Lake County strings broadband fiber; Cook County gets cash

Workers started stringing fiber Tuesday for the sprawling Lake County broadband project, which has become a hotspot in the debate over the public’s role in extending Internet access. Meanwhile, just up the road in Cook County, that debate is muted, and the first federal check to build a broadband fiber network just rolled in.

Check out MPR News reporter Dan Kraker’s report from Lake County, where more than $60 million in federal stimulus money is slated to help build a fiber network that would improve broadband service in all of Lake County and part of rural St. Louis County.

Businesses and residents have long clamored for better service, but cable company Mediacom has been crying foul about the county’s project for several years now. Mediacom doesn’t serve the whole project area but it argues that for the county’s project to succeed it will have to steal customers in the areas Mediacom does serve, like Two Harbors.

It feels a lot like the Monticello debate, which resulted in stiff competition between a city owned network and private providers. The public system there is struggling to generate the revenue it expected, and the city recently decided to stop making bond payments.

But up the shore from Lake County, in Grand Marais, Joe Buttweiler was a happy man Tuesday. The first $550,000 federal check had just arrived, reimbursing Arrowhead Electric Cooperative for its early engineering and design work on a project making fiber and broadband available to everybody in Cook County.

The system is about 10 percent built, said Buttweiler, Arrowhead’s director of broadband projects, and the first residents and businesses should see service in early 2013, somewhere around Lutsen, Tofte or Schroeder.

No private opponent has emerged to generate much of a private-public debate in Cook County. For one reason, even though a total of $16.1 million in federal money is going into it, the local electric cooperative, rather than a government body, is building the network. And secondly, broadband availability in Cook County is demonstrably worse.

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