from the DFL.

But if you’re on the other side of the coverage map, wondering if you’ll be included in broadband expansion next year, what would you prefer? $100 million for broadband? $85 million? Or $35 million?

Perhaps the final number improves by end of this session. E-commuters, school kids, and home based businesses are certainly counting on it. In the future, we will wonder why this took so long. Rural voters would be wise to pay attention to the point of contact between promises and reality.



  1. You lucky dog. Paul Bunyan’s service is excellent. Here across the line in St Louis county, no one is doing anything that I know of to extend broadband outside the settled towns. It looks like I’ll be stuck with a 4G hotspot for at least the next 10 years, after that I probably won’t care anymore.

    Landline phones really are an increasingly irrelevant utility if there’s good cell service. I gave up mine after at least 20 attempts by Centurylink to patch up the line without success. It just wasn’t reliable enough to be worth bothering with.

  2. I’d prefer $100 million and anyone who actually cares about revitalizing the Iron Range

  3. Jesse Bearheart says

    Century Link hired contractors two years ago to string fibre optic broadband cable on the electric poles in rural Cook (Beatty Township specifically). The understanding was that it would be installed last year. That never happened due to legislative priority changes. The cable is still there; we’re still waiting.

  4. It took longer than they said for Cook County , as well, but most of us got connected last year. Of course there are only 5000 of us on a good day. It came through with our electric power co-op. It is way better, faster, and more reliable, than the satellite service I had. It is a utility like phone or electricity and should be available to everyone who wants it. It is not cheap, but is necessary to keep us from becoming a third world country.

  5. Jane Koschak says

    This situation is incredibly difficult for business owners, like me, to operate. Our service in Stony River Township, serviced by Frontier, is deplorable. Intermittent, spotty connections with unbelievable slow speed. It can take two to four hours longer to do a project than it should. Try sending an email with an attachment, add on 10 minutes to the “send time, if it sends at all. Staff worked for seven hours to put the finishing touches on a guest newsletter because of constant lack of connectivity. Ridulous. Had to drive 8.5 miles to Ely to have the consistent connection needed to send the bulk email. Inconveniences, lost time that could be used doing other tasks, high cost of wages due to time on a task that should take a third less time, etc., etc. Our service does not come close to meeting state guidelines, and Republicans are denying funding!! I would like to observe any legislator attempt to conduct the business of governing our state with the terrible Internet service that my business has had to endure. We need a level “playing field” for all Minnesotans. We CANNOT wait any longer, nor should we have to. Appropriate the money needed to bring rural Minnesota to equal status with other areas of this state. We could be adding on more jobs if we had proper and consistent connectivity.

  6. Minnesota needs decent broadband everywhere in the state. This is the US, for pete’s sake, not a third world country. Call MN legislators starting with MN Speaker of the House.

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