BEMIDJI -- Paul Bunyan Communications' work has been recognized at the national level this year by a new federal program.

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission established the Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition, or DOER, program. The initiative was created to acknowledge Americans working to expand broadband internet to communities without access.

"It is clear that our long-standing digital divide has morphed into a monstrous new COVID-19 divide," said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a release. "From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic through now, I have heard stories about the innovative and rapid ways individuals, nonprofit organizations and companies are responding to the connectivity needs of people across the country who are seeking access to medical professionals via telehealth services, education and safe ways to communicate with family and friends."

For Paul Bunyan Communications, the pandemic meant a transition to working from home while assisting in the improvement of telehealth and education services. According to the release, Paul Bunyan Communications worked directly with local school districts to install multiple Wi-Fi hot spots so students and families in unserved areas around the cooperative would have access.

According to Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor at Paul Bunyan Communications, the cooperative submitted a nomination earlier this year by putting together a synopsis of both the work that's been done in response to the coronavirus and the efforts its made prior to the pandemic. That data was also included in the release, which stated the cooperative has built one of the largest all-fiber optic rural broadband networks in the United States, connecting more than 23,000 rural locations in northern Minnesota.

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"It's an honor for us to get this recognition, and I think it speaks to our team and the work they've done," Bissonette said. "That was especially true in March, April and May. Not only did we have to change the way we work, we also stepped up to the plate to help with components of distance learning and telehealth as much as we could."

Over the past two years, the efforts by Paul Bunyan Communications has resulted in Beltrami County being listed as a hotspot for broadband. Last month, the county was listed as a telecommuter-friendly community and in 2019, Beltrami was shown to be No. 1 out of 87 counties when it came to internet access, with 98.78% of the population having access to speeds of up to a gigabit per second.

Midco, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., which also provides internet to the Beltrami County area, was recognized by the FCC program, too. In Midco's case, the recognition is for Midco's work with North Dakota's state government and school districts in providing internet service to families who were without service.

The FCC has scheduled a virtual event for Oct. 1 where those recognized by the program will be officially honored.