A Decade of Partnership Enters a New Chapter With MiBroadband

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

September 14, 2018

More than a decade ago, in 2006, two NTCA member companies formed a partnership to jointly purchase Harmony Telephone Co. (Harmony, Minn.), to serve more rural customers in parts of Minnesota and Iowa, and to glean the benefits of keeping Harmony locally-owned and operated.

Photo originally by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. (Mabel, Minn.) and Spring Grove Communications (Spring Grove, Minn.) are now expanding this relationship to include MiEnergy Cooperative, an electric co-op that operates out of Creso, Iowa and Rushford Village, Minn.

The three companies will cooperate to form a fourth—MiBroadband (pronounced “my,” with the “M” for Minnesota and the “I” for Iowa), a broadband provider that will allow the three partners to reach even more customers in rural parts of the state. Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. Manager Julie Kolka said the companies are continuing to look at ways “to work together to serve our communities and utilize the electric cooperative’s network to expand fixed wireless broadband service” in order to provide services that are either currently inaccessible, or to improve upon existing broadband services.

According to Jill Fishbaugher, general manager of Spring Grove, pursuing fixed wireless connections is crucial in low-density areas, such as southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa. “It’s a lot of open space and a lot of farmland … so that is one area that the fixed wireless is definitely coming into play. ” The cost of fiber per subscriber/per mile is higher in rural areas due to low density, she said, but with fixed wireless the companies are able to reach more people at a lower cost.

NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield has spoken and written about potential benefits of partnerships between telecommunications providers and electric cooperatives, particularly in rural areas where financial barriers to deployment are significant. These companies sometimes have overlapping consumer bases, and by collaborating they can achieve efficiencies of scope and scale.

Often, both telcos and electrics have made or are willing to make investments in fiber infrastructure, and if the proper circumstances exist, it is a better use of resources for these companies to cooperate rather than compete.

Using limited federal resources to overbuild existing networks, Bloomfield wrote, “seems like breaking a code … in these rural communities and certainly does no great service to the rural consumers they both serve.”

In this newest partnership in Minnesota, Spring Grove is bringing a 100% fiber-built service territory to the table. In July, the cooperative took advantage of its network and revamped its internet packages to provide faster speeds to its members without significantly raising prices. Fishbaugher said she sees myriad possible applications for increased broadband access and faster speeds in Spring Grove’s service area. She said agriculture is one area where technology has the potential to be “an improving force.”

“We’ve done some cool farm networking, where we’re connecting the house and some more farm property buildings with Wi-Fi across the entire farm,” Fishbaugher said. She also listed education and telework as areas where robust broadband connections could bolster opportunity and success. When people can access high-speed broadband, Fishbaugher said, they’re able to do homework, take college classes and get gainful employment while working at home, without “having to go to town to find an internet connection.”

In a press release announcing the initial rollout of the partnership, Kolka said, “This partnership will create life-changing moments for rural members that have not had access to broadband at their home, farm or business.”

The cooperatives plan to launch MiBroadband in late fall of 2018.