Cooperatives Build Community Networks

 

 

Cooperatives around the country have built on their long legacy of delivering essential infrastructure by starting to deliver next-generation Internet services. Here, we cover the basics of cooperatives in rural areas and then discuss the details of electric and telephone cooperatives that have already branched out into Internet service. Finally, we highlight the first Internet fiber optic cooperative and discuss how other communities have better Internet service through building their own networks.

 

Why Rural Cooperatives?

Cooperatives are part of the fabric of rural America. The member owners control the cooperative: each person receiving service is a member of the cooperative and can directly vote in elections for the Board of Directors or even become a member of the Board.  

Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported communities as they created more than 900 electric cooperatives across the country.  In the 1950s, the federal government again supported communities building telephone networks, crisscrossing the country with telephone cooperatives to connect rural communities.

Each technology brought new markets, revitalized economies, and revolutionized industries. Cooperatives have a long history of building and maintaining essential infrastructure and providing excellent service in rural communities. Now they have the chance to do that again by building next-generation networks for Internet service.

 

Rural Public Policies

Minnesota House ChambersRural areas face a number of challenges that urban and suburban communities do not.  Low population density coupled with rough terrain can make building infrastructure challenging. Added to these factors, rural communities may not have access to the same financial resources as larger towns and cities do. 

Cooperatives, however, have made infrastructure projects work in rural communities for nearly a century.  They have access to funding from their membership base, local banks, and often the federal government. Some state governments have expanded their broadband grant and loan programs to include electric cooperatives. Other states have clarified laws and policies to recognize that electric cooperatives can build fiber networks for Internet service using their current infrastructure. A few states, however, have hurdles that stymy investments by electric cooperatives. Technically, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Section 253, prohibits states from stopping any co-op from offering Internet service, but co-ops in many states are loathe to challenge state law in court.

seal of north carolina

North Carolina

The state government prevents electric cooperatives from using USDA funding for non-electrical purposes. In our 2016 report, North Carolina Connectivity: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we highlight how the state’s electric cooperatives could provide service to many unserved and underserved rural communities throughout North Carolina. 

Tennessee SealTennessee

In 2017, this state has clarified the language in its laws to allow electric cooperatives to build networks for Internet service. 

Indiana Seal

Indiana

Cooperatives already have access to the utility poles, easements, and rights-of-way throughout the communities that they serve. Indiana, however, needed to clarify that electric cooperatives can indeed use this access to provide Internet service. Indiana passed the FIBRE Act to ensure that the state was not preventing electric cooperatives from providing Internet service. 

seal of Minnesota

Minnesota & Colorado

Minnesota and Colorado have made funding easier to access for cooperatives interested in providing Internet service. Both states have designed grant programs that promote local solutions to connectivity problems. In Minnesota, cooperatives provide most of the Fiber-to-the-Home Internet service thanks in no small part to that grant program. 

Overbuild Or Underbuild?

In Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 91, Christopher Mitchell and Lisa Gonzalez discusses strategies for building Internet infrastructure in rural are. What do communities need to thrive? 

Listen to the podcast.

 

Electric Cooperatives

More than 900 rural electric cooperatives provide electricity to about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Their service area, however, covers more than half of the total land, nearly 2 million square miles. About 50 rural electric co-ops have embarked on fiber optic projects to increase Internet access for their members. 

Several of these electric cooperatives started by building fiber optic lines to substations and large demand centers to increase the reliability of the electric system through better monitoring. This could then form the backbone of a network for Internet service to businesses and residents. 

 

Articles and Interviews

We have written many articles and collected several reports detailing how electric cooperatives have tried to increase Internet access in their communities. These stories show the many different ways electric cooperatives have structured partnerships and programs for their members.

electric/telephone utility poleSeveral electric cooperatives provide Internet service themselves. Some started pilot projects, while others built out to their entire service area. The Fiber-to-the-Home project by Valley Electric Association boosted the local economy in Pahrump, Nevada. The co-op has already added 31 new jobs because of the fiber service. 

Others partner with an existing telephone cooperative or telephone company. Ouachita Electric in Arkansas is one of the many cooperatives to have done this. By combining their resources and expertise, this partnership is able to extend electric and Internet service throughout much of southern Arkansas.

Many electric cooperatives work together, such as Sho-Me Power in Missouri and LS Networks in Oregon. These cooperatives have provided connectivity for local ISPs and businesses, and now are looking to connect residents.  

In episode 229 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Jon Chambers, the former head of the FCC Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, describes how electric cooperatives have the potential to bring Internet access to unserved rural America. 

Mel Coleman, president of NRECA and CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, joined the podcast in episode 243 to discuss how the electric co-op had improved Internet access for its members and what other cooperatives are doing.

Find more in our archives.

 

List of Fiber Projects

This is a list of the rural electric cooperatives that have programs and projects to increase connectivity in their service areas. They do not all provide Fiber-to-the-Home. Some only offer fiber connections to businesses while others focus on dark fiber and fiber transport services for other Internet Service Providers. (Total: 60) (Last updated: 09/2017)

Electric Cooperative State Project

North Alabama Electric Cooperative

Alabama

FTTH; collaboration with telephone company

Tombigbee Electric Cooperative

Alabama

FTTH

North Arkansas Electric Co-op (NEXT)

Arkansas

FTTH

Ouachita Electric Co-op (ARIS)

Arkansas

FTTH; collaboration with telephone company

Ozarks Electric Cooperative (OzarksGo)

Arkansas

FTTH Pilot Project

South Central Electric Cooperative

Arkansas

FTTH (announcement)

Plumas-Sierra REC (Telecommunications)

California

Fiber backbone with wireless

Anza Electric Co-op, Inc.

California

FTTH

Ciello (San Luis Valley REC)

Colorado

FTTH

SECOM (Southeast Colorado Power Association)

Colorado

FTTB

Delta-Montrose Electric Association (Elevate)

Colorado

FTTH

North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN Connect) & Georgia Communications Cooperative

Georgia

FTTB and Schools

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC

Georgia &
North Carolina

FTTH

Jackson County REMC

Indiana

FTTH

Johnson County REMC

Indiana

FTTH Pilot Project

NineStar Connect

Indiana

FTTH

Midwest Energy Cooperative

Michigan

FTTH

Arrowhead Electric Cooperative

Minnesota

FTTH

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative

Minnesota

FTTH; collaboration with telephone company

Callaway Electric

Missouri

FTTH

United Electric Coop (United Fiber)

Missouri

FTTH

Ralls County Electric Cooperative

Missouri

FTTH

Barry Electric Co-op

Missouri

FTTH Pilot Project

Co-Mo Electric Co-op (Co-Mo Connect)

Missouri

FTTH

SEMO Electric Cooperative

Missouri

FTTH (announcement)

Crawford Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Gascoasage Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Intercounty Electric Cooperative Association - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Laclede Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Southwest Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

Webster Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

White River Valley Electric Cooperative - Sho Me Power

Missouri

FTTB & Transport Services

French Broad Electric Membership Corporation

North Carolina

FTTB & Dark Fiber

Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation (as BlueWaveNC)

North Carolina

FTTH; collaboration with telephone company

Roanoke Electric Cooperative

North Carolina

Dark Fiber

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, Inc.

New Mexico

FTTH

Continental Divide Electric Co-op

New Mexico

FTTH Pilot Project

Delaware County Electric Cooperative

New York

FTTH; collaboration with telephone company

Otsego Electric Cooperative

New York

FTTH (announcement)

Consolidated Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Ohio

FTTB and Dark Fiber

Lake Region Electric Co-op, Inc.

Oklahoma

FTTH

Northeast Oklahoma Electric Co-op (Bolt Fiber Optic Service & RecTec)

Oklahoma

FTTH

Douglas Electric Coop (Douglas FastNet & LS Networks)

Oregon

FTTH

Central Electric Co-op - LS Networks

Oregon

FTTB & Transport Services

Hood River Electric Co-op - LS Networks & CACHE Communications

Oregon

FTTB & Transport Services

Umatilla Electric Co-op - LS Networks

Oregon

FTTB & Transport Services

West Oregon Electric Co-op - LS Networks

Oregon

FTTB & Transport Services

Mid-Carolina Electric Co-op (Carolina Connect)

South Carolina

FTTH

Appalachian Electric Cooperative

Tennessee

Dark Fiber

Gibson EMC

Tennessee

Transport Services

Tri-County Electric Cooperative

Tennessee

FTTH

Grayson-Collin Electric Cooperative

Texas

FTTH Pilot Project

Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Texas

FTTH

Bandera Electric Co-op

Texas

FTTH

Barc Electric Coop

Virginia

FTTH

Prince George Electric Cooperative (PG Electric)

Virginia

FTTH Pilot Project

Orcas Power & Light Co-op (Rock Island Communications)

Washington

FTTH

 

Telephone Cooperatives

There are about 260 telephone cooperatives in the United States. Many provide Internet service as a natural extension of their existing infrastructure. Many started out by providing dial-up and DSL services, but only recently have begun to transition to Fiber-to-the-Home. Some have already transitioned to an all-fiber network, having upgraded everyone in their territory to fiber.

The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) has a gigabit certification program in order to draw attention to how many small telephone companies cooperatives have built these next-generation networks. 

Articles & Interviews

We have featured a number of these cooperatives on our website. Some cooperatives choose to work with local governments or electric cooperatives while others focus on providing service alone. Below is just a small selection of the many cooperatives that have built Fiber-to-the-Home networks. image of telephone poles

In Michigan, a rural telephone cooperative got its start in the early 2000s. The community went from sparse telephone service to state-of-the-art Internet service. Read more about Allband Communications Cooperatives unique story here.

Paul Bunyan Communications Cooperative in Minnesota has expanded their GigaZone throughout the northern half of the state, including Red Lake Nation.

In Missouri, Callaway Electric Cooperative and Kingdom Telephone Company (the local telephone co-op) teamed up to form a new company together called Callabyte Technology to deliver Fiber-to-the-Home service.

Episode 188 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast features Eric Cramer, the President and CEO of Wilkes Communications/RiverStreet Networks. He explained how the telephone cooperative has built a Fiber-to-the-Home network throughout several counties in northern North Carolina.

Read more in our archives.

 

The First Internet Cooperative

Cooperatives are not just telephone and electric. There is now a workable model for Internet cooperatives created from scratch. RS Fiber in Minnesota is the first cooperative formed for the express purpose of providing reliable, high-speed Internet service. 

We have extensive coverage of how RS Fiber started and the rural communities they have connected. Read more in our report RS Fiber Fertile Fields: New Rural Internet Cooperative.

 

More Resources

List of Gigabit Cooperatives

These cooperatives offer a gigabit to residents within their service areas. This list includes only those gigabit cooperatives found with FCC Form 477 data through June 2016. (Total: 87) (Last updated: 10/2017)

Gigabit Cooperative State Type
Ace Telephone Association, also known as Ace Communications or AcenTek Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa Telephone
Adams Telephone Cooperative Illinois Telephone
Albany Mutual Telephone Association Minnesota Telephone
Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation North Carolina Telephone
Ben Lomand Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Ben Lomand Communications, Ben Lomand Connect, and parent company of Volunteer First Services Tennesseee Telephone
Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative Inc Tennesseee Telephone
Bulloch Telephone Cooperative Georgia Telephone
Callabyte Technology, a project from Callaway Electric Cooperative and Kingdom Telephone Cooperative Missouri Electric
Canby Telephone Association Oregon Telephone
Chequamegon Communications Cooperative, also known as Norvado Wisconsin Telephone
Citizens Mutual Telephone Cooperative Iowa Telephone
Citizens Telephone Cooperative Wisconsin Telephone
Clay County Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Endeavor Indiana Telephone
Co-Mo Communications Missouri Electric
Cochrane Cooperative Telephone Company Wisconsin Telephone
Columbus Telephone, also known as Fiber Communications of Columbus and Optic Communications Kansas Telephone
Craw Kan Telephone Cooperative Inc Kansas Telephone
Danville Mutual Telephone Company Iowa Telephone
Dickey Rural Telephone Cooperative North Dakota Telephone
Douglas Electric Cooperative, also known as Douglas Services or Douglas Fast Net Oregon Electric
Eastern Oregon Telecom Oregon Telephone
Emery Telephone Utah Telephone
Farmers Cooperative Telephone Company Iowa Telephone
Farmers Mutual Telephone Company, also known as Villisca Farmers Telephone Company Iowa Telephone
Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative Alabama Telephone
Farmers Telecommunications Corporation Alabama Telephone
Farmers Telephone Cooperative South Carolina Telephone
Farmers Telephone Cooperative, also known as FTC Diversified Services South Carolina Telephone
Garden Valley Telephone Company Minnesota Telephone
Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association   Telephone
Gervais Telephone Company, also known as DataVision Communications Oregon Telephone
Guadalupe Valley Telephone Cooperative, Guadalupe Valley Communications Systems Texas Telephone
Habersham Electric Membership Corporation Georgia Electric
Halstad Telephone Company Minnesota Telephone
Hill Country Telephone Cooperative Texas Telephone
Kingdom Telephone Company Missouri Telephone
Lavalle Telephone Cooperative Inc Wisconsin Telephone
Matanuska Telephone Association Alaska Telephone
McDonough Telephone Cooperative, also known as MTC Communications Illinois Telephone
Mid Century Telephone Cooperative Illinois Telephone
Midwest Energy Cooperative, also known as Midwest Connections Michigan Electric
Molalla Telephone Company, also known as Molalla Communications Company Oregon Telephone
Mountain Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation Kentucky Telephone
Nemont Telephone Cooperative Montana Telephone
New Lisbon Telephone Indiana Telephone
NineStar Connect, also known as Central Indiana Communications Indiana Electric & Telephone Cooperative
North Central Telephone Cooperative Tennessee; Kentucky Telephone
North Dakota Telephone Company North Dakota Telephone
North Georgia Network Cooperative Georgia Electric & Telephone Cooperative
Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, also known as Northeast Rural Services Oklahoma Electric
Northwest Communications Cooperative North Dakota Telephone
Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative Minnesota Telephone
Peak Internet, owned by Pioneer Consolidated, Consumers Power, and Stayton Cooperative Telephone Company Oregon Electric & Telephone Cooperative
Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative Kentucky Telephone
Peoples Telecommunications Kansas Telephone
Phillips County Telephone Company, also known as PC Telcom Colorado Telephone
Pineland Telephone Cooperative Georgia Telephone
Plateau Telecommunications, also known as ENMR Telephone Cooperative New Mexico Telephone
Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications California Electric
Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation North Dakota Telephone
Red River Rural Telephone Association North Dakota Telephone
Reservation Telephone Cooperative North Dakota Telephone
Richland-Grant Telephone Cooperative_ Inc. Wisconsin Telephone
Rural Telephone Service Cooperative, also known as Nex-Tech Kansas Telephone
SECOM, subsidiary of Southeast Colorado Power Association Colorado Electric
Sho-Me Technologies Missouri Electric
Skyline Telephone Membership Corporation, also known as SkyBest Communications North Carolina Telephone
South Central Telephone Cooperative Kentucky Telephone
South Central Utah Telephone Association Utah Telephone
Southwest Arkansas Telephone Cooperative Arkansas Telephone
Springville Cooperative Telephone Association_ Inc. Iowa Telephone
Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative Corporation Tennessee Telephone
UBTA-UBET Communications, also known as Strata Networks Utah, Colorado, Wyoming Telephone
United Electric Cooperative, also known as United Services and United Fiber Missouri Electric
United Telephone Company, also known as United Communications Tennessee Telephone
United Telephone Mutual Aid Corporation (UTMA) and Turtle Mountain Communications North Dakota Telephone
Valley Telephone Cooperative, also known as VTX Communications Texas Telephone
Venture Communications Cooperative South Dakota Telephone
Wabash Telephone Cooperative, also known as Wabash Independent Networks (WIN) and Wabash Communications Illinois Telephone
West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative South Carolina Telephone
West Central Telephone Association Minnesota Telephone
West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative Kentucky Telephone
West River Telecommunications Cooperative North Dakota Telephone
West Wisconsin Telcom Cooperative, also knowns as 24-7 Wisconsin Telephone
Western Telephone Company South Dakota Telephone
Wilkes Communications, also known as Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation North Carolina Telephone
Yucca Telecommunications Systems New Mexico Telephone

 

Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episodes

Listen to our collection of Community Broadband Bits Podcasts to learn firsthand about how electric cooperatives have made the decision to provide Internet service.

# Title Summary Guest Transcript

249
4/19/2017

Rural Electric Co-ops as Reluctant Warriors for Broadband

The challenges and decisions that rural electric cooperatives face

Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts

Transcript 249

243

3/7/2017

What's NEXT in North Arkansas?

North Arkansas Electric Cooperative's pilot project for high-speed Internet service

Mel Coleman

Transcript 243

240

2/14/2017

United Fiber Tackles Missouri's Most Rural

The demand for better, faster connections and the role of rural electric cooperatives

Darren Farnan

Transcript 240

229

11/22/2016

Rural Electrics Solve Rural Internet Access Problems

Former head of FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis on politics and rural connectivity

Jon Chambers

Transcript 229

225

10/25/2016

Midwest Energy Cooperative Connects Rural Michigan

A rural electric cooperative provides fiber connectivity

Bob Hance; Dave Allen

Transcript 225

224

10/18/2016

H.R. Trostle on Co-Ops, Munis, Connectivity in North Carolina

ILSR Research Associate discusses North Carolina and Internet access

H.R. Trostle

Transcript 224

203

5/25/2016

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op

Morristown Tennessee, and the local electric co-op are teaming up to deliver needed services

Jody Wigington; Greg Williams

Transcript 203

198

4/19/2016

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm

The RS Fiber Cooperative steals the spotlight with its new cooperative model

Mark Erickson; Jake Rieke

Transcript 198

188

2/9/2016

North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More

What does it take for a telephone coop in North Carolina to provide FTTH? President and CEO of Wilkes Communications and RiverStreet Networks explains

Eric Cramer

Transcript 188

140

3/3/2015

Rural Electric Co-Mo Coop Goes Gig

Discussion on how Co-Mo electric coop in rural Missouri structured broadband network and its objective to enter the business and results

Randy Klindt

Transcript 140

99

5/20/2014

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota

Update on the RS Fiber Coop project in Minnesota

Mark Erickson; Cindy Gerholz

Transcript 99

92

4/1/2014

Understanding the Georgia Communications Cooperative

Discussion on how cooperatives work together and expand the regional network in Georgia and challenges to connect rural premises with fiber optics

Mike Foor

Transcript 92

46

5/14/2013

North Georgia Network Brings Gig to Schools, Jobs to Region

The origin of the North Georgia Network and its economic and social impact on the region

Paul Belk

Transcript 46

 

Image Credits:

Rural Barn Flag, woodleywonderworks, Creative Commons license

Minnesota House Chamber, Chris Gaukel, Creative Commons license

Wooden Pole, dimitrisvetsikas1969, Public Domain