By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
July 11, 2019
Most of us probably don’t remember much from our high school biology class: we dissected a few critters, we memorized complex diagrams and we learned that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” If you dig deep into your knowledge archive, though, this word may also sound familiar: symbiosis. A symbiotic relationship, we were taught, is, in part, one in which two parties interact to both their benefits (mutualism). Jason Smith, general manager of Rainbow Communications (Everest, Kan.), may not be a student of biology, but he certainly understands symbiosis, and mutual benefit is a guiding principle for how he runs his telco.
“It’s got to make business sense for us to do. We do a lot of good things for our community, but … without [partners] stepping up, there would be no business case. It’s been a win/win for both of us.”
Rainbow has been busy forming multiple partnerships throughout Kansas during the past two years to expand the reach and impact of its fiber network. But as Smith explained, “It’s got to make business sense for us to do. We do a lot of good things for our community, but … without [partners] stepping up, there would be no business case. It’s been a win/win for both of us.” Mutualism in action.
In the summer of 2017, the city manager for Atchison, Kan., along with one of the county commissioners, approached Rainbow about bringing broadband service to the city’s Shannon Industrial Park. The park, which is located on a 120-acre tract of land three miles west of Atchison, was part of a larger economic development strategy for the area. But the city manager knew businesses wouldn’t move in without access to high-speed internet. After discussions about how to make the finances work for both Rainbow and the city, the group signed a memorandum of understanding and Rainbow brought fiber to the industrial park within a couple months—“on time and within budget, is what we like to say,” Smith remarked. Since the deployment was completed in May 2018, several businesses have already joined the park, including a manufacturing plant for steel pipes that had previously idled operations.
Atchison, which Smith called “very progressive” for a rural town, also has a nationwide claim to fame: It’s the hometown of pilot Amelia Earhart. The municipal airport in town bears her name, and the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation had a plan to build a museum in her honor on the grounds of the airport. Again, stakeholders were aware that no educational or community-building enterprise could be successful without broadband. The foundation opened a call for bids and Rainbow won the job, agreeing to extend its network an additional five miles from the Shannon Industrial Park to the airport. Construction on that project will be complete October 1.
The broadband connection will allow the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum to “promote the aims of the museum and the foundation,” Smith said. The museum plans to host “STEM-type activities” that will “educate people about Amelia Earhart,” he explained. But the benefits of the buildout will go beyond those accrued by the museum. The buildout is occurring in a “pretty rural open area,” Smith said, on a direct route from the industrial park to the airport. “There’s about 30 homes along this route as well, and we’re offering service to those homes as we’re going by,” Smith said.
None of those 30 households currently have access to Rainbow services, and the broadband situation is bleak, explained Rainbow’s Director of Business Development Angie Kreider, who has spearheaded this project. She talked to one resident during a Rainbow sign-up event, and “he said right now, he gets everyone off their streaming devices when he needs to send something out. He goes to the garage to just the right place where he can hold up his phone and do what he needs to do,” Kreider said. In this case, perhaps, Smith’s “win/win” philosophy has extended a step further, to a win/win/win: The buildout will provide benefits to Rainbow, the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation and to the new broadband customers along the buildout route. Symbiosis of the highest order.
Smith is a practical, no-nonsense businessman, but he’s also genuinely thrilled at the opportunity to serve his community while celebrating its history. “What’s really kind of neat is, Amelia Earhart is a known name worldwide,” Smith said. “It’s neat for us to have an attachment to something like that, building fiber to a business that’s going to promote her.”