New urgency for rural broadband

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.

My family and I live down a long dirt road in rural Itasca County. Mud season reminds us of the challenges of rural life and the thin tendon joining our home to civilization. This world seems even farther away during the coronavirus pandemic sweeping our nation and the world, but it’s still there. We still see it.

That’s because almost four years ago Paul Bunyan Communication installed fiber optic lines connecting our home to high speed internet. This momentous event resulted from a long, exhaustive effort by this rural cooperative and partners in the community, state, and private sector. You might remember me yowling like a carnival barker about the topic over the last decade.

As a result of having high speed internet my family opened our first week of “remote learning” last Monday with all the tools we needed. As a college instructor, I conducted a video conference for my students so I could explain how they can finish the course and graduate. My wife Christina, who also works at the college, was able to confer with colleagues and students as they navigated problems in their education.

Each of my three sons was able to use his school iPad to access not only his assignments, but the actual talking heads of all his teachers, who could answer any questions he might have. No, it was not the same as learning in a social environment. But it was a way to keep learning while protecting human life during a crisis. And we are grateful for that.

But there’s more than just education at stake. There’s our health and economic future: the two most important aspects of the coronavirus story so far.

Thanks to high speed internet we may access e-visits with our health provider. If we feel sick we can confer with our doctor before making a trip to town, potentially exposing ourselves or others to the virus.

And our work continues. Yes, I work in higher education, but I’m also a writer and producer. Each week I meet with a business partner in New York and relay media materials all over the country. Though affected by COVID-19, my work continues unabated.

So it is for people with high speed internet, whether they live in a big city or on a rolling hill by a swamp where whitetail deer hunker down for the winter.

But it is not so for many others, including some who live even closer to town than we do. The limits of cell phone hot spots and slower internet services became a living hell for many during this crisis. Schools talk about the achievement gap between students of means and privilege and those who have neither. That gap became a canyon this week, requiring herculean efforts by educators and parents. And still children and families are being left behind.

You can’t replicate what you learn in a crisis. The data is just too valuable. So, too, is the opportunity.

For years, rural broadband advocates chipped through mountainous barriers like a chain gang with picks and shovels. We’ve explained that the internet is no longer a luxury, that it’s much more than just games and Netflix. We’ve demonstrated how broadband attracts and supports entrepreneurs and educated professionals who create economic growth. And we’ve celebrated small victories along the way.

But COVID-19 has laid bare the effects of further delay. When rural Minnesota shelters in place some have access to the 21st Century economy and some have nothing at all. It’s time to put away the picks and shovels and bring out the dynamite.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 5, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Bonnie Lokenvitz says

    Thank you Aaron! From the southern half of CD8 where broadband is spotty and does not reach that ‘last mile’. We need broadband more than we need oil pipelines.

  2. True, covid-19 has laid bare the effects of delay for broadband along with a multitude of other issues.

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