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Published February 03, 2012, 12:00 AM

COVER STORY: Economic Development

Connecting a region to the global network

By: Alan Van Ormer, Prairie Business Magazine

Current broadband projects are connecting the region’s unserved and underserved areas to the global network.

"Investments in broadband technology create jobs and expand economic opportunities in rural America,” explains Jasper Schneider, USDA Rural Development State Director in North Dakota. “Broadband provides the capability for improved educational services, health care, public safety and spurs economic development.”

Broadband allows users to access information via the Internet using one of several high-speed transmission technologies.

Schneider notes that high-speed Internet is 21st century infrastructure and literally opens up the world to rural citizens; while decreasing the digital divide between urban and rural America.

“Broadband successfully pairs hope with opportunity; it opens up avenues for rural entrepreneurs; it provides access to a worldwide marketplace; it improves the quality of life and allows people to communicate with family, friends and business contacts,” he says. “There is no doubt that broadband makes living in rural America more attractive, people can enjoy the benefits of living in a rural community while having access to people and information from around the world.”

In Fiscal Year 2011, USDA provided funding for the following North Dakota projects:

*BEK Communications Cooperative —$26,746,000 in loan funds will be used to expand a Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) broadband system. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of BEK’s subscribers will be served by fiber.

*SRT Communications, Inc.—$24,832,000 in loan funds will be used to install 2,143 miles of buried fiber optic cable and related equipment throughout the proposed Fiber-To-the-Premise (FTTP) system. The FTTP system will be constructed in areas outside of towns in 12 of the borrower’s 26 exchanges. The service areas in the towns will continue to be offered DSL at speeds of at least 55 Mbps with its relatively new copper plant.

*Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation—$32,939,000 in loan funds will be used to expand the Borrower’s FTTP broadband system throughout the borrower’s 18 exchanges. The upgraded system will help meet current and future requirements for delivery of voice, video and high speed data to subscribers. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of Polar’s subscribers will be served with broadband via various technologies.

*Reservation Telephone Cooperative —$2,293,000 be used to expand a (FTTP) broadband system.

Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), headquartered in Bismarck, N. D., is also placing more fiber in the ground. DCN is using stimulus grant funding to place another 169 miles of fiber, which provides access to more than 175 anchor institutions that includes education, medical and government agencies. The project is slated to be completed in July 2013.

DCN General Manager Evan Hass believes this project is good for North Dakota because it allows greater bandwidth in the state. “Businesses are increasing their bandwidth requirements,” he states. “We are keeping up with the increased demand in bandwidth.”

Hass adds that businesses are trying to connect to multiple locations. “A stimulus project is different than other projects because it allows you to put more fiber in the ground in places that are not economically feasible,” Hass explains.

Along with the stimulus project in 2012, DCN will be increasing its Ethernet backbone across North Dakota because it is running out of capacity and doesn’t have all the features and functions of a new backbone. The $3.5 million project will be completed this year and allows DCN to grow its Ethernet backbone up to 100 gigabytes, as well as accommodate the heavy growth in western North Dakota. In early 2012 DCN will complete construction of a new Network Operations Center and Collocation facility in Bismarck that is designed for survivability, including withstanding 200 mph winds.

In South Dakota, SDN Communications, headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D., is also using stimulus funds to expand its broadband network.

SDN’s new fiber will provide connectivity to more than 300 anchor institutions – schools, rural hospitals and clinics, government office buildings, and local, county, state and federal office buildings – across the state. The communications company is approximately three-quarters complete and has built 250-350 miles of fiber and touched more than 200 anchor institutes. The remainder of the $25.7 million project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“Our backbone will be primed and ready for the next decade of broadband growth,” says Mark Shlanta, who has been the CEO of SDN Communications since 2000. “Companies will have the fastest network experience on our network.”

It will also assist those who have been connectivity challenged. “Because of the new fiber, new doors will be opened for communities for economic development,” he mentions.

In 2011, Midcontinent acquired the Minnesota and Wisconsin assets of US Cable, adding more than 100 communities to its footprint. It also extended Midcontinent’s network across central and southern Minnesota. In 2012, Midcontinent will continue to work on upgrades of new properties in Minnesota, and work with customers to give them access to Midcontinent’s NPNet.

Each year for the past several years, Midcontinent, also headquartered in Sioux Falls, has invested 10’s of millions of dollars to expand and upgrade its network. “In the past year we digitized our network to provide increased capacity to accommodate Internet speeds up to 100 Mbps and allowing access to over 100 High Definition T V channels,” says Tom Simmons, Senior Vice President of Public Policy, adding the upgrades mean that South Dakota business customers in communities served by Midcontinent and others will have access to the same or better quality communications infrastructure as any other in the country if not the world. “What remains is how those businesses choose to use the connectivity. The assumption that all rural communities are isolated by a digital divide is simply not true and our business customers are free to compete with those located in the major metro areas if they choose to do so.”

In a nutshell, Simmons feels it is important to provide broadband to the region for three reasons: our customers need and demand robust reliable broadband services, broadband is a base requirement for any level of economic development and broadband is an educational requirement to prepare our young people to compete in a world economy. PB

Alan Van Ormer - avanormer@prairiebizmag.com

For more information about local broadband companies visit prairiebizmag.com.