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Minnesota Rural Broadband Project Taps System of Towers

Rather than laying a lot of new fiber lines to homes and far flung farm sites under the ground, a new project uses a system of towers and antennas to get high bandwidth signals to customers in rural areas.

Rural broadband
(TNS) — Broadband internet access and speeds will increase for homes and businesses in and around Madelia, thanks to a collaboration by Midco, Crystal Valley Coop and Land O'Lakes.

Rather than laying a lot of new fiber lines to homes and far flung farm sites, the project uses a system of towers and antennas to get high bandwidth signals to customers.

"The Madelia project is a bit unique, it is a hub site," said Ben Dold senior VP of operations for Midco.

"We were able to put a tower up at Madelia and that tower brings wireless internet connectivity to a bunch of other towers and allows us to beam that high quality, high bandwidth signals to the spoke towers. Then we put up antennas to homes to provide the signal," he said.

"It's a cost effective and quick way to get broadband out without putting fiber to every home along the way."

The project cost $112,000 and Midco received $67,000 in federal funding.

The system has 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload speeds. The service costs $100 per month with the first six months free.

Midco has done various types of projects in several states to get better internet service to underserved rural areas. The Madelia project and others they have done or are doing is the result of federal funding via projects they won in a "reverse auction."

Companies bid on projects and describe what they will deliver, the total estimated cost of the project and the matching funding they will put in.

"The best bid with the best service wins the bid. We won the Madelia one and a bunch of other ones."

He said Land O'Lakes and Crystal Valley helped Midco in finding locations to place infrastructure.

Mandy Hunecke, of Crystal Valley, said the farm cooperative did not put funding into the project.

"Our role at Crystal Valley is to provide the site for Midco's equipment," Hunecke said.

Jon Langland, Crystal Valley chief information technology officer, said in a statement that "the benefits to having the ability to access high-speed broadband will help the community in many ways, including helping our customers take advantage of our digital offerings with reliable internet service."

With a tower located at Crystal Valley, spur towers and antennas are then located in the region. Land O'Lakes helped Midco find good locations, which require line-of-sight to transmit signals.

"Land O'Lakes is a large company with deep roots in our part of the county and they know the need for rural broadband," Dold said.

"They have all these connections so they helped us make connections with people to put infrastructure in. Things like line-of-sight is important so if you can go on top of a silo or something, rather than us having to put up more towers they will say here are some good sites you could put it up. They have a lot of partners like Crystal Valley and others in rural areas so that's valuable to us."

Digital divide

The federal funding for the Madelia project goes back to programs from about five years ago. There have been more rounds of funding since and the federal government has moved more toward projects that install fiber lines.

"Fiber to the home is good," Dold said. "It's more reliable in most instances, but it's far more expensive and more disruptive putting it in.

"Solving the digital divide is really important to us as a company and we think it's going to take a variety of different technologies to do it. Rural areas should have as reliable connections as urban areas and projects like this allow us to do that."

The Madelia project has the potential to benefit about 1,500 residents in rural areas who are currently unable to access adequate broadband service.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband, including nearly a quarter of Americans living in rural areas.

Additionally, 60% of farmers say they lack the connectivity needed to run their business.

Midco also delivers TV services including Midco Sports (a regional sports network), phone, data center and advertising services.

Midco fiber serves 480,000 homes and businesses in 400 communities in Minnesota and five other states.

© 2022 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.