Bringing broadband home
Roseau Electric Cooperative’s NorthStream Fiber aims to provide a high-speed internet connection for unserved and underserved Minnesotans.
Justin Olson and Chad Johnson don’t mind drizzle when there’s digging to do.
The duo plowed three feet under the ground just east of Roseau, Minn., continuously feeding black cabling into the now-wet earthen trench trailing behind them. Through mist and mud, these veteran Roseau Electric Cooperative (REC) lineworkers were on day three of a learning experience.
“We’re getting the hang of things,” Olson said, looking to Johnson. “It’s just like plowing for primary line – but now it’s fiber.”
Johnson and Olson were laying down the first lines of what will be NorthStream Fiber, a bold rural broadband project just launched by REC. The initiative, branded and signed into existence on Aug. 28, aims to bring reliable fiber optic service to the areas of Roseau County that lack strong internet options.
Sitting in front of a planning map for fiber deployment, REC assistant general manager Ryan Severson described the 2017 Minnesota Rural Electric Association annual meeting that spurred the effort.
“One of the speakers presented a map that showed the underserved and unserved areas. We were in what they called the ‘black hole,’” Severson said. “That really kicked things in gear. We needed to look at what the situation was.”
With help from Northwest Community Action and other funding partners, REC kicked off a feasibility study and a series of community outreach efforts including surveys, open house meetings and one-on-one conversations at fairs and festivals. They learned the need was real.
“The most asked question was: ‘Why hasn’t Roseau Electric done this already?’” recalled REC general manager Tracey Stoll.
“They were excited, asking ‘Can you really do this?’” Severson said. “Our philosophy was, we did this 80 years ago with electricity. Our goal now is to have every member with a fiber, high-speed internet connection.”
REC won four pockets of Roseau County coverage area in an FCC Connect America Fund Phase II (CAFII) auction in August 2018. The FCC will provide REC with more than $2 million over 10 years to run fiber connections to those rural areas, but the endeavor will eventually extend farther to make sure all 6,000 REC members have some form of high-speed internet.
“Our purpose remains the same,” Stoll said. “We’re an electric co-op. We’re here to serve the members. We believe this is just the next step, besides providing electricity – offering a very important product to our community.”
When Karolyn Eastman heard that fiber would be coming to her farmstead east of Roseau, she could only respond in interjection.
“Yay!” she cried, her laugh echoing off the metal walls of her farm shop. “It’s overdue, and it’s needed in our rural community. If our town, just five miles west of here, can get it, our rural areas should be involved, too.”
Eastman has roots in rural Roseau, having been born and raised there. Although their house is in town, she and her husband have farmland around the area. They bought this particular farm 13 years ago and use it as a base for their tractors, trucks, combines and collectibles.
“This broadband would not only serve this farm, it would be serving our north farm as well for internet services. We would be able to use this in so many ways,” she said. “As you know, agriculture is shifting every day.”
Eastman explained that their operation now must rely more on automation, GPS and other electronic services that weren’t available 20 years ago. Like many of the farm families surrounding them, they look to a mobile hot spot to connect them to internet services, security systems, inventory management, grain bin monitoring and more. That hot spot can lose power or pause, slowing up or disrupting day-to-day work.
Broadband fiber could eliminate that misery.
“It gives you comfort to have buildings and farm equipment fully served as you drive away for the day,” Eastman said.
Agriculture will be just the beginning beneficiary of gigabit-capable internet. NorthStream Fiber will support other industries vital to the communities of Roseau and Warroad, Minn.
In the manufacturing sector, REC’s fiber initiative will serve as a recruiting tool for local powerhouse companies Marvin and Polaris. Marvin hires in all areas – manufacturing, sales, marketing, etc. – while Polaris’s focus is on product research, development, engineering and manufacturing.
“That whole atmosphere of design, they can now do a lot of it from home and have that connection,” Severson said. “We hope to bring this into the medical field so that people can have their medical visits online. They won’t have to leave their home, so maybe they can stay in that house longer.
“It’s going to keep people here,” he added.
Getting it done
A partnership agreement between REC and Wikstrom Telephone Co. allows the companies to combine their resources to encompass an area of up to 2,000 REC members.
Within that region, the REC crew will first bring fiber to the CAFII-awarded areas. An additional Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant, if awarded, will allow them to extend the network to even more homes, farms and businesses over the next five to seven years.
To build out the entire network could ultimately take more than 600 miles of fiber. Co-op lineworkers will be running the underground and aerial fiber (strung along the power lines) themselves, and REC hired two new team members to guide the process – fiber technician Jeremy Sisler and fiber service director Stacy Rose.
“From experience, the fiber is consistent,” Rose said. “There is no maintenance, unless it gets cut. It’s magic – it just runs.”
The ADSS fiber that will run aboveground (about 85% of the project) is metal-free and strengthened by Kevlar so it can be installed in the REC power space, allowing REC to leverage their already-trained line crews.
In the meantime, Rose will be sending out informational letters and going door-to-door to eligible homes, sharing these new offerings and TV, telephone and internet packages with those who have been longing too long for a reliable connection.
“They’ve all been pretty excited about it, that they finally have an option for good internet speeds from a company that’s been here for 80 years,” she said.
As Eastman waits for the line crew to arrive in her own yard, there’s no quelling her northern community pride.
“The co-op in Roseau has really done a lot of fine things, and fast,” she beamed. “What they are doing is looking outside the box, their paradigms, and they’re seeking ways to make things better for rural people.”
Main image: Fiber technician Jeremy Sisler (left) and fiber service director Stacy Rose will help lead the NorthStream Fiber project for Roseau Electric.