Fiber optics installed in rural Iowa

A machine using directional boring lays down a fiber-optic cable at a rural residence. This technique avoids the need to dig up property to install the cable.

REGIONAL—Two rural areas in Sioux County are about to get a broadband upgrade after a regional telecommunications company secured funds from the Iowa Broadband Grant Program.

Heartland Telecommunications Company of Iowa, doing business as Premier Communications, recently received a combined $739,709 in funding from the state grant program to expand broadband in rural areas outside of Ireton, Boyden and Hull.

According to Premier Communications, the first grant amounted to $436,056 and will cover a rural area of about 100 square miles surrounding Boyden and Hull. The second grant was for $303,653 and will cover about 51 square miles of rural area surrounding Ireton.

In both locations, the grant money will be used to deploy a fiber-to-the-premise network in these rural areas with the capability of broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit per second.

Heartland Telecommunications, which Premier Communications acquired in 2016, was one of six telecommunications companies to receive grant money from the state. The total amount awarded to the companies equaled $1.3 million.

“We were very pleased to receive the grants,” said Doug Boone, CEO of Premier Communications, which is based in Sioux Center.

The communities of Ireton, Boyden and Hull already have high-speed broadband services, but the rural farmland surrounding those towns do not. Also, much of the telecommunications network that exists in those rural areas is made of copper cables that were likely installed during the 1960s or 1970s, Boone said.

Before the installation of the fiber-optic cable network, he said the network speeds in many of those areas was only about 4 megabit per second for downloads and 1 megabit per second for uploads.

He said one of the challenges in deploying broadband in rural areas is that the population density is much lower than in towns or cities, meaning it is more difficult to connect residents to a single network. Nevertheless, he said rural residents still deserve access to high-quality broadband.

Many of the residents who live in the rural outskirts of Ireton, Boyden and Hull are farmers with livestock, Boone said, and that they may want to install live video feeds for their farms.

“Fiber optics allow them to do that,” he said.

Boone said Premier will start installing the fiber-optic cables in Hull, then move to Boyden and finish in Ireton. Weather permitting, the installation process will start this year and may take until early 2020 to complete, he said.

After those three rural areas are completed, Boone said the company focus on expanding broadband into the rural areas by Akron and Hawarden. To do so, he said the company will again look for support from the Iowa Broadband Grant Program to offset the costs of deployment.

“It will come much quicker with a little bit of assistance from the state and federal government,” Boone said.

Finding a consistent funding source for the Iowa Broadband Grant Program was one of the main goals of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa Initiative, which the Iowa Legislature passed during the 2019 legislative session. The grant program was created under Gov. Terry Branstad in 2015 but was not funded until the 2018 legislative session, according to the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative’s Initial Recommendations report.

Boone said the initial funding amount for the grant, $1.3 million, will be increased to $5 million starting on July 1. The funding increase emphasizes the desire of the governor and the Legislature to have a robust broadband system, he added.

State Sen. Randy Feenstra (R-Hull) helped write the language and rules for the grant program and worked with Boone and Premier Communications to ensure the broadband funding would reach rural areas.

“I was passionate about making sure the money that goes for telecommunications grants went to projects that had high-speed service,” Feenstra said. “The state does not want to come back 10 years from now and redo what was already put in the ground because we didn’t think about future high-speed technology.”

He said the grant program requires private telecommunications companies to cover 85 percent of the cost of their broadband projects while the state funding covers the remaining 15 percent.