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Broadband buildout begins

Erik Peterson does what he loves, consulting for grassroots advocacy in agriculture, the environment and social justice. It finds him regularly doing work with people all over the world, including as far away as Australia.

All of it he does from his home off North Cloquet Road in Esko, since 2009.

For some tasks, he's got to make sure his wife is not on the computer, so that his internet connection through telephone lines isn't disrupted.

It was years before the Petersons learned that not all internet videos regularly stalled into a "buffering" posture. When he and his wife want to watch an internet movie, they launch it two hours in advance to give it time to load. He has to warn clients at the start of video conferences to be patient if he freezes.

So this spring, when he saw contractors hewing fiber optic conduit into the right of way on Olson Road and posting flags to mark paths to drop fiber optic internet service lines into his home, he was thrilled.

"This is transformational," Peterson said last week. "It means that you could be living on a farm in a rural area and have access to anything anybody in an urban center has - that is, library service, to medical consultation, to the ability to build a business."

The transformational $10.9 million project features 180 miles of fiber optic cable, and will bring higher internet speeds and greater reliability to households across a wide area of rural Carlton County, all the way north to Munger and Solway Township. Mediacom is responsible for the project that has potential to reach 1,679 homes, 420 of those in Thomson Township, should they choose to sign up for the service.

"It's a big lift doing these projects serving over 1,000 homes," said Kate Hotle, director of government and public affairs for Medicom, based in the Quad Cities of Iowa.

She described the project as originating in 2022 and being grant-based through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which is paying half the cost with Mediacom matching the other half. Without state and federal funding, rural areas don't offer the volume to make it worthwhile for providers to bury fiber optic infrastructure, she and other sources explained.

"There's a reason why they don't have (broadband) service yet," Hotle said. "Infrastructure is expensive, especially when you're talking about spaced-out homes. Our standard is 10 homes per quarter-mile."

Fortunately, the state's $53 million Border-to-Border program, announced in March, and the federal Inflation Reduction Act funding $773 million for rural infrastructure, including broadband, arrived earlier this year. Those supportive funding mechanisms make it feasible for providers to reach deep into pockets of rural America.

The newspaper learned of scores of new projects in the county's queue. In addition to Esko, Mediacom is in the process of reaching 549 homes in Scanlon.

SCI Broadband based in Hinckley is taking the lead on projects bound for places such as Automba (with its two or three homes per mile), Barnum Township and the Barnum lakes area extending west to Kettle River, and Eagle Lake south of Cromwell.

Scott Savage is the president of business development for SCI Broadband, which started as a cable television company 40 years ago. SCI was responsible for bringing fiber optic cable to Cromwell 12 years ago.

"We're leveraging both federal and state dollars to expand into Carlton County," Savage said. "We're also leveraging our 'middle mile.' That's how we're doing it, essentially."

The middle mile is an existing mainline along corridors such as Interstate 35 that the company established across many years.

"Then, from there, you have distribution lines along smaller roads that go to communities," Savage said.

Rural broadband equity became a hot topic during the Covid-19 pandemic, when stories popped up in places such as the Iron Range. Students and families, kept out of their schools, conducted online schooling in libraries and parking lots near places that featured good internet connectivity.

Paul McDonald is from Ely and a commissioner on the St. Louis county board. He joined Governor Tim Walz's Task Force on Broadband seven months ago, saying he wanted to be a voice for rural Minnesota and its counties.

"I represent a very large district geographically," McDonald said. "And, while not a lot of people, all of them deserve to have the same luxuries as everybody else in the state."

His main takeaway so far is that rural communities in search of greater connectivity need to galvanize and not give up. Even being denied a first time means a step in the right direction.

"I'd like to stress that you need very active people in your township to do the boots-on-the-ground work," McDonald said, of contacting politicians and providers. "It does start at the local level with engaged people to get the project rolling in the right direction."

To McDonald's point, in Thomson Township, it was residents' groundswell that started the process.

"We were asked by many, many residents, 'When will we get broadband?'" township supervisor Ruth Janke said, describing how that was followed by more formal advocacy up the ladder.

A $2.5 million project this summer from SCI, including rural Barnum and Eagle Lake, received $50,000 from the Carlton County board in February, to go with $1.2 million from SCI and $1.25 million from a state grant program.

"I would say communities that are coming to us know us," Savage said. "We're more (well-known) over in the western part of the county. We used our own private capital to build out the city of Cromwell."

In Thomson, public works supervisor Jonathan Bouvine and staff have been kept busy by the ongoing fiber optic installation. They have been conducting anywhere from 10 to 20 underground locations per day prior to broadband contractors coming through to dig trenches in rights of way or bore through drives and underneath water sources.

"I view it as a positive for anybody looking to move into this community," Bouvine said of fiber optic broadband. "Esko is a growing community, and anybody looking to move here, they don't have to question it now. It's a huge benefit."

Not every person sees it that way. Some residents have called to complain about contractor intrusions to their yards and rights of way. Some residents have even pulled up flags posted by workers to mark paths or obstacles.

"I've gotten negative comments - people not wanting it," Bouvine said. "But in 2024, why wouldn't you want high-speed internet?"

Once fiber is dropped to the home, Savage said SCI anticipates a conversion rate to fiber optic subscriptions of about 50 percent.

"We still have competition," he said. "CenturyLink, Frontier (Internet) ... we're not going to get everybody. Some of the older demographic is fine and doesn't want to switch, no matter what."

SCI drops to a home only if the residence signs up for service, he said.

Within the next three years, SCI expects to bring 150 miles of new fiber optic service to Carlton County, including partial areas in Silver and Split Rock townships surrounding Kettle River.

"This is very rural," Savage said. "You need DEED funding, because there's only a couple homes per mile."

Mediacom's Hotle describe its service reaching 1.3 million customers across 22 states.

"Which makes us tiny compared to Comcast or Charter," she said. "But we continue to expand into areas we can hit a reasonable return on investment."

Mediacom will invest in a project, so long as it can project to gain profitability within 10 years, she said.

"We're a company that does broadband," she said. "That's what we do, and we're always looking to grow the business and service more customers and people. If we're able to do that with reasonable financial risk, then 'yes.'"

One of the questions Esko resident Erik Peterson has is how long it will take fiber optic to reach his home, now that he's seen it develop along the roadside.

The vague answer is: that depends. If it's a smaller project started in spring, Savage said lines are likely to reach the home before the ground freezes. On an expansive project such as the one involving Esko, it may take longer, into 2025.

"The earliest a customer may be online is by late summer, early fall," Mediacom's Hotle said. "But the whole project may not be complete until a year from now. We race against the clock, with winter coming as early as October."

Both Savage and Hotle were hesitant to guess at how long the lines last once they're in the ground. The first lines SCI installed 25 years ago are still in operation, with no issues. Hotle said Mediacom has fiber infrastructure more than 30 years old that's still running efficiently.

Newer, more advanced technology would be expected to last as long or longer, she said.

It's all violins to Peterson's ears. He equated it to the expansion of electricity thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt's executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935.

"I keep going back to the word 'transformational,'" Peterson said. "Not just for me, but for anybody in this area. Particularly in an age where remote working is becoming more and more popular, it allows you to set up a thriving business in an area like this - not to mention watch video without waiting for it to buffer."

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