Harmony Telephone Company receives $5.4 million from USDA to expand broadband services in rural areas

MELISSA VANDER PLAS/NEWS LEADER The staff members of Harmony Telephone Company hold a sign announcing a $2.7 million grant and $2.7 million loan from the USDA’s ReConnect Program during a press conference on Friday morning, Jan. 17. In front, from left, are Barry Churchill, Sydnie Huffman, Alissa Stelpflug and Jill Huffman. In back are Marsha LaFreniere, Cohl Lee, John Hancock and Doug Dockter.
Melissa Vander Plas

Together, America prospers.

Those words were printed on a banner at the front of a press conference held in Harmony last Friday, Jan. 17. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Harmony Telephone Company announced a multi-million dollar investment to increase e-connectivity, bringing high-speed internet to nearly 1,400 homes and nearly 120 businesses in rural Minnesota and Iowa.

USDA Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky was on hand to make the announcement, which not only included a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant and $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan for Harmony Telephone, but also additional funding for two other high-speed broadband infrastructure projects, one in Osage, Iowa, and another in St. Louis County in northern Minnesota.

Harmony Telephone Company will use the funding to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

“When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.”

Censky also told those gathered at the press conference that the grant application process was very competitive and the USDA had over $1.4 billion in applications for the allotted $600 million in the first round of funding. This included 146 applications received between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, for all three ReConnect Program products: 100% loan, 100% grant and loan-grant combinations.

He explained that they were now entering into round two, with the application period opening at the end of this month. Censky also stated he recently learned there would be a round three as well.

Brad Finstad, Minnesota State Director of the USDA, stated that he was proud to offer his support – and that of the Minnesota USDA – to stand ready to connect more rural Americans.

Jill Huffman, chief operating officer of Harmony Telephone Company, stated that the award will help her company build its fiber infrastructure to rural areas, which will create “endless, life-changing opportunities for our subscribers.”

“Providing broadband service to rural areas like ours is challenging and that is what makes being a recipient of this ReConnect award so exciting to our whole team at Harmony Telephone Company,” she said.

For farmers, Huffman explained, connectivity means having the capability to download the latest equipment schematics to speed up equipment repairs. “It can provide added security with real-time video camera monitoring of their property and the ability to evaluate equipment performance from a distance, which can lead to reduced expenses,” she added.

Huffman also noted small business owners have a more level playing field with their broadband-connected competitors by improving the ways they can connect with business partners, customers and suppliers.

Fiber in rural areas can also allow people to work from home rather than traveling to the city to work.

“Telecommuting can positively affect the individual worker and has the capability to change an entire family’s dynamic when a parent spends less time driving to and from work,” Huffman said.

Having high-speed internet services also have an impact on local education. “Rural school-aged children will have the capability to connect with broadband speeds just like their city classmates, which is important as many schools have implemented e-learning days when school is cancelled due to inclement weather,” she added, pointing out that schools were releasing early that day due to impending winter storms.

Beyond the ability to offer greater broadband services, Huffman stressed that Harmony Telephone and its business partners strive to be a trusted technology provider. “Providing fiber to the premises, is just the beginning,” she said. “Whether our subscribers are using our service for their farm operation, small business or home, they can count on our seasoned and dedicated team at Harmony Telephone to serve them with better broadband and assist them with any broadband-related technology needs.”

Brian Krambeer, board chair of Harmony Telephone Company, concluded the press conference by thanking everyone for attending. “It is a very special day,” he said. “This is a game changer. We are committed to helping southern Minnesota and northern Iowa grow in broadband.”

Harmony Telephone Company is a privately-held company in Harmony. It was purchased in 2006 by Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company and Spring Grove Communications. In 2018, MiEnergy Cooperative bought into the company to become an additional owner.

Harmony Telephone Company provides broadband and telephone service to Harmony and the surrounding rural area as well as cable television service in Harmony.