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Broadband comes to Nevada frontier

Kelly Clark
USDA Rural Development
Broadband Intenet access is much improved in rural Nevada after the installation of new towers and service — outlined in blue — through Connect Nevada, funded through the USDA Rural Development. The solid red markers show location of previous broadband access.
Courtesy USDA Rural Development |

People living in small Nevada towns like Dyer, Lund, Duckwater, Mina, Currant and Tuscarora, have been waiting a long time for Internet to arrive. In these rural areas, broadband signal once was out of the question. Now, at least in a few towns, that has changed for good.

When work began nearly 20 years ago to bring broadband into the most remote communities in Nevada, the need was overwhelming. Less than 1 percent of the state’s rural areas had access to broadband service. Among those who did, connection speeds were laughable. Today, nearly 27,000 square miles of rural Nevada have access to broadband; about 40,000 more rural residents have access to download speeds of up to 25 megabits per second (Mgbs).

For the folks who live in small town Nevada, it makes all the difference to be able to connect to the rest of the world, whether for education, business or just for fun.

Lindsey Harmon, executive director of Connect Nevada, remembers that the big telephone companies had absolutely no interest in investing in towers and service for a few people living in mountainous, distant places. The small population size, high mountain ranges and remoteness were a major disincentive.

“Nevada is not just rural, we’re frontier,” Harmon said. “The biggest challenge for Internet connectivity has not been the last-mile connection, it’s been building the middle-mile connection between the metropolitan areas and these remote communities.”

Harmon says it’s been hard to make a compelling business case to broadband providers to service remote towns. “That’s why federal grants — like those from USDA’s broadband program, or state programs like Connect Nevada — are so important,” Harmon said. “They can help make those connections that wouldn’t otherwise occur.”

Charting New Territories

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has helped chart the map for expanded broadband service in rural Nevada. USDA provided $41 million for towers, infrastructure, wireless and mesh networks, and the labor it takes to make Internet service possible. This included $25 million in infrastructure loans to small rural telephone companies like Lincoln County Telephone, Rio Virgin Telephone and Beehive Telephone. USDA supported about $2.5 million in Distance Learning Telemedicine loans and grants for universities and community colleges, rural school districts, tribes, and medical clinics to develop broadband anchor hubs in rural communities across the state.

Nearly $3 million went to Community Connect Grants to connect small towns to metropolitan areas, and $11 million in Broadband Initiative Program funds supported infrastructure improvements.

“I had to get a little passionate with my colleagues in DC for them to understand how challenging, expensive, yet critical it was to bring broadband to the ranches, towns, and communities of the most mountainous state in the nation,” said Sarah Adler, USDA Rural Development State Director. “But once they got onboard, together with the telephone companies and Internet providers serving rural Nevada, we really have made some headway.”

Small School Benefits

One remote area that recently came on line is the Independence Valley adjacent to Tuscarora in Elko County. The Rural Telephone Company (RTC) in Elko invested about $2 million in USDA loan and grant funds to extend ADSL2+ high-speed broadband service to existing and new customers in the Jarbidge, North Fork, and Tuscarora service areas. RTC installed 52 miles of new fiber optic cable to replace existing, much slower and less capable main copper cable.

Now, 62 new broadband customers in this remote rural area can access the Internet. A geo-thermal hydropower co-generation plant located in Tuscarora is using T-1 access, so is the Independence Valley School, a one-room school with eight students in grades kindergarten to eighth grade.

Shammy Rodriguez, the K-8 teacher at the Independence Valley School says the broadband there has vastly changed the way students learn. “We use the Internet all the time, working at all the different levels, it connects them to their world in a way you could never imagine.”

Corporation Enhances Connectivity

It’s the Arizona-Nevada Tower Corporation’s (ANTC) project — funded, in part, by nearly $8.5 million in grant and loan funds from USDA — that has been the toughest to complete. Last fall the company raised the last grant-funded tower on an extensive 34-site middle-mile network. It has taken more than 12 years to complete multiple projects through rugged territory.

The ANTC has complete last-mile remote access to 34 service areas in Nevada. The service is now available over a 27,000-square-mile area; about 270,000 rural residents and 3,000 businesses benefit.

The effort started in Walker Lake and Hawthorne and then inched inward to the central, most remote areas of Nevada. Mina, Gabbs, Railroad Valley, White River Valley, the Duckwater Indian Reservation and Lun are some of the areas that now have access to the Internet. Along the way, as anchor sites built on, more signal beamed out from tower to tower, and many tiny, remote communities came online.

Business in Lund and Dye

In Lund, Lisa Keppner says enhanced broadband speeds have had “a huge impact” on her home business selling Scentsy Candles. Keppner uses the Internet to take orders for her product, to market, and to hold team trainings. “I used to have to buy more gigabits when things got busy. Now I can train my team using webinars, take orders, and it doesn’t slow down.” Keppner credits broadband for helping her increase her sales team from 20 members to 52, and for a recent promotion. “This is all because of Internet access,” Keppner said.

For Rose Marie Billick, 77, says Internet speeds are now “incredibly fast.” She and her husband were on dial-up for many years, then switched to satellite, and are happy with the speeds they have with Atom Splash.

Just down the road, her neighbors at the Queensland Vineyard Bed and Breakfast now use the Internet to promote their lodge and to invoice visitors using PayPal. Joyce and Bill Hartman hope the broadband will beam a welcome signal to tourists on mobile phones who come through the area en route to Death Valley.

Technological Challenge

At Connect Nevada, Lindsey Harmon has seen the challenges and the joy. When broadband works, community members are euphoric, when it doesn’t — or takes too long — enthusiasm wanes. But she is optimistic.

“Nevada is continuing to make strides given the many challenges of expansiveness and topography,” she says. “We are now attracting big players –like Tesla and Switch—with real connectivity demands. With that, the state is recognizing the importance of connecting all of our communities.”

Tele-Medicine Benefits Tribes in Rural Areas

Meanwhile, even relatively small amount of funding are having big impacts on quality of life. Recently the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Health Clinic received a Distance Learning Telemedicine grant from USDA to provide tele pharmacy services to three remote tribes. The system will use the services of the Tribe’s Indian Health Service pharmacist and securely vend the medicines to patients hundreds of miles away.

“Health care, business development, access to education — it’s all on our radar screen,” said USDA Rural Development’s Adler. “These investments, much of it from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, have brought rural Nevada into the 21st century and we’re moving forward.”


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