2021 winners selected in collaboration with four rural electric cooperative clients to showcase impact of high-speed internet in rural America
Conexon is proud to announce the winners of our 2021 Conexon Internet Grant program! Our pilot award program was organized in collaboration with four rural electric cooperative clients in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The program is one of our ways of giving back to the local communities we serve, in this case by awarding a year of free Gigabit-speed broadband service to four individuals who shared their stories of how their lives and businesses have been changed by the availability of high-speed internet.
Conexon partnered with electric cooperative fiber broadband subsidiary providers Pemiscot-Dunklin Fiber (Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric) and GoSemo (SEMO Electric) in Missouri, ecoLINK (East Central Oklahoma Electric) in Oklahoma, and WAVE Rural Connect (Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative) in Arkansas to pilot the 2021 grant program, with the goal of expanding the program in the future. Members from each electric cooperative had the opportunity to apply by submitting a short essay about how broadband internet access has made a difference in their life or their community. We were overwhelmed by the number of compelling and heartfelt stories you shared!
Selecting just one winner from each co-op was tough, but we are pleased to congratulate our national winners:
Rick & Renee Aufdenberg - GoSemo
Renee Aufdenberg and her husband have both lived in the SEMO Electric Cooperative service area for their entire adolescent and adult lives, so they’ve seen many different internet services try – and fail – to provide the area with stable, reliable service. Dial-ups, satellites, line-of-sight towers, and mobile hotspots didn't make the cut for the Aufdenberg family to effectively run its dog breeding business, attend virtual cattle auctions, or connect with family members safely throughout the pandemic. Aufdenberg and her husband would drive through their fields just to find a signal strong enough to bid at virtual cattle auctions. If a storm came through, service would drop completely and if damage had been done, it would take at least a full week to regain internet service.
Between their two businesses and having grandchildren in and out of the house, GoSEMO Fiber internet was a must for their family. Since receiving service in May 2019, Aufdenberg often reflects that she doesn't know how she'd go back to life before high-speed broadband. During the pandemic, her high school grandson was able to come over and do his homework, and Aufdenberg who regularly watches her preschool-age grandchildren, has taken advantage of endless options for educational resources to teach and entertain.
“If it hadn't been for GoSEMO Fiber, none of this would have worked,” Aufdenberg said. “Our old service only worked if all conditions were right, which didn't happen often.”
A reliable internet connection has also allowed Aufdenberg and her husband expand their dog breeding business and maintain their family farm. Aufdenberg has a consistent waiting list of people wanting to adopt her dogs, and fiber internet has allowed her to buy dogs from overseas, collaborate with a Serbian dog trainer, and video chat with customers so they can choose their puppies. Fiber internet is also powering security cameras on their property, which allows her to watch their barn lot and dog pens without leaving the comfort of her home.
“It’s been a game changer all around for our family,” Aufdenberg said. “Now, someone in the household is always using the internet and able to do what they need immediately rather than waiting 15 minutes for just one webpage to load.”
Melton R. Smith - WAVE Rural Connect
Since the early ’80s, Ray Smith’s family, along with many others in the Spiro, Oklahoma area, have struggled with a lack of reliable internet service. Throughout the years, residents have had many different temporary solutions presented but nothing permanent. The dial-up and satellite solutions available to them weren’t up to the ever-changing demands of the digital world.
Until WAVE Rural Connect fiber-to-the-home service become available in Smith’s community.
Prior to receiving fiber internet access, driving two hours to see a doctor was not an uncommon occurrence for Smith, a military veteran who suffers chronic muscle pain. Pandemic restrictions further complicated healthcare processes, when in-person visits were only permitted for emergencies. Without reliable internet, Smith found it difficult to communicate with his doctor and receive the medical care he needed.
The arrival of WAVE Rural Connect’s fiber internet service in February 2021 changed the story for Smith and his wife. With high-speed fiber internet to power video visits with his doctor, he was finally able to show his doctor exactly which muscles hurt. The improvements in his health as the result of effective telemedicine have been life-changing.
“I just did my complete annual physical using videoconferencing and the doctor was able to diagnosis skin cancer on my nose that I didn't even know was there. I thank God for WAVE high-speed internet,” Smith said.
The life-changing benefits of fiber internet don’t stop with telemedicine, however. WAVE Rural Connect has allowed Smith and his wife to reconnect with family members near and far. Before, staying in touch with family in Alaska and Washington was a struggle with dropped calls and poor call reception. Now, video chatting has become a way of life. Even Smith’s grandchildren benefit – they now love to visit their grandparents’ house after school to play online games and watch movies without interruptions or lag time.
To Smith, there was never a question about whether fiber internet would be worth it for him and his family. It has transformed daily life in their rural community, allowing the Smith family to stay connected to everyone and everything that matters, even during a global pandemic when the world effectively shut down.
In the Arkansas Valley, WAVE Rural Connect is bridging the Digital Divide, one family at a time.
Jason W. Bishop - Pemiscot-Dunklin Fiber
On the verge of closing his photography business, Jason Bishop was looking for a miracle to allow him to continue doing what he loves. With his previous internet service provider, uploading his client’s photos for editing and putting on his website would take the entire night to load, only to have errors in the middle of the night that forced him to restart the process the next day. Bishop was at the point where he believed he would have to give up on his business altogether – until he got fiber-to-the-home internet service from Pemiscot Dunklin Fiber one year ago.
Fiber has simplified my life and streamlined my business. This allows me to focus on growing my business and not spending time behind the computer trying to upload client galleries,” Bishop explained. “Not only is the service incredibly fast, but it's also affordable. Now I can upload a 900 MB client gallery in 30 seconds or less.”
With the installation of fiber service, Bishop has been able to make his business more efficient than ever, leaving him less stressed and his clients more satisfied. What once was a frustrating overnight process can now be done in the amount of time it takes Bishop to type his client's name onto the file.
Previously, uploading files for clients meant no one else in Bishop’s family could use the internet at the same time because of the bandwidth needed for photo uploads – leaving Bishop an unpopular member of the family during those times.
“I’ve tried to bog down my PemDunk fiber network connection, and I have not yet been able to. I’m running four Nest cams at 4K streaming to the cloud 24/7, three computers and smart TVs, a Nest thermostat, many smart receptacles, two Google Nest Hubs, and a few Alexa-enabled devices, not to mention the handful of devices that connect throughout the day. There is absolutely no lag even with all these devices,” Bishop said.
Bishop often travels to different states to photograph weddings, graduations, and families. The livestream cameras at his home allow him to check on his wife, children, and pets while he’s gone. This feature that high-speed internet has made possible gives Bishop immense peace of mind, knowing he will always be connected away from home.
The speed and reliability that Pemiscot Dunklin Fiber internet delivers has been life-changing for the Bishop family. Bishop is able to continue operations for his photography business, connect with his family while he is away, and bond with them while they are together – all powered by fiber to the home.
Amanda McLemore - ecoLINK
Having a home business is difficult enough, but a lack of reliable internet service makes working from home and selling online nearly impossible. This used to be the case for Amanda McLemore, who owns a custom craft business, SkyMac Creations.
Because all of McLemore’s products are custom, it’s essential for her to be able to communicate with her customers to ensure they are getting the exact customization they want and to show her progress on the products. Before February 2021, when ecoLINK Fiber internet was installed to her home, McLemore had to rely on slow cellular data to do all this. She struggled to keep up with her business partner and the demands of their sales.
“When I first moved to my current home, we were told that there was no internet access at all. We were a little concerned, but it also didn’t deter us from moving to the beautiful ranch we are on,” McLemore said. “It did limit what we were able to do. When I got the notification that ecoLINK was coming to our area, I was excited.”
Now that McLemore has high-speed fiber internet, she has been able to exceed her partner’s operations and is having the business operations moved to her house for efficiency purposes. McLemore also serves as the Chief Operating Officer for her husband's trucking business, and she is able to run his company, along with hers, more efficiently.
“The most exciting part of getting connected was being able to build my own crafting business and do so much with that every day,” McLemore said. “SkyMac Creations was created because of the new access that I had to social media, website design, and design software that allowed me to do something I love, all because of ecoLINK and its amazing product.”
Since McLemore’s husband often travels for his job and can be gone for months at a time, video chatting is a necessary component to their relationship. What previously consisted of choppy video and audio cutting in and out is now a seamless video chat that allows the two to talk for hours with no issues.
When she’s not running two businesses, McLemore likes to relax and watch TV, and ecoLINK fiber service has allowed her to cancel her expensive cable service, and stream shows. This has made such a tremendous impact on McLemore and her family that she encouraged the owner of the RV Ranch she lives in to sign up for fiber internet and make it available to everyone in the park.
McLemore admitted she didn't truly realize how much of an impact fiber internet has made on her life until she started thinking of what she would do without it now. From work to play, her home life is easier than she ever imagined.
In addition to the national Conexon awards, the individual cooperatives also offered additional grants.
Kimberly K. Sahlfeld-Bunger - GoSemo
As a homeschool teacher and mom of three boys, Kim Bunger knows her family needs to operate efficiently. For the busy lifestyle of the Bunger family, high-speed fiber internet has become a must-have, particularly in light of the pandemic. As members of SEMO electric cooperative for more than 20 years, all six members of the Bunger family – even Kim’s father, who moved into a camper on their property – were thrilled when their co-op delivered fiber internet via its subsidiary GoSEMO.
Before fiber service was installed in December 2020, the Bunger family knew exactly which spots in their house they could receive phone service in. When on calls, the caller had to stay in one of those spots for the duration of the call to avoid losing service. Their house was known as a 'black hole' by friends and work colleagues, who knew that trying to call, text or email anyone in the Bunger family when they were at home was futile, because the messages never made it to them. Once Kim's husband Rob left his office for the day, he was cut off from all communication with coworkers because of the lack of service at home.
At Kim’s request, GoSEMO installed a hotspot closer to the Bungers’ home, at a nearby church. The timing of the hotspot was truly a blessing, Kim recounted, because it allowed family and friends to attend a virtual memorial for Kim’s mother who had passed away. Service was enabled just a day before the service.
“I’ll never forget our son sitting his car participating in his class the morning of my mom’s burial, which none of us could attend due to COVID restrictions,” Kim said. “To see the dedication this kid had to his studies and what he would do to succeed in his classes was a lot to process. Knowing he could now drive just 10 minutes to get internet was a blessing on a very difficult day.”
A few months later, GoSEMO service brought fiber to the Bungers’ home. Now, the whole family uses its fiber internet to power their cell phones from the WiFi as well as for the many everyday tasks high-speed internet makes possible. Rob can work from home effectively and stay in contact with colleagues after hours as needed. Kim’s father is able to connect to his doctors via telemedicine visits from his camper on the property, saving him hours and miles of drive time. He is also thrilled to be able to stream his favorite TV shows and movies with his family without interruptions or buffering.
The entire family agrees that GoSEMO fiber internet has changed life most dramatically for Kim. “You know that saying about ‘happy wife, happy life’?” Rob joked. “It couldn’t be truer for our household. Kim is happy, so we’re all happy.”
“We’ve struggled with internet services at home since we moved here in 1998. We concluded that it was just the price we paid for our location,” Kim said. “After waiting since 2017, we have found good things truly do come to those who wait. We didn’t fully understand how GoSEMO Fiber would affect our lives. Thanks, SEMO Electric and GoSEMO Fiber, for making our lives better in so many ways.”
Kim Paul - GoSemo
After searching for reliable internet for years, Kim Paul has finally found it – with GoSEMO Fiber. Prior to this, Paul has lived in rural areas her entire life, and internet has always been unstable regardless of the service provider.
As a graphic designer working from home, uploading large design files would take days to transfer to her clients. She frequently had to break her files into pieces and send clients multiple pieces rather than the full file. Paul's parents received fiber internet before her, so she would often drive the 15 minutes to their house to download her work files. The drive to their house took longer than the files would take to upload with their high-speed fiber internet.
Paul was lucky enough to have fiber internet available and installed before the pandemic started, receiving service in 2019.
“When stuck at home, whether you run a business or you’re in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, connecting with the outside world is necessary. GoSEMO Fiber continues to keep us up and running without fail,” Paul said.
Between Paul, her husband, and their 10-year old son, fiber internet is necessary for streaming, online learning, work, and more. Paul even has a “she shed” in her backyard where she can escape to stream shows or movies and relax. Her son is able to video-chat with grandparents, do his schoolwork, talk to friends, and play games with no buffering.
“My family can seamlessly stream on seven devices, which is particularly important when schools and offices were closed. I found new opportunities both personally and professionally as my husband watched how-to videos and my son met with friends online after virtual learning. And yes, those late-night ‘Tiger King’ marathons were also essential,” Paul jokingly added.
GoSEMO Fiber service has transformed life in multiple ways. Paul’s monthly internet bill is now a third of what it used to be, and she feels confident that her service is reliable enough to support all of her design work, huge files and all. Even storms don’t phase her; she knows her connection will still be strong. What once was a constant worry in her life is now something that she never has to stress about.
Jennifer Hardcastle - WAVE Rural Connect
For Jennifer Hardcastle, life in Arkansas has shifted from 20 years of feeling disconnected to one with endless possibilities. Before fiber internet from WAVE Rural Connect, Hardcastle, her husband, and their daughters had no choice but to use hotspots on their phones for service. Working from home was impossible, and the Hardcastle family even had to depend on their neighbors for something as basic as wireless printing for their daughters’ school assignments.
"Right before COVID hit our nation, we were blessed with getting connected to WAVE. My husband is a pastor in our community, and we were unable to assemble as a church body. Not only was the separation difficult, but people needed the church more than ever during this stressful time,” Hardcastle recalled. “We had to find new ways to stay connected to encourage and uplift our community.”
The family rose to the challenge, and Hardcastle’s husband was able to conduct virtual prayer meetings, live-stream church services, email encouraging messages to congregants, and lead a virtual 21 Days of Communion on Facebook.
"WAVE was a tremendous blessing to us over this past year. When the rest of the world went into hiding, WAVE went the extra mile to keep us all up and running,” Hardcastle said.
After two decades of unreliable, failing internet service, everyone in the family is enjoying accessibility at their fingertips. Home life is easier and more efficient, with options for online banking or planning trips. Hardcastle can’t imagine living without her fiber internet now, and her entire family is more connected than ever to their family, church, and community.
Doug R. Ross - WAVE Rural Connect
Reliable internet for Doug Ross’ family was a challenge in his Arkansas neighborhood, despite having more options for service than others. With more than 30 devices in their household connected for work, entertainment and powering smart home conveniences, Ross was constantly resetting routers from different providers just to meet his family’s needs.
Working from home before fiber internet was available meant that Ross was always waiting on documents to load while his co-workers had the document up and ready to discuss. The slow speeds and constant delays made work from home, as well as any recreational internet use, nearly impossible.
About a year ago, when WAVE Rural Connect fiber service was installed, everything changed for the Ross family. Ross, his wife, and his son no longer had to compete for bandwidth – they could work from home, stay in touch with family and friends with video chat, and play games on the PlayStation 4 together. Ross and his family also were able to host outdoor movie nights on a projector for their neighborhood, giving the community a sense of normalcy during the pandemic days marked by uncertainty and disconnection.
“Having WAVE high-speed internet impacted our family positively and in multiple ways during these tough COVID times. The consistent signal and speed proved vital for all our video communication," Ross explained.
But the biggest impact was on Ross’ relationship with his mother. Unable to visit his mother during the pandemic, fiber internet allowed him to connect with her on Zoom and have family game nights.
“We absolutely relished this time to play virtual Yahtzee or trivia games with her. We engaged in friendly competition while enjoying laughter and coveted family time, even though we were miles apart and unable to physically be together. The only thing missing were the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ hugs,” Ross said.
With WAVE fiber internet, concerns about reliability are a thing of the past, and Ross is happy to report he no longer needs to reset multiple routers multiple times per day. Instead, he is able to stay connected and in the moment with his family without the frustrations.
Felicia Dogan - Pemiscot-Dunklin Fiber
Living in rural Missouri for 14 years, Felicia Dogan and her family know the struggles that come with the lack of reliable internet. With teenagers in the house and a laser engraving business Dogan runs from home, expensive satellite options and cell phone hotspots just weren’t enough for their family.
Everything changed in November 2019 when fiber-to-the-home service was delivered by Pemiscot Dunklin Fiber, the broadband subsidiary of the Dogans’ electric cooperative Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative. The timing of the family’s household installation couldn’t have been better as Dogan’s teens’ school would shortly be converted into an online format because of the pandemic. This meant they would be learning from home five days a week.
“Now that we have fiber internet, I don’t even have to think about internet. We’ve never had an issue with connection, service, or speed," Dogan said. "With three teenagers who were suddenly going to virtual school five days a week at the same time I was running my own business from home, none of it would have been possible before fiber internet. Pemiscot Dunklin Fiber changed our lives in more ways than I thought possible, and we are so thankful for the local support.”
D'Anne Wilders - ecoLINK
Owning land has always been a goal of D'Anne Wilders, so she was thrilled to move into East Central Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (ECOEC) territory in September 2019. However, she quickly realized that without any internet providers available in her area, she had no option but to use a hotspot from her phone for internet access. There were many days where Wilders had no service on her phone, which affected her accessibility to all the devices and apps she needed for daily life.
Working from home was a serious challenge, and even before the pandemic she found herself switching to her cell phone in the middle of a meeting and using her limited data because her internet would drop. When the pandemic hit, Wilders, like many others, was working from home every day with unreliable internet that made it a challenge to communicate with her co-workers, attend virtual meetings, and send files back and forth. Soon, Wilders became accustomed to traveling back and forth to her fiancé’s house for reliable video calls and to unwind at the end of the workday with TV.
In fact, Wilders’ fiancé drew the line at moving into her home until she had a solution for reliable internet. After ecoLINK fiber internet was installed in November, Wilders and her husband were married and living together within a month.
"If it wasn't for high-speed internet, I would probably still be dreaming of the day that I could get married to the man I love instead of being able to enjoy all the awesome parts about married life,” Wilders said with a laugh. “ecoLINK has been such an amazing blessing to my husband and I.”
It’s not often that fiber internet plays a role in love stories, but for this couple, ecoLINK fiber to the home has certainly helped to create a foundation for a shared life and happy marriage.
The 2021 Conexon Internet Grant pilot collaboration captured stories with a focus on remote learning, education, career advancement, and other opportunities created by high-speed internet access. The selected stories will be showcased on social media channels in the coming weeks.
Conexon anticipates expanding the Internet Grant Program in 2022 and beyond, opening more opportunities to give back throughout rural America.
Details of future programs can be found at conexoninternetgrant.com.