Sjoberg's: How a Small Internet Provider is Transforming Rural Minnesota
If you took a road trip out through rural Minnesota, you probably wouldn’t expect much could be going on in the tiny, wood-surrounded homes in the distance, or in the small farmhouses with the quartermile driveways. But as Dick Sjoberg knows, this is far from the truth.
As the president of Sjoberg’s, the small, family-owned, internet, TV and phone provider serving northwestern Minnesota, Mr. Sjoberg has seen a lot in the business over the past several decades. Sjoberg’s customers come from communities with an average population size of 1,000, but some have no more than 50 people. Just like their counterparts from big cities, they want strong connectivity to help their businesses. “Our customers look for fast and reliable [internet], and they look for value. We try to provide that,” said Mr. Sjoberg in an interview with NCTA.
The communities that Sjoberg’s serves includes people with great ambition and a wide range of interests—from one who works on cellos for the world-famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, to farmers who need a strong internet connection to better market their produce, check government regulations, and reach consumers. Farmers of course rely on the internet to operate and stay globally competitive, and Sjoberg’s, with the help of several grants for rural broadband deployment, is in the process of providing enhanced internet connectivity by building fiber out to areas that previously lacked robust service.
“But if they're not farmers, they've still got something else going on,” added Mr. Sjoberg of his customer base. Mr. Sjoberg told the story of one customer who sold world-class, purebred springer spaniels. She was so enthusiastic about getting Sjoberg’s internet service that she’d come to the office with cookies every once in awhile to check on how many miles Sjoberg’s was from bringing its high speed broadband to her home. She was on dialup internet, but with Sjoberg’s connectivity, she could increase her sales by live streaming all of her dogs. Customers from afar would become so emotionally attached once they were shown “their dog” on camera that they wouldn’t back out of their deals.
Sjoberg’s, which started in the 1940s with Mr. Sjoberg’s family selling appliances and TVs, is made up of 22 employees serving 37 towns and townships. Mr. Sjoberg described the provider’s employee base as one that prides itself on active involvement in the communities they work in. Mr. Sjoberg himself is involved in a town planning commission, another colleague of his is a county commissioner, and another is a wrestling coach.
Sjoberg’s also works with small hospitals to provide connectivity between satellite offices. In a strategic partnership with Midco, the two providers are working together to ensure better healthcare access for residents. When a patient is admitted to the emergency room, it’s imperative that a doctor be able to pull up that patient’s records right away, stressed Mr. Sjoberg. The two providers have been building a strong network to ensure that's possible.
In the area of education, Sjoberg’s is also involved in several projects that work to bring low-cost internet for families with school-aged children. “We’ve seen that as kids learn to use the internet, their parents also learn along with them and become as active online as their kids,” he said.
So what started out as a company selling appliances is now one that offers as much as a gig in some areas. And while Sjoberg’s doesn’t have any customers that have signed up for a gig yet, it’s one of those things that’s likely to change in a few years as the digital landscape continues to evolve.
Looking to the future, Mr. Sjoberg is optimistic about continuing to expand. "We've got a business that's doing a lot of good for a lot of people. It's a nice business to be in,” he said.