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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published November 03 2013

Companies try to fill digital gap in rural areas

GRAND FORKS – Owen Dahl and his neighbors are about to find themselves in the digital backwoods, with no clear path out.

Dahl, owner of Owen’s Welding Service in rural Northwood, and his neighbors will lose their high-speed broadband Internet access by the end of the year.

The news was delivered in a letter from their provider, GF Wireless, in Grand Forks.

“It came as a heck of a shock to a lot of us out here,” he said. “With so few options, it makes it kind of tough.”

GF Wireless, which did not return calls for comment, said in a recent letter to customers that its wireless broadband service is provided through a partnership with Polar Communications, a Park River company that is transitioning from wireless to fiber.

Polar also sent similar letters to its wireless customers.

“Unfortunately, due to the growing need for higher broadband speeds and bandwidth, the technology we are currently deploying has reached its limitations and is at the end of life,” the Polar letter stated. “Equipment can no longer be obtained in many cases, and we cannot provide the quality service the customer needs and deserves. We apologize for the position this may put you in, but it is simply out of our control.”

Fiber investment

Polar, which provides telephone and Internet services in several northeastern North Dakota counties, is investing millions of dollars into converting its system to fiber-optic, or hard-wired, service.

It has received more than $33 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loans and grants over the past three years to build up fiber-to-the-premises service.

A recent 2013 Polar construction project report indicates work in 2013 and 2014 in the following North Dakota areas: Aneta, Crystal, Hoople, Lankin, Petersburg, Pisek and St. Thomas.

“We have fiber to more than 50 percent of our service area,” said Joan Swartz, a Polar spokeswoman. “Our goal is to bring 100 percent fiber broadband to our customers, and to do that by 2015.”

What Polar is doing falls in line with state and federal agency goals of bringing high-speed Internet access to all parts of the nation by 2017.

Rural Development has invested more than $300 million in North Dakota broadband projects since 2010.

“Investing in broadband is important to creating sustainable and thriving communities,” said Jasper Schneider, state director of USDA Rural Development. “Access to high-speed Internet contributes to business growth and provides several social benefits.”

The agency is working with rural telephone communication services, which cover about 95 percent of North Dakota’s land area, he said, to help them reach underserved areas, to provide a minimum of 3 megabits of bandwidth.

“Anything less is not really broadband,” Schneider said. “With today’s enriched video and other advancements, you truly need a high-speed connection, and a wire connection. A wire connection is going to be better. Even wireless relies on some sort of wired backbone.”

Gaps in system

News of the GF Wireless/Polar decision to end their wireless service took Brian Kalk by surprise.

But Kalk, a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission whose portfolio includes telecommunications, said it’s not unheard of, especially as technology advances.

While the PSC can enforce federal regulations to assure that companies provide telephone service to individual homes or businesses, no such rules exist that cover Internet service.

“We still have big holes in the state where it’s too expensive to get service to the area,” he said. “While it’s more common in more sparsely populated areas, such as western North Dakota, there are other pockets.”

He mentioned portions of Grand Forks County, including areas south of Grand Forks, as well as areas just south of Fargo.

Grand Forks and Fargo, like most cities in the state, are served by for-profit companies such as CenturyLink, which do not receive federal subsidies to expand service to rural areas. For CenturyLink and its competitors, expanding service into rural areas is a business decision.

The PSC, however, has conducted “Zap the Gap” sessions in several communities around the state in recent years to help address such issues. He said the agency will consider meetings in other areas, if requests are made.

“The only thing I can do is continue to have conversations with CenturyLink, AT&T and Midcontinent (Communications), to see if we can make it happen,” he said.

It’s worked in the past, he said, listing Bottineau as an example.

Companies balked at requests to build a tower to provide broadband service there, saying they could not justify the cost, he said. Finally, one company agreed to build a tower. Before long, competitors also built towers in the area.

“The point I want to get across is that we’re all in this together,” Kalk said. “If we communicate, maybe we can help resolve the issues.”

Opportunity

Some companies are responding to the challenge, according to Kalk.

Midcontinent Communications, for example, has been expanding its broadband services and its service territory.

AT&T also is making major investments in expanding its broadband capabilities, according to Mark Giga, senior public relations consultant. By the end of 2014, its wireless network is expected to reach 300 million people in the country, including the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa.

It’s not just the large corporations.

Invisimax, a regional telecommunications company based in Warren, Minn., is trying to fill the void left by the latest-developing digital divide in the northeastern North Dakota, according to Dave Giles, a company co-owner.

“We just learned of this situation and opportunity,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to serve people who are going to lose an option for Internet service.”

Invisimax, which serves an area that stretches from the Canadian border to N.D. Highway 200 in eastern North Dakota, already serves some portions of rural Grand Forks County.

However, its technology relies on communication towers to provide line-of-sight access to potential customers, because of trees or other obstructions. He said the company is working fast to try to lease tower space to expand its potential reach.

But like the larger communication companies, Invisimax does not receive federal subsidies. So, expansion is a business decision, he said. And weather is a factor.

“To build a new tower before freeze-up is not feasible right now,” he said. “But we’re trying, to see what we can do.”

Owen Dahl, the welding shop owner from rural Northwood, hopes that some company finds the answer soon. The options available to him now are about twice as expensive as what he has been paying.

“If you don’t have many options, it becomes pretty much like a monopoly,” he said. “The price gets higher and the service gets worse. Pretty soon, you’re almost forced to move to town, because you don’t have any options out in the country.”