Alpine, NEIT help students in need access internet

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

When the MFL MarMac School District closed last month as part of state-mandated efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, staff quickly started formulating plans to offer students voluntary educational opportunities. But one of the biggest challenges: How do you assure all kids can take advantage of the largely online resources when some don’t have internet access at home?

That’s where Alpine Communications and Northeast Iowa Telephone Company (NEIT) stepped in. Almost immediately, the two local telecommunications providers began working with the school to connect students in need in their respective coverage areas with reliable, short-term internet access.

The offer to help was a no-brainer, said Sara Hertrampf, sales and marketing manager at Alpine.

“Our root belief is that connected communities become thriving communities,” she shared. “And we know, right now, that connections aren’t just a nice thing to have. They’re essential—especially for distance learning.”

Steve Hanson, director of business development at NEIT, agreed.

“While it can be difficult to assemble solutions on short notice to fit a specific need in times like these, we certainly wanted to help families in need of a solution to continue their children’s education at home,” he said. “We understand the role we play in the school district and are proud to partner with them.”

The school district took the first steps by identifying families in need.

“MFL MarMac had a really good handle on the students who had internet service, and they’ve been very proactive at reaching out and asking if they need assistance,” said Alpine Customer Service Manager Lori Keppler. “Then the school is letting us know who we can reach out to, because we don’t want to overstep our boundaries. We just want our customers to know we have some solutions available for them.”

MFL MarMac also equipped students with electronic devices. While high school students already had district-provided laptops at the time school closed, parents were encouraged to pick up laptops or iPads for younger kids who were previously unable to take those items home. As of April 13, over 60 families had taken advantage of the opportunity at the elementary level, and 200 middle schoolers were benefitting from having iPads.

Alpine and NEIT then worked with individual families to safely and efficiently install internet.

“There are obvious logistical issues with implementing a short-term assistance program, especially considering that we have made our own internal operational changes to protect our staff from COVID-19, so we really must evaluate every request individually,” Hanson explained. “There are eligibility requirements, so a phone call to our office to speak with our customer service manager is the first step. Then we will take it from there and explain the process.  Obviously, there may be delays if there is any extra concern for the safety and health of our employees.”

“Our customer service and technical staff are still available to help customers, but on-site visits are being limited to only those that are absolutely necessary,” he added. “Customers will also need to answer a few questions before we visit so we have some confidence that it is safe to do so.”

When customers call Alpine, representatives will also ask a series of questions to assure there are no health concerns. They determine if it’s safe to go inside a home, not just for Alpine employees but customers too.

Hertrampf said technicians are prepared before each install, often with records and in-depth knowledge of the house’s internet history. 

“We know if we’re going to have to cut it over to fiber,” she said, “and we know how to do any work-arounds. Our technicians have been very creative.”

That includes utilizing the popular online meeting app Zoom, noted Keppler.

“If it’s something where the customer isn’t comfortable with us going into the home, then we’ll try to work with them as much as we can. We can be the eyes inside with Zoom,” she quipped.

Alpine has also created a website particularly for COVID communications and established a special COVID-19 hotline at (563) 245-4406 to further assist customers.

Both telecommunications providers now have extensive fiber optic networks in towns and some rural areas—upgrades the companies say make it easier when tackling projects like this.

“The fiber optic network in general is robust, so it can handle more speed to each individual home, and it makes it pretty easy for us to deploy it and give the families the good amount of speed they need,” Hertrampf said.

Even in rural areas that don’t yet have fiber, there’s sufficient internet speed.

“We don’t really have any pockets in our service area we can’t serve, at least with a connection that enables this distance learning they need,” Hertrampf added.

Hanson stressed that NEIT’s fiber optic infrastructure is integral in ensuring homes and businesses receive the broadband speeds to which they subscribe, but NEIT can really only control that service quality to the interface between their network and the network inside the home. 

Other variables, namely the wireless (Wi-Fi) network and the number of connected devices, affect internet connection inside the home itself.

Hertrampf said Alpine has tried to help customers by providing quality routers.

“We know a lot of people equate internet with Wi-Fi; they don’t really know the difference. So that was an important component we planned out too, to make sure we had a really good Wi-Fi solution to go along with the internet solution,” she explained. “We were able to equip the students with Wi-Fi networking that they need, that will work with their equipment. If they have an iPad or other type of device, they have to have Wi-Fi. They can’t just plug into an internet connection.”

But while reliable infrastructure and equipment have been key through this process, both NEIT and Alpine acknowledged being smaller, local communications service providers has been the most important aspect. 

“We are able to be nimble in a circumstance like this,” Hanson stated, “and also coordinate with other similarly situated companies.”

“We can easily work together and quickly put a plan like this in place that works for our area and works for our customers,” Hertrampf agreed.

All customers realizing importance of internet

In these COVID-19 days of Zoom meetings, online homework and additional Netflix streaming, Alpine Communications and Northeast Iowa Telephone Company (NEIT) said customers are realizing, more than ever, the importance of connectivity.

“This is certainly highlighting the importance of the internet today, and high quality internet service especially,” said Steve Hanson, director of business development at NEIT. “NEIT works very hard to provide the high quality service customers demand every day, not just during the pandemic.”

Has this heightened need translated into more business for local telecommunications providers?

While NEIT hasn’t seen a large uptick in new customer contacts, Hanson said the company is certainly seeing a spike in traffic on its networks. 

Lori Keppler, customer service manager at Alpine Communications, agreed.

“People obviously are using it more, with the at home stuff, both for work and school, so we have had quite a few customers,” she said. “The calls are coming in, and people are really identifying how important the internet is today, maybe even more so than in the past.”

For Alpine, customers have been particularly interested in the unlimited data offered by the company’s fiber optic network.

“The upgrades are big because we are seeing people saying their kids are coming home from school, whether it be PK-12 or college, and they need to amp up their internet connection. Or they’re now working from home and they need that connection,” said Sara Hertrampf, sales and marketing manager at Alpine. “If they are using it for videos, Zoom and Google Hangout, those require large amounts of data, so having fiber gets you the dedicated speeds and unlimited data.”

People are also discovering their wireless networks (Wi-Fi) and corresponding equipment might not be up to the task of handling more devices and more use.

“They’re finding out the more devices they put on it, and the more they’re putting their network to work, that their router isn’t quite keeping up,” Hertrampf said. “So if someone’s needs are changing or they’re finding their old equipment isn’t keeping up, we can work with them to get a new router too.”

Hanson said sometimes issues are outside NEIT’s control.

“NEIT always leaves overhead on its own network to make sure it doesn’t affect service quality, but we do not control the network beyond ours,” he explained. “With the sudden increase in traffic globally, we’ve seen service quality issues related to content providers such as Netflix, who are independent of what we can do here. That’s just something to be mindful of.”

However, if something isn’t working as it should, he encourages customers to contact tech support to troubleshoot and report the problem. 

“We cannot resolve issues we don’t know about,” he said.

Hertrampf agreed, and touted Alpine’s Wi-Fi Connect service, which troubleshoots issues remotely, as a good resource.

It’s been interesting, she said, to find new ways to solve problems and connect people during the pandemic.

“It’s a hard time,” she shared, “but we were built for this, our network was built for this and our company was built for this. We’re glad we can step up and serve the community in a way they need it right now.”

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