Broadband internet set to expand again in rural Crow Wing
The use of pandemic-related funding for this purpose, county officials have said, improves residents’ ability to conduct their affairs via remote technology, whether it be distance learning, working
BRAINERD — Almost 2,000 more households and businesses will gain access to high-speed broadband internet in northern Crow Wing County.
The Crow Wing County Board awarded a bid Aug. 23 to Emily Cooperative Telephone Co. for the project, which covers areas in Ideal and Jenkins townships along with the city of Jenkins. Included are the southern shorelines of Upper and Lower Whitefish, the eastern half of Lower Hay, plus Bertha, Clamshell and Pig lakes in the Whitefish Chain.
The $3.5 million project is one of the last to receive funding from the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act dollars. Of the total cost, Crow Wing County will contribute $600,000 while the remaining three governmental partners agreed to cover $600,000 between them. Ideal Township, in which the majority of new connections will be installed, is responsible for $460,000. Jenkins Township will pay $95,000 and the city of Jenkins will pay $45,000. The Emily-based provider agreed to fund the remaining balance of the project cost, or 66% total.
The use of pandemic-related funding for this purpose, county officials have said, improves residents’ ability to conduct their affairs via remote technology, whether it be distance learning, working from home or telemedicine. A total of 1,972 new connections will be installed with this project.
Jenkins Mayor Jon Lubke said bringing broadband internet to more Jenkins residents was a long-term goal of city leaders. In 2018, the council explored funding options, but the small and fractured nature of the project presented difficulties in obtaining grants. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, shined a spotlight on the importance of broadband connectivity, Lubke said.
“We weren’t totally not served — we were pretty much underserved,” Lubke said. “And also our community, it wasn’t really working for some of our businesses. And then COVID hit, and I think it made everybody aware of the fact of how important it would be to be connected to broadband.”
Partnering with neighboring jurisdictions to form a larger improvement area made the project more viable, Lubke said. When leaders learned the county intended to invest in broadband with its allotment of pandemic relief dollars, they decided to bring forward the concept in progress for consideration.
“I know it’s a big number, but it encompasses a large area. And this is not just a patchwork of fiber here, cable to fiber. This is pretty much a high-end, fiber-to-home, for all border to border for Jenkins city, Jenkins Township and Ideal Township,” Lubke said. “I believe if we get this going … I expect to see other communities working together collaboratively to make this happen. So I definitely would like your support. I know my friends down there would definitely like it. And the people we serve need it.”
Commissioner Bill Brekken made the motion to award the bid and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded. The motion passed unanimously, to which Ron Ommen, Ideal Township supervisor, let out a celebratory whoop.
“When this thing first came up, Dave Peterson, the chairman of the board of Ideal, was interested and the first thing he did was pick up the phone and call (County Administrator) Tim Houle,” Ommen said. “We have relied on Tim’s expertise, the expertise of the people of the county. I know that county-township relationships aren’t always smooth. You have a real friend with us.”
This broadband project was the second attempt by the county after the geographic scope of an initial proposal failed to gain the full support of partners. In the meantime, Emily Cooperative Telephone Co. independently pursued its own expansion project, which led to a reduction in size of the area included in the county’s request for proposals.
The project is the latest in a flurry of grant-funded broadband build outs since the onset of the pandemic, including one approved in April in Bay Lake Township and Baxter and those approved in March in Long Lake and Lake Edward townships.
In 2020, Crow Wing County appropriated $1.5 million of its funding from the first federal relief package — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — toward three expansion efforts: Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township.
In February 2021, CTC received $350,805 from the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program and matched those funds to install broadband for 180 unserved homes and businesses in Ross Lake Township.
And later in 2021, Crow Wing County received a $5 million federal grant on behalf of CTC to target low- and moderate-income communities. The project proposed by CTC covered broadband installation in an area to the north and northwest of Crosby-Ironton, including Cuyuna, Trommald and Wolford Township, as well as a portion of Irondale Township to the south. A total of 919 homes or businesses are located within the project area, and 492 of those are currently unserved.
Last summer, TDS Telecom apprised the Pequot Lakes City Council of its plans to install 12.5 miles of fiber to bring better broadband service to about 1,080 service addresses. This was part of a larger project to lay 60 miles of fiber throughout Cass and Crow Wing counties, including the communities of Breezy Point, Jenkins, Pine River, Backus and Hackensack.