Real hope for rural broadband on the Iron Range

PHOTO: Gavin St. Ours, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

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

Growing up I always lived just outside the towns of the Iron Range. Back roads. Cracked pavement and dirt roads.

My family ran small businesses. Some lasted a while. Some not so much. Such is the nature of small business. The ‘80s were bad. They were for a lot of people.

School changed my life. Teachers took an interest. The world opened up before my eyes.

These are the promises of America, of life on the Mesabi Iron Range. The idea is that all kids get a shot, no matter how well their parents are doing. Creativity and entrepreneurship can lead us out of the dark times.

The world keeps changing but this never should. And in 2018, that means that rural kids need access to high-speed broadband internet access. So do small businesses. So does everyone.

A new initiative called Iron Range Communities Broadband now takes shape in rural areas around Hibbing, Chisholm, Cherry, Buhl and Mountain Iron. Locations that currently have no broadband internet access, or extremely slow access, may soon be hooked up to high speed service.

“New ventures are what is needed,” reads the background of a new report by Neo Connect for the project. “In addition to strengthening local communities with increased revenues, new businesses diversify the economy, hardening it against future downturns and ensuring sustainable long-term job creation.”

Rural residents who work full time are more likely to live in poverty than those who live in town, according to the same report. In fact, there aren’t many problems on the Iron Range — from population loss to declining school enrollment — that can’t be tied to the need for new industries beyond our natural resource base.

And the key to all of this is consistent progress toward universal broadband internet access.
So, how does this work?

I’ve written before about how rural sections of central Itasca County petitioned for internet access. The county, business partners, townships and school boards banded together. The key was in showing private internet providers that a reliable customer base existed in these rural areas.

Now that same process could work for rural residents of the Hibbing, Chisholm and Mountain Iron-Buhl school districts, and Cherry Township. That means that places like Side Lake, Balkan Township, Great Scott, and vast rural areas outside Hibbing could finally see high speed internet.

I think about Mr. Ed’s Farm southwest of Hibbing. Ed Nelson’s horse-powered farm is a great place for kids to learn about livestock and agriculture. He can’t do a live webcam of his adorable animals, though, because he doesn’t have high speed internet, nor can he reach classrooms all over the country.

We all have our favorite back woods bars and restaurants. With wifi and e-commerce, they can serve even more people, competing with the places in town.

And the kid who gets off the school bus last, who walks up a dirt road to mom and dad, has the same iPad and online homework as the kid who lives in town.

The Iron Range Communities Broadband project is a multi-step process with many partners involved. Eventually, cities, school and township boards will need to take action. Grants and other funding sources will be won. But the most important people are citizens who would benefit from access to the new service. And if that describes you, there’s something you can do now.

Several meetings will be held where residents can support expansion of broadband service to their homes:

5 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25 at Chisholm City Hall
5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26 at the Hibbing Economic Development Authority meeting at Hibbing City Hall
6 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools office in Mt. Iron
6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 at Great Scott Town Hall
5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 at Mt. Iron Economic Development Authority at Mt. Iron City Hall
7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 at Side Lake Community Center in French Township
4 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Hibbing School Board chambers at Hibbing High School
7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Cherry Township Hall

Attending meetings like this makes a huge difference in convincing public officials that the investment of time and resources is worthwhile. I can distinctly recall how a packed Balsam Township meeting made it clear to local officials there was no turning back.

Expanding broadband doesn’t just matter to students and young professionals, but to everyone connected to our modern economy. So get out there and show officials how much this matters.

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, Sept. 23, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Steve Giorgi says

    Aaron thanks for the article and support for our efforts. The expansion of rural broadband truly “ takes a village” to make progress. Now we will see if there are any brave and progressive community leaders willing to commit to investing in a broadband backbone that will move their community to grant economic opportunities.

  2. I just read an interesting article in City Pages about rural minnesota broadband struggles and what some communities are doing to remedy their lack.

  3. That is a very important article, Kissa. Kudos for mentioning it here. This is the link.

  4. It is the most important infrastructure program required for a stable 21st Century rural economy, period. We need to think big and bold as our grandparents did with the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930’s. Imagine how it changed the lives of those farmers back in the day. It was so much more than one single lightbulb hanging out in the barn. The Act literally changed the world for our rural families and the small communities that thrived as a result of their hard work and success. Our elected representatives need to get serious and create a Rural Broadband/High Speed Internet Act with funding to back it up. Our nation’s rural healthcare, education and small business development hangs in the balance.

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