Faster Internet speeds coming to Bemidji

Paul Bunyan Communication CEO Gary Johnson
Paul Bunyan Communication CEO Gary Johnson leans on the heavy machinery which will lay cables and bring gigabit internet speeds to the Bemidji area over the next four years.
John Enger / MPR News

The Bemidji region will soon see some of the fastest Internet download speeds in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities.

Paul Bunyan Communications on Thursday unveiled plans to bring the cooperative's 5,000 square mile network up to speeds of 1 gigabit per second -- more than six times faster than its current top speeds -- over the next four years.

The first customers to receive the faster Internet service will come on line by early next year in parts of Bemidji.

When fully operational, gigabit coverage will cost $100 per month, $25 more than the cooperative currently charges for 50 megabits per second. Broadband will also be available without the packaged phone line, which is currently mandatory.

"We've been preparing for this moment for 10 plus years," said Paul Bunyan chief executive Gary Johnson. "We've invested $150 million over the last decade building our fiber network to make this possible."

Paul Bunyan's top download speed currently runs 150 megabits per second. Jumping to a 1 gigabit service means that a high-definition movie file that generally takes 10 to 15 minutes to download on a regular broadband connection will take just 2 seconds to download, said Paul Bunyan Marketing Supervisor Brian Bissonette.

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Gigabit upgrade projects are getting attention across the country. Google Fiber is working to make the Kansas City, Missouri, metro area a gigabit city.

In Minnesota, CenturyLink offers gigabit speeds in the Twin Cities, and providers in Melrose and Madelia have announced plans to construct networks capable of those speeds.

There's a longstanding disparity in broadband access between Minnesota's rural and urban areas. Bringing cables across miles of countryside is expensive. The Paul Bunyan upgrades are only planned for those who already get broadband, but Bissonette said large distances have kept other gigabit speed networks out of rural areas.

So far, he said no one has attempted to build such a network across 5,000 miles, or in such a rural area.

"This is going to be a lot of work," he said, "so it's going to take a few years. But we're going to get it done."

More than 90 percent of the Paul Bunyan network is already laid with fiber-optic cable, so the system backbone is already in place. The new service won't require miles of new line. Crews will mainly run short cables to homes and change out hardware.

"We serve a data-centric world," Johnson said. "We're staying ahead of the curve."