As broadband providers watched in late spring, the needs of Iowans evolved rapidly, representatives at Mediacom and Minburn Communications said this month. 

Both companies saw an almost immediate shift in peak activity by residential users from the evening hours — Mediacom customers shifted to 3-4 p.m., and Minburn Communications saw peak use essentially level across the full day as employees and students began work and class virtually. 

“Things like Webex, Zoom, a number of e-learning websites, Microsoft Teams — we saw those jump dramatically,” said J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology at Mediacom. “[Zoom] was not the most popular at the time, but I think at one point they had jumped in a four-week period close to 2,000%. Across the board, we saw that become a much bigger percentage of overall traffic.” 

It took a combination of pre-existing initiatives and quick thinking for both companies to reach clients in low-income households and small businesses managing through an economic crisis. 

“It is critical for our businesses in our small, rural communities to be able to sustain just like ours,” said Deb Lucht, CEO and general manager at Minburn Communications, which serves about 1,400 customers in parts of Dallas and Boone counties.  

Staff introduced a new “pandemic plan,” which Lucht called an alternative billing solution designed to let commercial clients keep internet and voicemail service so they can maintain connections with customers. That plan will remain in place until the end of December. 

“We were fortunate enough to have these customers work with us and be appreciative of the program so we could develop payment plans for them. But we’re still just on the end of July, one month after the program ended, we still have a few months of billing cycles to see what that impact will mean to them — if they’re able to reopen and return to full services, or if they are in a financial hardship that won’t allow them to reopen,” Lucht said. 

Community members in Minburn, Woodward and parts of Perry receive access to fiber at home and businesses, but reaching rural households is a challenge. 

To do that, three fixed wireless tower sites installed by Minburn Communications serve more than 200 residential customers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access an internet connection. Those customers receive up to 20 mgs of service, as long as the range is not blocked by the landscape in between the tower and home. 

Three free Wi-Fi hot spots installed by Minburn Communications near parking lots and downtown locations let community members drive up to access an internet connection and maintain social distancing while traditional public outlets, such as schools and libraries, remained closed. Minburn Communications also takes customers in through the federal Lifeline Support program, which subsidizes costs for telecommunications and broadband services. 

“That territory would be considered difficult or hard to serve, and they don’t have traditional network connection. This is an alternative solution to give them a reliable internet connection,” Lucht said. 

As well as pausing data allowances through the end of August on client accounts, Mediacom used its existing Connect2Compete program to help schools get families connected for virtual classes. 

Once schools began announcing in-person classes would not return, Mediacom offered 60 days of Connect2Compete service free to eligible families, and worked with school districts to identify households that needed connections — so far Mediacom has worked with districts in Des Moines, Waterloo, Fort Dodge and Marshalltown, with the goal of completing new installations by the start of the school year in August. The company also raised service speeds from 10 mgs to 25 mgs on the program. 

“In some cases, the schools are being the aggregator. They’re saying, ‘Here’s the homes that need the connectivity, and we the school are the client,’” said Phyllis Peters, senior director of communications at Mediacom. “Then the school pays the $9.95 per household per month if the service is active.

“We really are doing something different and special, but we could do it because it was a matter of scaling something that we already had, and dedicating a lot of labor to do it,” she added. 

“We are an essential service,” Lucht said. “This whole COVID situation has really brought to light what we as an industry have been saying for a long time, that broadband is as important as your water, your electricity, your sewer. If we can’t maintain that as a key utility and essential service, then it will impact [people].” 

Interested in this topic? Watch for the full story in the Sept. 4 edition of the Business Record.