Another rural broadband effort emerges

DULUTH — Another mutli-county effort to expand broadband access has emerged in east central Minnesota.

Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Pine, Aitkin and Carlton counties and the Fond du Lac Indian reservation met last week to talk about access difficulties. Today, a representative of the group told the state task force on broadband access to keep efforts like theirs in mind.

The outlines of the situation are familiar. Residents of cities get service from phone companies like Frontier and CenturyLink or cable companies but most of the residents live outside those communities. Local leaders frustrated with poor service don’t want to start their own service providers but frequently are disappointed that existing providers aren’t more energetic in extending their networks.

The east central communities are just starting to talk, said Marc Johnson, director of East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative, provider of service to school districts in the region.

But Johnson urged the task force meeting here today to find ways to make their path easier. Offer incentives, he said, prompting task force member Gary Evans, head of Winona-based provider HBC, to ask what those might be.

“Policies and procedures that make it easier for private carriers to combine with public entities and funding mechanisms that make it easier,” Johnson responded.

Johnson’s plea was echoed by Janet Keough, a township supervisor north of Duluth whose neighboring communities face similar difficulties, and by Jake Dahl, an 18-year-old Biwabik app developer who said he needed high-speed Internet access in order to expand his entrepreneurial efforts.

“I’m planning to live on the Iron Range the rest of my life,” he told the task force. He’s developed software to help high school students with math concepts.

The task force is planning to issue a report next month outlining how Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature might respond to the concerns Johnson, Keough and Dahl expressed. Judging from today’s session, easing the path for public and private cooperation is top of mind for many people.

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