Ely vying for broadband grant, would benefit area

by Tom Coombe -

Tired of waiting for a private solution, the city of Ely is taking matters into its own hands when it comes to broadband service.
The city is in the running for a Blandin Broadband Communities Grant, and city officials are exploring a phased-in approach to bringing high-speed internet to Ely - perhaps first in the downtown corridor.
“We have really taken some major steps as far as addressing our broadband issues,” said John Fedo, the city’s economic developer.
Fedo called broadband “an essential utility,” and told council members Tuesday about efforts to jumpstart a long-stalled process.
“There seems to be an opportunity for Ely to step into this vacuum and really step up,” said Fedo. “Not only to look at redundancy, but the delivery of service in an affordable way.”
For now, Ely has been on the outside looking in, and broadband access has been a virtual buzzword in political circles.
Ely leaders say broadband or high-speed internet is vital for economic development, community vitality, health care, education and government.
Council member Al Forsman talked of his own struggles at home with private service.
“It really is a problem here,” he said. “It’s not like I have bottom (level) service. We need a solution. This is a home example and I know businesses need it too.”
Numerous area entities, ranging from the Ely School District and Morse Township to Vermilion Community College, have endorsed Ely’s efforts to become one of a handful of regional communities to obtain Blandin funding.
Fedo talked of a set-up in which the city of Ely could take the lead, perhaps in accord with a private partner who could use the city utility and provide the service.
It’s a proactive approach, said Fedo, “rather than waiting for somebody to propose a solution on our behalf.”
Fedo indicated a successful application could lead to “some sort of providing service within the downtown corridor” within six-to-12 months.
Mayor Chuck Novak strongly endorsed the effort, noting his own involvement in various efforts to bring broadband to Ely, including a fiber-to-the-premise initiative that was squelched several years ago after other participating communities dropped out.
“I actually have some hope now,” said Novak.
Novak noted that several providers including cell phone and television companies are served by one link into town.
“When that puppy takes a hit, we’re down in Ely,” said Novak. “I don’t understand why we don’t have any redundancy.”
The Blandin Foundation is now taking applications for an initiative made possible through a partnership between the foundation and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Teams from the four Iron Range cohort communities selected will receive planning and organizing support, and the opportunity to apply for approximately $65,000 in grant funding over two years for locally developed projects that address community identified needs, and up to $25,000 to conduct a Robust Network Feasibility Study. However, Blandin Broadband Communities are not guaranteed any grant support.
Selected communities must show “significant commitment” to a broadband initiative throughout the two-year grant period.