A Digital Transformation: How a Rural Town became a Gigabit Community

Eagle Communications company work truck

In 2017, a small town home to approximately 1,300 people living in the midst of Kansas farmlands found it’s in the middle of a digital transformation.

The community of St. Francis faced a unique partnership with Eagle Communications, a rural internet service provider (ISP) covering Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado. Although the ISP was already delivering gigabit speeds over its network to local businesses and schools, it was now planning to launch the ultra-fast gigabit internet access to residents over a fiber network to individual homes. St. Francis would now join the ranks of gigabit communities across the U.S.

There’s no doubt that gigabit internet is the connectivity of the future. It’s super speed network provides access that will forever change how we live, work, play and learn, becoming the foundation for the next step in the internet’s expansion. It may seem far away, but gigabit internet is already here, rolling out across various regions of the country.

Elizabeth Jaeger, Eagle’s director of marketing, explained how this upcoming connectivity project has been a community effort, and one that the residents of this progressive town have pushed hard for.

“This is economic vitality. They know what they need to do to keep their community alive,” said Jaeger, further emphasizing the town’s drive to stay positioned and relevant in the world. On top of that, the community is very aware of its aging population. “This robust, reliable and fast internet will give them the ability to stay connected with physicians from afar, to skype and video chat with family and grandchildren who have left town, and to just connect with the world in a way they aren’t able to do right now,” she added. Currently, Eagle provides St. Francis with wireless internet at speeds of up to 5Mbps.

Eagle’s relationship with St. Francis started back in 2005, when the town moved from being a municipally-owned broadband system to one that Eagle would manage and upgrade over the next 12 years as its wireless network service provider. Eagle also assisted the St. Francis Internet Committee last year in submitting a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting funding for a new buildout. Though the USDA denied the application because it believed the town had adequate LTE coverage, the Internet Committee rallied the community to encourage Eagle to invest in the town’s future. It gathered over 900 signatures, as well as numerous letters from key stakeholders in the community, including those representing county government, hospitals, school districts, and libraries. Their voices rang loud and clear to Eagle: St. Francis was interested, ready and willing to be brought up to speed. So Eagle took up the investment.

“With this initiative, we answer a number of challenges: adequate broadband in terms of education, healthcare needs with them needing fiber symmetrical internet to be able to quickly and efficiently move electronic medical records, and public safety issues with all of their agencies–the courthouse, the jail, the EMS, all the things that support a community in terms of an emergency,” said Jaeger. Not to mention, St. Francis has a rather busy county airport, a clinic that surrounding communities frequent, a hospital, and public library.

As part of their partnership with Eagle, community members volunteered to help attract a minimum of 210 people to sign up for the service. “So the plan was to take our 100 people who were already signed up for our wireless internet, and then take their 210 signups, which would then give us over 300 subscribers. That’s what we decided we needed to build and maintain a new fiber system up there,” said Travis Kohlrus, general manager at Eagle. Though the community is not providing any funding for the project, the volunteers are recruiting customers, and the agreement is one that Kohlrus said gives Eagle the confidence to sustain the project long-term.

As gigabit services have gradually launched over the past few years, the question inevitably arises as to whether the average residential customer actually needs gig speeds. Jaeger relayed that even on Eagle’s highest internet usage day for a single household, customers don’t usually come close to consuming a gig. “I think every broadband provider in our size range wrestles with the gig concept,” said Jaeger.

“But if you aren’t able to provide a gig, what does that do to the perception of your company? And about what technology you can provide?” said Jaeger. So Eagle goes the extra mile in listening to its customers, building relationships with communities like St. Francis, analyzing what’s being used in their system, and then working hard to bring upgrades to those regions that demand higher speeds. No matter what speed a customer might need or want, Eagle will offer an internet experience that is  good and reliable, added Jaeger.

With communities and internet service providers dedicated to a digital future, we are closer than ever to the promising opportunities that technology provides.