Western Iowa Telcom, commonly known as Wiatel, recently received a $24.8 million USDA loan for an extensive fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) project that will greatly expand broadband access to communities, residents and businesses in northwest Iowa.
“This broadband infrastructure investment will connect rural Iowans to a digital future and help expand access to high-speed internet, healthcare, educational and business services in Monona and Woodbury counties,” says Timothy Helmbrecht, USDA Rural Development acting state director in Iowa. “Broadband helps create jobs. It also helps rural areas offer programs and services that strengthen economies and encourage growth.”
Wiatel serves residents and businesses in and around 12 northwest Iowa rural communities, covering a nearly 750 square-mile territory, but with a customer density of just 5.5 customers per square mile.
FASTER ACCESS: A phone company, Wiatel, began transitioning customers over to a fiber network earlier this year. When the three-year project is complete, gigabit internet access will be accessible throughout Wiatel’s rural service area.
More customers want high-speed broadband
“We have been experiencing steady increases in broadband speed demand for many years, and actually began planning this FTTP project about three years ago,” says Heath Mallory, general manager at Wiatel.
The project is being broken into three phases and will include installation of fiber into homes and businesses in or near the communities of Bronson, Castana, Climbing Hill, Holly Springs, Hornick, Lawton, Moville, Oto, Rodney, Smithland and Turin. Populations in these communities range from less than 100 to around 1,600. The project should be completed in 2019.
At any given time there will be as many as 20 construction crew members and 10 cutover crew members working on the project, providing a major local economic impact to area hotels, restaurants, fuel stations and other local retailers and vendors.
Communities, schools benefit from faster service
The new fiber will allow Wiatel to provide gigabit internet, internet protocol television (iPTV) and voice services to nearly all of its nearly 4,000 customers.
“Less than half of our customers currently receive our legacy cable television service and approximately 40% have to settle for internet speeds slower than our maximum digital subscriber line (DSL) speed,” Mallory adds. “We pride ourselves on providing services at rates that are competitive to the larger urban areas bordering our service area. With this project, the communities we serve will be more attractive through access to fast, reliable and reasonably priced telecommunication services.”
Wiatel serves three school districts and has seen a large increase in broadband demand from the school districts during the last few years. “As schools accelerated their internal wireless access for students and staff, it was clear their increased broadband usage would outpace their ability to effectively use our network,” Mallory says. “All of our schools are now on a new fiber network, and the increased performance was recognized immediately, in one case even before the installation technician left the building.”
Quicker access for commercial customers, farmers
Wiatel began transitioning other customers over to a fiber network earlier this year, and the company regularly hears positive customer feedback.
EXPANDING: Crews will be a fairly common scene in Monona and Woodbury counties the next three years as a new fiber network is built in some of the most rural areas of these counties.
“Commercial customers note an increase in performance using cloud-based services. Medical service customers report a better ability to transmit and receive large medical data files quickly and accurately. Farmers are able to more quickly access critical weather, crop market and farm equipment software diagnostic services. And residential customers love the increased performance they are seeing in everything from streaming video content to gaming,” Mallory adds.
USDA Rural Development partners with more than 500 telecommunications providers across the country to fund broadband infrastructure investments uniquely designed to meet the specific needs of each rural community. These projects connect residents, businesses, health care facilities and community facilities, including schools, libraries and first responders, to the internet.
Accepting applications for next round of funding
Applications for the next round of funding by USDA Rural Development’s telecommunications program to provide or expand broadband service in rural areas are being accepted through Sept. 30. If you want RD staff to help with your application, you need to contact the agency by Sept. 22. Loans can range from $100,000 to $20 million.
“USDA has an established history working with our industry and understands the engineering, as well as the financial side of the telecommunications business,” Mallory adds. “USDA staff working on the telecommunications program provide outstanding assistance during all phases of the loan application, engineering design and distribution request process.”
Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.