Two more electric cooperatives recently announced plans to build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to connect their rural members in the southeastern United States with high-quality Internet access.
The co-ops, Mississippi County Electric Cooperative (MCEC) in Arkansas and Monroe County Electric Power Association (EPA) in Mississippi, will partner with Conexon to manage network design, buildout, and implementation. Conexon has worked with dozens of rural electric cooperatives across the country to deploy broadband access to better serve their member-owners.
Rural communities in the southeast have long struggled with unreliable, unaffordable connectivity, and the current Covid-19 pandemic is further amplifying the health, education, and economic disparities that result from inequitable Internet access. But rural cooperatives, in the region and beyond, are stepping up to meet their members’ broadband needs.
Arkansas Co-op Continues Through Crisis
Late last month in a Conexon press release, MCEC announced that it was launching a new subsidiary, MCEC Fiber, to offer its members Internet access with speeds up to one Gigabit per second symmetrical. With its new 600-mile fiber network, MCEC will join several other electric co-ops in Arkansas, including Ozarks Electric Cooperative and Craigshead Electric Cooperative Corporation, that have invested in broadband infrastructure for their communities.
MCEC President and CEO Brad Harrison said in the release:
We have long seen the need of our members and communities for reliable and fast internet service, given that it has become a necessity in many parts of life . . . This network is important for our community, and Conexon opened our eyes to the fact that not only could we provide the service, but we could offer a gold-plated solution to our members.
Construction is already underway, and the co-op plans to complete the network build in five years. MCEC hopes to connect its first members to the growing fiber network sometime this year.
Jonathan Chambers, Partner at Conexon, described the value of the co-op’s undertaking in the context of the current pandemic:
At a time of uncertainty, one thing is certain: The world is interconnected in many ways, and the future of information, education, work, healthcare, shopping, social connection and entertainment are all tied to internet access . . . While much of the world has hit the pause button, MCEC is moving forward.
First REA Co-op Follows Suit
In Mississippi, the first Rural Electrification Association cooperative in the country, Monroe County EPA, decided to enter the broadband business as well, empowered by state legislation lifting the prohibition on electric cooperatives offering Internet access. Since the state law change in early 2019, several Mississippi co-ops have announced their own fiber projects, including North East Mississippi EPA and Tallahatchie Valley EPA.
Monroe County EPA’s new broadband network, M-Pulse Fiber, will connect cooperative members to symmetrical gigabit speeds. The 1,500 mile fiber network will cost approximately $29 million to build, according to a press release from Conexon.
In the release, Chambers explained how the project fits into the co-op’s long history:
Monroe County EPA [Director] Tom Crook once told me about his grandfather’s role in establishing Monroe County EPA, which was the first REA (now RUS) electric co-op in the country . . . Monroe County EPA has sustained the community with electricity for over eighty years. It will now bring that same commitment to service and provide both electricity and broadband to the community for the next 80 years.
Construction on the network will start before the end of the year, but Monroe County EPA has already started on the engineering work. Yesterday, the co-op shared on Facebook a picture of General Manager Barry Rowland affixing a tag for the new fiber network onto a utility pole to kick off the project. Excited members left comments like, “Can I love this post twice?” and “Congrats on changing lives,” and posted memes to celebrate.
Monroe County EPA plans to connect the first members to the new fiber network in early 2021, and members — who need Internet access now more than ever — can’t wait. Rowland told local news station WCBI:
With the schools, the situation we’re dealing with, we’ve allowed Wi-Fi access in our parking lot here. One of our members, she thanked me because she comes to our parking lot and watches their church service. I think it will be great for the whole communities we serve.
Conexon Connects Co-ops to Funds
Through its work with electric cooperatives, Conexon has helped many of its partners access federal funding for rural broadband deployment. In 2018, the company organized the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium, which was one of the largest winners in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction. Listen to Jonathan Chambers talk about the auction results on episode 321 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below.
Conexon plans to reprise its performance with the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium in this year’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The upcoming reverse auction will distribute approximately $20 billion to rural broadband providers over two rounds of funding. Learn more about the upcoming auction on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, which also featured Chambers. Listen below.