Just call Eric Carstenson the Mike Rowe of the telephone world.
On a normal day, the president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association dresses up to do public relations, regulatory and legislative work like any other trade association representative would.
But recently Carstenson made like the host of the long-running Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” and took a step away from the office to get his hands dirty with some rural telephone company employees.
“I’m getting to see what it is that I talk about,” Carstenson said. “I’m getting to see what it takes to deploy the kind of connectivity that these companies are deploying.”
There was plenty of work to do last week, especially in the Clearwater and Hartington areas, where crews with Northeast Nebraska Telephone Co. and Hartelco, respectively, are installing fiber-optic cable to the homes of each rural customer.
The project by Northeast Nebraska Telephone Co. is being funded with a $69 million loan from the Rural Utilities Service. When the Clearwater portion is complete, the company will have installed 1,600 miles of new fiber. The entire project will have 2,100 miles of new fiber installed.
Likewise, Hartelco’s project is being funded by a $5.265 million loan from the same entity. The money received from the federal Universal Service Fund and the Nebraska Universal Service Fund will assist in repayment of the loan. Hartelco’s project includes 179 miles of fiber-optic cable and includes 355 customer locations.
Prior to the upgrades in infrastructure, phone company customers in rural locations were subject to degradation of bandwidth, which translated to slower speeds and limited Internet capabilities, because of their distance from the central office and the restrictions that came with the aging copper end sections that are being replaced.
Carstenson said the upgrade in infrastructure now will allow customers in remote locations to have access to broadband connections, high-definition technology and telephone services that are comparable to what is found in large urban areas.
“It’s really amazing,” Carstenson said of his experience in the field. “We were standing out by the feedlot . . . but that farm and that business has connectivity that will equal anything you would find in New York or Washington, D.C.”
Bill Dendinger, the general manager of Hartelco, said there is great benefit for rural telephone company customers who have access to that kind of connectivity.
“It’s nothing for a farmer to have thousands and thousands of dollars in grain in a bin in a remote area. Now, he can put a camera on that and watch it from his computer if he wants to,” Dendinger said.
Ranae Chase, also a representative of Northeast Nebraska Telephone Co., said the upgrades could also open up opportunities to draw people back to rural communities.
“These rural communities that are really suffering for work opportunities and the opportunities for growth, we open that market up for them,” Chase said. “They can do whatever they need to do from that home office right now.”
More importantly, the upgrades to infrastructure are helping keep customers in remote locations closely connected with their loved ones, Carstenson said.
“This kind of connectivity is transformative,” he said.
Mike Becker, a Hartelco representative, said he gives a lot of the credit for the positive impact of the upgrades on the state and federal Universal Service Funds because it helps companies like Hartelco pay back loans like the one it received from from the Rural Utilities Service for the project.
“Frankly, we’ve got a moral obligation to serve our customers the best we can,” Becker said. “That’s why we’re doing this last deployment from our cabinets in rural areas out to each farm.”
Carstenson said the Nebraska Universal Service Fund, which is already highly regulated, will be a topic at several hearings of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee this summer and that it will be an issue in the next legislative session. By rolling up his sleeves and joining the phone company crews that are connecting the rural areas, Carstenson said he can better explain the importance of the work that’s being done.
“By experiencing what it is, I can explain to policy makers and make them understand even better what it means to make that kind of connectivity available,” Carstenson said.