Broadband Buildout Helps Hometowns Feel Like Home

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
January 26, 2018

Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again,” meaning that the beloved locales of our childhoods will not remain stagnant, the way they do in our memories. Hometowns cannot be romanticized or viewed with excessive nostalgia because they’re constantly evolving and changing, so going back to visit (or stay) will only disappoint us.

But maybe you can go home again—and maybe it will be even better than you remember.

About 1,200 people call Elkader, Iowa, home, and over the past few years, the town has changed. But those changes have only incentivized more people to stay and build a life in what could’ve been a temporary “hometown.” One Iowa couple ventured west to the Silicon Valley after graduating college, only to reconsider after realizing Elkader has a more favorable environment for starting a business than California. Thanks to Alpine Communications’ fiber-optic network, Elkader has attracted new residents who have started businesses and sustained their careers by teleworking.

Elkader-based Alpine Communications began building its fiber to the home (FTTH) broadband network more than a decade ago. In 2007, fiber was on the cutting edge of broadband technology, and Alpine has maintained its spirit of innovation into the present day. In September 2017, Alpine earned NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association's “Gig-Capable Provider” certification, and according to General Manager Chris Hopp, Alpine stands out in a competitive marketplace and “deliver[s] the premier internet experience in northeast Iowa” through its provision of gigabit speeds.

Alpine Marketing Manager Sara Hertrampf said Alpine competes against larger national providers in all its fiber exchanges, and what sets Alpine apart is its customer service. “That is where we shine,” Hertrampf said, “We take great pride and time and care in ensuring that our customers get the local support that they need.”

Personal relationships with community-based support teams are only one perk of life in rural America, as Hertrampf sees it. The culture, safety and natural beauty of rural small towns are all selling points—but without broadband services that are comparable to those in urban areas, many communities such as Elkader suffer from “brain drain,” wherein residents leave their small town for better educational or professional opportunities in bigger cities and don’t return. Brain drain is a barrier to small towns progressing or improving because residents don’t bring the benefits of their experiences back home.

Alpine Communications is actively attempting to combat brain drain through deployment of its FTTH network. Called Fusion, the fiber-optic network “enables rural Iowa to compete globally for jobs, commerce, education, entrepreneurship, entertainment and information … with the goal of retaining our young people and reducing brain drain,” Hopp said. Hertrampf said the impact of reliable broadband networks that can deliver competitive speeds goes beyond greater economic opportunity.

Iowa natives may depart to go to college or establish their careers, Hertrampf acknowledged, but they will return if they feel confident they can access a similar quality of life back home. “We know how much our customers and our community rely on broadband so they can shop, FaceTime, use over-the-top streaming services or telecommute. That’s how our communities in rural areas will survive—if they still get that quality of life,” Hertrampf said.

In northeastern Iowa, Hertrampf said she’s seen Alpine’s fiber network facilitate not just economic development but cultural development. There has been “a resurgence in the arts and … festivals,” she said. Elkader hosts an annual “Music and Monarchs” festival, as well as the weekend-long “Art in the Park.” Art in the Park artists must apply to participate, Hertrampf said, and the festival includes musicians, food trucks and other vendors who need access to Wi-Fi. Alpine attends several local events and sets up Wi-Fi networks to enable e-commerce.

As Hertrampf said, “You need to have broadband—infrastructure needs to exist even if it’s just a once-a-year thing.” She said cultural growth such as new resident artists and festivals encourages young, college-educated people to settle in small towns. “Once [they] come in, that’s huge. They want to have things to do, they want to volunteer. They’re philanthropic, and that pairs well with small towns, because you can pull these [events] off and they have a big impact.”

Hertrampf said Alpine has and will continue to use its Gig-Capable Provider status to promote its business and to demonstrate the importance of fiber broadband networks in rural areas. “This certification is another vehicle for us to help communicate the value of [the Fusion] network,” she said.

Learn more about NTCA's Gig-Capable Provider Certification.