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Input from residents, business owners needed on broadband for Ely area

by Tom Coombe -

Ely area residents and business owners, your input is needed.
In the quest to create a broadband fiber loop downtown and improve high-speed internet service in the city limits and into the surrounding townships, area leaders have commissioned a pair of public surveys.
One is for residents and the other is for business owners, and both come as part of an ongoing area broadband feasibility study that encompasses the boundaries of the Ely School District.
“We want to see how people are satisfied with what they have and what they feel the needs are,” said Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk-treasurer. “Right now we are assuming everybody wants faster broadband. and that they’re not satisfied with what we have. But we’re only hearing that from people on the committee.”
Earlier in the year, Ely was named one of six Blandin Broadband Communities in northeastern Minnesota, and a $25,000 grant from the Grand Rapids-based foundation will help fund the feasibility study.
The study is the next step in what could be an effort to improve internet service in the Ely area.
City officials have talked about establishing a fiber loop downtown and expanding the network outward, and Langowski said efforts aren’t limited to the city limits.
In a nod to those who live outside of town and have wrestled with slow internet speeds, Langowski said the project could involve towers for improved wireless service in the outlying areas.
“It could be a combination of things to try and solve the issue,” said Langowski. “Maybe wireless towers for the people on Burntside. I don’t think we’re going to run fiber to every house in the school district, but it might make sense to put a tower somewhere.”
But before any project moves forward, local officials say they need a better handle on the interests of those who would be customers of any high-speed internet operation.
The survey is already up on the city’s website (www.ely.mn.us) and has been distributed via e-mail to some interested parties.
The residential survey includes questions about demographics, satisfaction with and the level of current internet service, current internet speed, how respondents use the internet, reliability of current internet service. Respondents are also asked how much they’d be willing to pay for faster, higher quality internet service.
Business owners are asked similar questions, as well as specific questions about how their business might use faster service and the importance of redundancy - which provides additional protection and network availability in case of technical failure.
Improved internet service for businesses is one of the focuses of the effort.
“The banks especially (need faster, higher quality service),” said Langowski. “Last year (during a service failure) it pretty much killed business for the whole day. Without (better broadband) we’re probably missing out on some economic development activity that we might otherwise be seeing.”
Langowski points to Two Harbors, which received fiber to the premise in each home as part of the Lake Connections project started by Lake County.
“They got fiber installed there and you can tell, there are new things happening and new projects starting up,” said Langowski. “Having high-speed internet at an affordable rate is certainly something you can add to your marketing material to attract people.”
Survey forms are also available at the public library and at City Hall, and Langowski said there’s a possibility that businesses will get a postcard to be returned.
The deadline is Nov 10 and a firm commissioned by the city will tabulate the results and release it as part of a feasibility report in late-November, according to Langowski.
The survey will help detemine what will come next, but regardless of the results, funding remains a key obstacle in the bid to enhance internet service in the Ely area.
“The question is how do you pay for it,” said Langowski. “We’re going to continue lobbying the legislature and the IRRRB.”
High-speed internet or broadband has been a priority for Ely leaders, who contend it’s critical in both economic and community development efforts.
They jumped on the opportunity in 2016 to become part of the Blandin initiative. Ely was selected along with Hibbing, Chisholm, Aitkin County, the Mt. Iron-Buhl area and the Bois Forte Reservation/Orr/Cook areas.
The city has worked to develop a public solution as officials have voiced frustration with cost, access and speed issues associated with private service.
They contend that broadband is vital to bridging a rural/urban divide, and mayor Chuck Novak said Thursday that public help is now needed - in the form of the survey - to make progress.
“We need you to fill out the broadband survey so we can make a convincing argument that we need to be providing true broadband speeds throughout the school district,” said Novak. “If we show we have strong backing from the entire community within the school district, we have abetter argument to say ‘here’s what we have and these people are not being served’ as they are in the metro and more urbanized communities.”