The photo above is nice, right? To most people, it looks like a nice sign, on a nice dirt road, on a nine sunny summer day.
To me, it symbolizes much more than that.
Here’s what I see…
A nice sign… promoting our fiber optic internet services. This sign wouldn’t exist if the previous leaders at CTC didn’t possess some incredible foresight. They invested in a network that was actually projected to lose money. However, they had faith that it would be a solid investment in the future. And boy, were they right!
A nice dirt road… means that we serve rural areas. Pockets of underserved and unserved areas exist all across the state, but rural areas have been left in the dust, as compared with their urban counterparts. Nearly 20% of rural Minnesotans still don’t have access to internet – a service that is more critical now than ever.
A nice sunny day… reminds me to be grateful for those beautiful days. Even though we weathered quite a storm in 2020, there were many good and wonderful things that happened within those 12 months. Here are just a few of the highlights:
Chad Larson, our Sales Engineer was presented with a Special Achievement award from NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association for his work at CTC and countless hours spent raising money for the Ronald McDonald House.
CTC was recognized by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) through their inaugural Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition (DOER) Program. This program was created to “acknowledge the tireless efforts of Americans working to close the digital divide in communities without access to affordable, reliable broadband.” We were thrilled to be one of the 11 corporate honorees for this nationwide award!
Through Minnesota DEED’s Border to Border Broadband program, we were awarded over $350,000 to expand our network in Ross Lake Township. This will allow us to reach over 180 homes, cabins, and businesses that are currently unserved.
Our partnerships with Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, Inc. and MLEC – Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative continue to be strong. We truly value them as partners and look forward to years of collaboration.
Our staff remained nimble and responsive to our members, while often working in makeshift offices at home or on the road. I’m proud to report that no matter where our team members work they have continued to exceed expectations over the past 16 months!
Regardless of all the wins and losses, the challenges and opportunities, the sunny days, and the stormy nights… 2020 provided us with many reminders of why we ‘do what we do’ and certainly helped us to rediscover our mission. We hope you enjoy this annual report and the other things we “rediscovered” along the way.
We look forward to serving you, our members, for years to come.
Chief Executive Officer / General Manager
As you know, 2020 was a year like no other. Yet, our staff and board stayed true to CTC’s purpose: connecting our community.
The global pandemic presented us with numerous opportunities and challenges… our employees moved from traditional office settings to home-based offices in a manner of hours while they worked to connect hundreds of local students and families to our internet services.
We shined a light on our community’s essential workers by providing treats and support to local law enforcement, healthcare employees, school district staff, and childcare providers while continuing to support area charitable organizations.
Throughout 2020, the CTC team was awarded critical state and federal grants in order to provide broadband services to unserved and underserved areas.
Due to these activities and continued growth, we hit a notable milestone recently… our Cooperative now proudly serves over 15,000 members!
Much of this success is due to you, our loyal members.
CTC Board of Directors Chairperson
It was with great sadness that we said goodbye to Michael “Mike” E. Whistler in July 2020. Mike served in various roles at CTC for six years. He thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of his job and finding ways to improve business.
Mike was a music aficionado, electronics enthusiast, and had a curiosity for astronomy that was out of this world. He taught his family to laugh, care for one another, and stop and listen to the music. Mike was caring, kind-hearted, and a brilliant smart aleck. Above all else, he loved his family and friends beyond words and will be dearly missed by all who knew him.
We will cherish the memories we made with him and the influence he had, not only within our organization but within our hearts.
When Mike suddenly passed away last July we felt compelled to turn that grief into something that would honor his legacy. So when the opportunity arose to sponsor the building of a house in his honor, we didn’t hesitate.
We are partnering with Lakes Area Habitat for Humanity to build a home on Pine Street in Brainerd (and yes, there are even CTC services in that neighborhood!).
The Mike Whistler Memorial Build will be a true community project. CTC staff and their families will have the opportunity to volunteer on the build itself while Mike’s family will be helping with painting and finish work. Construction has just begun on the building site and will continue throughout the summer. And by the end of 2021, a single mother and her two young boys will get to call it home.
Mike… we miss you dearly and intend to honor your legacy through this project and for years to come.
It’s no surprise that internet usage has increased every year since its inception. However, the 365 days that comprised 2020 were unlike anything our industry has ever experienced. Not only did the global pandemic shine a bright light on the disparities in internet availability, but it also emphasized the critical role that having this connectivity plays in our everyday lives. From telehealth services to education to working remotely… having reliable internet service was never more vital than it was last year.
CTC followed national patterns in terms of internet usage. We experienced a 33.1% increase in activity, as compared to 2019. Our peak usage occurred in December.
Digging a little deeper you’ll see that Netflix and Google still dominated when it comes to bandwidth usage. Last year, an average of 36% of our monthly internet traffic was derived from this demand.
In 2020, CTC’s service area expanded to include additional areas in Morrison County and in the northeastern part of the state such as Cherry Township and the City of Ely. Funding and need usually dictates which areas we build and/or expand in. For instance, the Cherry Township construction project is being partially funded by a $5.2 million grant from the USDA’s ReConnect program and the Fort Ripley project is being supported by an $831,000 grant from Minnesota DEED’s Border to Border Broadband program.
If you have family or friends in an area where there are no CTC services, please encourage them to visit our “Crowd Fiber” site at join.connectctc.com. The more visitors we get from a certain area, the more likely we are to build there!
Now more than ever, residents and businesses rely on fast, reliable internet. Fiber optics – the best technology available – give our members the capacity and speed they need today and well into the future. Area realtors have been telling us that home buyers’ second question about a potential property (after the listing price) is if it has high-speed internet. As that demand continues to grow, CTC’s investment and commitment to deliver fiber to our members will continue to grow as well.
Jobs were staked by CTC last year. What does this mean? This is the total number of homes, cabins, and businesses that received CTC fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections last year. They were different types (drops, mainline extensions, splicing projects, etc.) and some are still temporary drops but due to CARES funding and other special projects, this is the most jobs CTC has staked in one single year!
Square miles in CTC’s service area.
Total route miles of CTC fiber that traverses our service area.
The estimated amount of data created on the internet
in one minute last year.
After nearly 23 years of dedicated service to CTC, Kathy Bentler retired.
Kathy started in 1997 and worked in various roles throughout the Cooperative. For the last several years of her tenure, she was a member of the accounting team. Her positive attitude, organizational skills, and knowledge of the long list of CTC’s accounts will be greatly missed!
We celebrated her retirement with a rib dinner on Friday, February 7, 2020. Below are photos from her retirement party. On the left, Kathy is with Greg Springer, CTC’s Director of Finance. On the right, she is pictured with her husband, Mike, who also worked at CTC for a few years.
Thank you, Mike and Kathy!
In a “normal” year, CTC participates in more than 40 events in and around our service area. However, the pandemic – and the restrictions that followed – changed the way many of the host organizations were able to operate.
Many were hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis and were unable to host events that normally help them raise funds and awareness for their causes. CTC remained flexible, supporting the community, and responded to opportunities as best we could.
Whether donations went to sponsoring virtual events or supporting a specific request, CTC’s financial contributions totaled over $50,000 in 2020. Here are a few examples…
CTC was a major contributor to the Pillager School District for the construction of their new auditorium, which will include a state-of-the-art performing arts center. “Joining forces will add excitement to the vision that the District has for the new “CTC Center”,” said Mike Malmberg, Superintendent of ISD #116.
CTC’s board donated $15,000 to the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation to support families and community members struggling to put food on their tables. This represented the money that would have been spent on the door prizes and meals served at CTC’s typical in-person annual meeting.
In late July, the Brainerd YMCA experienced significant structural and cosmetic damage to its facilities from heavy rainfall and storms. Unfortunately, their insurance company wasn’t able to cover the cost to repair the damages – estimated at over $148,000.
The pandemic also forced the Y to scale back their services, putting further strain on their finances. CTC partnered with Digital Horizons to start a grassroots fundraising campaign. Donations supported the repair costs, allowing the staff and board to focus on continuing to serve the community with valuable programming and activities.
The American Red Cross faced a blood shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic. CTC found an opportunity to support the cause by hosting a blood drive in October at the Brainerd VFW.
CTC’s financial support allowed the organization to spread their message of hope by providing 700 high-quality masks to some of our most deserving community members: local law enforcement, retail employees, health care workers, and educators.
2020 proved that the need for reliable internet is critical… not for some… not for only those in the metro areas… not for the wealthy… but for everyone. Including rural Minnesotans. In a matter of a few days, our business operation changed from being an important service to being an essential lifeline for education, health care, and public safety.
In partnership with the Brainerd School District (ISD 181), we coordinated an immediate campaign to get as many students connected in the shortest amount of time possible. The school district provided us with data for all students that did not have access to a reliable connection. Within two days we plotted hundreds of students into CTC’s GIS mapping system. Doing so revealed the families that we could immediately connect (400 feet or less from our fiber network) and those that reside outside our service area. We then partnered with the District to contact all families and get them connected, no matter their credit rating, history with CTC, or ability to pay. Within one week, we connected over 100 students. By April 30th, we connected over 300 more homes.
While we worked to get these families connected, nearly 50 free Wi-Fi hotspots were being simultaneously deployed. By working with the government, small businesses, and regional partners to install Wi-Fi hotspots at their location, hundreds of unserved students gained access to reliable high-speed internet in a safe location. Students and families could be found in their cars at town halls, school parking lots, community parks, our offices, and even the American Legion.
Similar to other providers, CTC experienced the largest spike in internet demand in our 60+ year history. Our existing residential customers were given free speed upgrades – to a minimum of 250 mbps symmetrical speed. Giving free speed upgrades was well received by our membership as more and more households found themselves using the internet for remote work, distance learning, and telehealth services as well as streaming news and entertainment and connecting with friends and family.
To ensure our operations and member support remained stable, employee safety was critical. Within two weeks, CTC developed a product called “Broadband in a Box”, which allowed our technicians to install internet without entering a residence. We dedicated a page of our website to the self-installation process (www. goctc.com/selfinstall) where a step-by-step video and PDF were created to walk members through this process. Broadband in a Box will remain in our product mix for years to come and is currently being trademarked by CTC.
Because of our response to COVID-19, the MN Governors Broadband Task Force invited CTC to be a presenter at their virtual meeting on April 27. During this meeting we spoke about our work, our response to the pandemic, our dedication to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, and our support within the communities we serve.
Here are a few data points from our COVID-19 response:
Our donation to The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes initiated a match challenge so a total of $30,000 was raised and over 100,000 meals were provided to local families in need. This donation also allowed the nonprofit to purchase an entire semi-load of food supplies to package meals for area families.
To sum up our COVID-19 response, we’ll leave you with this commonly-uttered phrase:
Necessity is the mother of invention!
It’s a fast-paced and ever-changing industry.
Due to the pandemic, staff had to make significant changes to how we worked in a very short period of time. It disrupted our work environment and personal lives, and yet we strived to deliver the best customer service, unrivaled expertise, and true commitment to our members day in and day out.
What we all thought would be a two-week interruption turned into permanently different processes and workflows. Through it all, our entire team displayed a high level of flexibility and determination.
A company’s culture is not a tangible “thing”. However, this page is an attempt to give you a glimpse into CTC’s culture throughout an unforgettable year…
There was a concerted effort to take care of our team members, both physically and mentally, through special health and wellness initiatives.
The Foundation for Rural Service kept staff moving during a virtual 5K. Chef Matt Annand “zoomed” us through the steps to prepare our very own gourmet dinner. Weekly staff check-in meetings and “Question of the Day” kept everyone engaged.
While practicing social distancing, we were able to gather for a special drive-in movie at The Woods. (Mrs. Doubtfire was the flick of choice.)
Staff had the opportunity to volunteer at The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes, packing meals that would be distributed to local food shelves and other locations throughout the nation.
Luckily, we were able to hold our annual golf outing. The team of Brian, Kelly B., Jason, and Zach walked away with bragging rights for the year.
CTC’s staff holiday party is usually one of the highlights of the year. However, early on in 2020, we decided to hold it virtually. While it looked nothing like previous parties, it was nothing short of awesome.
At the beginning of 2021, staff were asked to sum up 2020 in one word. The words shown here are their answers.
As you can see they vary just as much as the feelings we probably all had throughout the year. From hopeful to downtrodden, from fun to ambivalent, and everything in between. Each word is just as unique as the individuals that work at CTC.