Federated Telephone Coop. has offered communications at the ‘speed of life’ for 65 years

Brad Motz and Shaun Ripley installing services in Big Stone County. Contributed photo

Federated Telephone Cooperative has been connecting people and businesses for over 65 years. Those methods of connection have changed dramatically, but the focus of their industry has never strayed. You might say that they are offering communication at the speed of life.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, representatives of mutual and village telephone companies, and area farmers without telephone service, began discussing the development of a large telephone cooperative. After an engineering study was done and determined that a modern telephone system would be beneficial, Federated Telephone Cooperative was formed. Federated Telephone was one of those companies putting up lines and connecting people through switchboards. The original exchanges served consisted of Danvers, Holloway, Correll, Odessa and Chokio. Since then, Federated Telephone has expanded to a much larger area including the exchanges of Milan, Big Bend, Alberta, Hancock, Appleton, Morris, Benson, Graceville and more. Today Federated is once again running lines to connect people. This time the lines are fiber optic and provide much more than just phone service.

The advent of fiber optics in this area started in 1997 when Federated Telephone tested the industry in Alberta. It was a brave move and showed confident foresight by the directors of this small company. The move advanced them into a future no one could foresee. They now have a 100 percent fiber-to-the-premise network that covers Stevens, Swift, Big Stone and Lac qui Parle counties.

That first fiber optic trial was not always fun for employees at Federated. Donna Eul was working in the Chokio office at the time. “Every time it would lightning the services in Alberta would go out because of the equipment on the outside of the home,” she explained. “It was not fun but was what started the entire process.”

The initial goal of the fiber project in Alberta was to be able to transmit cable television to small towns and rural areas. It was realized during the testing process that fiber optics was a great way to send packets of information at lightning-fast speeds. Fiber optics is now the superior Internet service option, and the electronics on the buildings are not affected by bad weather like they were in 1997 since glass lines are not conductors of electricity.  In 1999 the Federated Telephone Cooperative board realized they needed to make a big decision. Either replace the copper lines or move forward with a 100 percent fiber optic network. Fiber was the path the board chose, and it’s been a great asset to the communities they serve.

A technician from JCS splicing fiber in the new Swift County area. Contributed photo

“With Alberta, and then the network that expanded from there, Federated Telephone was truly a pioneer in the world of fiber optics” said Kevin Beyer, CEO of Farmers Mutual and Federated Telephone. “That took some bravery and foresight from our board of directors that a lot of boards wouldn’t have had. I’m proud that we’re maintaining that legacy of innovation today.”

“It was a bold move,” Eul added, “but one that proved to build on the future.”

“While the copper lines connected our customers for decades, we’re proud to have closed the door on 20th century technology and excited by the ways our members will use our fiber network to improve their quality of life now and in the future,” Beyer said.

So what is the importance of fiber optics? A fiber network is fundamentally different than the conventional copper networks that were relied on for decades. While the copper lines send electrical signals, fiber optics send bursts of light over tiny strands of glass. The fiber has such an amazing capacity that the information in an entire set of encyclopedias could be sent three times in a single second over just one strand.

Fiber optics offer people in rural areas a superior quality product and service than most people in large communities have access to today. One of the biggest advantages of the fiber optic line is the speed information can be sent over one single strand of fiber. Another advantage is that the fiber optic line that is in the ground is future-proof. They may have to upgrade the electronics on the outside of your home or business over the years, but the fiber in the ground is ready for the future.

Federated Telephone has been the recipient of federal and state programs that help bridge the communication gap in rural areas. Federated received funding from the federal stimulus program in 2010 to move ahead in rural Morris and rural Appleton. They also applied for and received state border to border grants. Over the next several years, fiber optic lines were extended. Two major contractors were used for the work; Jeff Carlson Services was the contractor for the installs, and Ripley’s Inc. out of Erhard did a lot of the digging.

Internet is the most popular part of the fiber optic capabilities. The new lines brought high-speed service over the former dial-up version. Suddenly people in all areas could connect and send items in a faster and more reliable way.

Subscribers can also connect to a basic cable service. This is a service geared to provide an option for low-income households or people not interested in a large selection of sports channels. This service can be paired up in a package with other services.

Naturally the telephone service is one of the first focuses for the company, who has provided this since those first lines were strung. Federated Telephone receives funding from the government based on the number of phone lines they have, so it is something that is always included in the package offerings. If the telephone was left out, the company would have to charge much higher rates for Internet only.

Customer service representative Shelley Evink explained that one of the newest features Federated offers at no additional cost with their phone lines is telemarketing screening. “This service will block out any computerized calls and other telemarketers,” she explained.  Some numbers, such as doctors and pharmacies, can be added to a safe list to keep those reminders coming in.

Federated Telephone and Farmers Mutual Telephone, a cooperative located in Bellingham, share employees, resources and other items to keep costs down and be the most efficient they can be. All employees are hired by Acira but do work for Federated Telephone and Farmers Mutual. Another benefit of these cooperatives working together is a larger calling scope. Federated and Farmers telephone subscribers can call each other without a long-distance charge. These can be made without dialing one, simply by dialing the last seven numbers.

Tammy Marquart and Shelley Evink moving into the new office in Morris. Contributed photo

With the expansion of their services and customer base, Federated also needed to expand their office area. While leaving the office open in Chokio, a new office was remodeled in Morris. The former Valu Ford building was purchased, remodeled and staff moved in on June 27. An open house will be held in the future.

Since Federated Telephone is a cooperative, each June, annual meetings are held for members to learn more about what is happening. Without those members, the advances in the industry could not happen. This last year approximately $485,000 was distributed in dividends to members. Federated is pleased that these distributions not only reward the customer but continue to help stimulate the local economy.

The future of this industry is wide open. There are constantly new ways to use the Internet, and everything from TVs to refrigerators can be connected to it. Farmers can start irrigators from anywhere. Homeowners can check locks and utilities while away from home. Parents can receive alerts when children arrive home from school.

The possibilities are endless as life races forward. That is why communication needs to follow along at the same pace and what Federated Telephone Cooperative and Farmers Mutual are proud to be doing. Offering communication at the speed of life.