North Dakota Co-op Raises Bar With Free Internet Offer

As coronavirus trackers continue to tick, it’s becoming even clearer that the current pandemic will necessitate months, not weeks, of working and learning from home and other social distancing measures.

To make that transition easier for its members, North Dakota telephone cooperative BEK Communications is offering new subscribers four months of free Internet access on its Lightband Fiber-to-the-Home network. The co-op is also increasing speeds and implementing other efforts through its “BEK Cares” initiative, which aims to make better broadband accessible to rural North Dakotans in response to the growing Covid-19 emergency.

“BEK’s commitment to keep its customers and community connected has never been greater,” the co-op stated in a press release announcing its efforts [PDF]. “We want all of our customers and community members to know we are here for you.”

ISPs Pledge to Connect

Across the country, Internet service providers (ISPs) have launched various efforts to address the connectivity needs of communities impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

FCC logo

Earlier last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, a voluntary program in which ISPs promise to pause disconnections, waive late fees, and open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public. Hundreds of providers have since signed on, including national companies such as AT&T and Comcast as well as local cooperatives like BEK.

In addition to taking the pledge, some companies are also offering a couple months of discounted or no-cost service to households with students and other eligible subscribers. See the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s list of free and low-cost plans for more details on the programs being offered by national ISPs.

However, certain major providers have failed to create new, affordable plans during the Covid-19 pandemic, including CenturyLink, Frontier, and Windstream. Similarly, Verizon hasn’t extended its low-cost offer to areas served by its DSL network. And some companies that have implemented programs face criticism that they aren’t accessible enough.

The Cooperative Edge

BEK Communications, which has almost 11,000 subscribers, currently offers households speeds of up to 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) download and 1.25 Gbps upload.

For its BEK Cares initiative, the co-op has committed to a number of changes to improve connectivity in the communities it serves. On top of joining the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, BEK is offering four free months of Lightband fiber service to all new subscribers. CEO Derrick Bulawa shared with a local news station that the co-op is proactively reaching out to community members who stand to benefit from the program. BEK’s plan lasts twice as long as most national companies’ offers, and it is not limited only to families that meet certain eligibility requirements, such as SNAP enrollment.

The co-op has also decided to double all current users’ speeds for no extra cost. Bulawa explained:

The additional speed and additional capacity was added so that when the customer had higher demand from home to meet work, telehealth, and educational needs, they didn’t have to worry about it.

There’s great interest and recognition from the community. According to BEK’s press release from last month, the co-op had already taken more than 2,000 calls and was installing about 25 new subscribers each day. Valley City Commission President Dave Carlsrud said in the release:

We have been utilizing BEK’s business services for years, however with the current COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly found out how important they truly were. We are very appreciative of BEK’s commitment in helping the City of Valley City to continue providing necessary services to its residents.

Member-owned cooperatives are stepping up during the current public health crisis as they have done before in rural America, where co-ops have invested in high-quality broadband infrastructure for decades. Thanks to their efforts, cooperative fiber is widespread in North Dakota and other rural states.

Watch BEK’s short video and view a PDF of the announcement below.