Downtown broadband project could happen in ’19

by Tom Coombe
A long-discussed plan to bring high-speed internet broadband service to Ely’s downtown corridor seems a bit closer to reality.
Harold Langowski,the city’s clerk-treasurer and operations director, said Tuesday that he’s optimistic construction could begin in 2019 on a plan to extend a fiber loop along Sheridan Street from Third Avenue West to Seventh Avenue East
“I’m hopeful in the next month to have some more concrete answers,” said Langowski, when council members met as the city’s economic development authority. “I was hoping to have something more concrete right now but I don’t.”
Langowski has been in talks with Brainerd-based Consolidated Telecomunications Company about serving as the provide.
“We’re looking at the city owning the fiber and leasing it back to the provide which would be CTC,” said Langowski. “They would provide the customer service and all of the billing. This is the direction it’s going... I believe what we’re going to be looking at the next couple months are what the project cost will be, what the lease return will be.”
The project still has some hurdles to clear, including grant support to aid in construction and a determination of demand for internet service.
“We’ll probably be talking to business owners and saying ‘do you want this?’” said Langowski. “We’ll put it in, but you need to sign up and commit to it.”
In the works is what Langowski described as “symetrical service, all the way up to one gig (gigabyte), of course it’s at a price.”
Ely officials have made affordable broadband service a high priority, comparing it to other utilities and describing it as a necessity for both economic and community development.
A series of recent internet outages have put the issue even more in focus.
“I know we can’t afford as a city to put this off for another year and another year,” said Heidi Omerza, council member and president of the city’s EDA. “Whether it’s three days or four days or five days, how many days our internet has been down in the last year. Our businesses can’t afford it.”
Ely has also received a boost from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and the Blandin Foundation, receiving $100,000 in grant funds to commission surveys and advance projects including the rollout of a downtown co-working site that opened this summer.
Further and more significant funding will be needed however, to advance a downtown fiber project that, if successful, could expand elsewhere in the community.
Langowski voiced optimism that the city may have a willing partner in the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
“At a certain point we’ll need to be lobbying,” said Langowski. “This project I think will stand up well.”
Langowski said he preferred going to the IRRRB rather than vying with communities from around the state in a direct appeal to the state legislature.
“We’d be like every other city, every other county, making the same ask,” said Langowski.
Langowski said the city has found a provider in CTC, noting he was unable to convince representatives of Frontier Communications to take on the downtown project.
“I asked them the same question, and they came back and said ‘we’re not interested in doing a project like that,’” said Langowski. “I hoped Frontier would be interested and the local folks were, but once it went beyond the local folks it didn’t go anywhere.”
Frontier is working with Morse Township officials on a separate project to bring high-speed internet service to portions of the township.
CTC, according to Langowski, “has been lockstep with us on this project.”
“If we can put this together we can be under construction next summer,” he said. “If we know what the lease revenue will be fro the provider, then we can take that lease revenue and put it toward the debt service. I think it’s doable.”
Mayor Chuck Novak has been adamant about improving internet service locally and he reiterated that call this week.
“We need true high-speed internet,” said Novak. “Broadband is a political term. Nobody understands it.”
Novak stressed the link between high-speed internet and commerce and said the city needs to find out how better service would bring more jobs to the community.
“If you get a business that wants to be internet-based up here and it has 10 jobs, that’s a million dollars you can get (from an agency such as the IRRRB),” said Novak.