Arrowhead Electric Cooperative awarded $18.4 million for rural broadband

Arrowhead Electric Cooperative (AEC) in Cook County has won a bid for $18.4 million in federal funds for rural development during the next 10 years.

In December 2020, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) awarded $9.2 billion to high-speed broadband internet service providers to serve over 5.22 million residences and businesses in rural areas throughout the country. Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, it will finance projects in 49 states.

Using a “reverse auction” process, there were multiple rounds with a descending clock auction format where bidders committed to specific performance and latency levels per region. The bids were weighted for lower latency and higher speeds. Latency refers to the amount of time it takes between when work begins result are evident.

Part of an FCC effort to close the digital divide in rural parts of the country, the RDOF Phase I auction promptedcompetitive bidding among more than 300 providers and ended with 180 winners, resulting in a total allocation of $9.2 billion of the $16 billion originally set aside for Phase 1 of the auction.

The balance, $6.8 billion, will be rolled over into a future Phase II auction designated to target partially served areas. The winning bidders are expected to meet periodic buildout benchmarks, with incentives to build out as fast as possible.

More pieces to the long-form application process, including a detailed description for technology and system design, are due from AEC and all bidders in February, and again in June. Twiest says that even with the news of having won the bid, AEC is required to cross all of those hurdles to be completely approved prior to actually being awarded the funds.

“After that, if and when we are awarded funding, we might be looking at late summer or fall to get started on the project, but that has not been defined,” Twiest stated.

Now CEO, he has been with Arrowhead Electric over 15 years. In his previous position, he oversaw the initial build out that brought broadband service to Cook County starting in 2010.

The original $11.3 million grant in 2009 was to cover broadband service to all homes that wanted it on the existing electrical grid, excluding the public utilities in Grand Marais. Cook County invested $4 million to cover the city’s broadband.

In relatively short order, AEC made high speed internet hook-ups possible to over 70 percent of Cook County’s population. 

“We are very proud of the fact that we have been able to serve our community with the fiber we have so far. If that hadn’t been done, there would be a lot of customers still using dial up and DSL, and further cell phone tower development since then would have been very limited without the fiber we do have. No matter which way you look at this, we would have been in a world of hurt during the pandemic,” said Twiest.

Many North Shore visitors and part-time residents have accessed the county’s broadband capacity to work remotely while spending extended time outside of metropolitan areas during the pandemic.

If AEC passes all of the application hurdles, the last miles into the wilderness will include not only the potential for broadband service, but also electric utilities in many places that do not currently have that option. That will include properties and residences around many inland lakes that lack broadband.

“If and when we are successful with the bid for this auction, we will be able to reach the entire service territory in our county,” said Twiest.

One of the outstanding challenges of Cook County is its geology. Rock, in the form of underground ledges, not just rocky soil, makes burying line an extremely onerous and costly task. Since a large percentage of the remaining miles cross federal and state lands, the fiber is required to be buried.

Twiest says that any future plans by AEC to place fiber in most wild areas of Cook County would naturally include electricity as a side-by-side.

“We would take the opportunity and install both if we were digging a trench already. We want to be able to provide the opportunity for both by making them available at the curb to everybody, both on-grid and off-grid,” said Twiest.

Having the choice, even for those choosing to live off-grid or to run a wilderness-based business, is something that Twiest believes is in demand. 

For now, he says AEC, and all providers who won bids under the RDOF auction, are under a limited communications order until the end of January.

“The overview is, yes, we were successful in our bid and now are going through the long-form process right to expand our broadband territory,” Twiest said.

Founder of Minnesota’s Children’s Press in Grand Marais, Anne Brataas labels herself a “super fan” of high-speed internet for everyone in the county. A self-professed lover of vintage forms of communication (newsprint), Brataas works in both digital and print media with school age children.

Making herself a rural broadband advocate for the first time in 2016, she reached out to Blandin Foundation for a grant to help create a children’s newspaper.

“I have a tender spot in my heart whenever kids are productively and creatively engaged, and I made an argument that in such a big, isolated county we had to be connected by broadband to do this,” Brataas said.

In addition to learning digital media skills and print layout, Brataas says that getting rural kids’ voices reporting on the world they see can open worlds of possibilities for them as they build skills. But that depends on reliable broadband to everyone, otherwise some kids can’t participate.

“Without rock-solid reliable upload and download speeds, we cannot get our far-flung kids and staff who are out on all the trails of the Arrowhead,” Brataas said. As it I todays, people who live in more remote locations of Cook County hang out in front of the library to get work done online.

Reliable and fast download and upload speeds are critical for the work that Brataas does with children and their mentors. Transferring digital files to make a print product, as well as staying in regular communication across a very spread out area, are needs that can be difficult under current broadband service.

“Without enough internet connection, we miss people and they can’t see something happening, and that lessens enthusiasm for the project,” she said.

As a health and science writer by profession, Brataas sees great potential for the development of telemedicine for preventive care, especially in a predominantly over-65 county like Cook. Another potential aspect is supportive social connections for older and disabled residents, but she cautions that a stable and robust connectivity is a must for those less facile with technology in order to be successful.

“It needs to be rock solid, otherwise one glitch and then they distrust it, they need the technology feedback to be positive or they feel it didn’t work,” said Brataas.

Pending projects such as another history book that Brataas hopes to work on with her group would benefit from better internet. Working with high resolution archival photographs, and coordinating design work with mentors, relies on high speed internet throughout the region.

“Stable and reliable internet is really unlimited in its ability to touch lives in potent ways, it can help kids sell books to raise money for their projects, or help people to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs, or help seniors age-in-place,” Brataas stated.