Ely, Minnesota, Considering Pilots To Answer Big Demand For Better Connectivity

Last fall, the northern Minnesota community of Ely took up a feasibility study to determine the possibilities of better connectivity with publicly owned Internet infrastructure. They also wanted to explore local interest in investment. After conducting a survey and reviewing the situation, local officials are contemplating moving ahead with two pilot projects.

A Big Demand

Citizens’ group, Ely Area Broadband Coalition (Ely ABC) and the Ely Economic Development Authority (EEDA) collaborated to manage the feasibility study process. In 2016, the Blandin Foundation, the Iron Range Resources Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), and St. Louis County awarded the city $25,000 which they’ve dedicated toward their efforts to improve local connectivity.

In order to gauge the community’s current feeling about the quality and cost of the services they purchase from area cable and DSL providers, the Ely ABC and the EEDA encouraged area residents and businesses to compete a survey last fall. They wanted evidence to share with potential funding sources that the community was not being served. Community leaders also expected the results to help them decide which direction to take moving forward.

At a recent EEDA meeting, members discussed the survey results and the potential pilot projects.

“We want to see how people are satisfied with what they have and what they feel the needs are,” said Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk-treasurer. “Right now we are assuming everybody wants faster broadband. and that they’re not satisfied with what we have. But we’re only hearing that from people on the committee.”

As anticipated, residents and businesses who took the survey revealed that 94 precent of local residents and 98 percent of business owners want improved connectivity in Ely. Jack Maytum, senior broadband analyst for Design Nine, relayed that approximately 400 residents and 60 local business owners completed the survey. The community chose Design Nine to complete the feasibility study.

From the residents who took the survey, only nine percent have connections that meet the FCC definition of broadband — 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. 

Forty-four percent of the people answering the survey purchase DSL Internet access and 27 percent subscribe to cable service. 

Forty-eight percent of those who completed the survey said that they have the type of Internet access they have because they have “no other option.” If the Ely community had better competition, for companies and types of services, they might not need to engage in a feasibility study or consider a publicly owned option, but like many rural communities, large national providers are investing elsewhere.

Twenty-three percent of respondents consider themselves self-employed or describe their employment as full-time or part-time from home. In places like Ely, where upload speeds are not robust, entrepreneurs with home bases have a difficult time if their businesses require connectivity. For many businesses today, the ability to send information to colleagues online is a necessity and a fast, reliable connection is critical to everyday business.

Approximately half of respondents indicated that they would pay up to $80 per month for better Internet access than what they now purchase. Current monthly rates range from $75 - $150 for triple play for about 40 percent of respondents; 36 percent of respondents pay more than $150 per month. Stand alone Internet access, as reported by about 35 percent of respondents cost $41 - $60 per month.

Business owners reported high dissatisfaction with existing options for connectivity — 92 percent don’t like what they have now and 98 percent say they need something better.

Downtown Fiber

logo-ely-mn.png Ely has been considering a plan to deploy fiber to its public school facilities and then connect to fiber in the downtown area. They also have considered the idea of extending fiber out to Morse and Winton townships. While fiber to serve schools could potentially be paid for with federal E-rate funds, finding a way to pay for Internet infrastructure remains a challenge here as in other rural communities.

Ely is considering an approach growing in popularity by engaging in a pilot project for a limited area. By concentrating early efforts on a limited geographical area and number of premises, a publicly owned network can work out potential issues before offering the service to a wider subscription base. Testing the waters this way can prove the concept or, alternatively, determine that the service isn’t right for the entire community. 

One of the pilot projects community leaders are now considering is a fiber loop around the downtown area. Community leaders want to help existing businesses and attract new growth. At this early stage, Design Nine and the city are working on cost estimates, but Ely leaders have expressed that better broadband is a priority.

Out-of-Town Wireless

The pilot project for residential service may take on a public-private flavor. One of the early suggestions is that the city invest in fixed wireless equipment and towers and fiber at two local lakes that are outside of city limits. They would own the infrastructure and lease it to a private sector Internet Service Provider (ISP) to offer fixed wireless services to the homes around the area.

There are about 3,500 people who live in the community that’s known as one of the small towns that border the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. With outfitters, hotels, and lodges, people from the Twin Cities a few hours away often visit to spend vacation time. The town is home to the North American Bear Center and the International Wolf Center, both adding to the tourist draw. Ely’s art scene and Vermillion Community College bring students, artists, and art-lovers to the city, all which need access to high-quality connectivity. 

A First Phase

Even with all this seasonal activity, Ely’s year-round population has slowly and steadily declined as logging and mining, which once flourished in the region, has decreased significantly. Community leaders are looking for a way to bring more opportunity and reverse the trend. The community has been working with the Blandin Foundation to find ways to use technology to market the community and its businesses. Check out more about their efforts here.

Langowski told members at the EEDA meeting that next steps may be developing an RFP for an Internet Service Provider to work as a partner, then seek funding for the fiber deployment.

“At this point in time these area ideas and concepts,” said Langowski. “It could be the first phase of a multi-phase project.”

Image of Sheridan Street in Ely by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.