LAGRANGE — Ligonier-based communications company LigTel Communications was already looking to expand its fiber optic footprint in Northeast Indiana when the coronavirus pandemic landed, proving just how important high-speed internet connectivity has become.
With more work being done from home, and more education taking place online, having a fast, reliable Internet connection is no longer a luxury, but is now essential. The state has created new programs aimed at making reliable, high-speed internet service come to rural Indiana, and it is providing companies like LigTel funds to help make that happen.
With demand skyrocketing, and few national players willing to step into small communities like those that dot Northeast Indiana, LigTel accelerated its plans to build fiber optic networks and become a leading provider of high-speed internet service in small communities like LaGrange.
“The pandemic pushed us to move faster than we’d originally planned because people need this service,” Randy Mead, CEO of LigTel Communications, said.
This past week, Mead along with much of his staff, hosted an open house at their new LaGrange facility, located on LaGrange’s west side at 513 W. Central Ave. The new complex is being built to be robust and protect the company’s network hub, a redundant network data center capable of serving clients across its network of communities.
The LaGrange facility was designed to be storm proof. It is, in reality, a building within a building. That interior structure is constructed with steel rebar reinforced concrete block walls capped by strong roofs. It will be climate-controlled and protected by backup generators. When it is completed in about a month, Mead said the LaGrange facility should be able to withstand a tornado.
“The idea here is, that if you just built a stick-built building, you have a lot of exposure. I felt it was important to do this,” he said, pointing to the block wall behind him. “I thought if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.”
The heart of the new LaGrange system — the new data center — will provide LigTel with a redundant network.
“The system is all designed to be failsafe,” Mead explained. “If fiber is cut somewhere, we can route that signal through a different path. If something happens to the Ligonier building, we could serve everyone except for Ligonier itself out of here.”
Mead said building the new LaGrange data center is just one of many important pieces of a larger business plan LigTel has taken on.
“It’s really important we have some redundancy built in,” Mead said. “By building this center, we’re doing just that. You can’t guarantee everything, but for the most part, we just want to make sure we’re providing customers with great service.”
In markets like LaGrange, where other service Internet providers are already providing service, Mead said LigTel had to bring something dramatically different. Fiber optic, he said, does just that. It delivers data at speeds copper wire-based technology and wireless systems can’t match.
LigTel recently completed installing new fiber optic networks in Shipshewana and Topeka and is now wrapping up building its underground fiber network work in LaGrange. It operates other Internet networks in Noble, Kosciusko, Whitley, and Steuben counties.
LigTel crews have been busy this spring installing underground conduit and cable in LaGrange, and capping those lines at green service boxes set in the street right-of-ways around town. Individual lines for LaGrange homes and businesses will be run out of those boxes.
Unlike copper cable or wireless providers, fiber-optic customers have a dedicated line to each home or business, meaning they don’t share a signal with others. That means faster service, Mead said.
Cables containing dozens of fiber optic strands are placed in conduits underground. Each strand of fiber optic cable can provide service to 64 homes. Individual lines from those green boxes will be trenched or bored to each home or business. A LigTel tech will set up the system’s router and final connections.
Mead said larger fiber-optic companies ignore smaller communities like LaGrange because they don’t see any value in that kind of capital investment.
“It’s about return on investment,” Mead said. “They’re much more stringent about what their return on investment requirements are. Whereas we live here, we employ people here, this is our home so we feel it’s important for us to provide these services, and invest in the people who’ve helped us stay in business for the last 126 years.”
The LaGrange project and expansion are just one part of a larger expansion plan by the Ligonier-based company.
Mead said LigTel crews are also working on an $11 million project to bring high-speed internet to parts of Noble County that are currently underserved.
Construction on the superstructure inside the LaGrange building is expected to wrap up this month. The front office complex is complete, and employees will start manning those desks this month.
The specialized hardware needed to operate a fiber-optic network arrives in LaGrange this month and will be installed and operational by June. Mead said he expects customers in LaGrange will be able to start hooking up to the new fiber network by early to mid-July.
The LaGrange system will offer customers a symmetric system, meaning downloads and uploads move at the same speed. LigTel will offer home customers a fiber optic package for 100 Megabits per second of service for $54.95 a month. Other options delivering 500 Mbps, 1 Gigabit per second, or 2 Gbps symmetrical services are more expensive. Business services are available too. Mead said LigTel is one of the few companies in the state that provided its customers with an option to purchase 2 Gbps symmetrical services.
“We also provide to our customers a managed Wi-Fi system, meaning once you connect to the router in the house, if you have problems, we’re able to get in remotely and see where the problem is happening,” Mead said.
In addition, LigTel provides routers to customers free of charge and maintains all software updates. Calls to customer service ring into a Ligonier number, and LigTel provides 24-hour support to customers.
Mead said LigTel is continuing to grow its footprint in the rural and small community high-speed market and is looking to expand its customer base by about 15,000 in the next five years.
“Just became you live rural doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have good internet access,” Mead added.