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St. Louis County signs on to Rice Lake broadband project

In agreeing to provide half of an $800,000 project, the County Board assured Rice Lake will get internet for City Hall and more than 200 others.

FILE: Rice Lake
Rice Lake in St. Louis County is planning to connect broadband internet to more than 200 households, businesses and City Hall.
2015 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The city of Rice Lake will bring broadband internet to its City Hall and connect more than 200 households and businesses, following a decision by the St. Louis County Board last week.

The board voted unanimously to support $400,000 to go with a city of Rice Lake match to make the $835,835 deal a reality.

Consolidated Telephone Co., headquartered in Brainerd, has committed $35,835 toward the project, and is contracted to install the fiber-optic network.

“We’re looking at 267 connections with this project,” Rice Lake City Councilor Suzanne Herstad told the board May 3 in Duluth. “Hopefully, this will still be a good building block to start doing a piece here and there, setting up loops wherever we can.”

Herstad noted the failure of a larger federal application, and still wanting to partner on continued efforts at improved rural broadband connectivity with Gnesen Township to the north, and Lakewood, Grand Lake and Normanna townships in surrounding directions.

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“This is a much-scaled-down project,” Herstad said, explaining how Rice Lake City Hall, 4107 W. Beyer Road, had been using satellite internet, but is required to hold a static internet protocol address in order to conduct election business.

“We’re looking forward to a better way to service City Hall, while scooping up some homeowners and business owners along the way,” Herstad said.

A township-turned-city draws from its past but looks to the future with confidence.

The county approved the use of funds from its St. Louis County Broadband Infrastructure Grant program, which is funded by its $54 million in American Rescue Plan Act monies. The $1.75 million broadband grant fund will be left with $950,000 following the Rice Lake expenditure.

The County Board will conduct final approval on the project during its meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Gnesen Community Center, 6356 Howard Gnesen Road, Duluth.

The larger federal grant sought by a collaborative including the city of Rice Lake and Canosia, Gnesen, Lakewood and Normanna townships would have connected 2,115 homes, businesses and community facilities. Because it didn’t receive funding, the effort has been forced to scale back into smaller projects.

“They’re putting in something where others can conceivably connect and go beyond,” said Duluth-based Commissioner Frank Jewell of the Rice Lake project. “That’s going to be part of what’s going to happen — they’re going to do chunks at a time. It’s not a cheap way to do it, but it is one way I suspect rural areas are going to be doing it.”

Commissioner Keith Musolf, who represents Rice Lake and the cities and areas outside Duluth, thanked Herstad and the city for “tackling this monster we call broadband.”

“(Making) sure Rice Lake has capability at City Hall for future elections is a huge deal to help them,” Musolf said.

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Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, marveled at the cost, roughly equivalent to $3,800 per household to connect.

“It boggles my mind,” he said, but was assured that it was reflective of the costs to extend fiber-optic cable.

Commissioner Keith Nelson told commissioners not to sleep on satellite internet as it makes its way deeper into rural communities. He cited hookup costs in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands, and said the county would need to consider satellite internet in future cost analysis of county needs.

“We knew this day was coming,” Nelson said of satellite internet. “For a lot of areas in St. Louis County, it is just not practical or feasible to run cable or fiber to a lot of these places.”

RELATED STORIES
After seeing firsthand how rural parts of the county lag behind when it comes to internet service, St. Louis County commissioners said this week they would help foster expansion.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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