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USDA, Pine Telephone bring broadband Internet to areas of southeast Oklahoma, Choctaw Nation for first time

Kathleen James
Broken Bow
Release Date
Apr 22, 2015

Pine Telephone Company, in collaboration with USDA Rural Development, will soon complete four multi-million dollar projects to deliver affordable mobile and fiber optic broadband service to citizens in southeast Oklahoma. The service area for the projects covers 9 counties in southeast Oklahoma, all of which fall within the boundaries of the tribal lands of the Choctaw Nation. For many residents, this is the first time broadband service has been made available to them.
The projects represent an expansive $56 million dollar public-private partnership. The advancements have been funded by $27.91 million in grants and $21.79 million in loans from the USDA, and $7 million of in-kind funding through Pine.
The 9 counties served by the projects include: Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Leflore, McCurtain, Pittsburgh, and Pushmataha, . The same characteristics that make this region attractive to residents and vacationers – the beautiful, mountainous countryside with clear running streams and lakes – has meant it has been historically under-served technologically because of its rugged terrain. The investments undertaken by Pine and its partners have helped bridge this technological divide and geographic isolation. 
"This project is an example of the great success of the Recovery Act in helping Oklahoma through our economic crisis while laying the foundation for a more prosperous future," said Lisa Mensah, USDA's Under Secretary for Rural Development.  "We must continue our work to create conditions for rural America to thrive.  Bringing rural communities online will be a powerful jolt of vitality to America’s growing economy."
“With reliable, high-speed Internet access, these communities have seen economic growth and enhanced education, health care and public safety,” said Ryan McMullen, state director for USDA Rural Development, the agency administering the USDA grants. “With new or increased broadband access, communities can compete on a level playing field to attract new businesses, schools can create distance learning opportunities, medical professionals can provide cost-effective remote diagnoses and care, and businesses can expand their market.”
The USDA funding represents four “stimulus” grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Grant in 2009 and 2010. One grant was to deploy fiber to homes in the area already covered by landlines and the other three were for advanced wireless 3G Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). Together with a grant from National Telecommunications and Information Administration through the Department of Commerce, the wireless projects make broadband service available to areas that previously had no access to any form of Internet service.
Installation of the mobile broadband projects began in 2010 and includes installation of 103 cell tower sites. Throughout the projects, Pine implemented a construction plan that allowed each tower to work immediately after being constructed, so customers did not have wait for the project to be completed before being able to utilize the new technology. Moreover, the system was designed to be scalable to easily and cost-effectively accommodate technology upgrades so that it will remain viable and sustainable for the foreseeable future. Two of the three wireless projects have been completed, currently serving 2,649 broadband customers. The third project is slated to be operational within a month.
“The towers for the third wireless project are erected, and the equipment is turned on, working and being tested with customers,” said Jerry Whisenhunt, Pine Telephone general manager. “We expect to quickly pass the 3,000-customer mark when this final geographical area is opened up commercially.”
The purpose of the fourth USDA award was to build fiber optic lines to the homes and businesses previously in the Pine Telephone serving area. To date, Pine has installed 5,084 fiber drops, 399 miles of main line fiber, and has activated service to 2,327 business and residents. Upon completion, which is anticipated in May, Pine fiber broadband will be available to 5,500 potential customers.
“The fiber-to-the-home project is a huge undertaking, bringing a Gbps network – similar to Google fiber - to rural Oklahoma, which is something most major metropolitan areas still do not have,” Whisenhunt said.
When combined, the mobile and fiber broadband projects have already begun to stimulate sustainable economic growth, McMullen said. Since all four Pine broadband endeavors began, the region already has reaped benefits in employment opportunities through construction and operation jobs, increased business activity and enhanced education. Tourism in particular has had visible growth.
 “Businesses around Broken Bow and Hochatown are using their new broadband service to greatly improve their marketing online,” he continued. “Five years ago, there was 1 canoe rental location on Broken Bow Lake. Now there are 12, and all are thriving. There are more than 150 cabins available for rent, as well as over 100 vacation homes, with the number rising weekly.”
Additionally, offering quality Internet access to key community institutions, like schools, fire and police, will mean better educational opportunities and enhanced health care and public safety for residents of this region. All schools in the Pine service area are connected with fiber broadband, and students and parents who previously did not have access to Internet at home now do, Whisenhunt said.
“We are proud to provide these and other services to our customers. The system is built looking to the future, as we know growth will continue to come to southeast Oklahoma,” Whisenhunt said. “The challenge is huge, but USDA and Pine have stepped up to the plate, as we believe in the people of southeast Oklahoma.”
These broadband investments fall into one of the more than 40 housing, business, and community infrastructure programs administered by USDA Rural Development. These programs seek to improve the economic security of rural communities, businesses, and residents, while improving the quality of life in rural America.
For more information about these USDA Rural Development projects, call 405-742-1000 or visit the USDA Rural Development field office in your area. For more information about Pine Telephone services, call 580-584-5400.