Iowa, known across the country for its agriculture, is known in other circles for its exciting community broadband projects. Earlier this year President Obama visited Cedar Falls to praise its municipal network and to support other efforts to improve rural high-speed Internet access. One of those efforts is Wiatel. This small telecommunications coop is beginning a $25 million project to upgrade its network from copper to fiber throughout its entire service area.
The cooper network that Wiatel uses now is sufficient for basic phone service, but upgrading to fiber will future-proof the network and provide better Internet speeds. The coop is based out of Lawton, a small town of about 1,000 people, but the coop serves an area of 700 miles. Wiatel hopes to start burying the fiber cables in the summer of 2016. Once the project gets started, officials from the cooperative estimate they will connect all residential and business customers to fiber within 24-30 months.
Wiatel is part of a long-growing movement as rural coops build fiber networks or upgrade to fiber to improve services for members. Just check out the Triangle Communications coop in Montana, the Paul Bunyan Communications coop in Minnesota, or Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama. They’re providing next-generation connectivity at reasonable prices to rural communities often ignored by the large incumbent telephone and cable companies.
Coops: An Alternative
Without an immediate return on investment, large corporate providers have little incentive to build in sparsely populated areas. Traditional corporate providers must answer to shareholders seeking short term profits. Cooperatives are owned by the people they serve, giving their shareholders a practical, real, tangible interest in the success of the endeavor and the community it serves.
High-speed Internet can prove a great benefit to rural communities. Many of these rural areas lack access to the healthcare resources available in urban areas but local clinics with high-speed connectivity can bridge that gap. Rural schools need faster, more affordable, more reliable connections. High-speed Internet is becoming essential for farming, which has become a high-tech industry over the past few decades.
Being overlooked by large profit-oriented companies is nothing new for rural communities. One need only look at the history of the telephone or electricity. Large private sector telephone and electric providers thought that rural areas could not offer the density for a solid customer base, and residents’ need for cutting-edge technology went unrecognized. To serve their own needs, neighbors banded together, obtained grants and loans from the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration, and built the infrastructure that guaranteed the survival and growth of their rural communities.
“…for many, many years to come”
The coops now moving toward fiber technology are considering the long-term prospects of the community. As the Wiatel General Manager Heath Mallory explained:
“Once we get the fiber in the ground, I really think this network will probably serve our customers for many, many years to come.”
The community is definitely excited for the new fiber. On the local news, reporter Elisa Raffa explains the positive impact the network will have on local businesses and residents: