Broadband Stories from the Heartland ViodiTV Real-Time Conversations

Bigger, Better Broadband in Bemidji & Beyond

A number 8 ranking by PCMag as one of the best places for remote work in 2021 should be no surprise to those familiar with the Bemidji, MN region. Its member-owned, broadband provider, Paul Bunyan Communications,, was one of the first U.S. operators to deploy fiber to the home (FTTH). By 2014 all of its members in its entire 5,500 square mile area (5,000 square miles at the time) had access to its FTTH network.

And as important as robust broadband is, a high-speed connection to the Internet only accounts for 20% of PCMag’s scoring for what makes a place desirable. Quality of life factors, such as local arts & entertainment, housing costs, health, attractiveness, make up the other 80% of PCMag’s criteria.  PCMag’s summary of why they chose Bemidji, reinforces the message of Greater Bemidji, the region’s economic development agency.

Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji, explains that their formula for economic development is about having,

“The right size, the right amenities, the right broadband to really appeal to a broad base of people.”

Paul Bunyan and Greater Bemidji are close partners in the quest to attract companies and people to the outdoor lifestyle afforded by the Northern Minnesota woods and lakes. In the above interview, Gary Johnson, CEO of PBC, and Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji, discuss, among other things, the importance of robust connections, their efforts to promote the area, and the meaning of lumberjack chic.

Interview Highlights

  • 01:42 – Gary Johnson describes PBC’s all-fiber network, which includes the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
  • 02:51 – The events of 2020 did more to market the advantages of symmetrical upstream/downstream service, particularly at gigabit speeds. 
  • 03:14PBC’s Blast WiFi is a manifestation of the new reality that robust WiFi is as much a part of the network as is fiber to the premise.
  • 04:25 – Humans cannot live on broadband alone. Dave Hengel talks about some of the other attributes that PCMag saw in its ranking of the Bemidji area. He says that “Bemidji is lumberjack chic.” He also notes that 65k people live within 15-miles of Bemidji.
  • 06:13 – Although the technology has changed from basic telephony to fiber broadband, the basic need of connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected has not changed since its founding in 1950s. It is the mission-driven focus that sets them apart for the customer. 
  • 9:09 – If not for a group of concerned, dedicated citizens in the 1950s, along with a nudge from a future Vice President, would fiber be deployed as extensively as it is today?
  • 11:00 – PCMag wasn’t the first organization to recognize the Bemidji area, as, for example, the State of Minnesota certified Beltrami County as Telecommuter Forward! in 2020. Hengel also provides an overview of some of the incentives of the 218 Relocate program.
  • 13:49 – 2020 was busier than ever in terms of broadband growth for PBC; 4% growth in June, alone. Johnson says they are seeing the broadband network helping with education, telehealth, and work while allowing people to enjoy the area’s natural amenities.
  • 16:03 – Fiber makes the outside plant network more reliable. Johnson explains that a robust in-home wireless network is a must-have to create a reliable and consistent experience. This also helps their customers achieve better wireless phone service, as cellular connections can be spotty in the woods of Northern Minnesota.
  • 18:54 – An important and impactful anchor institution of the region is Bemidji State University.
  • 22:01 – PBC will not only get you broadband but will repair your broken Apple device.
  • 23:02 – Johnson discusses their GigaZone Gaming initiative, the untapped market it revealed, its influence beyond Bemidji, and its impact on PBC staff. Hengel points out that this effort helps differentiate PBC’s broadband network.
  • 28:24 – Johnson gives his thoughts on the soon-to-be-released, $3.2B FCC Emergency Broadband Benefits Program. He states that an encouraging thing about this program is that it deals with both access to and affordability of broadband.
  • 34:35 – Whether the future has autonomous vehicles, electric aviation, or 5G, a common denominator will be a fiber network, Johnson calls their fiber network the “backbone spine of our region that can be built upon.” An example of this is the backhaul PBC provides for wireless carriers today.
  • 39:05 – Hengel compliments Gary on his vision and points to their first meeting in the 1990s when Johnson predicted that Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative would transform to be a broadband provider.

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