MOUNTAIN IRON — Advocates for better broadband in northeastern Minnesota met on Tuesday in Mountain Iron to explore funding availability and strategies for increased connectivity across the area.

Now is a good time for communities to take the proper steps to prepare for grant applications, representatives said, especially because of the local, state and federal sources available to tap into and an Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and Blandin Foundation partnership.

“There are general fund dollars (state money) and local matching dollars this year … to grow connectivity in our area,” said Jason Metsa, deputy commissioner for the IRRRB.

An IRRRB infrastructure grant has up to $2 million dedicated for fiscal year 2020 to serve as a local match in leveraging other state and federal grants for broadband. The funds are available for unserved and underserved areas, with up to a 25% match.

St. Louis County has large areas considered unserved or underserved.

Local funding resources, which other rural parts of the state have employed, include local cash contributions, tax abatement bonds and dedication of special taxes.

Federal dollars are available through the United States Department of Agriculture ReConnect initiative and state funding from the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program.

Bill Coleman, with Community Technology Advisors, based in St. Paul, who works on a contract basis with the Blandin Foundation, said he attended a similar “Broadband 101” meeting in the area two years ago.

“There were only six people” there, compared to the attendees from various cities and townships who filled a room at the Mountain Iron Community Center Tuesday.

During the past two years, 10 communities on the Iron Range have been working to improve broadband access, supported with resources from the IRRRB, Blandin and St. Louis County.

High-speed Internet connection is imperative to economic development, which is becoming much more “about attracting people,” Coleman said. “Without broadband, that’s not going to happen.”

Broadband is necessary as more people are connecting, using more devices and cloud computing, such as using Google Drive, he said.

“The average family uses 250 gigabytes of data per month” and has 13 devices that rely on Internet connection, including Ring video doorbell, thermostats and even implantable medial devices, Coleman noted.

Not long from now, households will likely average 50 such devices, he added.

“Broadband is responsible for 23.4% of all new jobs,” and in “30% of homes, someone is teleworking,” said Whitney Ridlon, of the IRRRB development department. “It is a critical piece of economic development.”

She provided an example of a used car salesman in Hibbing who said his sales increased dramatically because of website traffic.

Wired broadband infrastructure capabilities far exceed those of wireless, Coleman said. Broadband using fiber optic cable “is inexpensive to maintain.” However, it is the most expensive to build.

That’s where funding sources and using existing infrastructure come into play, Ridlon said.

“It’s great to have the partnership” of the IRRRB, Coleman said. “No one else in the state has an agency” providing such resources.

Paul Brinkman, executive director of the Northeast Service Co-op in Mountain Iron, spoke briefly about its broadband efforts that began in 2010.

A federally funded, multi-million dollar project that laid nearly 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable across eight northeastern Minnesota counties was completed in 2015. “We are at 1,200 miles of fiber now,” he said. “The IRRRB has been very supportive of our project.”

Betsy Olivanti, of the Northeast Minnesota Small Business Development Center, said it is essential for communities to show potential providers proof of community support and to take certain steps, such as knowing what infrastructure is already in place.

“If we don’t do the work,” providers won’t be interested, she said.

Other feasibility steps include preliminary engineering and market surveys.

Communities throughout the Range have been conducting feasibility studies and are at various stages of project development.

The Mountain Iron to Hibbing project, which includes residents who live within the Hibbing, Mountain Iron-Buhl and Chisholm school districts, is moving ahead on efforts to become “shovel-ready,” Olivanti said. Residents completed surveys last year.

Diane Wells, of the state Department of Economic Development office of Broadband Development, said it is looking to communities to become a supportive partner along with the providers. Local communities need to be involved, she said.

Kip Borbiconi, a resident working on the Cherry Township project, spearheaded local involvement in his community. He knocked on doors to get residents onboard, he said.

Borbiconi, who joined a panel at Tuesday’s public meeting, said he often hears about young people who won’t come home to visit families at Christmas because of the lack of Internet access.

Joe Buttweiler, of CTC Brainerd, said the Internet provider is working with the township “because they’ve done some work.”

Elissa Hansen spoke of the Laurentian to East Range to Tower project, which is also doing its homework via feasibility studies. After all, too often kids have to use public libraries to do their school homework because of poor online access, she said.

Harold Langowski, Ely’s city clerk-treasurer and operations director, said the Ely-area community is also working with CTC to bring broadband to its downtown corridor by extending a fiber loop.

The project recently received a $120,000 grant from the IRRRB, and “we are meeting with a contractor next week,” he said.

Langowski noted that many Ely businesses don’t yet have websites; the only way to contact them is by phone. A current priority is to get Google listings for businesses in town.

“We are hopeful to be fiber-ready by fall,” he said.

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