‘The community is the company’ A review of Spring Grove Communications

By : 
Jordan Gerard

They are the company where customers are owners and provided with up-to-date technology, broadband speeds and fiber optic cable.

Spring Grove Communications has played a huge role in Spring Grove, from volunteerism, donations and lending a hand to their staff’s knowledge of technology and ability to offer high speed broadband on fiber optic cable.

“It is important to us to provide excellent customer service,” employee Jacqui VanMinsel said. “As a customer and provider, a fellow member of a committee; working together on projects in the community builds trust with customers.”

In addition to working together for Houston County Festival of Trees, Houston County Care and Share, Spring Grove Lions Club, Meals on Wheels, providing the building as a place for schedules, tickets and “beloved Syttende Mai souvenirs” and many more activities, the employees and board members are also friends, family and neighbors.

The volunteering is done on the employees’ own time and is encouraged. Board member Fordyce Brevig said “people learn to trust you when you work with them on a daily basis.”

General Manager/CEO Jill Fishbaugher added, “Dedication is part of their personality.” 

“It’s a sign of who they are as people. They’re a bright shining star, and it’s what the members should know about their company,” she said.

The company takes pride in being a hometown company that’s locally owned.

“We take pride in answering the phone. There’s not a machine or calling tree,” employee LeAnn Kraus said. “You walk through the door and we can answer the question.”

The company also provides another valuable asset: hometown power. When they built their new building in 2004, a lot was added or improved. The 24-hour fitness center was a new asset, the Spring Grove Public Library moved to the basement of the building, community rooms and private office spaces were added for those who telecommute for work.

Later, a cinema was added. Spring Grove Communications has also donated laptop and tablet technology to Spring Grove Public Schools in 2011. Seventh through twelfth graders get Apple MacAirs while kindergarten through third grade gets iPads. Fourth through sixth graders have priority in the computer lab. Students have the option to take laptops home or leave them at school.

“The more successful the community is, the more successful the company will be,” General Manager/CEO Jill Fishbaugher said. “We need to do our part in the relationship.”

The internet age is not the only demographic they serve. Spring Grove Communications offers a personal emergency response system, similar to a Life Alert pendant.

It’s a system allowing people to have a wearable medical alert button and to push it when they need emergency assistance, such as a fall.

It also serves other areas in addition to Spring Grove.

“It enables individuals to stay in their home and feel secure,” VanMinsel said. 

Updated technology for all

Perhaps two technologies that keep customers coming back for more is the company’s ability to provide high speed broadband over fiber optic cable.

Fiber optic cable is the technology that delivers the service from the Spring Grove Communications office to the home or user wherever they may be in the service area (while connected). Broadband is the internet that flows over that cable.

The company took on the fiber optic cable project in 2008, providing it to all corners of their service area, which is 100 square miles from Spring Grove. It puts the rural town of 1,330 people right up there with bigger cities like Winona, La Crosse and Rochester.

The more speed you have, the more you can do. One Netflix connection in a home requires five megabytes high-definition (HD). If you have three family members with a Netflix connection, you need 15 megabytes to watch the videos continuously without buffering (loading).

“Technologies are increasing at breakneck speed. We’re very fortunate to be ‘future-proofed’ in that we can keep providing broadband speed and capacity,” VanMinsel said. “Every member has the same capability. You just don’t see that everywhere.”

In addition to providing broadband for entertainment streaming services, broadband can provide enough capacity for many connected devices in the home, which has exploded in recent years.

According to the Pew Research Center in a May 25, 2017 article, “a third of Americans live in a household with three or more smartphones.” The study shows 84 percent of American households have at least one smartphone.

Common technologies such as laptops and computers are at 80 percent, 68 percent of households contained at least one tablet and 39 of households contain at least one streaming media device (Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Firestick, etc.), the study said.

Altogether, 90 percent of households contain at least one device (smartphone, desktop/laptop computer, tablet or streaming media device), the Pew Research Center found. 

Customers of Spring Grove Communications can use the broadband services for so much more than streaming and staying connected though. There’s education classes (GED, high school, higher education), work from home, online certifications, video streaming with family and friends, shopping, news and much more.

Best of all? There’s no data caps. Each member is allowed to use as much broadband as they need, unlike competitors Verizon and MediaCom. There’s also no shared connections and no hidden fees. Customers have the benefit of a local office and capital credits that are returned to customers just about every two years.

Recently, Spring Grove Communications revamped their broadband packages to better fit different types of needs for families or individuals.

As of July 1, 2018, the monthly fee for 15 megabytes per second (Mbps) is $45, which includes both download and upload speeds; $60 for 30 Mbps; and $100 for 60 Mbps. They also offer bundle packages with phone and TV.

“We made our packages symmetrical with the same upload and download speed,” Fishbaugher said. “We have unlimited usage and we hope to remain that way. It’s a constant connection for a great price.”

The response so far has been positive, garnering new and returning customers. When the company first started providing broadband service, the speed was a whopping 1.5 Mbps. 

The fast speeds have also called people back to the company, and to town. It’s enticing for young couples to have the option of high speed internet. 

Spring Grove itself has grown quite a bit and returning residents may be surprised at the changes. With a cinema, swim center, fitness center, public library, grocery store, convenience store, restaurants, local shopping, event centers and many more places to offer, Spring Grove is thriving. 

It’s an attractive place to work for those who desire a small town atmosphere.

Fiber optics and broadband was a large contributor to that progress, as it provides a strong connection for work, home, entertainment, gaming, homework and more.

“People love to make things better,” board member Alan Frydenlund said. “Fiber optics opened up the doors to do business.”

As a co-op

Spring Grove Communications is a member owned cooperative company, meaning once you become a customer, you’re also a co-op member and owner.

“You’re truly a member here. You pay a membership fee, attend the annual meeting in March, have a right to place your vote and option to run for the board,” Fishbaugher said. 

Elected board members are the driving force of strategic planning. They partake in the services of the company and understand it.

Through the co-op model, a potential for patronage credits go back to all members. Patronage credits are based on the income after expenses. Remaining income is allocated back to customers, which often comes on a two-year basis. 

About $500,000 goes back into the community when customers purchase technology services from Spring Grove Communications, board member Jana Crickman said. The money is retired and goes back to the customers.

In addition to money going back to customers, the company also donates funds to community non-profits and other organizations such as Spring Grove Athletic Boosters, Spring Grove United Fund, Sunshine Fund, Senior Dining, Bluff Country Art Gallery, ABC and Able, Inc. and many more.

“Over the past two years (2016 and 2017), we’ve donated about $64,000 to various organizations,” VanMinsel said. 

The company is not nonprofit status (501(c)3), but every dollar profited has been paid back to members, Brevig said.

“The only thing that makes us stronger is if all the community were all subscribers,” he said. 

In addition to Verizon and MediaCom for broadband competition, Dish and DirectTV are cable competitors. There’s one defining difference in service though.

“You don’t get capital credits, there’s no local office person to talk to, you don’t run into them at Kwik Trip,” VanMinsel said. “We have no billing surprises and no hidden fees. It’s neighbors serving neighbors.”

The staff participates in the community daily and that includes those who drive in from other communities.

Into the future

With high-speed broadband, excellent customer service and staff knowledge, it would seem Spring Grove Communications has reached the top. 

But wait, there’s more. 

By winter 2018-19, the company will be certified as a “gig community,” which means they will be capable of delivering 1,000 megabytes per second to any home or business, in city limits or countryside.

It’s a community-minded ability, Kraus said. The company has to meet certain requirements in equipment before the certification is granted. One of those requirements is fiber optic cable, which was achieved 10 years ago.

The next biggest thing in TV technology will be 4K, a new resolution of an electronic display. First there was standard, then high-definition, then ultra high-definition and now the next step has been reached. 

“The board is always on the lookout for opportunity and growth,” Crickman said. “We investigate constantly. We have an awesome company and exceptional employees. We’re looking forward to the future.”

Spring Grove Communications recently announced plans to create MiBroadband with Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company, themselves and Harmony Telephone Company and MiEnergy Cooperative, which will bring high-speed internet to rural areas.

Fishbaugher said, “rural is defined by having less than three or four subscribers per mile of fiber. Low density makes it more difficult to install the underground fiber optic lines to provide broadband service to these rural areas” at the announcement event on July 24.

“It’s so exciting,” Fishbaugher expressed. “We are committed to the future, company, employees and community.”

So far, the board is satisfied with the performance from Fishbaugher and excited about her future at the company. She was awarded the job after former General Manager/CEO Craig Otterness was let go in October 2017. 

“We’re happy that our new manager is the person who is going to take us where we want to go,” Brevig said.

Board member Bruce Hegge was appointed as interim while they searched for someone to permanently replace Otterness.

Frydenlund added the board was pleased with Hegge’s performance as well.