Update: Growing their own

Gwen Chamberlain
Peter Martens checks out the trench where a conduit will eventually carry fiber optic cable to the Quenan Road farm in the backgroud. The farmers who need connectivity for the increasing technology needs in their businesses have taken it upon themselves to install the equipment they'll need to connect to an Internet Service Provider.

Update: This version of the article clarifies the national program supporting nine other communities through a cooperative effort with The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. (RISI). 

Agricultural businesses call for innovation, problem-solving, management skills, initiative, and the willingness to take chances. Farmers can’t wait for someone else to solve the problems they face. So when father and son farmers Klaas and Peter Martens realized a reliable high-speed internet connection is vital for their operations, and no existing company could meet their needs in an economically feasible manner, they set out to find a way to do it themselves.

The result is a conduit that they installed themselves over a mile from State Route 54 through their fields along Ridge Road, under Roy Road to their farm. Monday, equipment was digging a trench in a Quenan Road field to extend the technology to a neighboring farm. There are at least eight other potential customers who will want to use whatever system they build, according to Peter Martens.

Peter, who has done most of the research and negotiations with the local internet service provider that will eventually connect their farms, says the cost for the do-it-yourself installation is about $6,000, compared to the $60,000 quoted by the ISP in 2017. But that $60,000 is half what another national company quoted to make a connection from Anthony Road.

“They are just way overcharging for building out,” says Peter, who has talked to multiple technology companies and consultants over the past three years searching for a reliable, affordable solution after Airxcess, a locally-owned wireless broadband service discontinued operations.

“This is hamstringing our economy,” says Klaas, who has been using Verizon cell service with data caps for connections lately. That just won’t meet their needs as they incorporate more high-end technology in the organic grain operations based at their farm.

The self-reliance of the farming community is the resource the Martens say will be key to meeting the broadband needs of rural areas, but it will take “a real, honest assessment of what it will cost to meet the needs of the county,” says Peter.

That’s where a public-private partnership or cooperative effort would work perfectly, adds Klaas.

Peter envisions a network of buried conduit carrying the fiber-optic cables to various radio towers and silos around the county. Equipment to transmit wireless signals could then serve the remote customers who have not been able to connect to existing services.

A public-private cooperative concept is not a new one, says Steve Manning of Southern Tier Network. There are already a variety of solutions that have been developed around the United States.

An article on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website reports on a program that supports cooperative efforts in rural communities. The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and its sister organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), has selected nine communities to participate in the Rural Innovation Initiative. This program supports rural communities working to create digital economy jobs with an innovation hub strategy. The program is made possible via a cooperative agreement between RISI and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Participants in the 2019 Rural Innovation Initiative are:

Codefi and the Marquette Tech District Foundation, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Emporia, Kansas

Grinnell, Iowa

Independence, Oregon

Go Forward, Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Block22, Pittsburg, Kansas

Red Wing Ignite, Red Wing, Minnesota

20Fathoms, Traverse City, Michigan

Wilson, North Carolina

That program identified broadband access as a key prerequisite for rural economic development.

While state and federal governments have offered billions of dollars to large ISPs that may still use outdated technology and refuse to invest in rural areas, local leaders can best resolve local issues, says a fact sheet on the ILSR website.

Yates County officials took a step toward looking for a local solution Monday when they authorized Chairman Douglas Paddock to engage Hunt Engineering to apply for a grant from ReConnect, a program of U.S. Department of Agriculture. The county will contract with Hunt to prepare the grant application at a cost of  up to $9,000.

But by the time that application is complete and engineering work can begin, the Martens plan to be fully operational and in a position to advise other rural neighbors who want to build their own service.

Yates County has invested about $600,000 in construction of the dark fiber network that brings high-speed broadband service to the county and connects the southern tier with Ontario County and north.

But the network is not benefitting most residents, and many are frustrated by the lack of progress toward connectivity in the rural areas.

While the Federal Communications Commission says 24.7 million Americans don’t have access to broadband, researchers at Microsoft say nearly 163 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds.