For pioneering work to put community vision and benefit at the center of rural broadband deployment efforts and his strategic and supportive contributions to the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board and the Governor’s Broadband Task Force.
- President and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications from 1998-2013
- Inducted into the Winona County Fair “Hall of Fame” for his decades of community service in 2017
- Helped launch Luminet, a nonprofit group established by Hiawatha Education Foundation, to manage a public internet network connecting schools. In 1997, Luminet transformed into HBC so as to bring broadband to the greater Winona community.
- Taught communities that broadband is a tool to achieve the community’s future vision rather than an end in itself. HBC only expanded into communities where leaders understood this paradigm.
Why is it important that rural Minnesotans have broadband access?
Broadband is the utility of 21st century, carrying the same sort of transformative powers to the people as electricity did in the 1900s. I have been privileged to watch many things happen as the result of broadband deployment. For instance, there is not a Hiawatha Broadband Communications community where service was installed that is not larger now than it was when the construction began. In some cases that reversed six decades of population declines. It is a utility – yes, utility – that affects every member of a family, just like electricity. It enables our youth to study and learn, our employee force to have access to global resources instantly and visually, and our stay-at-home residents to work, if they want. Not since electricity has a service so affected an entire population. And, for those who do not have it, it has created a society of haves and have-nots.
What do you see as your biggest broadband victory?
Without intending to sound boastful, trying to pick one out of what seems like a million is a very tough task, but to point at one we need to go back to the beginning – in the late 1990s. Hiawatha Broadband was born because of the generosity of Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin and his friends. No one, at least to my knowledge, prior to HBC had the audacity to take on one of the giant MSOs, in this case Charter. Not only did HBC survive, but it thrived and its customers were the beneficiaries. In the wake of reports that the company would be extinct in a year or two, HBC achieved penetration as high as 80 percent in the markets it served and is stronger today in those markets than any of its competitors: Charter, Mediacom, US Cable, CenturyLink (and its predecessors) and Frontier.
What role did local leadership play in your accomplishments?
I have said this repeatedly: vision always trumps money. I am old enough now to know that if a vision is strong enough, resources to make it reality will always be found. It happened in every one of HBC’s markets. When Winona was built, there was no plan to move beyond our hometown. Then one day a group of St. Charles, Minnesota EDA members walked in, sat down and told us, “We need broadband and we’re here to get it.” The group assured me it was not leaving until it had a promise from me to bring state-of-the-art telecom services to the community midway between Winona and Rochester. Those people had a vision. They wanted to become the No. 1 bedroom community to Rochester and its leading-edge medical economy. The group said it would do anything HBC wanted to make its vision come true. The group offered to fund the network free-of-charge. It was an unbelievable offer, and in the wake of that enthusiasm our board of directors affirmed the build, using our own money. When we started the build, two small housing projects were underway. By the time we finished, there were seven, the population of the community had nearly doubled and the Rochester Post-Bulletin called St. Charles “Boomtown” – the growth story of the decade. That was community leadership in action, and that type of enthusiasm was present in every market that we went to.
What words of encouragement would you give to community leaders working to improve broadband access?
I would encourage them to read the words in the response above: vision always trumps money. I firmly believe that, because I have seen it repeated over and over again when I was the CEO of HBC. And now I am seeing it again in Oregon, where my new firm, ZRF Partners, is taking on the challenge of building state-of-the-art broadband in rural America. Anything is achievable if you: 1) firmly believe in what you are doing; 2) understand that success requires belief and action; 3) you are able to articulate your vision to those who will benefit and sell them on the greatness of the tool they are getting; 4) communicate that message over and over again to anyone who will listen and to those whom seem to have a deaf ear; 5) are committed to community betterment and determined to see the project through to success; 6) under-promise and over deliver; and, 7) make serving your customers in ways they never believed possible the new normal because you love your community and want it to grow and prosper.