“There are currently 260 telecommunication co-ops in the U.S., serving 31 states and over one million people. Although this amounts to only 5% of telephone subscribers, the service area comprises over 40% of the country’s land with revenues totaling 3.9 billion dollars,” according to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).
Utility cooperatives are formed to provide services in underserved rural areas. In 1960, area leaders started the Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company (MCTC) which provides local service, long-distance, and internet packages to residential and business customers in Mabel and Prosper, Minn., Hesper, Burr Oak, and Ridgeway, Iowa, and the surrounding rural areas.
“When you sign up for service with MCTC, you become a member of the cooperative. The annual profits of the company, after operating expenses, are allocated to the member accounts annually based on the services the member received from the cooperative. Each year, capital credits are paid back to the members at the board’s discretion,” explained Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company (MCTC) General Manager Julie Kolka. “It ‘pays’ to belong to the co-op.”
MCTC has a rich history in the community. The company serves approximately 1,500 Minnesota and Iowa customers in an area of approximately 196 square miles. The Mabel Telephone Company was established in May 1903. In 1915, the Mabel Telephone Exchange Company was incorporated, one of the first steps taken to bring the rural area and town subscribers together. Mabel was a switching office for 27 rural lines and the town. In 1925, four more Iowa rural lines were added, bringing the number of rural lines to 31, with shares being issued for $35 and later $5 per share. Now, shares are no longer required. (Source: “Once Upon a Town – The History of Mabel, Minnesota 1879-2019”)
In 1960, the cooperative was formed with the goal of providing one-party service to all subscribers. In 1964, the phone cable was installed underground. Between 1965 and 1966, the new office building at 214 North Main Street in downtown Mabel, Minn., was completed at the same time the single-party system was put into service. Kolka emphasized, “No more party lines!”
The original directors were Dr. Vernon Karli, Norman Casterton, George Ellestad, Ervin Inglett, Truman Kirkeby, Belmont Humphrey, Clarence Knoke, Harold Selness, Alton Spande, Nansen Spande and John Swenson. Ernest Corson was the general manager.
On January 1, 1970, the Ridgeway Cooperative Telephone joined MCTC, which included the Lincoln, Madison and Orleans telephone companies. New equipment was installed by NEA in the Mabel office that connects the outside lines to the equipment in the office to establish telephone service, in 1980 it was removed from the current equipment and connected to the new equipment allowing the company to offer touchtone dialing and call features such as call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling, speed calling, and more. This project was the first system in the world with two smart remotes in the Burr Oak and Ridgeway, Iowa, offices.
Over the years equipment in the Mabel office has been upgraded, with the current equipment installed in 2017. Internet service was introduced in 2001. In 2004-05, the office was updated.
In 2006, Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company and Spring Grove Communications purchased Harmony Telephone. MiEnergy became a third partner of Harmony Telephone in 2018, and a new broadband company was established called MiBroadband. The partnership allows MiBroadband to bring service to underserved/unserved areas in rural areas in southeastern Minnesota and northeast Iowa.
Kolka explained, “MCTC is completely built out with fiber to the home, with the last of the home installs being completed in the next few months. Fiber optics provides a faster, more reliable service than wireless providers. It enables the cooperative to provide faster internet packages.”
Other general managers include William Hyter, Paul Vitse and Lorren Tingesdal.
The current board members are Dean Nierling, president; David Sacquitne, vice president; Kevin Manning, secretary/treasurer; Duane Falck, David O’Connell, Tim Mengis, Paul Vitse, Kenneth Carolan and John Hove.
In addition to general manager Kolka, there are five full-time employees and one part-time employee: Gene Halverson, technician/central office; Aron Dahl and Ethan Underbakke, technicians; Linda Gjere, customer service representative/billing, and Sandra Underbakke, customer service representative. Mary Wemark is the part-time customer service representative in the Ridgeway office.
Since its beginning, MCTC has been deeply entrenched in the community. Over the years, the basement of the phone company has been used by community organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, to hold their meetings. The local quilt club held its annual quilt show in the basement before moving it to the new community center.
In 2021, MCTC created the Telephone Cooperative Unclaimed Property (TCUP) foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to distribute the unclaimed capital credits of the cooperative. Grant applications are accepted from members of the MCTC for community development, municipalities, community education, and 501(C) 3 projects in the membership area of the MCTC. The amount available for projects varies based on the amount of unclaimed property, and the application process traditionally begins in October. Watch the Fillmore County Journal for information on deadlines and where applications can be picked up.
Kolka proudly announced, “MCTC is proud to offer excellent customer service! We are a local provider, giving exceptional customer service and paying you capital credits for the business you do with us… win, win, and win! Please call the Mabel office at (507) 493-5411 with any questions or upgrades in services/internet packages.”
Both the Mabel and Ridgeway, 630 County St., offices are open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Mabel is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Ridgeway is open Monday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 noon.