Lasting Connections: Working Toward Broadband on the East Range and Beyond 

Over the past two years, the East Range Joint Powers Board, one of Northspan’s clients, has invested considerable time and effort in work to expand internet access by becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC). A significant part of that process involved 16 community projects that leveraged $75,000 in match funds from the Blandin Foundation to make immediate, valuable changes across the East Range. These projects are only the start, however, and the ultimate goal of the BBC process is to help connect unserved or underserved homes and businesses to a broadband network that meets the needs of our communities. 

 The Laurentian, Tower, and East Range BBCs came together to form the LTE broadband committee in summer 2019. Representatives from each group recognized that, by pooling resources, they could create collaborations across boundaries and conduct a more cost-effective feasibility study for the region. With funding support from 23 cities, townships, school districts, businesses, and nonprofits, the LTE committee was able to match funding from the Blandin Foundation to create a consulting budget of over $100,000. 

The LTE committee chose to hire two consultants to complete its feasibility work. The first, GEO Partners, provided rapid data through a regional speed test and assessment of the cost of building out the network. GEO Partners’ approach generates data to dispute incumbent providers’ sometimes inaccurate claims to fully serve certain communities and provides estimates on the use of satellite internet services, which can fill short-term gaps or help reach locations where fiber construction is least economically feasible. Its speed testing has now grown into a statewide initiative. 

The second consultant, NEO Connect, embarked on a more comprehensive feasibility study for the LTE region. Its principal, Diane Kruse, has a successful track record on the Iron Range, as she completed the feasibility study for western portions of St. Louis County that led to a Minnesota Border to Border grant for Cherry Township and surrounding areas. Kruse and her team conducted surveys to generate statistically valid samples and conducted financial modeling to determine the financial feasibility of broadband development. 

 Over the past month, NEO Connect has been presenting its initial findings to audiences across the study area such as chamber groups, town boards, and the East Range Joint Powers Board. Her work identified several priority areas that could be fruitful target for providers, some without any additional subsidy, and laid the groundwork for efforts to connect harder-to-reach homes. After some initial contacts, the committee will now begin courting providers to provide much-needed service to Iron Range communities. 

 Northspan staff has helped lead the effort throughout the process, including facilitation of committee meetings and the consultant RFP process. As broadband efforts continue on the Iron Range and beyond, we’ll continue our work to guide communities toward stronger broadband access.