The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a digital transformation, as organizations had to shift their day-to-day activities to virtual environments. It may be the fastest, but it’s not the first transformation that Troy Hoover of Land O’Lakes, Inc. member co-op Co-Alliance has witnessed in his 20-year IT career. Hoover has watched more and more business processes migrate to cloud services. He’s also seen the lows and literal highs of rural broadband.
“In the early 2000s, we had a bank of dial-up modems for a short time. We ran our own wireless network -- not selling to customers, just for our own sites,” Hoover recalls. “It was cutting edge at the time, but thank goodness there’s better equipment now, better gear. Also, I’m glad I don’t have to climb up towers to do the installation anymore.”
Recently Hoover, on behalf of Co-Alliance, joined other Land O’Lakes member-owners to participate in the American Connection Project, a series of actions and advocacy measures that aim to close the digital divide. Through work with Watch Communications and Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, Co-Alliance has installed fixed wireless internet to their facility in Scircleville, Indiana, which improves their business’ internet connectivity and offers a permanent rural broadband solution for up to 2,100 residents of the community.
As director of IT at Co-Alliance, one of Hoover’s core responsibilities is to review the business’ digital capabilities and continuously reevaluate its internet connectivity according to evolving business needs.
“Nowadays, everything lives in the cloud,” says Hoover. “Often, the best, most efficient way we can operate our business and support our customers is through software, communications and resources that reside in the cloud. So obviously we need dependable internet to access and utilize that information.”
For Hoover, the effort is personal, too. And he believes that broadband shouldn’t be a luxury, saying, “Access to the internet for people has become a must, a need, just like people need to have access to electricity and water,” he says.
Now, because of Co-Alliance, more people in rural communities will be able to have lasting access to the necessary utility of broadband.
Given your experience with installing internet provisions in the past, how has this initiative been different from past ones?
There are two major differences. One is technological capability — Watch Communication uses up-to-date equipment that makes for a faster, more reliable connection. Working with them has been refreshing and exciting.
The other is purpose -- not only is it available to our business, but it’s also accessible for community members to tap into.
I’ve actually been through it myself, where a company set up a cell tower and had to trench in my yard to run the fiber. Even then, and no matter who I called, I wasn’t able to access the connection running through my own property. It goes to show that when corporations install broadband access, it may not do the average homeowner any good. But Land O’Lakes’ initiative is different. It demonstrates where our priorities are as a cooperative -- with our members and their communities.
Why did Co-Alliance choose to participate?
First, we had our inward-looking reasons. We have actually used fixed wireless before, and some sites were more or less successful than others. We had very poor connectivity at our site in Scircleville, Indiana. This site is located in a very rural area, so it needs to rely on fixed wireless. Previously, the connection was not very quick and very unreliable. The technology hadn’t been updated and we weren’t getting what we needed in terms of bandwidth, speed or reliability. Sometimes it took several minutes to do routine tasks, like to run an everyday report. And having a Teams meeting or videoconference -- forget it, it was just not possible.
When Watch Communications inspected the site, they said they would be able to install some new equipment and greatly increase the reliability and speed. Now, our site is getting internet bounced from another tower with a fiber optic backhaul, and then we beam it into the rest of Scircleville.
What is the status of internet access in your community?
I live in a rural area, and I have had to be on fixed wireless internet at my residence. I know that pain, I have been through multiple providers, and my parents are in the same situation. They just don’t have any good options. If I didn’t have options and I am just two miles from a U.S. highway and two miles from a reasonably sized town, you can imagine how many other people don’t have options.
If you have always had good internet, and you‘ve never struggled with it, then you just don’t think about it. But there are so many disconnected people in rural communities who just don’t have good options for broadband internet.
How does Airband add value for your cooperative’s members and communities?
Co-Alliance is interested in doing anything that can help families stay connected. Especially with COVID-19, more e-learning and remote work, staying connected has been so critical. Today, we have taken some of our worst connected sites and turned them into the best.
I’m thrilled to report that we’re working with Watch Communications currently to analyze our existing vertical assets where we could establish a connection throughout our territory to see where we can grow from here.
This project is part of ongoing efforts by Land O’Lakes and Microsoft to close the rural broadband gap across the United States. Co-Alliance is part of the Land O’Lakes member network, and Watch Communications is a Microsoft Airband Initiative partner. You can learn more by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Connection Project fosters long-term digital inclusion in support of vibrant and thriving rural communities. Efforts include raising awareness about the critical nature of connectivity; advocating for meaningful policy reform and broadband investment; and, taking decisive action to provide connectivity options where they’re needed most. Land O’Lakes is convening organizations and leaders from across the country in this critical time to build strong rural communities positioned for competitiveness and connection now and in the future. More about the American Connection project is available at https://www.americanconnectionproject.com/.