MORCOM TWP— Residents here, who have been without reliable Internet access for years, could soon have some of the best broadband speeds in the area, if final funding from the state’s …
MORCOM TWP— Residents here, who have been without reliable Internet access for years, could soon have some of the best broadband speeds in the area, if final funding from the state’s Border-to-Border grant program is approved later this year.
The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation recently approved a $224,800 grant to the township, which means Morcom Township has now secured three-quarters of the $899,200 they’ll need to bring broadband to the 126 unserved and underserved households in the township and in an adjacent unorganized township to the north. Morcom Township is located west of Cook.
“We are just waiting to hear in December if we qualified for the state Border to Border grant,” said Morcom Town Clerk Sasha Lehto. Morcom is asking for $331,704 in border-to-border funding under a plan to utilize Paul Bunyan Communications as the township’s broadband provider. Paul Bunyan would commit $332,696 to the effort. Morcom Township has committed $10,000 in township funds for the project.
“This was out of our really small budget,” said Lehto, “but either you want it or you don’t. This is for our people.”
The need for reliable internet service in the Morcom Township area is clear.
“As a township government, we can’t email in our election results,” Lehto said, “and it’s 2019.” Local businesses are not able to offer wifi to their customers either, she noted, because they only have very limited bandwidth, and need that to be able to process credit cards.
Lehto noted that her children have been given computers to bring home from school, and are expected to complete assignments at home, and on snow days are expected to complete assignments online.
“But my kids can’t do this,” she said.
The Morcom area is not covered by Frontier, and many families are relying on expensive AT&T cellular service, but even that is not always reliable.
“We have a lot of people who want to work from home,” she said.
Lehto noted that these struggles are not unique to the Morcom area.
“It’s our entire area,” she said, “but it might as well begin with us. By starting here, it will encourage the surrounding townships.”
Lehto said the township has been lobbying for better internet service at the state Capitol for two years.
“We couldn’t find a provider that was willing to work with us,” she said.
At a meeting on the issue at the IRRR earlier this year, the township connected with Steve Howard, the Information and Technology Development Manager from Paul Bunyan Communications, who said if Morcom could get a proposal put together within days, they would help.
“There was pressure on us to get a proposal in that next day,” she said. “Good thing I was the clerk and had everyone’s telephone number and knew how many residents and businesses we had.” The next step, she said, was getting residents and businesses to write letters of support.
Lehto worked with staff at Paul Bunyan, who oversaw the grant request, putting together the information needed and helping to write the grant narrative.
“I did work every night, every weekend, for a whole month,” she said. “But it was absolutely worth it.”
Howard said that Paul Bunyan had run fiber through the Cook and Orr areas several years ago, when they expanded a line to International Falls.
“The way the fiber was installed allowed us to build in those areas in the future,” he said. “Sasha was the key player to get this happening.”
How soon the plan might be implemented, depends on the final piece of funding from the Border to Border program, according to Howard.
If the final funding portion is approved in December, work will be done in 2020. But approval this year is not a guarantee, notes Howard.
“There are a lot of grant requests in for that funding this year,” he said. Howard was not sure how the total amount of grant requests compares to the amount of funding actually available, since the grant requests had just been posted on the state’s broadband site. Funding will also be available next year, but by that time, even more funding requests are likely to be submitted.
Paul Bunyan Communications is a non-profit cooperative, and they are willing to contribute a major portion of the cost for the project. They also have grant proposals up for approval this year, including projects in Ash River, Elephant Lake, Ericsburg, and Kabetogama.
“Our residents are really excited,” said Lehto, “but we still have to wait to get the final grant.”
Lehto said having broadband is important for the area for many reasons. She noted that many families have adult children who would like to move back to the area, but they require broadband to work from home. It’s also a public safety issue, she noted, with many residents unable to have reliable landline or cell phone service.
Lehto wondered why, when the Super Bowl was in the Twin Cities, the state paid to upgrade cell service in the metro area, but in rural Minnesota, any upgrades require grant-writing and “jumping through all these hoops.”
Other broadband grants
IRRR grants for broadband projects were also approved for:
$579,272 to Bois Forte Band of Chippewa for the construction of a fiber network to serve 442 unserved and underserved households on the reservation. Total project cost is $2,317,090.
$105,450 for Ash River for the construction of a broadband network for 121 unserved and underserved households in the Ash River area. Total project cost is $421,800.
$236,050 for the Elephant and Black Duck lake areas for the construction of a fiber network to serve 124 unserved and underserved households near Elephant Lake. Total project cost is $944,200.
Both Paul Bunyan Communications (Ash River and Elephant Lake) and Consolidated Telephone Company (Bois Forte) are provider partners for these projects. All these projects are also scheduled to receive state funding from the Border to Border program (pending final approval).