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Providing access to dotcom economy, one tower at a time

GRANITE FALLS -- Broadband connectivity is a "must have'' for economic growth.

Yet in large swaths of rural west central and western Minnesota, that connectivity remains hard to have, or very expensive.

That's changing fast, tower by tower.

"We're getting this service to where it isn't,'' said Dan Richter, president of MVTV Wireless in Granite Falls.

Since 1999, the nonprofit Minnesota Valley Television Improvement Corporation has been bringing broadband Internet service to western Minnesota via a two-way, wireless network.

Currently, it has 58 access points placed atop as many municipal water towers, farmer's elevators, and other tall structures. They currently serve approximately 2,600 customers in a 12,000-square-mile area.

Thanks to funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in the next two to three years MVTV will add another 34 access points and expand its coverage area by 8,000 square miles. The 20,000-square-mile region it will serve is roughly equivalent in area to the state of Maryland. It extends from Jackson in the south to Glenwood in the north.

MVTV's system relies on line-of-sight connections between access points and customers. The expansion projects will upgrade its third-generation technology to fourth-generation WiMAX capability, said Richter. That will make it possible to serve customers in communities and elsewhere who are in the "shadow" of large structures, and cannot receive the line-of-sight signal.

It is MVTV's goal to build a completely mobile, wireless system where users will have access anywhere within the network, according to Richter.

The MVTV Wireless network makes available all of the speed or broadband capacity as any other type of network. It is faster than satellite systems.

A two-way, wireless system is the most economical means of reaching rural areas where customers are spread miles apart.

Thanks to the stimulus funding, MVTV will be doubling the speed offered in its residential and commercial service packages while maintaining its current, competitive rates, according to Richter.

It focuses on areas not served by existing systems. But its presence matters: Richter said he's convinced that competition from MVTV has prompted other networks to roll out improved services in this region faster than they would have otherwise, and at lower price points.

MVTV was launched in 1960 as a UHF translator system to serve an area of the Upper Minnesota River Valley beyond the signal reach of Twin Cities broadcast stations. It began offering subscription TV and Internet service over the air in April 1999.

Its Internet service has grown steadily ever since. MVTV has been adding anywhere from 50 to 70 new Internet clients a month in the last couple of years.

It requires a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees to serve the expanding network. Kristin Noble, in customer service, said she relies on an online network and smart-phone connections to three field service technicians to keep atop installation and service needs in the sprawling service area.

Luke Richter is among those in constant contact with Noble. His days are spent climbing towers, grain legs and customers' roofs to bring broadband connections to areas where it has never been.

Richter has been doing this for nearly five years. He said he quickly realized that for many of his customers, it is all about business. Many of the customers are farmers who want the broadband connection for marketing and other needs. Many others are rural businesses that need to keep in touch with customers all over the globe and need a presence in the dotcom economy.

Christianson Systems Inc., of Blomkest, utilizes its MVTV broadband connection to send engineering documents to clients all across the globe. Sonstegard Cattle Company LLC, rural Montevideo, takes advantage of the broadband connection to expand its market reach; it hosts live cattle auctions over the Internet.

Richter said he's no longer surprised to return to customer sites and learn that jobs have been added since the broadband capacity was installed.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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