More and more electric cooperatives have been building broadband networks to bring better Internet access to their rural members. According to the cleverly titled podcast “Along Those Lines” from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), that trend isn’t stopping any time soon.
In the second episode of the podcast, host Scot Hoffman, editor of RE Magazine, speaks with guests Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative, and Brian O’Hara, regulatory issues director for NRECA. They discuss the growing interest in broadband among electric cooperatives, some of the hurdles co-ops must overcome when deploying networks, and the impact that better connectivity has on Rural America.
Highlights From Their Conversation
A few years ago, the field of cooperative broadband was populated only by the early adopters. Now, Keyser tells the podcast host, “It seems like we’re reaching this tide where everybody’s now talking about [broadband] at every conference we go to.” One of the reasons for this groundswell of enthusiasm, O’Hara explains, is the increasingly vital role of communications infrastructure in managing the electric grid. Cooperatives’ commitment to local economic development and their “strategic advantages” in deploying networks also plays a role, he says.
BARC Electric Cooperative is one of the dozens of co-ops that have built fiber networks to connect their members. In the podcast, Keyser relates how the co-op ultimately decided to move forward with BARC Connects despite challenges:
“We finally got to the point as a co-op where the board said, look, this is going to revitalize our community, this is our mission, this is what we did 80 years ago . . . We need to just go. This is too important to the community and to the co-op.”
Local residents are clearly excited about the new network. “The single biggest question I get asked everyday is ‘When is it coming to my house?’” shares Keyser. He even believes that revenue from the broadband network will one day outstrip the co-op's income from selling electricity, a testament to the community’s need for better connectivity.
Later in the podcast, O’Hara argues that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should consider raising its definition of broadband, which is currently 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. He explains:
“If [the FCC is] going to give out money to build 25/3, that’s meeting today’s minimum . . . It’s not going to necessarily meet the needs in the future. And we think that as the federal government looks to put out its limited resources towards broadband, it should look at higher speeds.”
In some cases, O’Hara continues, the FCC is funding large providers to offer speeds of just 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload in rural areas. “We don’t think that’s right,” O’Hara remarks. “That’s almost setting up a second class citizen status for some of these communities.” At the same time, many electric co-ops are using more modest federal funding to build future-proof fiber networks capable of gigabit speeds.
Some electric cooperatives decided to build broadband networks only after other providers refused to connect their rural members. “They kept waiting for someone else to come in and solve the problem, and no one did,” says O’Hara. In many ways, this parallels how cooperatives originally electrified their rural communities after they were left behind by the electric utilities. Keyser recounts what another cooperative leader said to him about bringing Internet access to their members:
“It is as close as we’re going to get to what it felt like to turn people’s lights on for the first time.”
Listen to the podcast here or at the "Along Those Lines" website.
More Resources on Electric Cooperative Broadband Projects
Listen the other episodes of “Along Those Lines” on the NRECA website.
To learn more about the electric cooperatives connecting Rural America, check out the rural electric co-ops story tag or visit our page on rural cooperatives. Prefer to learn with your ears instead of your eyes? The rural cooperatives page has a list of relevant Community Broadband Bits episodes for more.