Premier Communications receives $7.2 million grant

Posted November 21, 2019 at 10:25 pm

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By Julie Ann Madden

Excitement. That was the feeling Friday morning at the Van Driessen Farm in rural Hawarden.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state officials joined officials from NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and Premier Communications, which provides voice, video and data communications services to former HickoryTech customers in Akron and Hawarden.

They announced Premier Communications, headquartered in Sioux Center, was the first company in Iowa and South Dakota to receive a USDA ReConnect Pilot Program grant to install broadband fiber optics to its rural customers. The grant is for $7.2 million.

“It’s a public-private partnership,” said USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey, recognizing “the real skill in being able to make these deliveries and the investment in the long-term effort comes through the companies that have developed the skills and relationships, but in rural areas it’s particularly challenging to be able to make the economics work to deliver expensive services.”

“This is a way of balancing that — making sure it is delivered by the folks who are good at it but also being able to have the support to get it on the ground,” said Northey, explaining in its 2018 Budget, U.S. Congress appropriated $600 million for investments of grants and loans for broadband expansion. Then USDA Rural Development officials created these grant and loan opportunities.

With this grant and Premier Communications’ own $2.4 million contribution, this fiber optics project will serve 27 farms, 17 businesses, 868 households and 2,300 residents, said Northey, noting the project includes both above-ground and below-ground fiber optics for cable and wireless.

“The benefits to those who are impacted are vastly multiplied to the others out there — economic and environmental benefits,” he said. “It takes the high speed internet and the opportunity for not only the advances we’ve seen today but for those coming…that would not be possible without broadband access.”

“Projects like this are so beneficial to companies like ours who really do have the desire to serve in these rural areas,” said Premier Communications CEO Doug Boone, noting they have invested heavily over the past 10 years. “We appreciate the partnership…With assistance from this grant, it will allow us to complete construction. Customers will begin seeing benefit by late next year.”

Just returning from a trade mission to Japan, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds began by thanking farmers for their efforts at feeding and fueling the world.

She also thanked national leaders for incentivizing private capital investment and driving robust public-private partnerships, she said. “One of my top priorities, as governor, is an economic development strategy to position Iowa to lead, succeed and drive in the information economy but you can’t succeed if you’re not connected to that Information Superhighway or able to access it at emergence speed.”

“(This grant) will help us build out that critical infrastructure,” said Reynolds. “We used to think critical infrastructure was roads and bridges, bricks and mortar but today it’s fiber optics, technology and speed.”

“We’re going to continue celebrating and seeing great things happen in the state of Iowa,” said Reynolds, noting the state committed $5 million to such projects.

With President Donald Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the USDA is fully committed to high speed internet eConnectivity to the nation’s rural communities, said USDA Rural Development (Iowa) State Director Grant Menke, noting U.S. Congress appropriated $1.15 billion for this Reconnect Broadband Program the past two years.

“Reliable and affordable internet eConnectivity truly is a key in the 21st century to productivity and prosperity,” said Menke quoting Perdue. “Without access to broadband, entire communities are increasingly left behind in today’s information-driven economy. By connecting our communities, we are reconnecting Americans with one another and helping to ensure everyone has the opportunity to benefit from this booming economy.”

“Premier Communications’ project has the potential to make a far-reaching positive impact on rural businesses and communities,” said Menke. “It will attract new families and individuals to rural northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota while helping to retain the area’s best and brightest. It will bring new small businesses to the service areas of rural communities while helping to grow existing companies and create more jobs. It will improve educational opportunities for local students, bridging that Digital Divide and helping to level the playing field for all children in surrounding rural school districts. It’ll help expand medical services and support while enhancing healthcare outcomes through Telemedicine. And finally, it will open doors to even more precision in Precision Agriculture allowing farmers in the service area to be more efficient, effective, economical and environmentally responsible.”

NTCA really looked at rural communities, what drives innovation, spurs economic development with Connectivity and Broadband — implemented Smart Rural Communities Initiative, explained NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. Premier Communications was one of the first nationally recognized to really generate the economic drivers to ensure rural folks have access services they need.

“You’ve got the perfect model — public-perfect partnership…we’re really exciting about what you are doing,” said Bloomfield. “It’s a model that we can copy across the rest of the country.”

Local Impact

Current internet services are often unreliable in local rural areas, including both Iowa’s Plymouth County and South Dakota’s Union County.

“This will give us all kinds of new opportunities,” said Akron-Westfield School Board President Nick Schoenfelder. “It’ll allow our kids to expand their knowledge of the internet, have better connectivity. We can expand some things within the school that will allow us broader access and quicker access. It’s just a great opportunity for our school and our kids.”

“It’s just going to open up so many more avenues for people to access information on the internet,” said Iowa Representative Tom Jeneary of Le Mars. “The big three things in rural Iowa are affordable housing, childcare and broadband, and if we don’t have those services, people are not going to stay in the rural areas where we really need them.”

“We really need young farmers because the average age of farmers is 57 or 58,” he added, “but if we don’t have that technology for them, they aren’t going to stay. I’m very happy (Premier Communications is) going to do this.”

““It’s going to be good for everyone in the area,” said Akron City Administrator Dan Rolfes. “We have some fiber in town but not the whole town is my understanding.”

“I am very excited about fiber optics being available to our rural Akron households and business entities,” said Akron Mayor Sharon Frerichs. “In listening to our Governor, I was so excited that she realizes the importance of Northwest Iowa to our state. Over the years I have felt we, in this part of the state, were being forgotten. Obviously, she knows we exist and will listen to us when we address issues that concern us. I left the celebration feeling good about Northwest Iowa and our state leadership.”

Premier Communications, founded in 1906, has more than 21,000 customers and covers 18 school districts, seven rural hospitals and 28 communities in its 1,500-square miles in northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota.

Premier Communications’ slogan is “Looking Ahead.”

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