Off the grid in Cook County and still wanting the Internet

The electrons were still wet on the announcement Monday afternoon that Cook County was getting federal stimulus money for high-speed Internet access when Joe Buttweiler got another reminder of how much some people in the northeastern corner of Minnesota want it.

Buttweiler is the director of member services for Arrowhead Electric, the small, member-owned cooperative that delivers electricity to most of Cook County. Arrowhead landed the $16.1 million federal award to provide fiber optic cable in the next three years to every home on its electrical grid (plus in Grand Marais, the county seat, which gets electricity from another provider.)

It was the electrical grid that came into play for the resident who called Buttweiler Monday. He wasn’t on it.

Craggy, wooded, lake-filled Cook County is home to fewer than 6,000 people. Its remoteness and small population make it tough for industry to make money providing Internet service and as a result it’s the least served county in the state. It also is probably safe to say it has more residents living off the utility grid than a lot of other places.

So, Buttweiler’s caller wanted to say, even though he was off the grid, he was close and he wanted Internet access. Buttweiler said he wasn’t sure immediately how close “close” meant but he assured the person Arrowhead would figure out a way to provide service if it could.

The federal award is a huge step for Arrowhead, and getting the service to Buttweiler’s caller and everybody else in the county in a way that people can afford won’t be easy. Arrowhead is the latest small cooperative to venture into providing broadband access. Some rural telephone companies around Minnesota also have been pulling in federal stimulus money for the purpose.

Arrowhead has a partnership with a Missouri company, Pulse Broadband, to provide a fiber technology it says uses fewer lines of fiber for similar service and thus can save money.

There had been some confusion over Pulse’s involvement in recent weeks, Buttweiler said. Arrowhead pulled its application when it thought Pulse has shifted position and could no longer promise it would line up service providers. Pulse assured Arrowhead and the U.S. Department of Agriculture it will have providers for the phone service involved and will provide Internet service itself, Buttweiler said.

That got the application back on the burner, he said.

The award means local government won’t be playing the central role, as it does in, say Monticello and Windom. That’s a contrast with the Lake County award the same day, $66 million for service throughout that county and part of St. Louis County. Lake County will own that operation and hire a non-profit to run it.

Howard Hedstrom, owner of Hedstrom Lumber and a member of the Cook County-appointed group trying to corral better Internet access, was ecstatic Monday. He said the lack of a strong local government role will only add to popular support for Arrowhead’s project.

“Everyone I talked to so far is extremely excited,” Hedstrom said. “It was scary for them. They deserve a pat on the back.”