Pilot projects floated to improve internet service

by Tom Coombe -

Armed with survey results showing significant demand for better and faster internet service, Ely city officials are pondering a major step forward.
They’re considering a pilot project to bring high-speed “broadband” service to the downtown corridor and some rural areas, including to properties on Shagawa and Burntside lakes.
The project comes on the heels of surveys showing 94 percent of area residents and 98 percent of local business owners want better internet data service.
Jack Maytum, senior broadband analyst for Design Nine, outlined the pilot project with council members Tuesday during their city economic development authority meeting.
In the talking stages for at least a year, the pilot project is the next step in the city’s quest to enhance high-speed internet options in the area for both business owners and residents and comes in the midst of the city’s involvement in a broadband program sponsored by the Blandin Foundation.
Cost estimates for the initiative are being developed for a project that would apparently involve a fiber loop along Sheridan Street from Third Avenue West to 12th Avenue East. A number thrown out in an earlier meeting this week had a cost of $750,000 for pole work.
A second pilot project would include placing wireless internet towers that would serve Burntside and Shagawa lakes. One tower would be at Sandy Point for the north shore of Shagawa, with another near Schaefer Road to point to the north side of Burntside.
City officials say they would look for Midco, Frontier or somebody else to provide the services
“The city could own the fiber and lease it out to somebody else,” said Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk-treasurer and operations director.
The group is still a month away from putting figures on paper. Langowski said the next steps could including an RFP for broadband partners to provide service and city would go after funding to get the fiber loop constructed and put up the 70 to 80 foot poles for the wireless service.
“At this point in time these area ideas and concepts,” said Langowski. “It could be the first phase of a multi-phase project.”
While the details remain to be hammered out, city leaders have talked of a project in which the city develops the infrastructure and contracts with a private company to provide retail internet service to homes and businesses.
“It’s good to see this after all these years of talk,” said mayor Chuck Novak.
But despite the progress, it’s not yet clear how soon a project will come together, and it may be years before all Ely residents could tap into a city-wide network.
That will be driven largely, according to Maytum, by consumer demand and “take rates” for service.
“The hope is that we’ll provide hard fiber, but you’re saying that it will take some time to do that?” asked council member Paul Kess.
Maytum said that residents on Ely’s outskirts may be first to get on board.
“As a resident, I would hope we would get access sooner,” said Kess.
Earlier, Maytum reviewed the results of a survey, commissioned with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation, completed by nearly 400 area residents and just over 60 local business owners.
Some of the notable results of the residential survey included:
• 94 percent wanted better internet service;
• 93 percent said internet service is very important to their household;
• Regarding current internet service, 44 percent have DSL connections and 27 percent have cable modems;
• 48 percent have the type of internet service they currently do “because there is no other option;”
• 90 percent of households that completed the survey have just one or two persons in the household;
• 40 percent spend between $75 and $150 per month for television, phone and internet service excluding cell phones, and 36 percent pay over $150 per month;
• Just over a third (35 percent) pay between $41 and $60 per month for internet;
• 36 percent have five or six devices (smart phones, iPads, etc.) in their household;
• 80 percent reported having problems with playing videos and 75 percent have trouble when another person in the household is using internet service;
• Only nine percent of the people have the definition of broadband service, which is listed at 25 mbs of download time.
• Most use internet service for accessing news, social networks, banking and shopping;
• Nearly half of the respondents - 45 percent - would be willing to pay $40 to $80 per month more for faster service;
• 23 percent described themselves as self-employed either working full-time or part-time from home.
Among business owners who responded, 92 percent expressed dissatisfaction with current service and 98 percent said they needed better data service.
“I think that’s a pretty significant number,” said Maytum.
Improved internet service for businesses is one of the focuses of the effort.
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.