Making connections in rural Minnesota
June 18, 2012
This spring Darin Steffl '13 climbed to the top of a 185-foot tall grain elevator in his hometown of Kasson, Minnesota, and installed four antennas.
It was the first step in a business venture that will give residents of Kasson, a rural community of about 6,000 people located 15 miles west of Rochester, a choice when it comes to their Internet service provider. Previously the only option residents had was a one megabit per second Internet plan from the local phone company that cost $80 per month. The antennas Steffl installed will enable them to buy Internet up to 20 times faster with pricing that ranges from $42 to $68 per month.
And Kasson is just the beginning. With the support of a $3,000 entrepreneurship grant he received from the St. Olaf Center for Experiential Learning, Steffl launched a company called Minnesota WiFi. This summer he'll work to offer affordable, high-speed Internet to all of the rural residents of Dodge County, Minnesota, and he hopes to have 120 to 130 customers by September.
"I've talked to people in the country, and there is a lot of demand for high-speed Internet that allows them to do more than just browse websites," Steffl says. "Websites are becoming more complex and advanced now. They all have video and flash content. The one or two Mbps people can get in the country was fine five years ago, but today they can't use the Internet the way it's meant to be used with a connection that slow."
After receiving an entrepreneurial grant from St. Olaf, Steffl met with Associate Director of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Kris Estenson and her colleague, Megan Tsui '96, an entrepreneur in residence at the college. They pointed him toward helpful resources and helped him write his business plan.
Minnesota WiFi uses technology similar to that of a cell-phone provider, but its business is markedly different. Instead of building towers, Steffl is keeping costs to a minimum by using existing tall structures such as silos and grain elevators. In exchange for allowing him to use a silo, he provides the owner with free Internet.
When Steffl graduates next year, he plans to rapidly expand Minnesota WiFi by hiring installers and adding six tower locations in around three weeks. They will allow him to cover almost all of Dodge County.
Considering that Steffl clearly has found a niche in the local Internet market, is he concerned that a big company might try to squeeze him out? Not at all. He says the return on investment for cable and phone companies to expand Internet service to rural areas would be 15 to 20 years. In contrast, Minnesota WiFi's return on investment is three to five months.
Steffl says he is in the wireless Internet business for the long run. He plans to cover all of southeastern Minnesota eventually.
"I want to stay hands-on with this business until I get 10,000 customers," he says.