A $7.2 million investment

Friday, November 15, 2019
(Sentinel Photos by Beverly Van Buskirk) Premier Communications COO Doug Boone addresses a crowd at a farm outside of Hawarden. An announcement was made of a $7.2 million investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure for rural areas of Akron and Hawarden, as well as parts of South Dakota. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds was also in attendance.

HAWARDEN — U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey on Friday announced USDA has invested $7.2 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for rural households and farms in the Akron and Hawarden areas of Iowa and South Dakota.

Northey announced Premier Communications as the recipient of the $7.2 million, which will be partnered with the company’s $2.4 million investment in expanding rural broadband in its service area.

Premier Communications, which is headquartered in Sioux Center and serves northwest Iowa and southeastern South Dakota with voice, video and data services, has retail centers in Le Mars, Sioux Center, Rock Rapids and Hospers. It employs a staff of 90.

The announcement was made at the Charlie and Nola Van Drissen farm at rural Hawarden, with Premier COO Doug Boone, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Northey, Grant Menke, state director for USDA rural development in Iowa and Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of The Rural Broadband Association, attending.

“We are here to celebrate this very important grant,” Northey told the crowd attending. “We don’t have a lot of these, and they are a fairly new kind of effort.”

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

This is the third of 60 announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“This is a public/private partnership, recognizing that the real skill and being able to make these deliveries and the investment and longterm effort comes through the companies who have developed the skill and the relationships and have the service areas,” Northey said. “But in rural areas, it’s particularly challenging to be able to make the economics work to be able to deliver expensive services. In this case, being able to have loans and grants to be able to help that happen now so we are able to have a system that can be delivered efficiently for a long time, and so people who use it can afford it.”

The project will be a combination of buried and above ground cable service.

Northey said while at one time the Internet was looked at as a luxury, has now become essential because of the equipment farmers have and the advances that allow farmers to more precisely manage their inputs with farm equipment, which in turn is more efficient and actually better for the environment.

Boone followed up by saying the company has invested heavily in its system.

“We appreciate the partnership of the USDA with companies like Premier, with this grant, to complete construction and transition customers as early as late next year,” Boone said.

The coverage area includes Akron and Hawarden and goes into South Dakota.

Reynolds, just back from a trade mission to Japan, said she was excited to be able to attend Friday’s announcement.

“The grant is a really a testament of the great work of Premier Communications here in northwest Iowa,” Reynolds said. “One of my priorities is to position Iowa to lead, succeed and thrive in the information economy. Connectivity should be the expectation no matter where you live.”

Reynolds compared the broadband need to the needs of electricity and telephone service in rural areas years ago.

“We used to think of infrastructure as roads, bridges, brick and mortar. Now it’s broadband fiber optics and speed,” she added.

Reynolds continued that Iowa has made investments in broadband, too.

“This year, working with the legislature, we invested $5 million in the Governor’s Empower Iowa Initiative, led by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg,” Reynolds said.

She expects to go back to the legislature next session to seek additional funding.

Bloomfield, who works in D.C., said all Americans deserve access to the information age.

“This will be looked at as a model across the country,” she said.

Rep. Tom Jeneary, of Le Mars, said Premier asked him to review their application and asked for his support. After reading it, Jeneary said he was happy to sign on his support.

“The three things that grow rural Iowa that we need are affordable housing, affordable childcare and broadband,” Jeneary said. “And we know if we don’t have broadband, people are not going to stay in rural Iowa. We really need to have young farmers start and stay here because they need to feed the rest of us. But if they don’t have that technology, they’re not going to stay. So this is vitally important. I’m just so happy it’s going to affect our area as positively as it’s going to.”

The Heartland Telecommunications Company of Iowa, doing business as Premier Communications, will use this ReConnect Program loan to deploy a fiber to the premises (FTTP) broadband network capable of simultaneous transmission rates of 1/1 gigabits per second.

The funded service areas include 868 households, 17 businesses and 27 farms. The project will facilitate more access to services and information for local residents, and it will improve the overall quality of life for people in the community.

“Technology and innovation are key in meeting the growing demand in agriculture,” Northey said. “Our mission to increase rural prosperity cannot be achieved without addressing the digital divide our rural communities face because of a lack of high-speed broadband Internet.”

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory, and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.

In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump, which included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local, and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force, according to information from the USDA.

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