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Broadband is big: Telecom companies put emphasis on broadband
[June 14, 2010]

Broadband is big: Telecom companies put emphasis on broadband

MANKATO, Jun 13, 2010 (The Free Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The past 10 years of HickoryTech's history is a mirror of Minnesota's efforts to expand high-speed broadband to all corners of the state.

In the past decade, Mankato-based HickoryTech went from zero DSL customers to 19,500 and went from no digital TV customers to 10,000. And in that time, the company has increased its DSL speeds 15 times.

The company continues with aggressive expansion plans -- especially aimed at business services -- as it grows its already huge fiber network.

"We just see continued growth through broadband services, whether it's voice, or more content on the Internet, TV or other things," says John Finke, president and CEO. "It's not slowing down." HickoryTech's quick rise from local phone company to broadband network provider has been repeated by other players -- large and small -- across Minnesota. That growth largely meets the Legislature's goal of becoming a national leader in broadband access and speed.

Broadband -- a communications network in which the bandwidth can be divided and shared by multiple simultaneous signals -- is now available to virtually every resident, and the focus is now on increasing speeds for waves of new and expanded digital offerings.

Ahead of the game By most counts, Minnesota is among the leaders when it comes broadband.

"We stack up very well against other states. From an access perspective, we're probably very close to the top state," said Brent Christensen, formerly general manager of Madelia's Christensen Communications and currently vice president of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, a trade association.

"Ninety-four percent of the population of Minnesota has access to broadband." Jack Geller, a Mankato resident who teaches at the University of Minnesota -- Crookston and previously headed the Minnesota Rural Policy Center, said the state and key communications players took broadband seriously early on.

"There is a big push to be one of the top five states in the country in broadband penetration and speeds," Geller said.

"Companies like HickoryTech have been strong in this from the beginning. They deployed technology from the start. They weren't one of the slowpokes to realize DSL was going to be a major part of their revenue picture." Rural Minnesota has been particularly alert to the economic and social importance of high-capacity digital infrastructure.

"In rural areas, we've kept up very well compared to our urban counterparts," says Christensen, whose family owns the Madelia Communications company that began nearly a century ago as the local phone company.

"We had broadband in Madelia before they had it in parts of the (Twin Cities) suburbs. It's the economic lifeblood of small communities." Christensen recalls the value of broadband to local businesses as the firm began offering it over dial-up service in 2000. The local Polaris dealer needed faster speeds to process warranties and other information Polaris needed. And the House of Print, a printing firm in Madelia, was one of the first to get high-speed Internet.

"They saw a jump of millions of dollars in sales because of it. All the stuff they print, they can bid online, get the files online and ship it out. They don't have to be anywhere near their customers," says Christensen, who has testified before Congress about the economic importance of broadband access to rural areas.

HickoryTech's reach While area residents see HickkoryTech as a provider for TV, DSL and phone, the company's large fiber network -- it touches five states and covers 75 percent of Minnesota's population -- is used by many other providers to deliver services.

"We are selling our network to service providers, whether wireless, other phone companies or cable companies.

Still, the company's presence as a TV and Internet provider has grown steadily in southern Minnesota, with HickoryTech now offering the combination of DSL, TV and phone in 16 communities. About 40 percent of their residential customers get a bundle of all three services.

Finke says the demand for higher speeds to handle the growing services has been obvious to them, as they see more customers start with the lower of the three Internet speeds they offer, then move up to higher speeds.

"People have continued to move upstream from the Lite package. Now it's moving up to the Prime." While continuing to expand its residential reach, the company is focusing on providing the network for the business to business sector. HickoryTech's capital spending this year is targeted in the range of $22 million to $26 million.

HickoryTech recently announced the expansion of its fiber-optic network to Sioux Falls and Fargo. The expansion will add 350 fiber route miles to HickoryTech's existing 2,400 fiber route miles.

"We're not going to those markets for residential services. Growing our business to business services is important.

"As an opportunity to grow and get new customers, that business to business is the direction to grow," Finke says.

The company also recently increased the capacity of its network between Minnesota and Des Moines. The networks are built with 10 Gbps optical technology.

The expansions are part of HickoryTech growing its Enventis business services. Enventis specializes in integrated communication solutions for businesses with high-capacity fiber and data services, managed and hosted services, and professional support services.

"A big part of this network expansion is fiber builds into businesses," Finke says. "As higher speeds are necessary for certain applications -- whether it's health care or business or government -- we build fiber right into those locations." To see more of The Free Press or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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