DO-IT-YOURSELF INTERNET

Tom Henry farms in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the U.S., but he is on the cutting edge when it comes to communications technology.

Although he is too far from town to receive standard digital subscriber line (DSL) Internet service, his phone company provides connectivity through Extended DSL, which supplies high-speed Internet up to 15 miles from a phone switching station, instead of the normal 3.5-mile limit.

As he works his farm and travels across the surrounding area, Henry also has full-time access to digital cell phone service. That's despite the fact that he is miles from major transportation arteries, where digital cell phone towers (and service) tend to be concentrated.

“As far as Internet service, we have it better than many urban areas,” says Henry, who farms near Westhope, ND, about 15 miles south of the Canadian border in central North Dakota. “And our cell phone coverage rivals the basic cell phone service of any urban area in the U.S.”

Although Henry is pleased with his current access to communications technology, he thinks it will get even better in the future. For instance, he expects that, within a few years, fiber optic cable will replace the traditional copper cable now serving his farm. When that occurs, his already fast Internet access will experience a huge bump in speed. Television and other video services, as well as telephone, also are likely to flow through the high-speed fiber cable.

Henry gives the credit for his advantaged communications position to his local cooperatively owned telephone company, SRT Communications. A former member of the co-op's board, he says the co-op believes that, in order for it to prosper, it must provide customers a competitive communications advantage.

“If there is anything that is going to save rural areas economically, it is the communications infrastructure,” Henry says.

SRT Communications is not alone in adhering to this philosophy. Across rural America, many telecommunication providers have adopted the same philosophy as they have pushed the communications envelope and delivered leading-edge services to their customers. Many, but far from all, are locally owned co-ops.

Connections for the future

SRT Communications began its life in 1951 as the Souris River Telephone Mutual Aid Corporation, with a goal of providing telephone service in the counties surrounding Minot, ND. Today it is North Dakota's largest telephone cooperative. It serves about 38,000 phone lines in a 7,200-square-mile region in north-central North Dakota.

If you do the math, that's fewer than six phone lines per square mile. If you subtract the customer base in Minot, with its 28,000 phone lines, the customer saturation drops to slightly more than one phone line per square mile.

Despite this low population density, and the resulting high costs per customer for upgrading technology, the co-op has built a fiber optics backbone to all the small towns in its service area. It's in the process of expanding its fiber optics network to individual farms, although that effort could take 10 years or more, says Lynn Nelson, SRT's director of sales and marketing.

“We see broadband and fiber optics as becoming the connection to all our customers in the future,” he says. “A strong broadband infrastructure [via fiber optic cable] will not only increase economic development, but will also be the umbilical cord to provide voice, Internet and video services to all our customers in the future. Today, when we need to replace phone lines, it is more cost-effective to put in fiber. Then you open up the valve for all kinds of services.”

A key reason for SRT to become a communications technology leader, beyond improved service to its owner-members, is to drive economic development in the region. In recent years, availability of high-speed communications technology has helped attract several large employers, including the large financial services company ING, and MLT Vacations Inc., a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines. Both companies operate call centers, each with several hundred employees.

Today, SRT offers high-speed Internet services to 98% of its customer base. In most cases, service is delivered through DSL and Extended DSL technology, although a small area is served via radio-based technology. Despite the fact that Extended DSL and radio-based Internet service costs more to provide, the co-op charges all customers the same fee for basic services. The most popular service plan costs $29.95/month for Internet speeds of up to 4 megabits/sec. The co-op also has built a wireless digital cellular phone network that provides wall-to-wall coverage throughout its service area.

Being a cooperative helps justify technology expenditures. “The customer is the company, so you aren't paying the stockholders,” Nelson says. “Any revenues we earn, we put back into the infrastructure. This is a different formula for success than the large telecoms.”

DO-IT-YOURSELF INTERNET

BACK IN the early days of the Internet (the mid-1990s), the Red Rock Central School District in Lamberton, MN, became the community's de facto Internet Service Provider (ISP) when regional ISPs declined the newly consolidated school district's request that it provide dial-up Internet services.

“We were begging the phone company to offer dial-up,” recalls Leonard Runck, technology coordinator for Red Rock Central. “We were told that if we thought it was so easy, why didn't we do it ourselves.”

Thus was born the Red Rock Community Network. RRC Net, which is run by high-school students with an interest in technology, is headquartered at the high school, which serves students from Lamberton and three surrounding communities.

About five years later, Runck and his RRC Net student technology crew were hankering to offer high-speed Internet services. After toying with setting up a small radio-based system from the school, the plan evolved into a 15-tower radio system that provides high-speed Internet services to a 2,400-square-mile service area.

The plan was developed with the considerable support and encouragement of Meadowland Farmers Coop, also based in Lamberton, which has a population of about 900.

Meadowland, which operates in 14 locations in Lamberton and surrounding towns, offered its elevators as high-speed Internet radio towers in exchange for use of the network to connect its elevator locations. To complete the network so that it would blanket the entire school district, RRC Net enlisted Archer Daniels Midland and Harvest States elevators in nearby communities, as well as several farmers who provided radio locations on grain legs and silos.

Today, RRC Net, which operates as a nonprofit, offers high-speed Internet services at rates of $29.95 and $39.95/month, depending on the speed. Fees are used to pay for high-speed telecommunications lines necessary for the system. Fees also compensate students at the minimum wage to keep the system up and running, provide technical assistance, perform installations and teach community education computer courses. Surpluses are plowed back into educational technology.

RRC Net has benefited both technology students and the student body at large, Runck says. “We have seen data that show that children of parents with skills to access the Internet have higher reading scores,” he says. “This school district has been cited by the state of Minnesota as one of 22 outstanding schools out of 450 districts and charter schools in the state. We think that Internet access is one of the reasons for our success.”

Working directly with Meadowland personnel has been especially beneficial to his technology students. “They are excellent role models for our students,” Runck says.

FIBER OPTICS TO THE FARM

WITHIN FIVE years, world-class fiber optic cable will be delivering telephone, Internet and video services to more than 70 northwestern Kansas communities surrounding Hays, KS. Customers served by Rural Telephone Service Company, a co-op based in nearby Lenora, KS, and its subsidiary Nex-Tech, will have access to services and data transmission speeds that rival the best available anywhere in the world, according to Larry Sevier, the co-op's chief executive officer.

“Our five-year plan is to have fiber cable to all our rural customers [as well as those in towns],” Sevier says. “We will be able to offer high-definition TV, video on demand and high-speed Internet at a minimum of 100 megabits/sec. The things you can do with fiber, with its speed and capacity, are almost unlimited. That is the future.”

Already, customers in the co-op's service area have access to Internet, telephone and other services that are among the best in the U.S. Virtually 100% of them have high-speed Internet services available through a combination of fiber optic cable, DSL and radio- and satellite-based technologies. When bundled with telephone services, high-speed Internet costs $20 to $40/month, depending on the speed. The co-op also is a partner in a digital cellular telephone network that provides blanket coverage across much of western Kansas.

As with the Minot phone co-op, rural development is a major motivation for the Kansas co-op's aggressive stance on offering the latest communications technology.

“About 10 or 15 years ago, we started to see a huge population decline in western Kansas,” Sevier says. “We made a commitment to do what we can to bring families back to western Kansas and to give people the economic opportunity to stay here. We haven't totally stopped the decline, but we have had an impact.”

Many formerly empty schools across the telephone co-op's service area now are filled with new or expanding small businesses. Companies such as Osborne Industries, a major livestock equipment manufacturer, have expanded in part because of their access to state-of-the-art communications technology, Sevier says.

The telephone company itself is a prime example of the power of communications technology to encourage business growth. Twenty years ago, the co-op had 26 employees. Today it has 340 employees.

“Several communities have come to us and asked us to provide fiber service,” Sevier says. As a result, the co-op has added telecommunications services for a half dozen or more communities after a large percentage of residents agreed to purchase services. Most of the communities were served by AT&T and some were served by Sprint. These “overbuilds” by the co-op eventually led Sprint to sell 10 exchanges to Rural Telephone Service.