Feds award $82 million for NE Minnesota broadband

Two projects aimed at bringing high speed Internet access to the North Shore and other remote parts of Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties have been awarded a total of $82 million in federal stimulus money.

The Arrowhead Electric Cooperative was given a $16.1 million award to build fiber optic cable that would serve Cook County. Cook County, which has the worst Internet access in the state, has been wrestling for years with ways to get better connections. Voters a year ago lent some support to a plan that would have created a new utility, but the project didn’t get the necessary 65 percent support.

In addition, Lake County was awarded $66.3 million to let fiber deliver voice, video and data to every home and business in Lake and eastern St. Louis County.

The awards, announced today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, add to the roughly $150 million in federal stimulus money already announced for Minnesota projects.

Universal broadband access has become increasingly visible as an issue for rural parts of Minnesota and the nation. Residents see it as a key to economic development and quality of life improvements. Advances in education, medicine, government services and other fields have many rural residents fearing they will become second-class citizens if they don’t have adequate access.

At a public forum last month sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gunflint Lodge owner Bruce Kerfoot lamented that he could make a reservation in minutes at a lodge in a remote village in Switzerland but that nobody could do likewise at his Gunflint Trail operation because he has no ready service.

The Federal Communications Commission has made universal access part of its national broadband plan, but getting high-speed access to remote areas like Cook County is expensive and doesn’t draw investment from industry.

Here are other Minnesota projects that received awards earlier:

–$16.8 million for Enventis Telecom to run two fiber lines totalling 428 miles. One will extend from the Twin Cities to the Duluth area and the other will run from Brainerd to the Fargo-Moorhead area. The lines are known as “middle mile,” not running directly to residences but delivering the capability for future projects to make those connections.

–$6 million to Carver County to build a middle-mile fiber project connecting some 55 health providers, schools, libraries and other institutions with speeds much greater than is available to them today. It’s similar to a grant provided to Anoka County earlier.

–$866,000 to Sjoberg’s Inc. to allow service in Roseau, Thief River Falls and the small town of Fox, largely benefitting farms in that area of northwestern Minnesota.

–$7.4 million to Wikstrom Telephone Co. to run 414 miles of new cable to serve six communities in Kittson, Roseau and Marshall counties. This includes improved service to, of all places, Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.

–$15.1 million to Woodstock Telephone Co. to extend fiber in 15 communities in southwestern Minnesota.

–$9.7 million to the Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. to build fiber for rural Lac qui Parle County.

–$5 million to the Arvig Telephone Co. to bring DSL service to 830 households in rural areas near Backus and Pequot Lakes, which are north of Brainerd.

–$3 million to Federated Telephone Cooperative to extend fiber in rural Morris. Federated already has received $1.2 million in grants and loans to build a fiber system serving a rural area around Appleton in western Minnesota.

–$2.9 million to the University of Minnesota to establish and improve computer centers in four areas of poverty in the Twin Cities.

–$4.9 million to the Blandin Foundation to work in rural Minnesota to increase computer literacy and provide a variety of training, education and technical assistance.

–$1.7 million to the Leech Lake Reservation Business Committee to create computer centers on three Minnesota Indian reservations.

— $13.4 million to Zayo Bandwidth build a 286-mile fiber network serving Anoka County and parts of Ramsey and Isanti counties.

–$1.2 million to Federated Telephone Cooperative to build a 108-mile fiber network for rural residents around Appleton, Minnesota.

–$12.7 million to the city of Windom to expand its fiber network, adding 125 miles to reach eight nearby communities.

–$43.5 million to the Northeast Service Cooperative to make fiber connections available to providers in northeastern Minnesota.

–$6.5 million to the Halstad Telephone Company to provide 320 miles of fiber to reach five communities in northwestern Minnesota.

–$1.1 million to the Minnesota Valley Television Improvement Corporation to continue building a network to serve 34 communities in west central and south central Minnesota.

  • I understand we are in an information economy, but does that obligate us to spend the money for every remote cabin to be connected to the information superhighway? It is hard to imagine this generating a proportionate level of prosperity, let alone a return to the diminished public coffers.

    There are fewer than 5,000 homes in Lake County. At $66 million, that is over $13,000 per household served.

    Not sure how much of eastern St. Louis County is included, but I doubt it is enough to bend the cost curve to a respectable level.

    What are the values that would have us start such an undertaking? This may be a trendy idea, but we’re not going to spend our way into economic recovery if this is how we go about it.

  • Dave Peters

    Not necessarily rebutting your point, Chuck, but I should have noted in the original post that the $66 million award for Lake County is mostly a loan.

    About $10 million is a grant and $56 million is in the form of a loan.

    In Cook County, the split is $11.3 million in a grant and $4.8 million as a loan.

    I’m not sure whether that makes you think any differently about it. You’ve put your finger on a sore spot in the broadband debate. The FCC says everyone should have it but having it really, really fast is just too expensive for that last 5 or 6 percent of the population.

    Lots of people hate to hear that.

  • Charles Marohn

    Thanks Dave,

    Yeah, I can see value in everyone having access to it, but that may mean being able to go to an internet cafe in town to use it. I think it may be easier to say that the public’s obligation is to get it to the town. Getting it to every remote location everyone has chosen to live in seems hard to justify.

    I agree, the advocates in this realm are not keen on that logic.

  • Gregg

    Does anyone have experience with internet service from the DishTv companies? DirecTv and/or Dish Network offer high speed internet that can be located nearly anywhere (with a view of the southern sky). What’s wrong with their services?