Two South Carolina Cooperatives Bring Broadband to Blue Ridge

Two utility cooperatives in South Carolina – one electric, the other a telephone co-op – have teamed up and are now cooperating to bring fiber-to-the-home Internet service to members living in Anderson, Greenville, Oconee, Pickens and Spartanburg counties.

In September 2020, the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative (BREC) announced the partnership with WCFIBER, a subsidiary of the West Carolina Telephone Cooperative (WCTEL). WCFIBER has a well-established reputation as a rural broadband provider – serving Abbeville, McCormick, and Greenwood counties, as well as parts of Columbia County, GA – while BREC has a long and proud history delivering electricity to residents and businesses who call this part rural/part suburban corner of South Carolina home.

It’s a partnership that has given birth to Upcountry Fiber, a new subsidiary owned by Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. The plan is to build out the network incrementally with construction expected to take five years to complete. BREC is not only focused on serving its 25,000 members, when the network is fully built-out, all 64,890 households and businesses in Blue Ridge’s 1,800 square mile service area will have access to gigabit speed fiber connectivity.

BREC has approximately 9,100 members in Anderson County, 4,500 in Greenville County, 31 in Spartanburg County, with the rest split between Oconee and Pickens counties.

Using a combination of BREC and WCTEL capital and loans, the $150 million cost and labor required to build the network will be shared by both cooperatives. BREC is building the core network by deploying fiber along its utility poles, while WCTEL will take care of the fiber drops from the poles to subscribers’ homes and businesses, as well as the installation of end-user equipment. Upcountry Fiber will operate independently as the Internet Service Provider.

Incumbent Providers Just Wouldn’t Do It

BREC first began looking for a broadband partner three years ago. But, after a two-year feasibility study was conducted to explore whether the utility could bring residential and business fiber service to its 25,000 members along the co-op’s 7,100 miles of power lines, it found that more than 27,000 residents in the region either had poor Internet service or no access to broadband whatsoever, despite the presence of AT&T and Charter Spectrum.

“We kind of had a finger on that pulse and were sort of hoping that another provider or some of the telecommunications providers or someone would come and provide that service, and it just didn’t happen,” Blue Ridge President and CEO Jim Lovinggood told the GSA Business Report.

A pilot project launched in February in the Stillwater neighborhood inside Oconee County proved what market surveys had projected: a significant take rate. As Greenville News reported, 85 of 130 homes in the Stillwater neighborhood signed up for service.

One neighborhood resident, anxious to get the service, told the GSA Business Report about the difference between the Internet service he had previously and what it’s like now that he is connected to the Upcountry Fiber network.

“At the house, it was just limited in terms of who was going to get to watch Netflix and who was going to get to do work,” Rush Thrift said. “More than one person was going to strain the system.”

Thrift also acknowledged that the poor connectivity that had plagued the region before Upcountry Fiber came along wasn’t just limited to his neighborhood. 

“Every single person I know faces that issue,” he said, adding that since he switched over to Upcountry Fiber service, “the kids could be on Netflix, [and] the Nest smart home cameras could work like you see them on TV. It just works. It’s like watching one of those commercials where you see everything work and you think, ‘Oh I wish I lived in a place that had that.’ Well, we do.”

After finishing the Stillwater neighborhood, the cooperatives turned their focus to expanding the network into parts of the city of Seneca in Oconee County and the town of Central in Pickens County.

In an interview with ILSR, BREC Vice President of Support Services Zach Hinton, said BREC is continuing to expand the network outward into other parts of the Blue Ridge service area, deploying fiber across sprawling farmland in the southern part of its service territory and into the rugged terrain of the wooded mountains in the north.

“We are just about done with the Seneca project and about halfway done with Central. We are also expanding into northern Pickens and southern Oconee County and will continue to do so through the end of the year,” Hinton said, adding that in each of those areas they are hitting a 60 to 70 percent take rate.

Of course, it’s not just the speed and reliability of the network that new subscribers find appealing. It’s also the price. Upcountry Fiber subscribers can get a 200 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical connection for just $50/month; a symmetrical 500 Mbps connection for $65/month; and symmetrical gig speed service for $80/month (no data caps or contracts).

A Tool for Workforce Recruitment

Even as the network is improving the quality of life for residents who already have access, planners also expect Upcountry Fiber to provide a jolt of power to the region’s economy, BREC CEO Jim Lovinggood told UpstatebizSC.

Without access to high-speed, reliable Internet, communities are losing ground. With it, the Upstate’s rural communities have a better chance to become stronger by having a more attractive economic development story, easier access to information for students to learn, educators to teach, and for our neighbors to be better able to apply for jobs, have better access to healthcare by being able to virtually meet with their doctors, if needed. The entertainment options now available are a bonus.

WCTEL President Jeff Wilson has a similar view, describing the network as a “tool” for workforce recruitment.

Shannon Sears, WCTEL’s director of commercial operations, noted how the network is especially attractive as more and more people living in cities migrate to rural areas as a result of the on-going pandemic. 

“That has an economic impact, the fact that people are coming into their area from another area,” Sears said.

Even as Blue Ridge residents and businesses are clamoring to get connected, BREC CEO Jim Lovinggood tempers the excitement with the reality of how long it will take to build out the network. 

“We know everybody wants it,” Lovinggood told the GSA Business Report. “I wish we had it the day before yesterday, but the reality is, it’s a big project. It takes a while to build it, and it’s an expensive project. We’re just going to have to do the best we can.”

The construction timeline, however, could be considerably shorter, according to BREC Vice President of Support Services Zach Hinton. “An influx of federal funding could really speed it up,” he said, adding that BREC hopes to secure federal and state funds to help offset construction costs.

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