Built for service
Roseau Electric Cooperative is expanding its fiber-to-the-home network to more rural members and the City of Roseau.
Roseau Electric Cooperative (REC) lineworker Ross Nelson will be spending this summer building out miles of overhead and underground fiber-optic cable for his co-op’s expanding network.
It’s hard work, but not harder than his task last summer – seeing his son, Jarrett, off to basic training for the U.S. Marines.
“The Marines can’t have their phones for 13 weeks during boot camp,” Nelson said, a photo of his uniformed son tucked in his wallet. “They can still rely on letters in the mail, so my wife got an app that’s called Sandboxx.”
Nelson explained that Sandboxx allows users like his wife, Mary, to type a thousand-character message and upload photos. That content is printed by the company and sent as a tangible letter to the training base. It’s a handy service, but only if you have a solid internet link, which the Nelsons did not have.
“So she would be standing out in the yard, phone in the air like the Statue of Liberty, waiting for a connection,” Ross explained, pantomiming his wife’s distress. “That was for the first month he was gone. Then, the second day we had fiber, she tried it. And it just went, boop – done. It was sent.”
The Nelsons were one of the first rural member families to be connected to reliable high-speed internet through NorthStream Fiber, REC’s broadband deployment initiative started in 2019. Now, that sense of connection is spreading across more areas of Roseau County, including the City of Roseau itself.
Early in 2021, REC was conditionally awarded $1.2 million in funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to expand fiber service to unserved or underserved regions of Roseau County. Some of the census-block groups that were included in that coverage zone lie adjacent to the census-block groups REC already began to serve in 2019, after the co-op was initially awarded $2.1 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II (CAFII). In total, REC will receive around $3.3 million over the next decade to build out a network to more than 550 member homes and businesses.
The hunger for high-speed has been obvious. As of mid-March 2021, NorthStream Fiber had already connected more than 130 customers. REC assistant manager Ryan Severson says they expected a take rate (or, rate of signing up for the service offered) of around 35%. On the first buildout, they’ve been exceeding 80%.
“We hope that continues throughout,” Severson said. “Our main goal is that every one of our members has access to a high-speed internet connection, whether we accomplish that through NorthStream Fiber or through our partnership with Wikstrom Telephone Company. Call us, and we will connect you.”
The City of Roseau was one area that was not in NorthStream Fiber’s initial buildout plan. Residents currently have access to coax connections for internet, but wanted more reliability and speed.
“We had people in town calling – ‘Can we get your service?’” Severson said. “With some of the infrastructure that’s in place in the City of Roseau, it made total sense for us to start serving some customers there.”
REC hopes to start hanging overhead fiber for the city this summer, coinciding with the four-year rollout plan of its two other rural buildouts. Depending on the infrastructure of the area, the co-op’s line crews install either underground fiber lines or string the fiber from already-existing power lines. It’s a service integration that fits a quickly evolving society.
“We believe here at Roseau Electric, and now NorthStream Fiber, that these two businesses will completely mesh. At some point, one will complement the other, and we’re already starting to see that,” Severson said. “When you go down the road of smart electricity – thermostats, EV chargers, all of these technologies – you’re going to need a good internet connection to be able to do any of it.”
Severson knows the co-op will also benefit from the marriage of fiber and electricity. As innovation continues, internet-connected meter reading could become the new normal, and REC will now have a stronger foundation to connect its substations and enhance its use of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) for better member service.
It’s not lost on fiber service director Stacy Rose that NorthStream’s deployment couldn’t have come at a better time.
Just months after they started the project, COVID-19 hit. Solid internet was suddenly essential.
“Our customers have all been extremely happy,” Rose said. “A lot of them are working from home now, so they like having that feature. They don’t have to use their mobile hotspots, which get disconnected all the time. They have a consistent connection.”
For lineworker Nelson, it wasn’t just communication with his Marine-in-training that his family needed. His sophomore son was now distance learning online, and his wife was now working strictly from home.
“The company she works for gave her a cellphone, but whenever she did Zoom meetings, it would be in and out, in and out,” Nelson said. “With fiber, that went away. Now, she would never let me buy a house that doesn’t have fiber.”
Major Roseau County companies were also thankful for the new service from REC. Severson said he received a lot of positive feedback from employees of business members Marvin and Polaris, whose engineering teams had to abruptly take their highly technical work home. He’s also heard from those in the medical field.
“COVID challenges reinforced why we’re doing this,” he said. “We’ve had comments from people who have done doctor’s appointments or consults virtually instead of having to go into the hospital. It’s being used, and that is just going to increase with what’s going on today.”
The pandemic may have pushed Roseau County further into a web-based world, but it was already heading that direction. As a younger generation of families looks to build their futures in rural Minnesota, high-speed internet will be key to recruiting and retaining thriving community members.
As Nelson puts it, fiber has become a quality-of-life necessity. When he was young, any purchase of a new homestead would need to include a good source of water to be valuable.
“I believe fiber is the new well,” he said. “They expect the water, the electricity, all of that stuff. But now it’s also the fiber connection.”
Many of Nelson’s fellow lineworkers have also connected to the NorthStream network over the past year, personally intertwined with a design plan that will have them hanging and trenching more than 250 miles of fiber cable.
“The things that our lineworkers accomplished last year – being new to it, and the amount of line they built out – it feels great,” said Rose, who is often in the field with her crews, talking them through the more technical aspects. “It got to be overwhelming some days, but at the end of the day, you look back and think, wow, we did it.”
Although Nelson is thrilled his family can now have substantial Wi-Fi video calls with Jarrett as he continues Marine training in North Carolina, he’s equally pleased to be giving that opportunity to other families in the north.
“It is a good feeling, and the hope is that we can get as many people on as soon as we can,” he said, squinting through the sun at his co-op brothers stringing fiber from the bucket truck. “Just like electricity – we want to get them ‘lit up.’”
Main image: Roseau Electric Cooperative lineworker Chad Johnson hangs overhead fiber-optic cable along power lines near the City of Roseau. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)