Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

City of Orr: Not enough fiber?

CenturyLink reaches telecomunications capacity in town of 250

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/16/17

ORR— When Julian Brzoznowski and his wife JoAnn moved from their farm north of Ash Lake to the Bayview Apartments in Orr, he called CenturyLink to sign up for Internet access. It didn’t go …

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City of Orr: Not enough fiber?

CenturyLink reaches telecomunications capacity in town of 250

Posted

ORR— When Julian Brzoznowski and his wife JoAnn moved from their farm north of Ash Lake to the Bayview Apartments in Orr, he called CenturyLink to sign up for Internet access. It didn’t go well.

“They told me I couldn’t get it,” he said. “They said they didn’t have enough fiber to serve all the people in Orr.”

It turns out the Brzoznowskis weren’t the only ones who have been told that this town of 250 had used up its existing telecommunications capacity.

“We’re considered an unserved area here,” said Orr City Clerk Cheri Carter. “When new people come into town, they’re told they can’t get Internet.”

It isn’t just residential customers who are turned away, either. Local businesses, and even the town library, can’t sign up for an online connection, at least until CenturyLink invests in upgrading its service in town, or until someone else in town opts to disconnect.

“It’s been this way since the beginning of the year,” said Carter, and it’s become an ever larger frustration to local residents as well as would-be residents, some of whom have balked at moving to the quiet northwoods community because of the lack of Internet service. “I had somebody call me from Florida who was looking to buy property. They wanted to retire on Pelican Lake, but it’s gotten to be that Internet access is one of the first things people ask about. These folks wanted high-speed.”

By rights, residents in Orr should have Internet like a rocket ship. It was actually one of the first communities in the region with a fiber optic connection, and the capacity of the fiber backbone has only grown over time. “We have Paul Bunyan, CenturyLink, and Frontier, all running down the highway,” said Carter.

But it’s all headed elsewhere and the companies either can’t or won’t connect to homes or businesses in Orr. A combination of state and federal dollars recently allowed the Northeast Service Cooperative to build yet another fiber backbone to remote locations like Crane Lake and Kabetogama. That fiber runs right through Orr, but CenturyLink, the local service provider isn’t a partner on the project, so it offers no benefit to would-be users in Orr. “It’s so frustrating that the feds and the state give them all this money to lay the cable and it just sits in the ground,” said Carter.

Brzoznowski agreed. “It’s our money and we can’t even use it,” he said.

Leiding Township had the opportunity to connect its town hall, which is located two doors down from the Orr Library, but township officials declined. Orr officials asked if the connection could run to the library instead, but were told that wouldn’t comply with their federal grant award.

Brzoznowski, who served for decades on the Northstar Electric Cooperative board of directors and still serves on the Cook-Orr Healthcare District board, says he needs access to the Internet for the work he does. For years, Brzoznowski used a satellite company that provided him Internet at his remote farm. He expected to have similar service or better available in Orr, but now can’t purchase access through CenturyLink and the apartment building doesn’t allow individual satellite dishes, so he can’t use his former provider. “I can’t even get dial-up,” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

Some progress?

Slowly, but surely, better news may be on the way for CenturyLink customers in Orr and surrounding areas. According to Randy Long, IT director for the Bois Forte tribal government, CenturyLink is in the midst of laying new fiber and adding capacity, although exactly when the improved service will be available isn’t clear.

Long said he expects the new service to go online at Nett Lake by next summer, but he’s less certain when that might happen in Orr, where CenturyLink also needs to update switching equipment.

The problem at this point really isn’t lack of fiber. There are multiple fiber conduits already in the ground, notes Long, but it’s getting the service out to customers that’s been the hurdle. He notes that Bois Forte tribal offices have exceptional broadband capacity, thanks to the middle-mile fiber project initiated by the Northeast Service Cooperative. But the private partners on that project, who were supposed to utilize that backbone to extend faster connections to residential and commercial customers, have been slow to deliver. “We have more capacity here at the government center than we know what to do with,” said Long. “But no one else can jump on board.”

The delays have prompted the band to consider their own “fiber-to-the-home” project, a project that Long said would cost about $2.3 million, according to a plan the band has already developed. Long said he’d rather have CenturyLink do the project, but it’s not clear when or if the company would be willing to make that kind of investment.

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