Fortunately for Otter Tail County, there are people who are paying attention to the issue. [Rep Bud} Nornes said, “For the state, people might be surprised to know that we have invested about half a billion in broadband.” Much of this funding has been from grants, particularly at the local level.
One of the primary grants that has made an impacted Otter Tail County is the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. This program “funds the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved,” according to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development. In 2017, $20 million in funds included from the Legislature was used for the grant program.
Multiple areas in OTC fell under the requirements of the grant. “There is a large chunk of OTC that is underserved or has no availability of fiber,” Wayne Johnson, chair of the OTC Board of Commissioners said. After conducting a broadband feasibility study, it was determined that $380 million would be needed to reach all of OTC with proper internet. It became clear that utilizing grants, such as the Border-to-Border program would be necessary.
Over the past three years, multiple areas of OTC have benefited from the grant program. These areas include Pelican Rapids, Fergus Falls, Battle Lake, Wadena and other surrounding areas. A number of telecommunication businesses in the county received the grants such as Otter Tail Telcom LLC and Arvig.
Two of the largest contributors in getting internet access to OTC, also known as “bringing fiber to the door,” are Park Region/Otter Tail Telcom LLC and Arvig. “Arvig and Park Region Otter Tail Telcom have been awesome,” Johnson said. “Both of them have been outstanding to work with on this.”
Companies who provide broadband typically work within areas called exchanges. “Exchanges are essentially who historically has received some type of subsidy for providing telephone or other telecommunication services,” Nicholas Leonard, director of Tourism and Economic Development for OTC, said. However, “Just because it is somebody’s exchange doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t provide service there,” Leonard said.
Arvig’s marketing director, Lisa Greene, said Arvig has “invested more than $10 million since 2016 in network upgrades and rural expansion projects.” The company provides broadband services to over 70 percent of OTC. Arvig has also received funding from the Alternative-Connect America Cost Model (A-CAM), as well as the Minnesota Broadband Grant.
Houses have more devices in them now. “Our customer research shows an average of seven devices per household, all competing for the available bandwidth,” Green said. “A lot of what we’ve done to date is to accommodate the bandwidth needs of the increasing number of devices per household.”
She added that the perception has also changed in terms of what people are looking for. “People no longer think of having internet service, they think of having WiFi service,” Greene said. Arvig incorporated a managed WiFi solution that assists customers in having, “the right equipment in place throughout the home/business to maximize coverage throughout the building and help them make the most of their connection.”
Park Region/Otter Tail Telcom LLC
Dave Bickett, GM/CEO of Park Region Telephone/Otter Tail Telcom said that the companies are investing $3-3.5 million every year toward bringing fiber to the door. Specifically, “In 2017, Park Region built fiber to the home in our Vining exchange and are currently building the north half of our Ashby exchange,” Bickett said. “Next year Park Region is slated to complete South Ashby. Other sporadic areas also have fiber to the home available today.”
Meanwhile, “Otter Tail Telcom built fiber to the home on Clay Bank Road, South Wall Lake, Northeast Clitherall Lake, and North Fiske Lake in 2017,” Bickett said. “In 2018 we also built fiber to the home to Red Oak Drive.” The work done by Otter Tail Telcom in these areas was funded by the Minnesota Broadband Grant Program. Rothsay has also seen work done by these companies and Bickett said the rural areas of Rothsay have been completed.