When Craig Eccher, CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, joined Christopher on the podcast last fall, he had an exciting project to talk about: the electric cooperative, after strong calls from its membership asking their utility to deliver broadband, stepped up and committed to an $80 million, 3,250-mile fiber build across the rugged terrain of rural Pennsylvania, the first leg propelled by $52.6 million in federal and state grants. Tri-Co Connections, the subsidiary building the network and serving as provider, has begun connecting residents in an aggressive plan to serve 10,000 users in the next three years. The move makes Tri-County the first electric co-op in Pennsylvania to enter the fiber space, and it's doing so in dramatic fashion.
More Humble Beginnings
The project started as a smart meter initiative as the electric co-op realized that reliability and other cost savings gains could be made if it ran fiber to its substations and other infrastructure, but at an annual meeting five years ago members overwhelmingly said they wanted more. In fact, when surveyed, 80% said they wanted their electric utility to deliver broadband. But the co-op faced some significant obstacles, primarily in the form of low population density — its service territory in north-central Pennsylvania has an average of just six homes per mile. Financially, the plan wouldn’t have worked without a successful bid for a number of grants. They include a $17 million PennDOT grant, a $1.5 million state grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project program, a $33 million Connect America Fund II (CAFII) grant, and a $2.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant. All told, they add up to two-thirds of the anticipated costs of the project. The rest will be paid for by ongoing subscription fees as residents, farms, and businesses are brought online. Sheri Collins, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania’s Office of Broadband Initiatives, said in TriCo Connection’s new office last February:
Today is truly a historic moment in Pennsylvania and Coudersport, but also across the world because I think what you’re doing here today is really raising the bar for the rest of the country to get on board, and really solve the issue that we have with the digital divide.
TriCo Connections broke ground last November in Coudersport, made its first residential connection in April, and by the end of August completed 200 miles, hooking up an equal number of users. In October the utility plans on linking its 25 substations with a fiber ring. Eccher has attributed some of their success to the time they've spent talking with Chattanooga’s fiber utility EPB about lessons learned, as well as the partnerships TriCo Connections has already formed with small area local cable companies to strengthen respective networks in turn. Though not originally in the plan, the provider also looking at providing backhaul and middle-mile services on the network in the future.
Most of the network will be aerial with select sections run underground, and the plan is to serve as many of its 16,000 members as want broadband. Members living in the red area on the map to the right are eligible to be connected first, with more soon to follow.
But there are obstacles beyond the financial commitment necessary and the rural terrain, and in TriCo Connections' case they come in two flavors. The first is that 42% of those in the planned buildout territory are seasonal residents, living in the region for only part of the year. The second, related challenge is that an equal percentage are senior citizens — a population which brings with it particular connection challenges (mostly in the form of digital literacy skills). The provider has answered them in a handful of ways. The first comes in the form of seasonal Internet rates that allow users to pay for six months of service at regular rates and six months at $20/month for 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) access. To reach senior citizens where they are and strengthen community ties at the same time, TriCo Connections has started an initiative with Potter County called the Senior 2 Senior Program, which matches high school students with older residents so the latter can learn how to video chat with family members, set up email accounts, familiarize themselves with telehealth platforms, and use online bill pay.
TriCo's approach highlights the need to think holistically about community needs, assets, and challenges when considering broadband projects; while they might have succeeded without it, both the utility and the community have and will continue to benefit more by doing so. Resident Carole Cole said of the program in June:
Knowing more and doing more on the computer is important, especially through crises like this.
Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative is doing what electric cooperatives do best: connecting residents in a part of the state where Internet service providers like Comcast or Spectrum have refused to invest. It’s a plan that allows the utility to increase its electric grid reliability, but also bring a new type of service to users at the same time. “[T]he whole project itself has made the rural electric co-op relevant again to its membership,” Craig remarked to Christopher last fall.
Rural Pennsylvanians face a host of connectivity challenges, many of which were outlined in a Center for Rural Pennsylvania report that we contributed to last year, including growing discrepancies between rural and urban connection speeds.
Current rates are $85 for symmetrical 200 Mbps service, or $135 for gigabit access. The cooperative also offers Lifeline rates for voice ($7.25/month) and broadband ($9.75/month) for qualifying users.
For more on how it all started, listen to Craig and Chris talk on Episode 383 of the Community Broadband Bit podcast. To learn more about how cooperatives are bringing fiber networks and high-quality, reliable, affordable Internet to rural communities all over the country, see our 2020 report, “Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.”