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Money to bring more high-speed Internet to Iron Range gets OK'd

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Thousands of people on the Iron Range will get access to some of the fastest Internet speeds available after a project to expand a fiber network got approval.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (often called the IRRRB) voted 7-1 Monday to provide a $1.25 million grant that will help connect more rural Minnesotans with modern-speed Internet – that's download speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second (which equals 1 gigabit per second).

The project is being headed by the co-op Paul Bunyan Communications. It will give broadband access to a minimum of 1,255 households, 50 businesses, and five community institutions, according to the project summary. It will also include broadband access for some students in the Grand Rapids, Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin school districts.

It would be an area just northwest of Nashwauk, Keewatin and Pengilly, though the exact final plan is still being decided. (Click the map below to enlarge.)

Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor with Paul Bunyan Communications, said they're "thrilled" – though Monday's approval wasn't necessarily a surprise, given the co-op had worked with the IRRRB to get the application together.

Aaron Brown, a northern Minnesota-based author and blogger, and an advocate for rural Internet help, provided his own take on his website.

How much faster would this be?

A quick math note – there are 8 megabits in 1 megabyte, according to the National Broadband Map website.

A digital song usually comes in at around 4 megabytes, while a movie is about 6,144 megabytes, according to the National Broadband Map website.

Let's say you have a download speed of 5 megabits per second (Mbps) – which is a common speed in the area currently.

With that, you'd be able to download an average song in about 3 seconds. If you were at 25 Mbps, it'd be about 0.6 seconds. At 1,000 Mbps – which the Paul Bunyan project could offer – that song will be on your computer in well under a second.

At 25 Mbps, you could download a movie in about 16 minutes – at 50 Mbps you're at 8 minutes . At 1,000 Mbps, it's less than a half-minute.

Your upload speed works the exact same way – but it's for sending out or uploading files (like say, a YouTube video) rather than downloading them.

Concerns over speed, cost

Sen. Tom Bakk during the meeting (which you can watch here – the broadband chatter starts at about 48 minutes in) said he was concerned about the cost, as well as the precedent approving the grant sets.

"It's very expensive, and we're going to get other requests, from CenturyLink and others," he said.

He was also skeptical of whether that type of speed was needed, saying his 5 Mbps at home seemed to work just fine.

"I don't need to download an MRI form the Mayo Clinic," he said. "If that's what we're trying to provide every house, I don't think you need that service for everybody."

Steve Howard, with Paul Bunyan, pointed out that Balsam Clinic is currently forced to download X-Rays over a cellphone hotspot right now.

Bakk was the only board member to vote against the grant. The overall cost of the project is $5.5 million.

Internet speed and economic impact

Construction will start in the spring, and it'll be rolled out and activated in phases, Bissonette said. He expects the first area to be done by the fall of 2016 – possibly as early as August (though that's dependent on a number of factors).

The decision, he said, "reiterates the importance of broadband, and up to the Iron Range the lack thereof."

Forbes dug in to a report, which concluded doubling broadband speed for an economy increases its economic output by 0.3 percent. (This report from the Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences Department at Berkeley, comes to a similar conclusion: A 1.19 percent jump in gross domestic product for developed countries when broadband penetration increases 10 percent.)

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