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Ravenna Leverages Social Media, Wireless Broadband

By Anne Byers, Nebraska Information Technology Commission

With wireless broadband internet service of 150 Mbps, Ravenna, a community of over 1,300 in central Nebraska, has the internet service and community leadership it needs to grow.

Prairie Hills Wireless is providing high-speed wireless internet access in central Nebraska with a service area including Amherst, Boelus, Cairo, Hazard, Kearney, Litchfield, Loup City, Miller, Pleasanton, Ravenna, Rockville, and Riverdale. Prairie Hills Wireless is owned and operated by Kent and Sara Urwiller. Kent Urwiller, who is a native of Ravenna, has been in the industry 10 years.

Prairie Hills Wireless offers residential broadband of up to 150 Mbps down with up to 500 Mbps available. Plans include 10 Mbps upload, but upload speeds can be increased through traffic shaping if needed.

“We don’t advertise,” explained Urwiller. “We rely on word of mouth. We focus on customer service. Ninety percent of customers in our coverage area can do 150 Mbps.”

Prairie Hills Wireless was recently recognized as Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) of the Year at the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association’s 2017 WISPALOOZA.

“Members vote for who is doing the best job,” said Urwiller.

“We are using MicroPoPs in Ravenna. This is a new concept. We are one of the first to do this. We deployed a bunch of small cells scattered at 18 sites in Ravenna. They are low to the ground covering 10 to 20 customers per site with 1 gig or more to each site. We do a lot of beta testing. We work with Mimosa to test new products before they are out.”

MicroPoPs, a concept developed by wireless equipment manufacturer Mimosa, can be a cost-effective method of high-speed broadband deployment in suburban areas and small towns, especially in areas with 400 or more households per square kilometer and which do not have broadband service being provided over fiber. Mimosa also offers products that can be utilized to provide high-speed wireless internet service in less densely populated rural areas.

The City of Ravenna worked with Urwiller on special use permits and allowed Prairie Hills Wireless to use the municipal water tower.

As far as barriers to expansion, Urwiller explained, “Finding an installer to help with installs is the big thing for us.”

When asked about advice on attracting a competitive provider, Urwiller suggested contacting nearby wireless providers and offering tower space in return for free internet service.

“It isn’t hard to start a WISP, but you’ve got to know what you are doing,” said Urwiller. “The best people to have are your neighbors. They will take care of you better.”

Community leaders in Ravenna also understand the importance of broadband and the need to effectively use new technologies.

“Broadband support is a huge selling point,” said Dana Dennison, the executive director of the Ravenna Economic Development Corporation. “If we don’t have broadband then they won’t come to Ravenna, and we won’t have economic development. Communities without broadband die.”

The local economic development community is using social media marketing to attract visitors and to engage members of the community. Through social media marketing, Ravenna was able to draw an estimated 20,000-30,000 people to Ravenna for the solar eclipse. Special Facebook and Twitter accounts were created just for the eclipse. The chamber, economic development corporation, and other area organizations worked together to amplify the campaign’s reach.

“We put a lot of focus on Facebook for eclipse,” said Gena McPherson, executive director, Ravenna Area Chamber of Commerce. “We were able to get an insane reach. There is so much potential in being able to reach people through social media.”

Members of the community are participating in a community engagement grant designed to help them better engage with members of the community.

“We communicate to the whole community through our Facebook pages,” said Dennison. “That is how we get our news out. We felt like it was important for us to get involved. We wanted to make ourselves more meaningful in our posts.”

The community engagement grant is a collaborative project with the Purdue Center for Regional Development, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Nebraska Extension as well as three Nebraska communities: Ravenna, Nebraska City and Ashland. As part of the grant, University of Nebraska at Omaha students are working with community leaders to create social media strategies focused on increasing civic engagement priorities.

“This project is about rural civic engagement,” said Jeremy Lipschultz, director of the Social Media Lab at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It is about using social media as a tool inside these communities to make new opportunities happen.”

Karrie Huryta, the director of the Ravenna Public Library, has also been involved in the community’s technology and economic development efforts.

“Libraries are about innovation, not just about books,” said Huryta. “We are changing up our services. We have after school programming like Lego clubs. We are looking at utilizing more things with coding and programming.”

The community broke ground on a new library last April and will be moving into the new library building in the coming months. The library will host a traveling makerspace in the new library as part of the Library Innovation Studios: Transforming Rural Communities project. Funded by grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the project helps local libraries host Library Innovation Studios by providing access to technology and innovative learning tools not readily accessible locally. The project is a partnership of the Nebraska Library Commission, the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL), Nebraska Innovation Studio, Nebraska Extension, Regional Library Systems, and local public libraries.

The mobile makerspace will help the community learn about and evaluate different pieces of equipment as the community makes plans to develop a permanent makerspace in the back of the economic development and chamber office.

“It is our dream to have a makerspace in Ravenna,” said Dennison.

Huryta cited community leadership and support as one key to Ravenna’s success.

“We are just really lucky,” said Huryta. “I’ve gone to library conferences and talked to library directors who don’t get support from the school or the community. We have a city council, mayor, and clerk who are supportive. We have a lot of good people. Our hearts are here.”

From the March 2018 issue (PDF) of Nebraska Broadband