In the 1930s, rural communities joined together through electric cooperatives to bring electricity to their homes and businesses. Today, rural electric co-ops may have the power to bring Internet access to these same communities.
A recent Broadband Communities Magazine article highlights this potential for rural electric co-ops. In the article, Dr. Robert Yadon and D. Bracken Ross of the Digital Policy Institute at Ball State University explain the results of their recent study.
Electric Co-Ops as Regional Networks
Yadon and Bracken looked into 30 private sector Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) providers in Indiana and 16 rural electric co-ops providing Internet service around the nation. After predicting engineering costs, the researchers highlighted a dozen Indiana rural electric co-ops that could serve as regional hubs of connectivity.
The researchers developed a specific process for rural electric co-ops interested in providing Internet access. In summary, they propose:
“For REMCs [Rural Electric Membership Cooperatives], the process begins with a commitment to a middle-mile, smart grid fiber deployment connecting their substations, followed by a phased-approach business model with strategic growth focusing on last-mile customer density. Exploring local business partnership underwriting opportunities, examining the use of an efficient regional network design and combining multiple federal funding programs are the keys to rural broadband deployment success down the road.”
We don’t necessarily agree with these proposals. Our Christopher Mitchell has written many times about how middle mile cannot solve the last mile problems. The incremental approach based on customer density can repeat some of the same problems we’ve seen with cable and telephone companies - skipping over the most rural and smallest localities. Relying on federal funds is not always necessary. In fact, the researchers point to the success of a co-op that continued on after being denied a federal grant.
Pioneering Electric Co-Ops are Models
Yadon and Bracken pointed to the incremental approach taken by several rural electric co-ops, particularly Co-Mo Electric. The researchers noted how Co-Mo Electric was able to build out the network overtime to the rest of their electric service area.
Co-Mo Connect, part of Co-Mo Electric, provides some of the fastest Internet service in the nation to rural Missouri. On MuniNetworks.org, we've covered Co-Mo Connect’s journey to connectivity. After being denied a federal stimulus grant, in 2012 the co-op forged ahead and built a next-generation network. Chris spoke with the previous General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, Randy Klindt, in Community Broadband Bits Episode 140. Klindt now works for Ozarks Electric Cooperative as they deveop their own FTTH project.
Local Entities With Vision
Although Yadon and Bracken’s recommendations are not quite spot on, one of their final statements is compelling:
“Only those local entities with a vision and a local, vested interest in providing a long-term solution for ubiquitous broadband service to rural areas will succeed.”
Rural electric cooperatives need to be focused on the future of the community. The recent ILSR report, “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative,” from our co-workers in the Energy Democracy Initiative underscores how rural electric cooperatives have so much potential if they only engage and activate their memberships. Rural areas need to part of the new economies (from renewable energy to telecommuting), and rural electric cooperatives need to realize their potential.