Electric Coop Green Lights Fiber Pilot Project

Electric coops empowered communities during rural electrification in the 1930s, connecting people to power grids. Now electric coops have the opportunity again to empower communities through affordable, high-speed connectivity. In Colorado, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) is moving forward with a pilot project for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Unanimous Decision for Fiber

In late December 2015, the DMEA Board of Directors gave the green light to start the pilot project. The move to provide connectivity comes as no surprise. DMEA considered providing middle mile connectivity for a long while before coming to the decision to instead deploy FTTH. If the coop had chosen to develop the middle mile network, they would not have connected members’ homes, but instead would have built infrastructure connecting to the larger Internet. 

Many projects funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds were built as middle mile networks. At the time, policy makers theorized that middle mile projects would encourage private sector last mile providers to complete the link to subscribers. Over time, this theory has proven too optimistic. Municipalities and smaller private providers are connecting to middle mile networks in some places, but the large scale build out expected from big name providers is just not happening.

For DMEA, FTTH is their solution: building a larger network and taking the fiber directly to members’ homes. Virginia Harman, DMEA spokesperson, described the decision to do FTTH as a reaction to member demand. In a recent survey, members highlighted the importance of high-speed Internet access for their homes. The goal now is to build the network in a sustainable way.

Phased Approach to Connectivity

Providing high-speed Internet access to all members will prove a challenge; DMEA serves over 32,000 members throughout three counties (Montrose, Delta, and Gunnison) in Colorado. To complete the task, they will use an incremental approach. As members generate interest in the project in each specific area, the coop will install fiber optic cable in that region. Revenue from that section will help fund the next section of the build, and so on. The process will slowly - over several years - build the network to reach every member.

Some of the infrastructure for a FTTH network is already in place. Electric cooperatives, such as DMEA, have incorporated fiber optic networks to communicate with and monitor different sections of the electrical grid. Now DMEA will choose a location for the pilot project based on where there is member interest and current fiber optic cables.

Coops Expanding Access

DMEA is just one of several electric coops to take on the challenge of providing Internet service. Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri intends to provide affordable Internet access via fiber to all members by the end of 2016. At DMEA, the Chief Executive Officer Jason Bronec explained how the FTTH pilot project keeps with the spirit of electric coops:

“Since my arrival at DMEA, I can’t remember a time when broadband Internet wasn’t on the minds of our members. Our communities are underserved and looking for help… It’s a story not unfamiliar to co-ops. Co-ops were instrumental in lighting up rural America once. Now we’re doing it again.”