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Expanding Broadband Helps Rural Areas Survive

Article By Darin Leach  – Leach is the public information officer with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.
Reprinted with permission of Wallaces Farmer magazine.


Earlier this summer a unique partnership between Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co., MiEnergy Cooperative and Spring Grove Communications was announced that will bring expanded broadband access to rural residents, businesses and communities in northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota.

“Many areas of southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa are underserved broadband areas due to low population density,” says Jill Fishbaugher, manager of Harmony Telephone Co. and Spring Grove Communications. “Everyone deserves to have access to quality broadband service.”

Harmony Telephone Co., which was purchased by Spring Grove Communications and Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. in 2006, serves Harmony and the surrounding areas with telephone, internet and cable television services. Six years ago, the telephone company began installing fixed, wireless broadband to serve areas near Decorah and Preston, Iowa, and Harmony, Minn.

Rural areas need to be connected
Fixed wireless broadband works in a similar fashion to cellphone communication with towers carrying a signal. Customers of fixed wireless broadband have a radio at a fixed location, maybe at home, on their farm or at a business, that communicates to an antenna on a nearby tower. Signals can be sent through a line of site to the tower approximately 5 to 7 miles depending on the strength of the radio.

With the partnership announcement, MiEnergy Cooperative is joining Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. and Spring Grove Communications in ownership of Harmony Telephone Co. From this partnership a new company called MiBroadband will be formed.

“Fixed, wireless broadband is a vital part of today’s critical infrastructure, and we are thrilled with the idea of serving areas that we could not without this partnership between the three cooperatives,” says Brian Krambeer, president and chief executive officer, MiEnergy Cooperative, an electric cooperative created in 2017 after a member-approved merger between Tri-County Electric Cooperative of Rushford, Minn., and Hawkeye REC of Cresco, Iowa.

Co-ops partner to expand
MiEnergy Cooperative has been developing its own broadband communications network as part of the installation and maintenance of a smart grid system that involves the exchange of data from the cooperative’s 43 substations to their offices, as well as communication with the advanced metering infrastructure that is being deployed across their electric service territory.

“In joining with two local telephone cooperative partners, we are eager to use MiEnergy’s fixed broadband network and our electric infrastructure to deliver quality, fixed broadband to our rural members and residents,” Krambeer says.

Expanding infrastructure access through innovative partnerships is an important focus with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Connectivity to the global economy is vital for rural America,” says Brad Finstad, USDA Rural Development state director in Minnesota. “It is exciting to see three traditional partners that the USDA has worked with for years come together in a very innovative way, creating a partnership that will make a difference for generations to come through improved infrastructure.”

USDA helps finance rural broadband
USDA Rural Development has provided loans to rural electric cooperatives for more than 80 years, and today nearly 700 cooperatives from 46 states have used USDA programs to help finance safe, modern and efficient infrastructure. Similarly, USDA works directly with rural telephone cooperatives through a variety of loan and grant programs to build and expand broadband networks.

The 2018 Omnibus Spending Package included an investment of $600 million in rural broadband for USDA.

Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. was formed in 1961 and has more than 1,500 customers in both Minnesota and Iowa. “This is a history-making moment for all of us as cooperatives,” says Julie Kolka, manager, Mabel Cooperative Telephone. “Our partnership will create life-changing moments for rural members that have not had access to broadband at their home, farm or business.”

The cooperatives involved in the partnership have territories that overlap and share some of the same members and communities. “By signing our letter of intent to form a partnership, we are emulating cooperation among cooperatives to deliver broadband,” Kolka says. “We are doing it because broadband is important to the quality of life for our members.”

Broadband access critical
Having access to broadband can be the difference between a rural community thriving or failing.

“Innovative partnerships are playing an increasing role in meeting the activity needs of our rural areas,” says Diane Wells, Minnesota office of broadband development. “With these new partners coming together we are excited about what is going to be happening in this corner of the state.”

MiBroadband will launch later this year in the areas of Cresco, Iowa, and Rushford, Minn., with rollouts of additional areas announced as the equipment is installed.

“Improved broadband access in rural areas will change the dynamic and outcome of rural America,” Finstad adds. “At USDA, we are always looking for ways to create a vibrant and future-looking community that has vitality and that can compete in a global market. This partnership is creating opportunities for families like mine to be here in rural Minnesota for generations to come.”