(Editor's Note: This is the third story in an occasional series about internet access in Douglas County.)
From her front porch in Farwell, Carrie Bagley watched a backhoe rip a hole in her front yard.
The internet was coming.
Not the $175-a-month satellite internet that is so slow she can’t pay her bills online, or download the indie folk music she enjoys, or stream anything.
“They say it’s unlimited data,” she scoffed. “But it’s not.”
The crew outside her door was burying the real stuff — honest-to-goodness high-speed fiber optic internet that will soon put the world at the fingertips of the 51 or so residents of Farwell, a community that has been steadily shrinking over the decades. During a week in early August, crews were out installing pedestals, locating utility lines and burying strands of colored fiberglass.
The crew members wore the Arvig logo on their uniforms, but they were there on behalf of Runestone Telecom Association, the rural communications cooperative based in Hoffman.
Rural telecom customers generally pleased
While Douglas County is home to a myriad of frustrated would-be web users, Runestone customers in general seem pretty happy.
Duck into the office at First Lutheran Church in nearby Kensington, population 292, or the beauty salon, or SignMaxx, which does business all over the country, or even chat with a grandmother walking with her grandchildren to the post office, and you’ll hear the same thing: this part of the county can get online pretty easily.
“We have very good high speed internet,” said Todd Bright, an owner of an insurance company in Kensington, about five miles from Farwell. “I think wherever you have Runestone, you have a pretty good connection.”
Josh Andreasen, who works in the same office, said friends living near Lake Latoka have much poorer internet access than he does, “Which is odd to me because they are closer to Alex.”
There’s a huge difference between Runestone and for-profit internet providers, such as national providers CenturyLink or Charter Communications. Runestone is a cooperative with 20-25 employees, based in Hoffman and owned by its members, and concentrates on a multi-county area. CenturyLink, based in Louisiana, employs about 50,000 people in dozens of countries and is publicly traded. Charter serves 28 million customers with 98,000 employees.
Runestone represents “kind of the opposite model,” said general manager Kent Hedstrom. “We don’t need to take all the money and shove it in our pocket. We like to reinvest and provide good customer service.”
How they did it
The first place Runestone installed fiber optic cable was in Norcross, a Grant County town with a few dozen residents and a post office. It’s a 20-minute drive to the nearest grocery store or doctor’s office, and in 2006 it was relying on copper to get online, and the copper was deteriorating.
“We were spending a lot of time running out there fixing things,” Hedstrom said. “If you had the plow in the ground anyway, you might as well get them the best possible service.”
Linda and Robert Schmidt, who moved to Norcross in 2002, had been using dial-up internet and were surprised and delighted when Runestone brought in fiber optic.
“That amazed me totally,” said Linda, who watches her grandson and his friends do wheelies and race snowmobiles on their YouTube channel, CBoysTV, which has more than 440,000 subscribers. “We’re very thankful. We’re always looking up things. When we need to know something we run to the internet.”
“You don’t have to sit and sit and wait and wait,” agreed Robert, who is now the Norcross mayor.
In 2007, Runestone ran fiber optic to Tintah, Wendell and the west half of Elbow Lake in Grant and Traverse counties.
“We’ve jumped around since then,” Hedstrom said.
It is one of the rural telecoms that is pushing the boundaries of its traditional service area, running fiber optic to places like Holmes City and toward Lake Andrew in Douglas County.
Its goal for the end of 2019 is to enable all rural customers in its service area to access a gigabyte of internet service if they wish, Hedstrom said. That level moves so much data so quickly that most people won’t need it — but they can, if they want.
Within their means
Runestone faced two options when it first began installing fiber optic line, Hedstrom said. They could have borrowed massive sums and done it quickly. But board members felt it was more financially responsible to pay as they went.
It’s an approach that has left Runestone on strong financial footing, said Hedstrom and board chairman Bob Leegaard.
“I’m proud to say the co-op doesn’t owe any money and we’re able to pay dividends every year,” Leegaard said. “It’s not the board’s money but it’s our job to look after the patron’s money. We felt it was a better thing to live within our means.”
According to Runestone’s IRS Form 990 from 2017, it had $1 million left after expenses, and its assets far outweighed its liabilities.
Runestone has acquired two state grants totaling $890,000 for some of its work in Holmes City. In one of Runestone’s grant applications, it cited many reasons better internet access was needed for area.
For starters, it said, good access can keep residents from leaving rural areas, reduce economic disparities, and ease the digital divide.
“In addition to brick and mortar businesses, numerous home-based businesses and telecommuters will benefit,” it said. “As will about 32 school children who live in the area who are either home schooled or attend school in Alexandria, MN. At present, many of them cannot complete daily assignments, participate in team projects or conduct research necessary for papers and reports from home.”
Fiber takes time
Running fiber optic line to new customers takes time. Companies have to go through a permitting process, contacting the DNR, the railroads and the Minnesota Department of Transportation. All that can take several months, Hedstrom said.
Companies have to wait for the legislature to approve grant spending. In 2018, the legislature approved funding for border-to-border grants, which are specifically aimed at providing internet access to underserved and unserved areas, but the funding fell through when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the budget package it was in.
This year, the Minnesota Legislature approved $20 million for those grants for each of the next two years. The application deadline for the 2019 grants is in September.
When communications providers finally get the go-ahead, they face Minnesota’s short construction season, hiring seasonal workers and trying to get as much in the ground as possible.
Summertime is when crews get lines and equipment on the ground; fall and winter is when technicians do the above-ground work, and it’ll be sometime in early 2020 when Bagley and others in Farwell will be able to get fiber service, Hedstrom said.