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$5.4 million to South Slope for broadband expansion

USDA ReConnect Program brings fiber optic network to Oxford and surrounding areas
A crew from South Slope Cooperative Communications works alongside Mid-American Energy and Linn County REC crews to install underground utilities in a new and as yet un-built subdivision near Oakdale and Park Road, in Tiffin, in July of 2019. The South Slope workers are pulling fiber optic cable off of a reel and placing it in a trench alongside electric lines.

OXFORD– A combination of a loan and a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) makes it possible for South Slope Cooperative Communications to expand the fiber optic network and bring broadband service to Oxford and the surrounding area.
Former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and current USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey announced $5.4 million in investments in the project with the USDA’s Rural Development Iowa State Director Grant Menke during a brief event Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the Administrative Offices of the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District near Oxford. The funds, a 50-50 combination of grants and loans, is funded through the USDA’s ReConnect Program, seeking to improve “e-connectivity to rural areas of Iowa, creating new opportunities for education, medical care services, small businesses, and agriculture,” according to a press release from the USDA.
In opening remarks by Menke, United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue was quoted as saying, “Reliable and affordable Internet e-connectivity truly is the key in the 21st Century to productivity and prosperity. Without access to broadband, entire communities are increasingly left behind in today’s information-driven economy. By connecting our communities, particularly our rural communities, we are reconnecting Americans with one another, and helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit.”
Secretary Northey praised South Slope for their investment and innovation, spelled out in their grant application during what he described as a very competitive process.
“We had multiple requests for the dollars that were available,” Northey said, “three to five times of the dollars that were available in applications.” Iowa, he said, was very successful in the percentage of successful applications. Like Secretary Purdue, Northey said broadband is an important service, especially in rural America.
“It is absolutely not a luxury, it is a necessity. It is a necessity in so many ways, from the farm fields, to the students that are here, to telemedicine; there are so many ways it is absolutely essential, and we don’t even know all of the ways it’s going to be essential.”
Northey added roughly 21 million people across America do not have broadband access with 80 percent of them in rural areas.
In 2019, South Slope CEO Chuck Deisbeck explained the challenges of bringing broadband services to rural customers. As a member of the Board of Directors for the Iowa Communications Alliance, he routinely works with legislators asking why South Slope and other independent telephone companies aren’t building out to the rural areas.
“It really comes down to money,” Deisbeck said, “It’s extremely expensive.”
Deisbeck added the cooperative estimates it costs between $20-$25,000 per mile to build out to a customer.
的n town it’s a little more expensive when you’ve got to saw cut concrete, but if you’re able to just put the plow in the ground and go, it’s about $20-$25,000 in direct costs, and then there’s engineering on top of that. And if you’re serving two customers per mile, think about it, it’s pretty hard to make a business plan to pay $15-$16,000 for a subscriber, and you’re getting $60-a-month for Internet service.”
Northey said it takes companies like South Slope to provide the service, but it also takes support, including grants such as the ReConnect Program, to make it happen by providing dollars to add to the private investment in infrastructure.
典hese are programs we need to share,・he said, 擢olks need to know they’re happening. Any grant does not solve the broadband problems in the country, but they are a part of the solution, and a part of that message.”
The $5.4 million investment provides 117 route-miles of infrastructure in a 75-square mile area in and around Oxford, including parts of both Johnson and Iowa Counties, with a population of approximately 2,000. By comparison, Cedar Rapids covers 75 square miles, with a 2010 Census population of 126,326.
Secretary Northey stated it will be the seventh such project in the state funded through the ReConnect Program for a total of $45 million.
的t takes each one coming forward with a project that can be competitive, with a project that can be successful in the long term, and it can be there to serve those folks in that area.”
The federal government, Northey said, 的s not going to pull wire, or fiber (fiber optic line) into an area and serve folks there for the long term. That needs to be done by folks within that area, the folks that know that area, and the folks that are going to be there a long time. This is not just about today, this is about a long time into the future.・
The USDA under Secretary Purdue is committed to finding more resources (financial) and ways (grants and loans) to expand broadband access, Northey said.
According to Deisbeck, the project should begin in 2021 with additional details yet to come as the work is engineered.
釘roadband has never been such a vital part of our lives as it is right now,・Deisbeck said. 展ithout broadband, our children struggle to do online learning, they struggle with researching projects in their classrooms, they struggle with social activities when living through this global pandemic.・
Deisbeck added, 徹xford is rural America, and our rural customers and businesses deserve the same amenities that the urban customers are afforded. We’re here to change that.”
State Senator Kevin Kinney (D-39), a native of Oxford who lives on his family’s Century Farm, spoke about the critical need for expanding broadband services for agriculture, job expansion, and schools in rural Iowa. “While there’s more work to be done, it is good to know that more Iowa leaders are paying attention to this critical issue.” Senator Kinney pointed out the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Committee, charting a path for recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic, listed making Iowa a global leader in broadband access.
“We need partners at the local, State, and Federal levels to get this done,” Kinney said.“
CCA Superintendent Tim Kuehl described the impact broadband expansion will have on families of students. The district was suddenly thrust into online-based learning last spring after Governor Kim Reynolds closed the schools due to the pandemic. With many families not having an Internet connection, the District scrambled to provide hot spots for them to make virtual learning possible.
“Broadband is so critical, and I think of it more narrowly than some, but for education especially, it is critical. If 2020 has shown us in education anything, it’s certainly the importance of virtual learning and distance learning.”
Kuehl talked about providing the wireless hot spots, but added, “That’s not the perfect solution. Having this infrastructure will be a huge asset to the community.”
He added, “I really don’t think we’re going to see some form of virtual education going away in the future. I’m excited when we can have kids all back in the buildings (CCA had about 80 percent return for on-site instruction this fall), but that virtual option is always going to meet a need for a certain number of kids or certain applications. And, we’re excited for that opportunity, and this new broadband service will only amplify that for our community.”

PULL QUOTES
徹xford is rural America, and our rural customers and businesses deserve the same amenities that the urban customers are afforded. We’re here to change that.”– Chuck Deisbeck, CEO, South Slope Communications Cooperative

“It is absolutely not a luxury, it is a necessity. It is a necessity in so many ways, from the farm fields, to the students that are here, to telemedicine; there are so many ways it is absolutely essential, and we don’t even know all of the ways it’s going to be essential.” – Bill Northey, Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, United States Department of Agriculture

“If 2020 has shown us in education anything, it’s certainly the importance of virtual learning and distance learning.”– Tim Kuehl, Superintendent, Clear Creek Amana Community School District