Research on Rural Connectivity Power from Electric Co-ops at BBC Mag Conference

In October in Minneapolis, Broadband Communities Magazine hosted the “Fiber for the New Economy” conference. The first day featured a set of four panels on the role of rural electric cooperatives in providing much-needed connectivity to far-flung communities.

We want to provide the highlights and give further context to some of the most fascinating stories. In this post, we’ll cover some of the latest research coming out of Ball State University’s Center for Information and Communication Sciences.

Indiana’s Electric Cooperatives 

Researcher Emma Green from Ball State University kicked off the track. Her presentation, “Rural Broadband: Technical and Economic Feasibility,” outlined the potential role of rural electric cooperatives in facilitating last mile (connectivity to homes and business) and middle mile (regional connectivity) deployment. 

Green's research centered on Indiana, where 14 percent of the population does not have broadband access (speeds of at least 25 Megabits (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload). In rural areas of the state, however, more than half of the population does not have access to those speeds. Green's research underscored how rural electric cooperatives can use their assets (such as Smart Grids, Right-of-Way access, and pole ownership) to facilitate middle mile connectivity. 

We previously noted some of this research from Ball State University in our post BBC Mag Spotlights Rural Electric Co-ops. Focusing on the middle mile is not always a pathway to long-term last mile solutions, and our Christopher Mitchell has often pointed out those pitfalls. Unless a provider is willing to invest in the critical last mile connections, middle mile networks have only a minimal impact.

Green, however, did not stop at the middle mile. She brought her presentation back to bear on last mile connectivity. Electric cooperatives are in a great position to partner with other entities to provide services. They could also simply move forward with last mile fiber projects themselves. Green’s research provides a model for how cooperatives could potentially serve a large portion of a state’s rural population.

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Conclusions on Co-ops

Electric cooperatives can indeed work together to solve the connectivity problem in rural communities. This is much like what we proposed in our report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Chris and I discuss our methodology and findings included in the report in this short interview on PRX.

We've seen similar activity in Michigan. Christopher recently interviewed two leaders at Midwest Energy Cooperative (based out of Cassopolis, Michigan) for episode #225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Midwest Energy Cooperative is working with nine other electric cooperatives on a concerted effort to bring next-generation high-speed Internet service to rural homes throughout the state. 

Stay tuned for more on the role of rural electric cooperatives and the Broadband Community Magazine’s conference.