From bars to the landfill — the case for fiber in Brainerd

Testimonials for broadband access to the Internet were piling on top of each other this afternoon when the Blandin Foundation sponsored a tour and question-and-answer session in Brainerd.

Leading the show was Kevin Larson, general manager of Consolidated Telephone Co., one of a number of rural telephone cooperatives that have been around for years and now are playing lead roles in bringing fiber optics to parts of outstate Minnesota. (For how another rural phone co-op helped lead in Lac qui Parle County, see this earlier post.)

Larson's cooperative started its phone service in rural Brainerd in 1950 and just six years ago won a bid to start laying fiber in Brainerd itself after Qwest and other bigger providers failed to show interest or make the deal.

Those of us attending a Blandin conference on broadband heard about bars wanting faster Internet access to accommodate FourSquare and music downloading. We heard about a printing company that can have a quarter of its customers in California because it's next door to the phone company and was the second customer for fiber broadband.

Most convincingly, we heard from Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle, who expects his 911 system to eventually start dealing with text messages and even video evidence that the county will want to transmit to officers in their squad cars. Meanwhile, he's trying out credit card payments at the landfill for now.

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The county has had to pay CTC to extend service, naturally, but Houle expects to save money in the long run. Larson, meanwhile, has potential residential customers he can tap along the service extension to the county.

"If you are not connected by broadband, try to stay connected to the rest of the world," Houle said. "I don't think it's going to work for you."

The drumbeat on the desirability for outstate Minnesota to get universal and better Internet access keeps getting louder.

But I was struck again how change like that often boils down to just a handful of community members who take action. And often, it's not anyone working for Qwest or Comcast. In this case, Larson himself looks like a mover and shaker but he points to someone else who made it happen: now retired Brainerd school superintendent Jerry Walseth.

In 2002 Walseth included in a school bond issue money for a fiber ring that would provide faster Internet access to the schools and the hospital nearby. It took a couple years for that idea to come to fruition but in 2004, Consolidated Telephone Co. (CTC) won a bid to start laying fiber and it's been expanding ever since.

First to get service were populated areas. Now the challenge, Larson says, is to push fiber into its traditional rural service area, more sparsely populated.