In Cook County, clogging the highway to get high-speed Internet

On Wednesday, I noted that nearly 75 percent of Minnesota households now have Internet access at speeds that reach the state’s goals, yet three Minnesota counties still have no access at those speeds.

One of those is Cook County, the northeastern Minnesota recipient of federal stimulus dollars to make fiber available to all residents. So I called Joe Buttweiler, director of membership services at Arrowhead Electrical Cooperative, to see how they were doing.

One big milestone passed, he said. Last month, Arrowhead celebrated getting its headquarters wired up in Lutsen by holding an open house. More than 300 people showed up.

“We ran out of food and people clogged Highway 61,” many of them trying out the wireless Arrowhead is making available, he said.

Since then it’s not uncommon to see people sitting in the parking lot at odd hours just to use the high-speed service on their laptops or tablets, he added.

One musician Buttweiler knows had been using a coffee shop in Grand Marais to do a weekly upload of large files, typically taking an hour and a half to accomplish what he needed. Now he comes to the Arrowhead building and does the same thing in five or 10 minutes.

Arrowhead is running optical fiber throughout the county to provide high-speed access to anyone who wants it. Most of the construction is done. Now they need to do “a lot, a lot, a lot” of cable splicing to connect the fiber to people’s homes. First service is set for January or February, he said.

The demand for better broadband, expressed when Cook County residents voted in 2009 to increase their sales tax to get better broadband service apparently is still there.

Buttweiler said the federal deadline to complete stimulus projects has been pushed back to late 2015. Cook County will be done by then, he said.