Study on broadband needs up next

Consultant said one option for rural areas could be 180-foot towers for wireless service

The program at the September 20 Rotary Club meeting featured speakers looking into the past and into the future. Erik Simula (left) spoke to the club about the Minnesota Canoe Museum, the evolving efforts to capture our canoe history, and Jack Maytum of Design Nine told about his work through a Blandin Foundation grant regarding better internet service to Ely.

by Joe Domich
With some people still suffering through dial-up like service, a group is seeking to find solutions for slow internet connections in the Ely area.
The Ely Area Broadband Coalition met Wednesday to discuss future plans for faster internet connections in the Ely area.
The group has hired a consultant to complete a feasibility study in the Ely area to develop options for improved internet speed.
Jack Maytum, Senior Broadband Analyst with Design Nine, was at the meeting taking input and discussing opportunities.
Only a few minutes into the meeting stories of poor internet service surfaced.
Town of Morse supervisor Terry Soderberg was asked if he has six megabyte service at his house off of Hwy. 21.
“There’s a big difference between six and point six,” said Soderberg, who told the group he “made a leap of faith” and sent his application for service to Lake Connections, the troubled provider owned by Lake County.
Lake Connections has provided high speed connections to a number of people south of Ely, including to residents in Babbitt and Embarrass. However the company managing the project scaled back when funds dried up.
Lake County hired CTC to manage Lake Connections and is now trying to sell the business.
“We’re connecting customers with the resources we have. With Lake County selling Lake Connections it will be another six months before there’s any real movement on selling the network. At that time whoever purchases Lake Connections is who you need to talk to,” said Joseph Buttweiler of Connect CTC out of Brainerd.
He added that of the 13,500 homes listed on the original federal funding application, Lake Connections has just 2,600 subscribers.
Maytum said the first step will be an inventory of assets in the area, including towers, fiber, and other elements of a network. There will be a survey sent out to residential and business owners in the Ely area.
Surveys can be filled out on paper and mailed in or filled out online.
Maytum said he could see Ely with a fiber “core” (rather than copper or wireless) that could be built around the city limits.
He said the core could be used to connect to towers that would provide wireless broadband in the townships.
The 180-foot towers could serve clusters of homes and could be built in as little as six months. Maytum said that cost could be as low as $135,000 for construction.
A detailed financial analysis will be performed, including where to get the funding. The study will recommend who should run the network. The city will be the owner, but a non-profit should probably manage it.
Maytum emphasized local governments should look at this as infrastructure with an initial cost to build, just like a paved road or a water line.
The feasibility study will take about two months. Maytum said that Design Nine performed a similar study in Montana and that it only took six months, after the study, to get the whole system up and running.
“We’ve seen a change in the cable and telephone industries,” said Maytum. Their business model focuses more on content than infrastructure.
“Here, in Ely, we’ll be looking at Frontier poles and pole access closely,” said Maytum.
Opposition from companies like Frontier has died down in recent years.
“They don’t give us the stiff arm anymore,’ said Maytum. “Their strength, however, is in pole ownership and lobbying.”
Among those in attendance were city councilor Heidi Omerza; Ely’s economic development consultant John Fedo; Peter Davis of Epiphany Partners; Buttweiler; and Morse Township officials Soderberg and Nick Wognum.
Ely city clerk-treasurer Harold Langowski chaired the discussion and provided background information on the ABC’s activities.
The ABC had previously received a grant for $75,000 from the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, to be used primarily to fund a feasibility study. The Town of Morse has also contributed $2,000 to further ABC’s activities.
The non-profit organization, Incredible Ely, is currently applying for a $12,000 grant from Blandin in order to establish a technology center at its headquarters in town. The closing date for grant applications is Sept. 22, with awards to be made in mid-October.
The Hibbing Chamber of Commerce has established a marketing assistance program for small businesses in its community. Blandin officials have encouraged ABC to partner with other organizations, such as the Hibbing Chamber, in order to advance its goals.
The Entrepreneur Fund which serves 10 northern Minnesota counties and Douglas county in northwest Wisconsin has partnered with the Blandin Foundation to provide seven grants in the amount of $1,500 each to provide consulting assistance. ABC is hoping to utilize the talents of Molly Sjoberg as a consultant for its efforts.