By Anna Jauhola
Fiber optic cable is nothing new for the area, but various funding has allowed one area company to continue is rural expansion.
Wikstrom Telephone Company, based in Karlstad, has served Kittson County since 1947. Al Lundeen, company plant manager, said Wikstrom started installing fiber optic cable in the area in 1989 to provide faster and more reliable service.
Early phone lines were copper, so when companies like Wikstroms began installing dial-up internet to homes, they began to realize using fiberoptic would be a better medium.
“Copper will deliver high-speed service, but over only a very short distance,” Lundeen said. “With fiberoptic cable, we can do 1 gigabit, 10 gigabits, whatever speed of service you may need or desire over a very long distance and the signal doesn’t degrade.”
He said a customer in town could receive 20 to 50 megabits of internet seamlessly through copper wire. But those same wires connected to a rural home a few miles out of town would deliver 1 megabit.
“That’s if you’re lucky,” Lundeen said. “Fiber optic is the only real way to get good broadband service and high-speed internet.”
Wikstrom’s real drive to create a comprehensive fiber-optic network for its most rural customers came in 2011 when many companies received federal stimulus grant money. At that time, Wikstrom built and rebuilt a 10-gigabit data network across the company from Grand Forks, N.D., to Williams, Minn.
“We were allowed to use that stimulus money to build a new data network and also to build rural fiber to the homes in rural areas of Karlstad and Greenbush,” Lundeen said. “In 2012, we built fiber to a number of cabinets in the country to those who didn’t have any decent internet service.”
Also with stimulus money, Wikstrom overbuilt the towns of Lake Bronson, Lancaster, Argyle, Stephen, Kennedy and Hallock.
In 2017, the company received funding through the Connect America Fund, which is money that was originally taxed to telephone companies and then redistributed to improve connections.
With that money, Wikstrom was able to prioritize building service to those who had no service or under 10 megabits of service in rural areas.
Since 2018, Wikstrom has plowed nearly 1,000 miles of fiberoptic cable throughout its system to provide better service. In Kittson County, they were able to install 65 miles of line to 120 customers – a project costing a little over $1 million, Lundeen said.
Most recently, Wikstrom has been working to finish installing fiber optic cable in the Lancaster area. Lundeen said they have finished installation for the immediate surrounding area and have installed cabinets in Caribou and east of Lancaster.
He said they plan to finish plowing line north along County Road 4 from where it intersects with County Road 15.
“For 2020, the plan is to get all our rural customers in Kittson County connected. There are another 50 miles of cable left,” Lundeen said. “That’s another $800,000 to build those. So, all our customers in rural areas will have fiber to the home for high-speed internet and decent digital phone service.”
This entire project to build and rebuild the fiber-optic network will, upon completion, cost between $30 million and $40 million. Lundeen said 1 mile of fiber optic cable costs between $12,000 and $15,000 to install. Between 2014 and 2017, Wikstrom received a couple of million dollars’ worth of matching grant funds from the Minnesota Border to Border program.
“We’ve been fortunate to get three of the Border to Border grants, which were very generous,” Lundeen said. “They’re great people to work with to build fiber for our customers.”
In such a rural area, broadband is becoming more important all the time as many people rely on their cell phones. Lundeen said the only reason many people get a decent signal to make a phone call is because their phone uses a WiFi connection.
“In Karlstad, for example, there is no Verizon tower within a decent distance. The closest one is in Pelan and then the next is north of Hallock,” Lundeen said. “We don’t have very good coverage, but I have good coverage in my house because I have broadband internet.”
He said fiber optic cable puts the wire in wireless, which is good news to customers in remote areas throughout Kittson County. Although landline phones are still available and in use, many people only use cell phones.
With a reliable WiFi connection, and effort put in by companies like Wikstrom, rural customers continue to move forward with the technology of the 21st century.
By Anna Jauhola