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Rural utilities keeps ringing

It is hard to grasp just how much has changed in rural America during the past 60 years. The average farm size in Iowa has grown from fewer than 200 to more than 350 acres; corn yields have increased from about 50 to 170 bushels per acre; and equipment which once planted four rows can now plant 48 rows in one pass.

There have also been tremendous changes in telephone services from operator-assisted calls, to party lines, to cell phones, to capabilities over the Internet, which can connect voices and images from anywhere in the world.

During the past 60 years, USDA Rural Development’s Rural Utilities Service has awarded nearly $500 million in loans and grants in Iowa to help companies improve telecommunications, broadband and distance learning services to rural Iowans.

“We are proud of the role our agency has played in assisting rural telephone cooperatives provide such important services to rural areas,” says Bill Menner, state director of USDA Rural Development in Iowa. “We look forward to continuing to assist them in bringing broadband and other technologies that will continue to improve the life of rural Americans.”

Today, 147 local telephone cooperatives are members of the Iowa Telecommunications Association, making it the nation’s largest phone association.

Key Points

• USDA’s Rural Utilities Service celebrates its 60th anniversary.

• USDA has provided funds since 1949 to improve telecommunications services.

• USDA loans are used to bring enhanced telecommunications to rural areas.

Iowa has largest association

“Locally owned and operated telecommunications carriers are often the linchpins of economic development in rural towns,” says Dave Duncan, president of the Iowa Telecommunications Association. “They provide state-of-the-art telecommunications services, such as broadband, that retain and attract businesses and jobs, and allow rural Iowans to participate in the global economy,” he adds.

Panora Communications Cooperative at Panora in central Iowa has used more than $13 million in funding from USDA Rural Development since 1971 to help provide telecommunications services to its customers.

The phone co-op’s first USDA loan helped bring phone service to families around Lake Panorama, which at the time included fewer than 10 homes, and other rural areas in the Panora area. “We took quite a leap of faith in burying phone cable to serve more than 1,800 homes around the lake when only a handful of homes had been constructed,” recalls Dale Grotjohn, who was general manager of Panora Communications Cooperative in 1971, and is now a current board member of the co-op.

Updating rural area service

A $12.8 million loan from USDA is helping the cooperative with their newest initiative: to provide fiber optics to homes for all their subscribers. The co-op anticipates that all customers will be connected to this service, which will provide high-speed voice, video and broadband services through a fiber connection by the end of 2010.

Same service for all

“It’s always been our philosophy that if one person in the co-op can get a service, then every customer should have access to that same service,” says Andy Randol, general manager of Panora Communications Cooperative. “We not only listen to what customers are wanting today, but it’s important that we are looking ahead at what future telecommunications demands will be.”

The co-op has customers in and around Panora, Guthrie Center, Bayard, Jamaica, Yale, Bagley and Linden, and also continually invests in the communities it serves.

“Iowa’s rural telecom carriers are key supporters of other community projects through direct financial support to community causes, lending their expertise with community leadership and participating in revolving loan programs,” says Duncan.

In Panora the co-op established Rosehill Business Park, constructed an office building on Lake Panorama that is currently being leased by Iowa Hospice, built the first three speculative homes in the Dream Acres, assisted the library with funds for its new building, helped finance a portion of the Little Panther Childcare Center and built a weight room for the high school, as well as other economic contributions on a smaller scale.

Investing in community

“USDA’s ongoing commitment to our cooperative has given us the ability to make many of these community investments,” Randol says. “If the community and its residents do not prosper, then we are not doing our job as a cooperative.”

USDA’s telecommunications loan program was established in 1949 to provide telephone service to rural America. At the time, only one in three farms had access to telephone service.

As USDA did with the rural electrification program, this program revolutionized the lives of millions of rural families and businesses by providing connectivity, access to emergency services and business activities that fueled economic growth.

Today, Rural Utilities Service provides loans and grants for telecommunication, electricity, water and environmental services. It is also administering a program, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to provide broadband service to underserved communities.

For more information about USDA Rural Development programs in Iowa, call 515-284-4663 or visit www.rurdev.usda.gov/ia.

Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.

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RURAL CONNECTION: A $12.8 million loan from USDA Rural Development is helping bring high-speed voice, video and broadband services to cooperative members of the Panora-based co-op.

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GETTING WIRED: Andy Randol, Panora Communications Cooperative general manager, says his co-op plans to have fiber-to-the-home connections for all customers by the end of 2010.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.