Pierce Pepin Electric Cooperative (PPEC), headquartered in Ellsworth, Wisconsin (pop. 3,300), announced in July of 2021 the start of a new phase of life, and the beginning of a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project that will connect its 6,800 members by 2025.
The $32 million-dollar project was begun at the end of last year. The move, powered by financial commitment from the cooperative but also state grants so far, will roughly double the cooperative’s physical plant assets, and ensure that member-owners will get fast, locally accountable broadband access for the lifetime of the infrastructure.
Bringing Service to Areas Ignored by Others
Incorporated in 1937, today PPEC serves the majority of Pierce County and parts of Buffalo, Pepin, and St. Croix counties just across the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, along the Mississippi River.
It operates almost 1,350 miles of electric lines, about half of which are overhead and half underground, with 12 substations scattered throughout its territory. The cooperative serves an average of 5.7 households per mile. More than 90 percent of its member-owners live on residential properties or farms, though it has 600 commercial and industrial accounts and also powers more than three dozen public authority cites.
The move towards broadband for PPEC, as with so many other electric cooperatives around the country, has been driven by dual forces: an internal push by member owners, and the lack of any evidence that outside providers will expand new infrastructure to the area anytime soon.
Frankly, the last year has taught us how important broadband is to our members. And for the last 20-25 years, no one else has done it. And there's been a lot of desire by our rural residents, especially in Pierce and Pepin counties to have access to high speed quality Internet service. The tier one providers just haven't come out into the rural areas, no different than it was back in the late 1930s with electric service when investor owned utilities wanting to go into high density areas and serve where it was more cost effective from them, we've seen that same thing with broadband.
In October, the cooperative announced it had won a Public Service Commission grant from the state for almost $7 million, or a little less than a quarter of the total projected buildout. The grant will speed construction in nine areas, including Clifton, El Paso, Ellsworth, Hartland, Kinnickinnic, Martell, Oak Grove, River Falls, and Trimbelle. It was included in the $100 million in broadband funding announced by the state at the end of October.
There’s no word yet on pricing or speed tiers.
For wonderful footage of lineman climbing poles in the old days, check out the short video of Pierce Pepin Electric Cooperative below.