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.