In the short span of weeks since a membership vote to give the co-op the tools needed to pursue broadband projects for its 84,000 members, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative has connected its first 900 households. The ceremoney took place in Lempster, where the first electric user was connected 81 years ago.
We've written a lot about RS Fiber, a broadband cooperative operating in two rural counties in south-central Minnesota. This week on the podcast Christopher talks with two representatives from the cooperative which serves almost three thousand members in Renville and Sibley counties. Our first guest is Jake Reiki, a corn and soybean farmer and Board Chair for RS Fiber. We’re also joined by Jenny Palmer, City Administrator for Winthrop and Treasurer for the cooperative.
Christopher, Jake, and Jenny talk about the trials that shaped a network which fostered some division but which the community now takes for granted, its hybrid fiber and wireless approach to connectivity, what having fast, affordable broadband has done for families and business in the area, and where the network sits financially moving ahead as it continues to expand and see robust, steady growth.
Don’t forget to check out our new show, Connect This!, where Chris brings together a collection broadband veterans and industry experts live on YouTube to talk about recent events and dig into the policy news of the day.
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This week on the podcast Christopher talks with the city of Sandwich, New Hampshire’s Broadband Advisory Committee Chair Julie Dolan and member Richard Knox. The join us to discuss the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s recent vote to add broadband to its charter.
Sandwich is particularly poorly served in NH and they have been seeking solutions for a long time. In organizing around the electric cooperative (which covers 115 towns and includes 85,000 members), in less than a year local stakeholders have organizing two votes around the importance of quality Internet access which, at the beginning of October, pushed the co-op into the business. Julie and Richard share with Chris how it all unfolded and what it means moving forward.
Don’t forget to check out our new show, Connect This!, where Chris brings together a collection broadband veterans and industry experts live on Youtube to talk about recent events and dig into the policy news of the day.
This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
Read the transcript for this episode.
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Building a successful community broadband network, we’ve often pointed out, relies on successful organizing and marketing campaigns as much as it does on putting fiber in the ground. Those networks that do it well succeed, and those that fail to take it into consideration can languish or stall out.
Successful marketing and organizing can build political will for a project, turn enthusiastic adopters into neighborhood champions who help increase take rates, help counter disinformation campaigns and predatory pricing by incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and show the ways that community owned networks have gone above and beyond over the years to invest not just in the most profitable neighborhoods around but ensure that those along every street and across every block have affordable, reliable, fast Internet access.
The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative recently saw firsthand how a smart, engaged, energetic subset of its membership can make Internet access a priority. Fairlawn, Ohio’s municipal network has also been highlighting the value it’s bringing to users in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
And with votes regarding municipal broadband networks coming up in Kaysville, Utah, Denver, Berthoud, and Engelwood, Colorado, Chicago, Illinois, and Lucas, Texas, taking this into consideration is as important as it’s every been.
See some clever and colorful below examples below, and read our past coverage to see how different community networks have taken on the task of branding, marketing, and organizing for success.
Some images courtesy of Internet Freedom for McHenry County
An effort to add broadband to the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NHEC) charter will end on October 14th after a month-long membership vote which began in September. If it passes, it will represent a new era for the co-op and open the way for better connectivity for tens of thousands living in the state.
Back in June a ballot initiative fell short by two percentage points of the threshold needed to change the cooperative’s governing documents. A grassroots organizing campaign and Board vote immediately thereafter, however, affirmed both the membership’s and the new Board’s commitment to broadband as essential infrastructure.
In mid-August the Board voted unanimously to propose amendments to the NHEC’s charter, and in September President and CEO Steve Camarino went on the New Hampshire Business Review’s podcast to talk about how important connectivity is for all in the state and the role NHEC could play in bringing better access to those in its service territory and beyond. Per procedure, all 85,000 members of the electric cooperative were given a chance to vote by mail or electronically starting in the middle of September, and the window closes on Wednesday.
As it stands, NHEC bylaws [pdf] allow it to pursue projects like broadband, but current policy and procedure requires an approval process which prevents it the flexibility and speed it needs to do take advantage of state and federal funds and make broadband-related capital investments. The change under consideration would allow members as well as the Board to move with the same speed it is allowed to on electric utility service projects for broadband ones as well. The current requirement on non-electric utility service involves a months-long membership vote. From the co-op’s website:
Affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet [access] is critical for the vitality of NHEC’s members and the communities we serve. However, due to the rural nature of the Co-op’s service territory, many NHEC members do not have access to these services. In response to this pressing...
A couple years ago, fed up member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) in Virginia banded together to form Repower REC, a grassroots group that’s seeking to reform the state’s largest electric cooperative and advocating for clean energy and improved Internet access.
Rural electric co-ops are supposed to embrace the cooperative principles of democratic member control and concern for community, but some of REC’s members charge that the co-op’s practices fall short of those goals.
Repower REC hopes to bring greater transparency and member oversight to the co-op, as well as clean energy programs and a cooperative-owned broadband network.
Cleaning up Governance and the Grid
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative serves 170,000 meters in portions of 22 counties stretching from northern Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay. It is the largest electric cooperative in Virginia and one of the largest in the country.
Member-owners of the co-op launched Repower REC in 2018 in partnership with Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, in response to concerns over undemocratic practices and the lack of transparency at REC. The group has called for a number of reforms, including public board meetings and transparent board elections. People involved in the group have also spoken out against lobbying activities that they believe were not in the best interest of the co-op’s members. Repower REC members have run as candidates for the co-op board of directors, though none have won a seat as of yet.
Some of the initial interest in governance at REC stemmed from member dissatisfaction with the co-op’s lukewarm response to renewable energy as well as the co-op’s attempt to double its fixed access charges....Read more
After a bitter battle with Comcast and a successful referendum to reclaim local authority back in 2017, Fort Collins, Colorado, is moving forward with its municipal fiber network, Connexion. The city is starting to connect residents to the network, so we wanted to check back in with local activists and Connexion staff to find out how it's going. In this episode, Christopher interviews community advocates Glen Akins and Colin Garfield as well as Colman Keane, Connexion executive director, and Erin Shanley, Connexion marketing manager.
Glen and Colin discuss their grassroots organizing efforts from the 2017 referendum, and they share what it's like to finally watch the network being built. Colin, who has Internet access from Connexion now, describes the installation process for his new fiber service. The pair also tell Christopher how incumbent providers are reacting to the municipal network.
Speaking from the city's point of view, Colman and Erin explain how Connexion differs from other municipal networks, including that it faces competition from other broadband providers in Fort Collins. Christopher praises the city's decision many years ago to underground all utilities, and Colman tells Christopher how that has introduced challenges to the network fiber build. Erin shares how the Connexion is marketing services and engaging with the community, while keeping information away from competitors and staying mindful that the network isn't yet available citywide.
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Early last year, Mississippi changed state law to allow electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in addition to electrical service. Since then, several co-ops have announced plans to connect member-owners with fiber optic networks. But despite their new legal authority, some cooperatives are deciding against broadband projects, and their members aren’t happy.
The Daily Journal reported last week on one co-op, Pontotoc Electric Power Association (PEPA), that has chosen not to invest in broadband at this time, citing high costs. PEPA's decision faces strong opposition from some of its members as well as a commissioner from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Critics claim that cooperative leaders did not fully consider all of the possibilities, and they take issue with the board’s choice to hold the vote during a closed meeting without issuing public notice.
“We’re not adversarial but are advocating for letting the owners get back involved,” Jackie Courson, a PEPA member in favor of broadband, told the Daily Journal.
Critics Question Private Board Vote
The PEPA board decided against moving forward with a broadband network during a private meeting on April 2. Members of the cooperative only found out about the vote four days later, during a public board meeting. In that later meeting, the board limited public discussion on every topic, including the broadband vote, to two people with five minutes each.
As justification for their decision to give the broadband project a pass, PEPA leadership cited the high cost of building fiber infrastructure — estimated at up to $48 million for the northern Mississippi co-op. “One study said it would only be financially feasible after 22 years, and then just marginally. The other two said flat out it was not economically feasible,” PEPA General Manager Chuck Howell explained to the Daily Journal.
Regardless of their members’ enthusiasm, the PEPA board argued that the potential cost put the project out of reach for the co-op. “I realize there is a demand for it. I would have loved to do it, but financially it is too much. The money wasn’t there...Read more
MuniNetworks.org offers a cache of resources for people who have a particular interest in publicly owned broadband networks. As interest in municipal networks has increased in recent years, connections between people can help those researching and organizing. We know that there aren't many places where our audience can have discussions with like-minded individuals, so the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has now established two mailing lists for folks who share our common interests related to municipal fiber networks.
Talkers, Organizers, a Meeting of the Minds
For folks who want to share thoughts on municipal networks with others, including new developments, news on projects, or trends and topics, they can sign up on our Muni Fiber Discussion mailing list.
The list will be lightly moderated and is not a place to dump links to stories; we expect people to share thoughts and ideas and to debate new issues and important developments.
For people who are interested in taking steps to organize a community toward developing their own municipal network, we've established the Muni Organizing mailing list. We expect people interested in this conversation to include some of the same people as on the discussion list and others that may be interested related topics, including economic development, connectivity and education or telehealth, and people interested in other community benefits. This discussion will also be lightly moderated.
We imagine the Muni Organizing mailing list to be:
Discussions about efforts to create community networks. This is meant to help share strategies, solve common problems, and otherwise work through the many challenges that accompany this organizing effort. We expect this may include local activists, business leaders, elected officials, city staff, consultants working in this space, and others. However, our goal is to keep it limited to those actually working in this area - not just anyone.
For folks with experience in organizing, we encourage you to share strategies that work (and those...Read more
We left our crystal ball, tarot cards, and astrology charts at home, but that won’t stop us from trying to predict what will happen in 2019 for this week’s annual predictions podcast. Each year, we reflect on the important events related to publicly owned broadband networks and local connectivity that occurred during the year and share our impressions for what we expect to see in the next twelve months. As usual, the discussion is spirited and revealing.
This year we saw the departures of Research Associate Hannah Trostle and Communications Manager Nick Stumo-Langer as both decided to head off to grad school. This year, you’ll hear our new Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco and Research Associate Katie Kienbaum keeping those seats warm. Hannah and Nick take time out of their schedules to offer some predictions of their own at the end of the show.
In addition to recaps of last year's predictions for state legislation, cooperative efforts, and preemption, we get into our expectations for what we expect to see from large, national incumbent ISPs, local private and member owned providers, and governments. We discuss federal funding, local organizing efforts and issues that drive them, concentration of power, our predictions for digital equity, efforts in big cities, open access, rural initiatives, and more. This podcast is packed with good stuff!
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
This show is 45 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the...Read more