US Small Business Administration-Office of Rural Affairs features Minburn Communications
Outreach & Marketing Specialist, Office of Rural Affairs
Small Business Administration
In March 2020, a new normal crept across the country as schools shifted to online learning, teleworking became commonplace, and businesses fought to stay in the black amidst an economic shutdown. Circumstances challenged every demographic, but the transition to an online-dominated system of learning and business posed unique challenges to rural communities where one out of every four people lack access to steady broadband. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, however, small businesses like Minburn Communications in rural Iowa stepped up to provide reliable internet access to their communities and reduce the digital divide.
“Prior to the Iowa Governor’s business operation guidelines and restrictions, we completely changed the ways we did business, but the need for reliable internet was more essential than ever before,” said Debra Lucht, CEO of Minburn Communications.
Even as the demand increased for their services, the telephone, broadband, and video communications company faced the difficult possibility that unemployed or furloughed customers could be unable to pay for services. Regardless, the company committed to avoid terminating services to families and businesses unable to pay their fees as part of the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” campaign.
“Throughout the challenges of the pandemic, we wanted to partner with customers and businesses to work through problems together,” said Lucht. “Our mission was to keep people connected, but that certainly came at a cost to our business operations and bottom line.”
Within days of the pandemic’s start, new operational service procedures were created and implemented with the sole purpose to protect the staff and the customer. The communications company purchased extensive Personal Protective Equipment for technicians doing home visits and set up protocols to protect both employees and customers.
“The new way of doing business had a negative impact to our financials. Given all the unknowns, we applied for a PPP loan right away. Having access to this money gave us reassurance that we would be able to continue doing business and meet the demands of our community.”
With their payroll expenses covered by the PPP loan, Minburn Communications was able to apply innovative measures to best serve their clientele. They worked with businesses to manage services and offered a Pandemic Plan to temporarily reduce overall monthly fees while maintaining connection. They modified rates to best fit customers’ experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. They even set up payment plans for customers who expressed concerns about paying their bills on time.
Lucht says the company’s primary mission has always been to serve the community, and the virus presented opportunities for them to serve in a greater role. Working with the local school board, the Minburn Communications team identified areas in their region that had the greatest need for additional access to high-speed internet and set up unlimited free public WiFi hotspots in the three communities with extensive parking capacities. Students and teleworking professionals took advantage of these, and on any given day people could be found working online from their vehicles.
“When business changes, you have to put your thinking cap on,” said Kristi Petersen, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Minburn Communications. “As businesses started opening up, we launched a program to stimulate our economy by giving each employee $15 each week that they could spend at local businesses during business hours. Each person has a role to play in supporting local businesses, and we wanted other businesses to know that we support them. It’s been encouraging to hear the positive feedback from our community and the ways our efforts have helped keep them going.”
Lucht said the business has yet to see the full effect of the pandemic but is grateful for the ways the PPP empowered them to retain their staff and allocate much-needed resources to the community.
“The PPP provided some certainty during a time of a lot of unknowns,” stated Lucht. “We’re grateful for that.”