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Broadband plan gets funded

TWO HARBORS - Lake County and eastern St. Louis County will receive about $70 million in funding to install broadband service to every home in the area now reachable by electrical service. A federal grant and loan was formally approved Monday for improved voice, data and video service via the internet.

It makes Lake County unique among a host of high-speed internet proposals approved in recent months. It is the only all-county project in the state. It added areas around Aurora and Ely in St. Louis County the past year in order to make the plan more attractive to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it seeks better internet coverage in more rural areas of the nation.

"We're real excited, it's a huge investment in the county," said Gary Fields, of National Public Broadband, the company teaming with Lake County in implementing the plan. He said there is a lot of work to do and expects construction to begin in the spring. Homes could be connected to the network by fall of next year. The entire network would be completed within three years, Fields said.

Three hubs will need to be constructed, with the main one in Two Harbors that would include office space for operations staff.

Lake County Commissioner Paul Bergman, who has pushed hard for better internet service in the county, said the other hubs would be in Fall Lake and Silver Bay.

It's been a long wait for Lake County as it suffered through numerous grant cycles. That frustration is gone now that the funding has come through. "We got every penny we asked for," Bergman said.

The $66.3 million award from the Department of Agriculture comes through its Broadband Initiatives Program. After other matching funds, the total will be about $70 million, Bergman said.

The award breaks down as a $56.4 million loan and a $10 million grant. There will be about $3.5 million in municipal bonds issued, which would be paid back with operational revenues.

Approximately 37,000 pe-

ople stand to benefit, as do roughly 1,000 businesses and 98 community institutions. Lake County estimates the project will create 510 jobs ranging from short-term construction crews to long-term office and maintenance jobs.

Other broadband projects approved this year will better link Lake County schools and health services to internet resources.

The county broadband service area covers all populated areas of Lake County as well as Ely, Babbitt, Aurora, Hoyt Lakes and the townships of Duluth, Morris, Embarrass, White, Waasa, and Bassett.

"We are thrilled about the BIP award, one of the largest in the nation, as it will be able to launch new economic development efforts and enable the county to compete globally," Lake County Board Chairman Rick Goutermont said. "This type of service is available in northern Europe and the Pacific Rim, but only on a limited basis in the U.S. Not only will we be able to attract new businesses and jobs to the area, but we will be able to provide additional health care, educational, and residential services to Lake and St. Louis County residents and businesses."

Bergman said the redundancy built into the network would eliminate the problems with service interruptions when lines are cut. A meltdown of Qwest Communications fiber under a street in Duluth in January meant a loss of cell, internet and 911 service along the North Shore.

"I'm a little shocked that it happened," Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said. "But it's a great thing for 911 service."

The fiber optics network is expected to be paid off by the operational revenue. No long-term debt is expected for taxpayers.

"This network will be designed with redundant connectivity, so that service interruptions that we have experienced this last year won't be possible," Bergman said. "And it will be entirely built and supported by the users of the network, with no local taxpayer pledges or funds."

Planners said it's too early to set any potential costs for monthly broadband service but expect it will be competitive with current high-speed services offered by telephone and satellite companies. The county contends that companies like Qwest, Frontier, and MediaCom aren't going into more sparsely populated areas fast enough and its proposal is to ensure public good over profits.

"It's a myth that rural fiber networks cannot be built and operated on a fiscally sound basis," National Public Broadband CEO Tim Nulty said. "We look forward to demonstrating the viability of the Lake County network and helping rural area compete in the global economy."

"The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to create jobs and access improved health care and educational opportunities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a prepared statement. "These projects will not only create jobs for the people who will build these networks, the completed systems will provide a platform for rural economic growth for years to come."

Fiber optic networks deliver data through a fiberglass fiber using lasers and other technologies operating at speeds 1,000 times faster than conventional services.

"You thought it was a little crazy," Chris Swanson told the county board at it meeting Tuesday. The Two Harbors City Council member has an internet-based business in the city and helped spur the project on. "Let's make sure we do this right. We want it to be a showcase for rural broadband in the country."

The board authorized Goutermont to sign the letter from the Rural Utilities Service, formally accepting the offer under the Broadband Initiatives Program. The board also discussed forming a subcommittee as it continues to shape details on the service that will be offered.

Arrowhead Electric Cooperative will use $16.1 million approved Monday to bring broadband to Cook County. That project is expected to serve 11,363 people, 138 businesses and 63 other institutions.

U.S. senators from Minnesota, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, talked about the importance of the funding Monday. Klobuchar, who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees telecommunications issues, had a "broadband summit" last month that focused using "high-speed, affordable internet as a driver of economic development and job creation." She heard from resort owners on the remote Gunflint Trail in Cook County saying they are at a disadvantage compared to other resort areas because they are without a service that helps them with booking and advertising their services.