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Race to connect businesses, network expansion among projects keeping fiber contractor busy

Brad Engbarth standing with a directional borer drills for fiber conduit installation
Brad Engbarth explains how his directional borer drills fiber into the ground with precision

Brad Engbarth is a busy guy. The pandemic hasn’t changed that much.

Engbarth is the owner and president of Engbarth Directional Drilling, one of the primary contracting companies that SDN Communications uses.

E.D.D. Inc., as the company also is known, is based in Canistota. It provides a variety of construction services in a multistate region, but installing and repairing fiber optic lines is its specialty.

I was scheduled to connect with Engbarth by phone recently, while he was traveling. But an urgent cable-moving situation arose and his plans changed. When he answered my call, he was standing at the bottom of a 20-foot hole at a street-construction site in Sioux Falls, waiting for a crew to arrive.

We’d planned to talk the day before, but we rescheduled. As the volunteer fire chief and a first responder in Canistota, he’d had to spend most of the prior night monitoring threatening weather for the community. Then, after he finally got to bed, he got called to an accident site.

In comparison, standing in a construction hole with a few minutes to spare probably was relatively peaceful.

I started the conversation by asking how COVID-19 had been affecting business.

“It’s been business as usual for us,” Engbarth said. “The changes for us is that we loaded our trucks with sanitizers, provided employees masks, and shut down our office to visitors. We’re just taking precautions and stay away from others as much as possible.”

Some clients have temporarily closed buildings to construction crews, which has delayed some projects. However, the essential nature of fiber optic communications also has created work for E.D.D. The company has helped other businesses build the connectivity they need to accommodate stay-at-home workers. E.D.D. has even helped lay the fiber for COVID testing stations.

Has the company been able to find the workers it needs during the outbreak?

“Actually, that’s been kind of a blessing this year. I hate the reason, but because of COVID and the unemployment rate going up, we’ve seen an increase in applications,” Engbarth said. “We’ve actually picked up some really great additions for our company – people who it’s been great to have onboard.”

The biggest employment challenge the company faces is having enough employees who are trained and licensed to drive large construction trucks, he said.

Company employment has increased gradually in recent years to 25 to 28 people. Most of them work year-round. If employees want to take time off during the winter, they can, Engbarth said. If they want to keep working, he keeps them busy maintaining equipment and responding to emergency and routine calls.

The company’s work team includes several of Engbarth’s family members

Engbarth, 46, started his company in 1999 after working a few years in the utility construction business. SDN has become E.D.D.’s biggest customer.

SDN probably accounts for 80 percent of E.D.D.’s work, Engbarth said. E.D.D. also works for some of SDN’s member companies and has some other clients.

Most of the company’s work is done in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, but crews occasionally go to North Dakota, too.

Engbarth crews installing fiber into red rocky ground
E.D.D. crews install fiber in the Rapid City area

On the day we spoke, E.D.D. had crews working in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City in South Dakota, and in Montevideo, Marshall and Comfrey in Minnesota.

SDN and E.D.D. have worked together for about 17 years and have developed a special bond.

“We enjoy what we do, and SDN is a big part of why we enjoy it because of the people we work with there,” Engbarth said.

He appreciates that SDN doesn’t just hand off assignments. It includes E.D.D. in project planning and seeks the contractor’s advice.

“I think we’ve been able to save them on construction costs,” Engbarth said. “I’m pretty proud of our company for being in that position.”

Jerry Andersen, manager of outside plant engineering at SDN, agrees that the two companies have developed a unique, trusting relationship. They share information to help keep each other efficient, Andersen said.

“We utilize Engbarth for more than just the placement of cables. They’re a very talented group,” he said. E.D.D. also can handle tasks such as constructing buildings, erecting small cell poles and placing generators.

Crews using snooper to install conduit underneath bridge over Big Sioux River
Engbarth crews installing conduit under 12th Street Bridge in Sioux Falls | Courtesy: E.D.D.

Just last week, Engbarth’s crews were hanging over the side of a Sioux Falls bridge installing conduit over the Big Sioux River. They brought in a new piece of equipment to do what was needed.

Andersen and his SDN colleagues appreciate that when confronted with problems in the field, Engbarth tries to offer solutions.

“He doesn’t just call you up and say, ‘Well, we got stopped because there’s a big chunk of rock here.’ He’ll say, ‘We got stopped by a big chunk of rock. Here’s an option, and here’s an option.’ And you’ll go out and take a look at it, and with the speed of deployment we’re in, that helps us out tremendously,” Andersen said.

In some rare instances, E.D.D. has become aware of line cuts even before SDN.

“A lot of people know we work with E.D.D. and will call Brad and tell them they hit one of SDN’s cables. Then he’ll call me. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it’s an example of our relationship,” Andersen said.

Brad Engbarth in a bucket lift taking photos from up above
Engbarth gets a birds-eye view of an SDN picnic and expo with E.D.D.'s equipment and crew

“He stands behind his work. He’s very, very good to work with. He will drop everything and come to our repair as soon as he finds out that we have a need.”

Those are traits that can be difficult to find – and are highly valued - in the business world.

SDN is a leader in providing business internet, private networking and cloud connectivity to businesses and organizations in communities such as Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Worthington, and the surrounding areas.

Editor's Footnote: Engbarth has also prepared E.D.D.'s grounds to host an annual Bull Riding Bash. The MN Xtreme Bull Riding Tour is bringing bull riding, miniature bulls and mutton busting to Canistota on July 11. Riders will face a high-intensity group of bulls as they compete for the largest pot to date. Gates open at 5 p.m. Get more details on the Facebook event page.

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