Over the summer, Windstream and Colquitt Electric Membership Corporation announced that the two entities will work together to expand fiber optic Internet access throughout the electric co-op’s service territory in rural south Georgia. Windstream, the fifth largest telephone company in the nation, will maintain ownership of the newly deployed network and use it to offer its Kinetic broadband services to residents and businesses, while Colquitt, which has more than 45,000 members, will take advantage of the fiber connectivity to improve the management of its electric grid.
The announcement came one year after Georgia lawmakers clarified that electric cooperatives in the state are able to invest in broadband infrastructure to serve their members and established guidelines for co-ops that want to get into the business.
Working Out the Details
According to Telecompetitor, the project will expand Fiber-to-the-Home connectivity and gigabit speeds to Colquitt members who currently have access to Windstream’s much slower DSL services.
Windstream plans to use Colquitt’s labor force and its Rights-of-Way and electric poles to help deploy the network, but the telephone company will own the actual fiber optic lines. Colquitt will receive an indefeasible right of use (IRU) for some of the fiber capacity for internal uses and smart grid applications.
The two companies have not released details on the construction plan or locations yet.
Partnership Pros and Cons
Typically, electric co-ops that partner with a broadband provider to offer connectivity to their members choose to work with a nearby telephone co-op or a locally-owned company, though many electric co-ops do decide to provide the services themselves. For example, Minnesota-based CTC has partnered with a number of rural electric co-ops in the state, including Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative and Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, on broadband projects. Cooperative leaders tend to find that their principles are more closely aligned with other locally-rooted companies that share their main goal of serving the community rather than maximizing profits. Colquitt’s agreement with Windstream, and a similar project between Butler Rural Electric Cooperative and Cincinnati Bell in Ohio, are exceptions to the general practice.
Unlike the arrangement between Colquitt and Windstream, electric co-ops often choose to maintain ownership over at least the fiber backbone of the new broadband network. This gives the co-op more control over how the infrastructure is used and the services that are made available to local residents and businesses. Without seeing their contracts, it’s hard to say whether Colquitt has any guarantee of the quality of Windstream’s broadband offerings, its prices, or its customer service.
That being said, we hope to see national Internet service providers (ISPs) partner more frequently with community-owned broadband networks, especially in instances where the local entity invests in the infrastructure and leases access to the ISP — such as Springfield, Missouri’s partnership with CenturyLink. This model allows local governments and cooperatives to stimulate broadband expansion and maintain some level of control without having to become an ISP themselves.