Blisteringly fast Internet service is coming to Bemidji and a 5,000-square-mile swath of northern Minnesota.
A rural cooperative, Paul Bunyan Communications, has spent the past decade quietly laying the foundation for a $150 million, 1-gigabit fiber optic network, dubbed the GigaZone, that will be one of the nation's largest and fastest rural high-speed networks, starting early next year. "This might be viewed as, 'Wow, we have faster Internet.' But it's so much more than that," said Paul Bunyan general manager Gary Johnson after the Thursday announcement.
The new network will offer thousands of homes and businesses in five northern counties access to Internet service 100 times faster than average. Jubilant economic development officials in the region are already spreading the word that some of the fastest Internet connections in the nation are coming to communities like Bemidji, Grand Rapids and Walker.
"When I visit with companies looking at locating to the Bemidji area, I always get two questions. The first is about talent — do we have the talent to support their companies — and secondly, do we have broadband to support them," said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, the region's joint economic development commission.
An unknown factor is how many of Paul Bunyan's customers will be willing to pay the $100-a-month price for the new service.
The economics of the network "are tough," Johnson said, but "we've just got to make it happen. It's what our members need."
The cooperative will begin offering 1-gigabit Internet speeds to customers in Bemidji early next year and will expand the service across its coverage area over the next few years.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has been pushing for statewide broadband access, welcomed the coming of GigaZone.
"Border-to-border access to reliable cellphone and high-speed Internet coverage is essential to Minnesota's continued economic growth," Dayton said in a statement.
Superfast Internet connections open the door to everything from telecommuting from home to filling your home with smart tech gadgets that let you set the thermostat remotely. But Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the state's Office of Broadband Development, said many Minnesotans are still waiting for the basic connections that would give them the same work, entertainment and educational opportunities online that their neighbors in the cities enjoy.
"This is basic infrastructure," MacKenzie said. "I get calls every week from folks who want to telecommute from home and they're not able to. … We got a couple of calls on the first day of school from parents who said, 'My kid got sent home with homework that requires Internet access and we don't have it.' "
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the rural gigabit network "a game changer" for the region.
"Expanding broadband is a great equalizing force for boosting rural economies," Klobuchar said in a statement. "Today, you don't need to live off a major highway or in a bustling city to find a good job, start a new business or get a high-quality education, but today you do need a high-speed Internet connection."
There are a number of 1-gigabit fiber optic networks around the nation — CenturyLink announced plans this summer for a super high-speed network in the Twin Cities — but most are in urban areas. Paul Bunyan Communications, which started in the 1950s when no one else seemed interested in running phone lines between far-flung homes and communities in northern Minnesota, decided to take the same leap with high-speed broadband.
"We're here because no one wanted to serve this area in the first place," said Johnson, whose company will be completing the final $25 million worth of infrastructure and technology for the network in the coming years.
"That's in our DNA. We're here because others wouldn't do it and now we're reliving that with broadband."