Grand Marais wants broadband to open doors but not wreck the allure of remoteness

Cook County Higher Education
Housed in a converted Baptist church in Grand Marais, most Cook County Higher Education classes are taught somewhere else, Bemidji State University, for example, or Hibbing Community College. Students take the classes via Skype on the Internet or interactive television.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Housed in a converted Baptist church in Grand Marais, Cook County Higher Education isn't your typical community college.

It's not accredited, first of all, nor does it have a staff of teachers or even many classrooms. In fact, most of its classes are taught somewhere else, Bemidji State University, for example, or Hibbing Community College. Students take the classes via Skype on the Internet or interactive television.

But the school is a lifeline for many in Cook County, and not just because it focuses on practical learning that helps people get real jobs. Many of its 112 students are in nursing programs, for example, important in the county because almost 20 percent of residents are 65 and older.

It's also one of the places in Grand Marais where you can get a good Internet connection.

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In a mango-yellow study room, resident Jim Bacon sits before a computer wearing a headset. He's streaming a human resources class. "If not for this place, I wouldn't be able to do this," Bacon says. That's because Cook County has some of the worst connectivity in the state. While Grand Marais residents have access to DSL, those living in the farther reaches tend to be stuck with dial-up or satellite connections.

According to a recent report by ConnectMinnesota, fewer than half the households in Cook County have access to internet download speeds of at least 3 megabits per second (discounting mobile wireless). This places Cook County third from the bottom among Minnesota's 87 counties when it comes to connectivity.

The school has a T1 line, which isn't exactly lightning fast. At 1.5 megabits per second, sometimes the interactive television classes become pixilated. If too many people Skype at once, they get bumped off the connection, which Bacon describes as "good to marginal."

All this appears about to change. Thanks to a $16 million federal stimulus award, Arrowhead Electric, the local power cooperative since 1953, is poised to build a county-wide, fiber-to-the-home network that will afford every customer a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second if they want it, for around $40 per month. The first lines could go in as early as September.

Residents of this remote corner of the state, with a few exceptions, are giddy at the prospect of this technological transformation. "We'll be on the fiber service here," says Cook County Higher Education's executive director, Paula Sundet Wolf. "The speed of transmission will be incredible. It'll open up a lot more doors."

Cook County's is one of 18 projects across Minnesota that are receiving over $228 million in stimulus dollars. Mainly the projects target underserved and rural parts of the state.

Communities hope that better connectivity will allow more people to find work locally--perhaps by telecommuting to jobs elsewhere--and also will improve prospects for telemedicine and distance learning. In short, they are hoping for an economic kick in the pants.

Arrowhead Electric Cooperative
The Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, Inc. in Grand Marais, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that broadband does bring income into a community. A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce called "Measuring Broadband's Economic Impact," said that "communities in which mass-market broadband was available...experienced more rapid growth in employment, the number of businesses overall, and businesses in IT- intensive sectors."

Some point out that broadband can also pull dollars away, as locals buy online rather than at neighborhood shops and jobs are automated. But these aren't likely concerns for Cook, which doesn't have much commerce that can be outsourced. The county relies heavily on tourism, which is destination-specific.

It's estimated that the local population swells from its usual 5,400 people to as many as 50,000 during summer.

Bruce Kerfoot, who owns the Gunflint Lodge and labors under a satellite connection, is all in favor of faster speeds. "When making reservations for people to enter the boundary waters, we have to contact the feds online," he says. "Sometimes we are dropped. It can take an hour to make three reservations, when it should have taken five minutes each. Man, that hurts." He points out that running a credit card and even selling a fishing license requires a decent internet connection these days.

Jay Andersen
Jay Andersen, a host with the local community radio station in Grand Marais, WTIP.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

"If in 2012, we have fiber service, I will think it's a miracle and I'll be grinning all the way," says Kerfoot. "It will mean that I am part of the current world."

Danna MacKenzie, Cook County's IT Director, who championed the broadband project, thinks faster Internet "has the power to diversify this economy," whether by bringing in high-tech companies or allowing people to telework for outfits in more populous locations. "My vision is that there are people who are waiting for this so they can move up here. They could bring good wage careers with them."

"This is not a place where families with children can move and make a living," says Jay Andersen, a host with the local community radio station, WTIP. "This is probably the only way you are going to get economic development in this county that is going to tap into new people and sources and revenues." He says virtual industry is perfect for remote Cook, because transportation costs make it prohibitive to manufacture and ship physical goods. Plus, "You don't have to build another building. Anything that would help economic development without screwing up the ambiance is needed."

The prospect of bringing more people to Cook doesn't thrill everyone. David Mills, a relative newcomer himself, has two young kids and three jobs. To make ends meet, he works at a restaurant in the summer, a ski hill in the winter, and as a chimney sweep in the fall. "That's how it works up here," he says. "The standing joke in Cook County is that everyone has two jobs."

Mills, who lives in Grand Marais and has DSL service, is in favor of the fiber project and will sign up if the cost isn't prohibitive. He says he may start some kind of web-based business.

"But there are two sides to the coin," he says. "It could affect the smallness of the community, the tightness and closeness. We could be a boom town all of the sudden. One of the hardest parts of living here is finding steady employment and opportunities. Making it easier to live up here might bring a lot more people. That's a fear in the back of the mind."

The push for broadband in the county gained added urgency in January 2010, when a blowdown resulted in the failure of a communication line running up the Lake Superior shore from Duluth. Telephone service was down for nearly a day; many internet connections vanished. Police, the hospital, and banks lost access to online records.

Nursing classroom
The nursing classroom at Cook County Higher Education in Grand Marais, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Jim Boyd, a retired Star Tribune editor who lives outside of Grand Marais, wrote in an MPR News commentary at the time, "This incident reinforced Cook County's need for redundant communications links--a need that the state and federal governments have an interest and an obligation in helping meet."

At first, it looked like the county itself would build the fiber system. But Cook's application wasn't chosen for stimulus dollars. Arrowhead, with the blessing of the county, won in a second round of federal funding. The co-op plans to run fiber cable to every customer who has electrical service, along the same routes taken by the power lines, which are 70 percent above ground due to the rocky terrain.

Because the county is the end of the line in Minnesota, so to speak, there is no way to make a fiber loop, which is the safest type of network because if a cable is cut in one place, service can come around the other way. Still, says Arrowhead's Joe Buttweiler, fiber cable is stout and not prone to catch fire should a tree land on it.

In other locations, fiber systems--especially those built by municipalities--have drawn criticism and even lawsuits from private, established service providers. AT&T and Qwest (which is in the process of merging with CenturyLink) have made noises about improving their present service in Cook County.

But, says Buttweiler, "I haven't heard anything from any company." Perhaps that's because the county's population is so far-flung, at only 3.5 people per square mile. "The reason a publicly-owned company would never build this," says Buttweiler, "is it's too expensive."

Since part of the $16 million is a loan, some worry that if not enough people subscribe to Arrowhead's fiber service, it could drive up the cost of electricity. But Buttweiler is confident in the co-op's business plan, even if private providers upped their games. While a recent survey found that more than 80 percent of people in the county were interested in high-speed, Arrowhead is trying to be conservative by counting on a take rate of less than 50 percent.

Of course, many hope the portion of subscribers will be much higher. "We believe the concept of ubiquity is important," says MacKenzie. "From a county and government services perspective, we see the trend in the way service development is happening. Everyone is going to need to have access to this. Even things like mental health services are being done by video."

The county received money from the Blandin Foundation to set up a series of demonstration projects in order to show Cook residents how broadband can be used. The high school will be wired for streaming video, hopefully in time to show this spring's graduation ceremony; the historical society will place part of its collection online, including video and audio clips; the library will get additional computers; Boreal Access, which has provided dial-up for years, will take on a new role as a sort of public access channel with streaming video; the local clinic will produce a series of videos showing how to meet simple health needs, such as injecting insulin.

MacKenzie's greatest hope is that the introduction of broadband "won't change the landscape of our community. We want to quietly strengthen the fabric that connects the community here. We want to quietly make the things better and more sustainable, things we're already doing."