rural electric coop

Rural Electrics Solve Rural Internet Access Problems - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 229

Rural electric co-ops have started delivering high quality Internet access to their member-owners and our guest this week on Community Broadband Bits episode 229 is dedicated to helping these co-ops to build fiber-optic networks throughout their territories. Jon Chambers is a partner at Conexon and was previously the head of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

Jon is a strong proponent for ensuring rural residents and businesses have at least the same quality Internet access as urban areas. We talk about his experience and frustration at the FCC, which was content to shovel money at telcos for the most basic infrastructure rather than setting higher expectations to ensure everyone had decent Internet access. We talk about how Co-Mo rolled out fiber to its members without federal assistance, inspiring electric cooperatives around the nation to follow suit.

In our discussion, I reference Jon's blog post "FCC to Rural America: Drop Dead." In it, he cites some of the reactions in the FCC from his advocacy for real rural solutions rather than signing big checks to big telcos for delivering slow and unreliable Internet access. One of quotes from a Democrat: "Republicans like corporate welfare, so we’re going to give money to the telephone companies to keep the Republicans on the Hill happy."

Neither political party comes off looking very good when it comes to rural connectivity, which fits with our impression. But Jon confirms another of our experiences when he says that when he works with rural communities, politics doesn't come up. They just focus on solutions.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

NC Rural Electric Cooperatives Teach Model Collaboration

Throughout the October Broadband Communities Magazine conference, folks kept repeating this sentiment: some partnerships are smooth and others have rough patches. At the conference, we heard from several electric cooperatives who had partnered with other cooperatives to provide next-generation connectivity to their communities.

We specifically want to highlight the work of two North Carolina electric cooperatives: Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. They were both included in our report North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Each co-op took the bold step of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout sparsely populated regions. At the conference, we were able to learn first-hand about their experiences.

Despite the Distance: Lumbee River EMC & HTC

HTC Chief Executive of Marketing Brent Groome described how the two cooperatives collaborated despite being nearly an hour away from each other. Their work together has involved a commitment to similar values and dedication to improving rural communities. (Lumbee River EMC’s representative was unable to attend the conference as much of the service territory had suffered flooding from the recent hurricane.)

Lumbee River EMC’s entry into Internet service brought fiber connectivity to southeastern North Carolina. The co-op provides electricity to more than 50,000 members. In 2010, the USDA provided Lumbee River EMC with nearly $20 million in funding to install fiber. A state law, however, imposes certain restrictions on electric co-ops and USDA funding. The electric co-op had to find another company with the drive and expertise to provide Internet service.

HTC, also known as Horry Telephone Cooperative, may be far from Lumbee River EMC’s boundaries, but shares the same commitment to community. The electric co-op reached out to HTC in 2013 while completing construction of the FTTH network. Lumbee River EMC had reached out to three other telephone companies, but eventually landed on HTC. After working out an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU), HTC set to work and signed up the first customer in 2014. Although at times the co-ops had tension, they are both now focused on providing service to rural communities.

Borders And Blue Ridge Mountain EMC 

While HTC and Lumbee River EMC were learning to collaborate, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already built its own network and been involved in multiple partnerships. The co-op's Director for Economic Development Erik Brinke described how the service territory’s many challenges required the electric co-op to team up with other organizations.

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC's service territory runs along the border between Georgia and North Carolina. The cooperative’s 40,000 members are widely dispersed throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains. The terrain also made fiber deployment difficult, but it did not dissuade the electric co-op.

In 2002, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC brought fiber connectivity to the schools. Then in 2006, the co-op started the process of building their own FTTH network. Recently, the electric cooperative decided to partner with the Ellijay Telephone Company (ETC) to also provide voice and video services over the FTTH network. This was not an entirely new partnership. 

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Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already collaborated with ETC, and several other neighboring organizations, to create the North Georgia Network. The group featured county governments and other electric cooperatives. With funding from several federal programs, they built a middle mile fiber network, connecting many rural schools and libraries that previously had shoddy service. The middle mile network improved connectivity for the whole region.

Cooperatives Overcome State Challenges

Several states, however, have legislation that can create complications for electric cooperatives' FTTH projects. For instance, the 1999 North Carolina law requires that electric cooperatives form a separate subsidiary that cannot receive financing from the USDA or the RUS (two common sources of cooperative funding). To navigate such challenges, Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had to collaborate with others who shared their values. Now, the electric co-op members have access to affordable, high-speed Internet service.

Research on Rural Connectivity Power from Electric Co-ops at BBC Mag Conference

In October in Minneapolis, Broadband Communities Magazine hosted the “Fiber for the New Economy” conference. The first day featured a set of four panels on the role of rural electric cooperatives in providing much-needed connectivity to far-flung communities.

We want to provide the highlights and give further context to some of the most fascinating stories. In this post, we’ll cover some of the latest research coming out of Ball State University’s Center for Information and Communication Sciences.

Indiana’s Electric Cooperatives 

Researcher Emma Green from Ball State University kicked off the track. Her presentation, “Rural Broadband: Technical and Economic Feasibility,” outlined the potential role of rural electric cooperatives in facilitating last mile (connectivity to homes and business) and middle mile (regional connectivity) deployment. 

Green's research centered on Indiana, where 14 percent of the population does not have broadband access (speeds of at least 25 Megabits (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload). In rural areas of the state, however, more than half of the population does not have access to those speeds. Green's research underscored how rural electric cooperatives can use their assets (such as Smart Grids, Right-of-Way access, and pole ownership) to facilitate middle mile connectivity. 

We previously noted some of this research from Ball State University in our post BBC Mag Spotlights Rural Electric Co-ops. Focusing on the middle mile is not always a pathway to long-term last mile solutions, and our Christopher Mitchell has often pointed out those pitfalls. Unless a provider is willing to invest in the critical last mile connections, middle mile networks have only a minimal impact.

Green, however, did not stop at the middle mile. She brought her presentation back to bear on last mile connectivity. Electric cooperatives are in a great position to partner with other entities to provide services. They could also simply move forward with last mile fiber projects themselves. Green’s research provides a model for how cooperatives could potentially serve a large portion of a state’s rural population.

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Conclusions on Co-ops

Electric cooperatives can indeed work together to solve the connectivity problem in rural communities. This is much like what we proposed in our report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Chris and I discuss our methodology and findings included in the report in this short interview on PRX.

We've seen similar activity in Michigan. Christopher recently interviewed two leaders at Midwest Energy Cooperative (based out of Cassopolis, Michigan) for episode #225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Midwest Energy Cooperative is working with nine other electric cooperatives on a concerted effort to bring next-generation high-speed Internet service to rural homes throughout the state. 

Stay tuned for more on the role of rural electric cooperatives and the Broadband Community Magazine’s conference.

Rural Electric Co-ops Power Up a Gig in Pacific Northwest

Rural electric cooperatives are providing next-generation connectivity. In Oregon a consortium of electric cooperatives called LS Networks built a middle mile network a few years ago and now are taking the next step with last mile connectivity.

LS Networks’ Connected Communities program hopes to bring last mile fiber connectivity to 25 communities in rural Oregon and Washington. Internet access will officially be available in early 2017 in some communities. Depending on the needs of each community, the solution could be Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), or fixed wireless using the fiber-optic network for backhaul.

Connected Communities

The project started in July, but LS Networks only now made the official announcement. The Connected Communities program asks folks to nominate their community to be connected by filling out a short form. LS Networks will offer two types of monthly plans [pdf]: 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $40 and a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) for $70. Customers will also be able to purchase voice service for an additional $15 per line and 50 cents per phone number.

Currently, the small, northern Oregon town of Maupin is the only official Connected Community. LS Networks is already at work building out a fiber connection to nearly all of the 400+ homes and businesses in the community. On November 9th, Maupin residents can take part in a town hall meeting at the South Wasco County High School to learn more about LS Networks’ plans and the Connected Communities program.

Consortium of Cooperatives

LS Networks should be well prepared to handle such a large-scale fiber network project. The consortium of electric cooperatives and the Coquille Tribe came together around 2005 to provide middle mile connectivity. At first, the consortium focused on their region of northern Oregon, but LS Networks’ footprint quickly grew to 7,500 route miles of fiber. The network spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, covering rural regions of Washington, some areas of northern California, and even parts of Idaho. 

If all goes as planned, rural homes and businesses in Oregon and Washington will soon have access to affordable next-generation technology. In the press release, Director of Sales and Marketing Bryan Adams highlighted how LS Networks continued to stay true to its cooperative roots

“Our priority has always been to provide service before profit and to use telecommunications as a tool to bridge the communities that make the Pacific Northwest great — on both sides of the Cascades.”

To learn more about the Connected Communities program, check out the LS Networks Connected Communites information website.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 225

This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits. Representatives of Midwest Energy Cooperative discuss their project to bring high-speed connectivity to rural southwest Michigan. Listen to this episode here.

Dave Allen: I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's a project taking shape in rural southwest Michigan and the nearby regions of Indiana and Ohio. It's headed up by the Midwest Energy Cooperative. At the recent Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Minneapolis, Chris ran into Bob Hance, President and CEO of the cooperative, and Dave Allen, the cooperative's Vice President of Regulatory Compliance. Naturally, we wanted to hear more about their project and share the details with you. They provide some history and how access to high quality connectivity has positively impacted a number of their rural members. Chris, Bob, and Dave also have some interesting thoughts on federal funding programs, project standards, and the different rules for cooperatives and big corporate providers. Learn more about the project at teamfiber.com, where you can also discover more about the cooperative. Now you may notice some background noise. We apologize in advance. While we advocate for local choice and access to technology, sometimes technology is just not on our side. We had a little trouble with the mic that day. Also, Chris is suffering from allergies, and until winter sets in, he may sound a little like the late Howard Cosell, but never fear, it is our Christopher. Now, here with Chris are Bob Hance, President and CEO, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for Midwest Energy Cooperative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with two folks from Michigan. Bob Hance, the President and CEO of Midwest Energy Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Bob Hance: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: And Dave Allen, the Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for the Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Dave Allen: Thanks, Chris. Good to see you out in Minneapolis.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Dave, it was terrific to run into you and to learn more about your approach.

Bob Hance: Not many people say that, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm happy to be the one. Now your cooperative is really leading Michigan, in terms of delivering high quality Internet access. Can you tell us about your regions that you serve?

Dave Allen: I can touch on the areas that we serve and set that up. Bob does a great job of talking about our history in the communication space. Midwest Energy serves twelve counties. Eight of those in Michigan, three in Indiana, and another two in Ohio. We have two distinct service areas. One in southeast Michigan, and one in southwest Michigan. The area we’re really focusing on, in terms of our initial phase of this project, is the southwest Michigan district. That scenario's characterized by Notre Dame, down in Indiana and South Bend, and you can go in a northeasterly direction toward Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan. We're those counties that fall in between that space. The area is really kind of identified by Whirlpool's world headquarters. Kellogg world headquarters is nearby in Battle Creek. We've got Pfizer up in Kalamazoo. A lot of industry that is in the area but not in our direct service footprint. The areas we serve are more rural areas, more characterized by seed corn industry, and perhaps to the south, the RV industry. My point being is that we are extremely rural. We probably serve about eight members per mile, but we do have large industry that's in the area that lives in our service footprint and really have a need for access to high speed broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to point out that after talking with some of the telephone cooperatives here in Minnesota, eight people a mile is a positive luxury in some cases.

Dave Allen: In terms of municipals are 60-some-odd customers per mile. Investor on utilities run on the 30 members or customers per mile range. So at eight customers per mile, that's still pretty rural.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that a rule of thumb has been that you make money when you have eleven people per linear mile or more with a private sector business plan, but not if you have less than eleven people per mile. But let's talk about your history of offering communications services.

Bob Hance: Technically, we've been an active ISP since the mid-90's. That was all brought upon by a relationship we had with Trans World Network. We provided third party long distance, as well as ISP services through dial-up. As the Internet progressed, and people became more and more in tune with all things related to the electronic world and personal computers and the mobile devices that we have today, obviously dial-up service was just not going to be the thing of the future. So over time, we've had many, many folks who have left that to go to other options, including satellite, which we've entered in to providing terrestrial broadband, thinking that that was going to be a possible solution to the rural space that we were in, and a good replacement for dial-up. Unfortunately, we ran into problems such as limited band availability in the service territories that we were trying to serve. We had numbers of people who had signed up for that service but were let down because the capacity of the satellite just was not going to reach the demand. And even though they launched the second satellite, we ran into the same problem with that and eventually moved on to phase number three, if you will, with trying to provide rural America with some semblance of broadband. And that was broadband over power line. We were one of nine co-ops that were involved with a company called IBEC that was a single source provider of equipment and a process that would provide a signal across the power line. So an injection on our current equipment that sounded very promising as well. Unfortunately, we were two years into it and finally started to get past some of the technical issues that came with broadband over power lines when IBEC announced that they were bankrupt. That was back in December 2011. So here we have a few hundred people who had been hooked up with satellite and broadband over power line, and instead of abandoning them entirely, we just went back to the drawing board and said, "What's next?" Interestingly enough, at the same time, separate from communications, our utility folks, which includes me, were kicking around what we were going to do with respect to our needs in communications for the electric space. We have an active SCADA system. We know what's going to happen with the further smartening of the grid. So clearly utilities have been using various forms of communications between substations and their corporate offices at headquarters to get data back from the field. Eventually the light comes on and we say, "If we put in this fiber system, we take care of our utility needs, and at the same time, we can leverage that with the opportunity to replace what we've been trying to do by providing a true broadband to our membership, which married quite well together I can say."

Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's interesting because I think almost all electric utilities are involved in communications for internal needs, but there is a split between those who see themselves purely as an electricity co-op and not interested in doing anything externally, and then those that see themselves as more technology driven and bringing the technology of the day to their members. Is that your experience?

Bob Hance: I think you're spot on. I think those are the conversations that have been had across the country. I like to see it as we're doing what is required to continue to serve our membership in a relevant way. I'll just exercise that a little bit by saying that if not for the insistence of them for the last several years that we look at ways to provide them this service, I don't know that we would have. I think our principle responsibility and our duty is to our membership, and if the membership is asking us to consider other products and services that make being part of the rural landscape more enjoyable, more affordable, more reasonable for them, that's what we ought to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, do you have anything to add on that?

Dave Allen: Yeah, just to add to that, we don't have an annual meeting per say, but we have district meetings where Bob goes out and engages our membership. And over the course of probably the last three or four years, the questions trended away from anything having to deal with electricity and more toward can you provide a broadband solution. We have a lot of folks out here that are on air cards. I think there are still some people on dial-up and folks utilizing satellite ... frustrations with usage allowances, with costs, with reliability, all these things that enter into the equation. They are just tired and fed up with that, so increasingly they have asked us to enter that communication space, where in all honesty, we were comfortable remaining an electric co-op. So we're a little bit of a reluctant participant. But there are a lot of things going on with respect to energy too, and Bob touched on some of the smart grid things we're doing. We have to do a better of helping people manage their energy use better, so this is one component of that.

Christopher Mitchell: I understand that you are not alone. There are other cooperatives in Michigan that are interested in working together to improve Internet access?

Bob Hance: We are working in conjunction with the other electric co-ops in Michigan. There are nine of us, specifically. A number of them are going through this process of evaluating from a conceptual standpoint. Maybe moving forward they are doing their due diligence. There are some surveys that have been presented to the memberships. At least three of them are fairly active in this process, but of course it takes a little bit of time for them to walk through that. I think it's promising. I think they understand that we're here to help in any way. We're the example that is on their way with already building a project, so we're a ready resource, and a valuable resource in their process. We'll see where it goes.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Bob. I'm also curious if there is a difference in your members across different states in terms of appetites for delivering broadband or if the interest is pretty similar.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think there is interest from all kinds of areas. Even those co-ops that are serving closer to the suburban areas. What everyone understands, and you get this firsthand, is when Google showed up with this whole idea of Google-fying a city, or Google-fibering a city, and that whole contest that went on for the better part of two years, raised the specter of what does this mean, fiber, and what can this provide versus what we already have. This notion of this being like the technology that passes every other technology easily and to the extent that you can say it is future-proof, it just seems like there isn't any end to the desire of folks, even beyond our memberships, that would really like to get connected to fiber. If you look at who is signing up on our website, it is probably three to one right now. So for every three members that we have signing up to take service from us, we have a person signing up that is not an electric member of ours but is close enough to see what we're doing and hoping that they can get connected as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Interesting. You're getting pressure to expand even to people who are not members of the co-op at this point then.

Bob Hance: Yes, very much so. It's probably one of the hardest things for us to manage toward is this demand that is outside or external to our current footprint. And the strong desire for all these other people to get connected too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that there are two key questions that come up. And Dave, I'd like to direct this to you first. In terms of a project like this, how do you finance it? There is a context here that rural areas have too little demand, and if you wanted to deliver high quality Internet access to them, it would be too costly. So how do you make it work?

Dave Allen: Well, in terms of your first question, our financing the project through member equity. We reached out to USDA, RUS, the Rural Utility Service, because as Bob mentioned earlier, we were looking at our need for better communications utilizing fiber. So we talked with the RUS about improving communications, utilizing fiber through our substations, through our facilities, and ultimately to the member home, and they agreed that that was a good purpose for us to pursue. You're looking at the clean power plan in the very near future in terms of what the ramifications might be to the users of electricity. Also in the state of Michigan, looking at a new energy bill, and our need really to help people manage their energy use better going forward. So that did resonate with the RUS, and ultimately, we're financing this project through an RUS work plan loan through the electric side. That provides us with the equity to pursue this project, which is going to be deployed over five years, running about 400 miles of fiber a year. As we're connecting homes, looking at those folks that would enjoy a voice or a data drop. So it's kind of an integrated project. Again, smart grid communications first and foremost for utility purposes, and then voice and data drops beyond that.

Bob Hance: You know our financial modeling bears the fact that we'll be cash positive after three years of building on our project, so we're very confident that despite the fact that we're in rural areas, there is an ability to realize a profit for the entity, so that beyond the five years, we can begin looking at those areas that are not an immediate part of our service footprint. It's been a very good and very positive project for us, and certainly resonates with members and non-members alike.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's clarify though Rural Utility Service financing. This is loan financing, right?

Dave Allen: Yeah, correct. We did receive a small, rural broadband experiment through the FCC. Bob has been very engaged in the past, advancing the notion that non-traditional providers of broadband services should be considered in the Connect America Fund, and as part of that, we applied for that rural broadband experiment, received a little more than $200,000. Probably the better part of that was just becoming eligible for the CAF phase 2 options, which will hopefully happen some time in 2017. But for the most part, yes, we are doing this through member equity, but there is an opportunity to engage CAF phase 2 and receive some funding that will really help us build out a little bit faster and perhaps consider some of the folks in those census blocks that we build out to that are not part of Midwest Energy.

Christopher Mitchell: Bob, I really want to make this very clear for everyone, that even though it took a tremendous amount of investment to take electricity to everyone, I don't think it really cost the American tax payers very much.

Bob Hance: I'm not trying to mix things together too much here. We have roughly $120,000,000 of plant that took us 80 years to build. What's interesting about this project is that although we are telling people that we're going to build 2,000 miles of fiber from scratch, and we're going to do it in five years, it doesn't seem to be fast enough. And the fact that it's nearly a $60,000,000 investment. So it can be done with the help of RUS, with respect to seeing the need and the opportunity, as Dave was projecting, the notion of smart grid and getting connections all the way to the home so that we can deal with in-home devices at some time in the future is invaluable.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. The point that I really want to hit on is that when the federal government is giving out loans, the budgetary impact is quite small compared to other programs. The electric co-ops receive billions of dollars of loans, followed by billions of dollars in repayments over many years and over decades, so the interest rate may have been subsidized, but overall, this type of program seems like a very reasonable investment.

Bob Hance: When you think about bang for the buck, I can't imagine that there is another federal program that you could point to that has been as successful, or as deeply successful as the REA RUS program, bar none.

Christopher Mitchell: That's what I want to hear.

Bob Hance: You think about this over time and what was accomplished with loan dollars as you pointed out may be subsidized a little bit with respect to the interest rates, but when you see what we've accomplished and what we continue to accomplish with those loan dollars, and now carrying on the position as we did with the electric systems now with another product that is becoming more and increasingly important in the mix with respect to services to folks, we're just repeating what we did back in the 30's.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned the CAF 2 dollars. That's one of the ways that the federal communications division is giving out these grants, but as we move into the final question of this show, I want to talk about the response from your members to this service. But first, let's just finish the CAF 2 discussion by noting that the FCC has just given, without any hope of repayment, these are just grants, billions of dollars to the biggest private telephone companies so that they can build out to the obsolete 10 Megabit down, 1 Megabit up standard. You all got $200,000 to deliver much faster connections. Do your members appreciate the difference between what you're doing, versus what that 10 Megabit by 1 Megabit minimum is?

Bob Hance: Chris, I think unfortunately most folks don't get it. Most folks don't really understand what's really happening with Universal Service Fund and now CAF. I think there would be a country-wide outcry! I think you would have pitch forks and other things arriving in our nation's capital if they knew what we know. Dave and I, having gone to the FCC for the last almost four years now and seeing firsthand how quickly it is to throw $30 billion through the fan without ever giving a second thought to what we are getting for the $30 billion other than second class citizenry for our folks getting 10/1 when the rest of the country is moving toward these other standards. It's close to being criminal. I fashion it to be like you just shoved one of those metal objects into the sore part of my mouth. It's just crazy. Even with CAF 2 and the struggles we've had to help them get rules in place so that you have this stupid auction in the first place. And all the restrictions on $2 billion that they never put on the $30 billion. It's just crazy. It's ludicrous.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, let me jump in quickly before you respond. I just want to make sure the people understand that making loan guarantees to co-ops requires a 10% budget hit. That is to say that doing $30 billion in loan guarantees requires budgeting only $3 billion. The $30 billion that is being misused from the CAF, from the Connect America Fund, that could have wired the entire country if it was spent in co-op loan guarantees. So now, Dave, can you please pile on?

Dave Allen: My only point in talking about the $30 billion, which has gone out the last 15 months to the price cap carries and rate of return carriers, is to point back to a conversation I had with Danna MacKenzie, who is the chief of Minnesota's broadband office, and they've set an appropriate benchmark of 25 download and 3 up, state-wide in terms of what they are promoting in the state of Minnesota, which is a national broadband standard. But of course that $30 billion went out with the only expectation that they build out to a 10/1 standard. So I had that chat with her, "Are you frustrated, are you disappointed?" And she said, "Immensely so." If the FCC from a policy standpoint had the intestinal fortitude to set that standard at 25/3, they essentially would have realized their goal well ahead of the date they had set, which I think was 2020 to hit that standard. Our frustration in going in and chatting with the FCC is, let's not set it at 10/1, let's at least set it at the broadband standard of 25/3 so that we can incent people to build out better networks like fiber going forward.

Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting that the Minnesota requirement is not only 25 Megabits by 3, but that you also have to be using a technology that can scale all the way up to a 100 Megabits. I think that's a really good approach.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think that's consistent with the New York standard now too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to make sure that we're wisely investing so that we don't have to spend more in three more years for a new round of upgrades on networks that we've just subsidized. But I want to end on a more positive note. Dave, can you give us a testimonial from your members explaining why this is so important?

Dave Allen: I mentioned that when we were out in Minneapolis. We've actually taken over 100 pages of testimonials in to the FCC and left them with commissioner offices because they do resonate. They hear from us, but to hear from our members, our customers, folks in the rural space, really resonates with those folks. And even now, when we go back out there, they ask if we've updated that because we get these testimonials daily. My favorite, and I'll let Bob chime in with a couple of his, but this person from Metridgeberg said, "We're so pleased with Midwest, as we thought this service would never come down our dirt lane off of a dirt road." I think that really explains what we're doing. We're not going out to the urban areas, areas of high density. We came down a dirt lane off of a dirt road to provide this person with gigabit-capable fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: And Bob, do you also have one that you would like to share?

Bob Hance: The one that's striking to me is this one. Another customer that's hooked up now says, "When you live out in the country, you learn that not all things are easy. Not all things are accessible at a moment's notice. The country teaches you patience and understanding. Today, with the blink of an eye, something that I was told would never happen to the rural people, we have Internet. Not by tether of a phone or an air card with an astronomical price tag on it. Thank you Midwest Connections for being the stand up people that you said you were. I cannot tell you thank you enough."

Dave Allen: I'd just add too, it's interesting how life-changing this is for people in our area. They have been used to poor service, dial-up service, and to have fiber optic available to them has been just amazing for them. It's taken me by surprise in all honesty.

Bob Hance: There is a certain class of people though who live in cities and might be thinking, "What do I get out of it if they have better Internet access out there in the country?" My answer is a thought experiment. What if we did not electrify the country with the REA, the Rural Electrification Administration, and we thereby save a few billions of dollars in federal budgeting over many decades, maybe, we don't even know that we would save that much. But if we did, we would also end up with smaller markets. We wouldn't have people being as productive in the rural areas, and they would not be buying things that other people are producing. And my point is that this is not charity. It's in my self interest, as someone living in St. Paul, to make bigger markets everywhere because we're going to have a better economy.

Dave Allen: We're seeing for the first time in our nation's history the fact that rural areas are losing population. As they continue, births aren't keeping up with the rural out-flight. As people move back to cities and urban centers to avail themselves of services like broadband, that's going to tax those urban centers from an infrastructure standpoint. That should be a concern to urban areas in terms of how to maintain roads, sewer systems, and things like that as people move back to cities.

Bob Hance: I'd like to remind folks, but for rural electrification and now this new valuable service with respect to particularly how farms operate today, we have the food out here. We're the producers!

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the food doesn't just magically appear in Kansas then, I guess! That's a good reminder. I'm excited about your project, and I really want to thank you for joining us on the call. Thank you very much.

Dave Allen: Chris, we have reminders of our past scattered throughout our office of when this co-op was constructing the lines back in the 30's. And one that's really striking to me is a lady who is reaching up to turn on that light bulb for the first time. And that's exactly what this feels like to all of us, and it's really helpful to get the kind of affirmations that we're getting from members. I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm with you. I think sometimes people say that this isn't as big as electricity, but when electricity was first rolling out, people didn't know where that was going to go either. So I think you're doing the right thing. What we have to do is make wise investments, and then let time do its thing.

Dave Allen: I like to think that we spend once. Build once, spend once.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much.

Dave Allen: Thank you, Chris!

Bob Hance: Thanks, Chris!

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Bob Hance, President and CEO from Midwest Energy Cooperative, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance from the cooperative. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family. You can do it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song "Bodacious," licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.


H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.

H.R. Trostle: Hi.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.

H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?

H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?

H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?

H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.

Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.

H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.

Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?

H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.

H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.

H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.

H.R. Trostle: Not at all.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.

H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.

H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?

H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?

H.R. Trostle: Just about.

Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?

H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.

H.R. Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.

H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.

Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.

H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"

H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?

H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.

H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.

Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.

Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."

H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.

Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.

H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?

H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?

H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.

H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.

H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.

Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."

H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.

Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.

H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Midwest Energy Cooperative Connects Rural Michigan - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 225

Telephone and electric cooperatives are making strides in bringing high-quality connectivity to rural areas while national providers stay in the city. This week we speak with two gentlemen from rural southwest Michigan’s Midwest Energy Cooperative: President and CEO Bob Hance and Vice President of Regulatory Compliance Dave Allen.

The electric cooperative has embarked on a project to bring fiber-optic connectivity to its members within its electric distribution grid. The multi-year project will bring better functionality to electric services and high-speed Internet access to areas of the state struggling with yesterday’s technologies. Bob and Dave describe the cooperative’s commitment to it’s members and discuss the deep roots of the cooperative in the region. They also touch on how the project is already improving lives in the areas that are being served.

Bob, Dave, and Chris, also spend some time discussing the difficulties that face rural cooperatives, especially regarding federal funding and its distribution. Serving sparsely populated areas is a challenge. Federal funding is often distributed more favorably to big corporate providers that promise to deliver much slower speeds than cooperatives like Midwest Energy. Co-ops are delivering better services, and building better networks with less federal funding; they also face higher hurdles to obtain that funding.

Why do they do it? Because they are invested in the future of their communities.

Read more about the project at the Midwest Connections Team Fiber website.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

National Cooperative Month: Celebrate Gigabit Cooperatives

Time to celebrate the work of rural cooperatives that bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses forgotten by national corporate providers. October is National Cooperative Month! Let’s celebrate some of the accomplishments of those cooperatives providing next-generation connectivity. 

We pulled together a list of cooperatives who were actively advertising residential access to a Gigabit (1,000 Mbps) at the end of 2015. These cooperatives rang in 2016 with Gigabit speeds, inspiring others to improve rural connectivity throughout the U.S.

To assemble the list, we used Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477 data from December 2015 to find all the providers advertising a residential Gigabit download speed. This generated a list of about 200 providers. Those providers were then manually sorted into “cooperative” or “not cooperative” based on publicly available information. If you would like to make a correction or suggestion concerning this list, please email htrostle@ilsr.org

2015’s Gigabit Cooperatives

  • Ace Telephone Association, also known as Ace Communications or AcenTek, in Minnesota
  • Adams Telephone Cooperative in Illinois
  • Albany Mutual Telephone Association in Minnesota
  • Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) in North Carolina
  • Ben Lomand in Tennessee
  • Breda Telephone, also known as Western Iowa Networks, in Iowa
  • Canby Telephone Association in Oregon
  • Chequamegon Communications Cooperative, also known as Norvado, in Wisconsin
  • Clay County Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Endeavor, in Indiana
  • logo-co-mo-connect.jpg

  • Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri
  • Cochrane Cooperative Telephone Company in Wisconsin
  • Danville Mutual Telephone Company in Iowa
  • Dickey Rural Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
  • Eastern Oregon Telecom in Oregon
  • Emery Telcom in Utah
  • ENMR Telephone Cooperative, also known as Plateau, in New Mexico
  • Gervais Telephone Company, also known as DataVision Cooperative, in Oregon
  • Farmers Cooperative Telephone Company in Iowa
  • Farmers Mutual Telephone Company in Iowa
  • Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama
  • Farmers Telephone Cooperative in South Carolina
  • Garden Valley Telephone in Minnesota
  • Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association in Minnesota
  • logo-gvt-coop.jpg

  • Guadalupe Valley Telephone Cooperative in Texas
  • Halstad Telephone Company in North Dakota
  • NineStar Connect in Indiana
  • Hill Country Telephone Cooperative in Texas
  • Kingdom Telephone Company in Missouri
  • LaValle Telephone Cooperative in Wisconsin
  • Lavaca Telephone Company, also known as Pinnacle, in Arkansas
  • Matanuska Telephone Association in Alaska
  • McDonough Telephone Cooperative in Illinois
  • Midwest Energy Cooperative, also known as Midwest Connections, in Michigan
  • Molalla Communications Company in Oregon
  • Nemont Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
  • North Central Telephone Cooperative in Kentucky
  • North Dakota Telephone Company in North Dakota
  • North Georgia Network in Georgia
  • Northwest Communications Cooperative in North Dakota
  • Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative in Minnesota
  • Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Kentucky
  • Peoples Telecommunications in Kansas
  • Phillips County Telephone Company in Colorado
  • Pineland Telephone Cooperative in Georgia
  • Polar Communication Mutual Aid Corporation in North Dakota
  • Red River Rural Telephone Association in North Dakota
  • Reservation Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
  • Richland-Grant Telephone Cooperative in Wisconsin
  • Roosevelt County Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Yucca Telecom, in New Mexico
  • logo-paulbunyan-coop.gif

  • RS Fiber Cooperative in Minnesota
  • Rural Telephone Service, also known as Nex-Tech, in Kansas
  • Santel Communications Cooperative, also known as Mitchell Telecom, in South Dakota
  • Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, also known as Sho-Me Technologies, in Missouri
  • Skyline Telephone Membership Corporation in North Carolina
  • South Central Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Kentucky
  • South Central Utah Telephone Association in Utah
  • Springville Cooperative Telephone Association in Iowa
  • Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Tennessee
  • UBTA-UBET Communications, also known as Strata Networks, in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming
  • United Electric Cooperative, also known as United Services, in Missouri
  • UTMA, also known as United Communications and Turtle Mountain Communications, in North Dakota
  • Valley Telephone Cooperative in Texas
  • Venture Communications Cooperative in South Dakota
  • Western Telephone Company in South Dakota
  • West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative in South Carolina
  • West Central Telephone in Minnesota
  • West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative in Kentucky
  • West Wisconsin Telcom Cooperative in Wisconsin
  • Wilkes Telecommunications in North Carolina

Smart Rural Communities

The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA -  the Rural Broadband Association) has also created the Smart Rural Communities Program to recognize the achievements of cooperatives taking on high-speed connectivity projects. The program includes a Gig-certification process. Even if a cooperative does not advertise a Gigabit (which means they won’t appear on our list), the cooperative still has the ability to provide Gigabit connectivity. Check out the NTCA map of those cooperatives at SmartRuralCommunity.com

logo-CTCcoop.jpg

2016’s Growing Gigabit Cooperatives

A number of other cooperatives have recently moved forward with Gigabit community projects. Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC), the telephone cooperative out of Brainerd, Minnesota, launched its Gigabit speed tier this year. This summer, the Custer Telephone Cooperative in rural Idaho announced a new fiber project. The cooperative’s current goal is to offers speeds of 100 Mbps, and eventually a Gigabit Internet access speeds. Other cooperatives are in the early stages of their fiber projects, such as Duck River Electric in Tennessee. The number of cooperatives taking on these projects continues to grow.

An increasing number of cooperatives are recognizing that high-speed Internet access is necessary to keep the rural U.S. competitive. Cooperatives are a community-owned, local solution to connectivity problems. You can learn about how telephone and electric cooperatives are leading the charge to bring high-quality Internet access to rural regions in North Carolina in our most recent report. Download a copy of North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks, Creative Commons license

H.R. Trostle On Co-ops, Munis, Connectivity In North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 224

In June, North Carolina released a report pronouncing that 93 percent of the state has access to broadband speeds. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who has been examining reporting data in North Carolina for the past year, came to some very different conclusions. In episode 224, she and Christopher talk about the report they co-authored, which gives a different perspective on the connectivity situation in the Tar Heel State.

In their report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Trostle discovered that, while urban areas have been well served by the big private providers, those same national companies have shunned rural areas. Instead, rural cooperatives and municipal networks are attempting to serve their residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. It isn’t easy, however, when state laws discourage investment and access to federal funding.

Trostle gets into her analysis of the data, its limitations, and what we can learn from both. She and Chris go through some of the recommendations they provide to the state of North Carolina as it moves forward. The obvious first step is to repeal the state’s barrier on municipal network expansion, which has caused real harm in Pinetops, North Carolina. They also offer advice on how to facilitate telephone and electric cooperative investment and what that could mean for rural North Carolina.

For more, take a few minutes to download the report, which offers useful maps of where to find various connection speeds in the state.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Duck River Co-op Considering Rural Fiber Future

Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) in Tennessee announced in September that it has launched a feasibility study to investigate ways to use a proposed fiber-optic network to bring better connectivity to members.

Exploring Added Value

According to the announcement, DREMC is considering investing in a fiber-optic loop to improve communications between its offices and substations. DREMC recognizes that this initial investment can be a first prudent step in considering the future of the cooperative and the vitality of rural Tennessee:

A fiber-optic loop has been proposed to connect all offices and substations, including the co-op’s emergency operations center. This project could also provide capacity for community purposes: fiber that could be leased to other parties, even Internet-to-home providers.

The broadband feasibility study will explore how the proposed fiber-optic loop might help improve connectivity in rural areas served by DREMC.

Within The Confines Of The Law

In Tennessee, electric cooperatives are prohibited from providing Internet access to residents, but DREMC still wants to use its publicly owned infrastructure for the benefit of members.

DREMC serves the areas south of Nashville. Columbia and Tullahoma are some of the more densely populated areas and have their own electric utilities, which also provide Gigabit connectivity. Rural areas outside of the cities rely on cooperatives like DREMC for electricity; the state restrictions will keep those communities in that last century for Internet access because national providers have no desire to serve them. 

From the announcement:

“This is a first but very important step,” says DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson.

“Today, so much depends on connectivity. Economic development, job creation and retention, healthcare, education, and public service are all enhanced by access to broadband Internet. But many rural households and communities do not have the connectivity they need.”

Watson describes the situation as very similar to the mid-1930s when electric cooperatives were created to bring central station power to rural America.

“Co-ops found ways to build power distribution systems at lower cost, using a non-profit business model based on member ownership, local control, innovation and dedication to community. We believe the same cooperative principles might be applied today to solve the broadband connectivity problem in southern Middle Tennessee,” he says.

Action In The State Capitol?

There is a faction of Tennessee legislators pursuing changes in state laws to improve local connectivity. Those changes focus on municipal network restrictions, but laws for cooperatives could be close behind. By investing in the infrastructure, DREMC is cleverly positioned to either lease to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or offer services directly if the law changes in the future.

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