GAYLORD — Organizers of a years-long plan to bring fiber optic broadband service to 27 cities and townships mainly in Sibley and Renville counties celebrated the first signs of construction at a groundbreaking on Wednesday morning.
Board members of the RS Fiber Cooperative and others involved in the project watched the cable get plowed four feet underground in the grass ditch along County Road 8 between County Roads 17 and 9.
“We can give our friends in the region the opportunity to connect to the world at speeds of up to 1 gigabit, with reliability unmatched and local service unparalleled in the current market,” said RS Fiber general manager Toby Brummer.
Fiber-optic cable represents a vast improvement in Internet service, especially for those in the most rural parts of the counties where internet service is slow and spotty.
The project began about six years ago with a feasibility study. Eventually, a group of 27 city and township governments agreed to work together to bring high-speed Internet to Renville and Sibley counties.
They gauged public support through informational meetings, a phone poll and a mailing with pledge cards.
“The support was coming in at a higher rate for rural folks, so it showed the need rural folks had,” said co-op board vice-chairwoman Cindy Gerholz.
The benefit is not for rural areas alone — businesses, schools and health care facilities in the region’s cities are also looking forward to faster service. Board members cited the prospect of an osteopathic medical school coming to Gaylord as one supported by broadband.
“That would be out of the picture without this service,” said Ruth Bauer, treasurer.
Students using iPads and other technology at area schools and for homework, electronic medical records, agricultural mapping and other business applications all require broadband service.
“A lot of people will be amazed at the applications they can use now,” Bauer said.
Hiawatha Broadband Communications Inc., Winona, is building and managing the network for the cooperative. The cable will be laid to connect the cities on the main route of the backbone cable over the next few months. By the end of the year, about 1,600 homes and businesses will be connected to the fiber optic cable, a news release from the cooperative said.
The two-year build-out to the cities in the project area will cost $15 million. In this phase, Hiawatha will also build wireless service that will cover 90 percent of the service area.
Beginning in 2018, fiber will be buried to reach every customer — business and residential — in the territory. In total, there are about 6,200 potential customers in the project area.
The two-phase project was crafted to get the most people service as quickly as possible and to make the financing work.
“It’s less expensive in phase one and over the first two years, we’re able serve just about the entire footprint of project,” said Dan Pecarina, president of Hiawatha, in a recent interview.
“After the third year, we’re able to generate more revenue and that’s also the beginning of the process of going up and down every one of the rural county roads to connect fiber to each of those roads.”
The project will be supported by bonds taken on by the governments involved and commercial loans with some state grant money. The bonds and loans will be paid back as the cooperative collects fees from customers. The first phase will cost $15 million and the total cost is $45 million.
“Businesses will have the same access that is given to businesses in metropolitan areas,” Brummer said. “This will meet the business needs in this community and allow us to stay connected to the world right here at home in rural America.”