In the Corridor, three local Internet Service Providers report exciting developments and improvements to their broadband internet offerings. The future is now at South Slope From 3,063 residents in 1990, the once small Iowa town of North Liberty has swelled to over 23,000 citizens – increasing in population by 10% just over the last three […]
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In the Corridor, three local Internet Service Providers report exciting developments and improvements to their broadband internet offerings.
The future is now at South Slope
From 3,063 residents in 1990, the once small Iowa town of North Liberty has swelled to over 23,000 citizens – increasing in population by 10% just over the last three years from the most recent census in 2020, according to World Population Review.Chuck Deisbeck, the CEO of South Slope Cooperative Communications, has good reason to smile when considering that incredible growth.“City leaders tell us how important our fiber (internet) network has been to bringing more people here, as well as being an economic driver by helping attract more businesses,” Mr. Deisbeck said.South Slope has been a fiber-to-the-home provider in North Liberty since 2009 before Mr. Deisbeck joined the company, he said, and the business continues expanding the network to neighboring communities and rural areas.The company currently offers broadband to nearly 520 square miles in the area nestled along Interstate-380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Mr. Deisbeck said about 90% of South Slope’s area is served by fiber – with close to 60 miles yet to complete on the eastern-most edges of the company’s coverage map.With the assistance of federal and state grants, South Slope finished work in 2022 to the west of North Liberty inside Oxford’s city limits, as well as the surrounding rural area.A 100% fiber build also was completed in late 2022 in rural Tiffin. Conversion from the old copper wiring will follow by the end of the first or second quarter of 2023 after fiber splicing and testing is finished.Extending fiber to hard-to-reach homes and farmhouses to the northeast near Solon is next in 2024.Mr. Deisbeck said the total investment to upgrade and expand the fiber network to those communities is $26.7 million.That includes $3.8 million in state grants (with $16.8 million in private matching investment to help qualify) – and another $2.7 million in federal funds (and $3.4 million in matching private money).The federal funds were from a US Department of Agriculture award in 2020 – and all $6.1 million of those associated dollars were devoted to the fiber build in and around Oxford.“The grants don’t pay for everything,” Mr. Deisbeck said. “They all are different – some may be 60/40 or 65/35 or 70/30 in terms of matching private investment to government funds. But no matter the parameters, the grants are definitely beneficial and help spark growth.“Without that assistance, people in rural areas wouldn't be served. They could potentially get some type of a wireless solution, but that is probably short-term – because as bandwidth increases, it's getting harder and harder to put those services out at any kind of distance.“So, that's why we feel so strongly about making the investment for the long term. If we’re going to do something, let’s do it right the first time.”Mr. Deisbeck said whatever the cost, the investment has paid for itself countless times in terms of reliability and customer satisfaction – and that in turn keeps service calls to a minimum and prevents technicians from having to make costly weekend house calls.The old copper wiring also requires more time and maintenance – besides offering less bandwidth for streaming TV services, for instance. A fully integrated fiber network also allows for seamless marketing and customer service – which is a top priority for small local providers. Operating a fixed wireless network also requires technicians with other skills, as well as the need to climb towers and maintain that equipment.“Fixed wireless has a role – and everybody has an opinion – but mine is to spend the money on something that's more future proof,” Mr. Deisbeck said. “Fiber is more expensive, but it will be even more expensive in the future when you’ll have to make the switch eventually.“Just over the last couple of years, we've seen the demand go from 100 Megabits to 1 Gigabit to now we're getting customers requesting 10 Gigabit and some business customers asking if we can do 100 Gigabit services.“So, it's really jumped by leaps and bounds because companies and homeowners are finding that they're using technology differently than they were even three or four years ago.”As a cooperative, owned and operated jointly by its members, South Slope’s mission is to provide the latest in technology to its customers. But instead of telephone services when the company started in 1958, broadband became the focus in 2009, when the company took out a USDA loan of more than $65 million to begin building their fiber network.“So we’re definitely well over $100 million,” in investment in their communities since then, Mr. Deisbeck added.“We've taken a very aggressive approach to get our members the services that they need and deserve, and that way we can effectively offer our members the same services whether you're in downtown North Liberty or rural Solon. Even if you’re out in the remote rural areas, you should have the same services at the same prices that we offer here in town.”
Sharon expands fiber south
Billed as the “Future Birthplace” of Captain James T. Kirk from the "Star Trek" TV and film series, Riverside, Iowa, will not have to wait until their fictional favorite son is born in 2228 to join the space age.Sharon Telephone Company from the nearby village of Hills began work in 2022 on a fiber network in and around Riverside – which is 20 minutes south of Iowa City along Highway 218.When that project is completed this year, STC will move east along Highway 22 to Lone Tree and then begin building north to US-6 and the south-central borders of Iowa City.State and federal funds to improve broadband for rural communities is helping bring fiber to both Riverside and Lone Tree, which each have populations between 1,000-1,500. Hills, between Riverside and Iowa City, is even smaller at just over 900 residents.Scott Havel first applied for a NOFA 3 state grant 2 ½ years ago upon becoming the general manager for Sharon. That helped in the fiber build to approximately 200 homes in Riverside.Next came a USDA Community Connection Grant to serve roughly 180 rural homes in the Riverside area.By the end of the project, Mr. Havel said, nearly 650 homes and businesses will have fiber – including a rural development south of town and some additional work to fill in lingering gaps.“We'll also provide some computer equipment and free internet for the residents to be able to go into a location the city deems appropriate to be able to use internet services at no cost,” Mr. Havel said.A larger NOFA 7 grant awarded by the state last year is helping fund the largest project for Sharon – from Lone Tree to two miles east and then northward to US-6.When combined, the grants for all three projects total a little over $6 million, Mr. Havel said.“The grants we've received are at 50, 60, or 85% – where the grant is structured to cover that much of the cost of project,” he added.“But with increasing costs for materials and labor, they're going to end up being about a 50/50 proposition. So, we'll put it in a little more than $6 million into the network for the grant areas and then another $2 million for Riverside the town.”Upon the expected 2024 completion of the Lone Tree expansion, STC will boast roughly 240 square miles of fiber. “We’ve got a lot of rural area (covered),” Mr. Havel said of his company, which is locally owned through limited stock shares. “Our incumbent exchange goes 5 miles south of Iowa City and then about 12 miles west. So, it covers a lot of gravel roads.“We overbuilt our rural exchange the first year I was here – we started in the summer of 2020 and most of that was done by the second quarter of 2021. That got us to where we could get off of copper for our existing customers. “That’s on top of all the rest of the builds – so the total investment will be around $18 million by the time we’re done.”Unless there are construction delays or supply-chain problems, Sharon plans to be two years ahead of the state’s aggressive schedule.“It's kind of a race,” Mr. Havel said pointing to the federal BEAD program starting soon, which will pull contractors and resources away from Iowa with other states joining the fiber push.“A lot of states haven't done what Iowa has done. So, I believe that we're in a good position as a state right now with having grants awarded – and most of us having work lined up at least through next year.”Mr. Havel said Sharon is considering expanding fiber to other areas. However, his company is “not really enthusiastic about going after BEAD funding, because, in exchange, the government owns your assets for 10 years, and you have to pay tax on that grant.”But same as South Slope, STC does not have any fixed wireless plans.“The reliability is only as good as your signal,” explained Mr. Havel, who spent the majority of his nearly 30-year career in the Iowa communications industry at larger national providers such as McLeod USA or T-Mobile.“How close are you? Do you have a clear path? Is it summer or winter? Are there leaves on the trees? Is the corn up in the fields? All of that impacts the fixed wireless. But if you live in an area where that's the only thing you can get? It's better than nothing.“But I've been in this business for a long time, and as long as you don't disturb it, fiber is as good as it should get for a long while. The speed is unlimited and for maintenance and reliability, there's nothing better.”
Liberty offers mixed solution
First started as a local telephone company in the 1880s – and owned by the Melick family since 1907 – Liberty Communications is currently 99% finished on a fiber upgrade to the network in their traditional service territory.That includes addresses both rural and in town in both West Branch and their base of operations in West Liberty.“We've got about 18 miles worth of fiber yet to finish this spring,” reported Justin Stinson, CEO of Liberty. “We will also add a couple of areas in Johnson County to expand into that will pick up at least a couple hundred homes that haven't had fiber access before.”However, with a nearly 20-year career between communications companies large and small, and from Iowa to the remote states of Washington and Idaho, Mr. Stinson was hired in Sept. 2021 to do much more than upgrade the current network.His remote experiences and the challenges associated with running fiber to farms led Mr. Stinson to settle on emerging fixed wireless technology as a cost-effective way to gain new customers and grow the business.The first step came in October 2022 when Liberty acquired another small, family-owned provider – Fairfield-based Natel Broadband – which offers both fiber and fixed wireless. Mr. Stinson is unable to disclose financial terms of the deal for Natel, which began as a communications provider in 1996.“They've done some grant funding that we're going to be able to utilize to put up some new technology on the fixed wireless side of the business that will reach a lot more people with high-speed internet,” said Mr. Stinson. “We are going to be able to reach those extra rural locations that are really tough to get to or really expensive to build fiber out to.”Natel was awarded nearly $3 million last year by a NOFA 7 state grant. The Fairfield company also secured ARPA pandemic relief funding from a couple of Iowa counties, Mr. Stinson said, to accelerate the fixed-wireless build to reach some of their remote rural areas even sooner.The Liberty side of the business also won some NOFA 7 grant funding – albeit a much smaller amount to help fund the local additions in Johnson County.In total, Mr. Stinson said his company is spending anywhere between $1.5 to $2.5 million per year for network upgrades and expansion.“We actually put our first set of equipment up in the air the week of Thanksgiving,” Mr. Stinson said. “We've got another tower we're trying to get scheduled right now so we can start testing the equipment, get a really good sense of what we need to do from a design perspective, and then start mounting the rest of the stuff here in the next couple months.”Unlike his local counterparts, Mr. Stinson believes the latest in fixed wireless will solve a number of broadband problems for farmers and rural residents. Liberty hopes to complete work on their fixed wireless network by the end of 2024.“But with supply chain (issues), it's really hard to know when that equipment is going to be available if we don't jump on it right now,” Mr. Stinson said. “It's a competitive environment, and so it's really important that we get that going and then we're utilizing those funds coming from the counties and state to get those customers turned on quickly.”Upon completion of all work, Mr. Stinson said the Liberty side of the business will feature nearly 150 miles of fiber in the ground while the Natel portion of the company offers around 40 miles. Between the two tracks, the fiber serves around 10,000 homes, he added.Natel serves Fairfield, Centerville and Mount Pleasant with fiber and offers fixed wireless to the rural areas around those southeast Iowa communities.“Sometimes it's tough to justify spending $27,000 to go a mile down the road for one customer,” Mr. Stinson said. “That isn't going to necessarily pay itself back for a number of years, if at all, so fixed wireless is a less expensive solution that can reach out further. In many cases, you're getting 5 to 7 miles worth of coverage from one tower, and so it gives you that reach without having to put all that fiber in the ground.“Now in the past, the challenge has always been leaves on trees or reflections or other structures getting in the way. And that's where we're hoping some of this new technology can help minimize some of those challenges on the fixed wireless side that limit the reach and the coverage and the dependability and speed.”