Janell Hauck, marketing manager for Microsoft telco partner Dickey Rural Networks (DRN) discusses how DRN has been working to provide, promote and increase broadband usage in Rural America.

Dickey Rural Networks is a telecommunications company serving south central North Dakota. Our service territory is very rural, having only 5 people per square mile. The largest city within our area is Lisbon with a population of 2,182. The area is primarily agricultural with a few large manufacturing plants. The average age of our subscriber is 55 years old.

 As the local telecommunications provider, we supply high speed Internet with downloadable speeds up to 40 MB, television with high definition programming, local wire line telephone service, and security systems.

The biggest challenge we have as a local telecommunications company is educating our customers about the benefits of having high speed Internet service and how it can enrich those living in rural America. We are currently deploying Fiber to the Home (FTTH) technology to our service territory and serve over 73% of our subscribers using this state of the art technology. Within the next few years, our entire service territory will be utilizing FTTH technology.

We recently joined a group of rural telecommunications companies to provide, promote and increase broadband usage in Rural America. Started by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) and Communications Supply Service Association (CSSA), the objective of the Rural PC project is to provide access to an affordable PC to rural Americans and to spur the penetration rate of broadband connectivity. Despite the fact that rural telecommunications offer high speed internet service and that there really is no digital divide, research has shown rural America lags behind in broadband take-up rates. Several factors have been cited as barriers to broadband adoption. Among them is cost, lack of computer and fear of the online world.

The Rural PC Project is currently utilizing Compaq notebooks and HP mini netbooks to offer to consumers. Because of our demographics, DRN decided to offer our customers an affordable notebook equipped with Windows. The notebook was larger and easier to use for first time computer users plus it would equip the user with more options. Whether it be Windows XP or Vista, we felt it was important to offer our customer this product because it is the product our customers are accustomed to and would expect in a PC.

We offered our customer a bundled telecommunications package-high speed Internet, local service plus custom calling features for a low monthly fee. Plus they were able to purchase this Compaq computer for a low upfront cost if they signed a 2 year contract.

DRN Technical Support team readied the computer for delivery by setting up the email account and installed Windows updates. To compliment this offer, we provided free delivery and set-up of the computer. When DRN technicians were at the customer premises, they explained the computer and made sure the customer was ready and able to use the notebook.

Another option given to our subscribers is free computer classes. We have a mobile computer lab and offer classes in Windows, Microsoft Office, emailing, digital camera usage, e-bay and more. Over the past 3 years, we have taught 55 classes. The average student age is 65 years old. We have had people as young as 35 and as old as 85.

Our customers loved the program. Here are a few quotes from the survey we conducted after the initial roll-out of the project.

"I love my new computer and high speed Internet. I would not have been able to purchase a laptop without this promotion. Thank you."

"I really appreciate the fact that DRN offered this at the price that I could afford as someone on fixed income it is hard to find good bargains. I would not have had it otherwise."

In the telecommunications business, we often talk about a triple play. I believe we have a new triple play-affordable notebooks, high speed Internet and free computer classes. By offering our customers this combination, we are removing their fear factors-where do I go to purchase a computer? What do I look for in a computer? How do I set it up? What can I do with this notebook once I have purchased it?

Our customer who purchased these Compaq notebooks now has the world at their fingertips. They can browse the Internet-research vacations, purchase hard to buy items off the Internet, conduct business, watch the stock market; consult with physicians with telemedicine, take online college courses and receive a degree, work online and telecommute with the big city. Plus keep in touch with family and friends through email, webcams and social networks.

Janell Hauck, marketing manager for Dickey Rural Networks