Rural America lags on fast internet. Now small co-ops are building it.

Why We Wrote This

Amid the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, some communities got tired of waiting for others to connect them to the modern economy. Instead, residents are getting more bandwidth by banding together. 

Kylie Rieke/Courtesy of Jacob Rieke
Jacob Rieke is chairman of the board of a rural co-op that provides broadband internet. Broadband facilitates "precision agriculture," which allows farmers to use fertilizer according to the productive capacity of a particular area. Mr. Rieke applies fertilizer in a field in Fairfax, Minnesota, on April 19, 2020.

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In the 1930s, co-ops brought electricity to rural America; in the ’50s, telephone service. Today, co-ops are providing fast internet.

While federal and state governments have been trying to help close the digital divide between city and country, many rural communities aren’t waiting. After hearing “no” from both their local phone and internet provider and the county, people in the town of Winthrop, Minnesota, started a cooperative. They laid fiber optic cable serving about 2,400 customers, both in towns and in the surrounding countryside. It’s helping farmers monitor their fields, workers toil from home, and local businesses find new opportunities. 

According to a 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 73% of rural Americans had access to broadband internet, up from 45% in 2013 but still well below the 98% in cities. But experts say the problem is worse than the numbers suggest, in part because what the federal government defines as broadband service really isn’t fast enough.

Allen Bartels owns a trucking business in Winthrop. “In the world of business today, if you don’t have fiber in rural areas, you’re obsolete,” says Mr. Bartels. “You’re a dinosaur. People don’t want to work with dinosaurs.”

When people in the little farm town of Winthrop, Minnesota, grew tired of slow internet service, they approached the local telephone and internet provider and asked for something faster. The company couldn’t help.  

Next they went to the county board. They proposed that Sibley County, in the corn and soybean flatland west of the Twin Cities, install its own broadband network. The board declined.

So they did what rural Americans have been doing for more than a century: They started a cooperative and did it themselves. Called RS Fiber, the co-op has laid fiber optic cable across Sibley County (and parts of neighboring Renville) and is providing fast internet service to about 2,400 customers, both in towns and in the surrounding countryside. It’s helping farmers monitor their fields, workers toil from home, and local businesses find new opportunities.

“I realized that this is something we should have in our communities,” says Dave Trebelhorn, a retired corn and soybean farmer who helped lead the effort. “We’re connected to the world.”

Almost everyone agrees that rural Americans need to be better connected. Expanding higher-quality broadband service to rural areas figured prominently in the platforms of Democratic presidential candidates; President Donald Trump called for it in his latest State of the Union address. The coronavirus emergency, pushing more Americans to do things from home, has only amplified the need. 

Federal and state governments have been trying to help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Federal Communications Commission in particular have been committing ever larger sums to encourage the telecommunications industry to expand broadband in rural areas.

“The unsung heroes”

Many rural communities aren’t waiting. Rural cooperatives, some of them dating to the New Deal, are helping many rural areas close the digital divide between city and country, and often doing it with little outside help. Often no other businesses are willing to build networks. 

“Co-ops in my mind are the unsung heroes of broadband rural deployment,” says Christopher Ali, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who is writing a book on the subject. “Co-ops are much more responsive to needs of their local communities.”

Co-ops are private businesses owned by their customers and governed by directors chosen from among them, often local business leaders and economic development officials. They are familiar institutions in rural America, especially in the upper Midwest, where in the 19th century farmers came together to establish cooperatives to better market their crops. But it was the New Deal and rural electrification that brought a wider flourishing of cooperatives across rural America, as hundreds of co-ops sprang up to deliver electricity. In the 1950s a new wave of cooperatives brought telephone service to rural areas.

Today, as then, co-ops are an answer when traditional market forces don’t seem to work. 

Pamela Lehmann is one beneficiary of the shift. Ms. Lehmann lives in Boyd, Minnesota, in the county where she grew up. “It’s a great place to grow up and live,” she says. But internet service was slow – “I could hardly get dial-up,” she says – until she and others persuaded a Minnesota telephone cooperative to extend its broadband internet service into their county. Ms. Lehmann, who was the county’s economic development director, now works from home, operating a consulting business that recruits medical personnel for dozens of health care facilities. 

“Without this technology,” she says, “it would never be possible.” 

In the Winthrop area, broadband internet service is new, but for some it’s already made a difference. When a Verizon call center in Mankato closed last year, workers in the RS Fiber service area were able to continue working from home after the RS fiber management convinced Verizon that it could provide high speed internet to their houses. 

Businesses have benefited, too. Bartels Truck Line, a family-owned company in Winthrop, employs 65 people and hauls refrigerated goods all over the country. Allen Bartels, the company’s president, says that fast internet has become essential for keeping track of shipments and meeting the expectations of clientele. The company is also taking advantage of RS Fiber’s faster internet service to build a refrigerated warehouse that could employ as many as a dozen more local workers.

“In the world of business today, if you don’t have fiber in rural areas, you’re obsolete,” says Mr. Bartels. “You’re a dinosaur. People don’t want to work with dinosaurs.”

Helping in farm fields as well as offices

Outside the towns, high speed internet is helping farmers practice “precision agriculture” using technological innovations that enable close monitoring of fields and crops and involve heavy use of data. “Once they try it, there’s no going back,” says Jacob Rieke, a fifth-generation farmer near Fairfax, west of Winthrop, where he grows corn and soybeans and raises hogs. Mr. Rieke, who chairs the RS Fiber board of directors, uses fast internet to map fields, share information with crop advisers, and upload photos from a drone he sends aloft to check his crops. He and his wife also are building her a pottery studio, and she hopes to sell her work online. 

RS Fiber stands out because it’s one of the few cooperatives that have been formed specifically to provide broadband service. That it was a cooperative helped it gain quick acceptance in the community. “There are more co-ops in Minnesota probably than any state,” says Mr. Trebelhorn. “A lot of people understand co-ops.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. The co-op struggled at first. “We couldn’t get people signed up fast enough,” says Kelly Pierson, Winthrop’s mayor. Three years in, it defaulted on its loans and had to refinance. It scaled back its plans. Its aim has been to offer fiber optic connections to everyone in its area – 10 towns and 17 townships. For now, however, the fastest service is available only in towns. In the countryside, the fiber optic goes to antennas on water towers and grain elevators, which send a high-speed wireless signal out to customers like Mr. Rieke.

Still, the number of subscribers has been increasing, and the co-op is seeking new ways to serve the community. Recently, for example, it began offering 60 days of free internet service for low-income residents as a response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

“The goal is to make a sustainable business, to support the generations that come out here, and their internet needs,” says Mr. Pierson. 

Despite gains in recent years, rural Americans continue to lag in internet access. According to a new report by the Federal Communications Commission, 78% of rural Americans have access to broadband internet, up from 45% in 2013 but still well below the nearly 99% in cities. And experts say the problem is worse than the numbers suggest, in part because what the federal government defines as broadband service really isn’t fast enough.

Now, hundreds of telephone cooperatives are offering fiber optic broadband. In North Dakota, many rural areas enjoy faster internet than cities and towns. 

To advocates, the benefits are clear. They say better broadband is essential to the vitality of rural communities – to creating jobs, attracting new families, even increasing civic engagement.

 “If you care about rural places and access to opportunity, you have to care about rural broadband,” says Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy at the Blandin Foundation, which has aided the co-op activity in Minnesota. “Access denied is opportunity denied. If you don’t have access to broadband and the ability to use it, you simply can’t participate in the modern economy.”

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