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Closer to a connection: Broadband expansion continues for rural areas in Region Five

Workers install fiber optics last fall near Wadena as part of an expansion project by West Central Telephone Association. Photo courtesy WCTA

Two area internet providers plan to hit the ground running this spring with expansion projects that will get folks in Todd and Wadena counties within reach of high-speed internet.

They're able to lay fiber optic technology in these unserved and under-served areas thanks to millions of dollars in grant funding.

The projects are a cooperative effort involving regional telecommunications companies Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) and West Central Telephone Association (WCTA), with assistance from the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC) and Sourcewell.

CTC is involved in a $2.5 million project that will give about 500 residential homes the opportunity to tap into 1 gig speeds. This project area covers homes in the Sylvan Shores area south of Staples including homes around Philbrook, Fawn Lake, Moran Township and surrounding areas. It includes about 130 route miles of fiber.

Andy Isackson, director of member operations, said CTC is currently engineering the project and working with homes to make sure they can hook up the most customers possible along the routes. This project would start once the frozen earth allows and should be wrapped up in the fall of 2019. Isackson said this project is for unserved and under-served areas. Many had very limited access to high-speed internet, he said.

A $2.1 million grant made the project possible. Isackson said the fiber-optic system is future proof, with no limit to the amount of information to send through it's miles of fibers. That's important as the provider has seen usage double in recent years due to more people working from home and the popularity of streaming movies and TV shows.

Meanwhile West Central Telephone Association is continuing work to the west and south of Wadena and southwest of Staples.

"We've completed the construction phase for the year, other than the final splicing crews," WCTA marketing director Geri Salmela said of the Wadena project. "Our teams are following the splicing crews to connect customers now, and our office staff is busy scheduling installations for roughly 130 customers. When complete, these customers will have access to 1,000 Mbps broadband, also known as Gigabit service.

"For the northern Todd County project on the rural SW side of Staples, we are meeting with

approximately 100 potential customers in the eligible areas soon," Salmela continued. "This way, once spring construction season starts, we will have the necessary drop permits and agreements for service in place. We plan to prewire the premises in April so that when construction is complete in the fall, we can begin connecting customers in December or early January."

The WCTA project comes at a cost of about $9,000 per premise or $26,000 a mile. It enters into areas that were not served before by high-speed internet.

Since 2015, Sourcewell has made a combined total of $500,000 of investments to complete feasibility and engineering for regional broadband projects. In partnership with CTC and WCTA, these substantial outlays have leveraged funding through the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Office of Broadband. R5DC's Executive Director Cheryal Lee Hills stated in a news release, "Our region is extremely fortunate to have a partner like Sourcewell who offers unparalleled contract purchasing solutions, services to our schools; local units of government and communities, then continues above and beyond to invest in critical issues that make a difference in our quality of life."

The benefits of bringing broadband to unserved and under-served regions are many: economic development, education, healthcare and telemedicine, workforce development, and more.

Sourcewell's Director of Regional Programs Paul Drange says the organization views its support of the project as a strategic reinvestment in the region. "Broadband access for Region 5 is vitally important to our students and families. This access also drives economic development that is essential for the prosperity of our region. Through collective regional efforts, we've been able to leverage state dollars to improve internet access in underserved areas in our region. We are excited to see what the future holds as internet access expands across Region 5."

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