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Updated Report Shows How Cooperatives Are Bridging the Digital Divide
Decades after bringing electricity and telephone services to America’s rural households, cooperatives are tackling a new challenge: the rural digital divide. New updates to our report Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era, originally published in 2017, illustrate the remarkable progress co-ops have made in deploying fiber optic Internet access across the country.
“Cooperatives should be the foundation for bringing high-quality Internet service to rural America... Small towns and farming communities need robust Internet service to support their local economies, educate themselves, and generally improve their quality of life. Cooperatives have quietly proved that they can build Fiber-to-the-Home networks that are capable of speeds of greater than 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps). More than 140 cooperatives offer gigabit service to residents or businesses.”
The report features new maps showing overall growth in areas served by co-ops, as well as expanded information about state legislation that supports co-op investment in broadband networks. A few important takeaways:
- More than 140 co-ops across the country now offer residential gigabit Internet access to their members, reaching more than 300 communities.
- Co-ops connect 70.8 percent of North Dakota and 47.7 percent of South Dakota landmass to fiber, and residents enjoy some of the fastest Internet access speeds in the nation.
- Georgia and Mississippi have overturned state laws banning co-ops from offering Internet access, and other states, including Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas, have implemented legislation that will further ease the way.
Co-ops have proven that this is a model that works. With increased support from federal and state governments, they will continue to connect rural Americans to economic and educational opportunities otherwise denied to them.
Reports Archive - Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America
As data changes, we stay current so you can get the most recent information. It's important to be up-to-date, but seeing how broadband and related issues have changed over time also has value. As we release new versions of our report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era [pdf], with updated information we’ll connect you with prior publications here.
Decades after bringing electricity and telephone services to America’s rural households, cooperatives are tackling a new challenge: the rural digital divide. This report explains why co-ops are a model that works for rural areas, and features:
- Maps showing areas where co-ops offer fiber Internet access
- Information on funding sources for co-op broadband projects
- Background on state legislation that hinders or supports broadband projects
- Our recommendations on how state and federal governments can support co-ops’ efforts to connect rural America
Links on this page will take you to original and current publications of the report.
Good News for Electric Cooperatives as State Legislatures Correct Obstructive Laws
Legislative changes are helping electric cooperatives continue to expand high-quality Internet access in rural parts of America. At least three state governments have bills in the works that empower cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service in their service territories.
Georgia, Maryland, Alabama
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recently signed into law SB 2 and SB 17, which clarify that both electric and telephone cooperatives are able to provide broadband service. This change allows the electric cooperatives to use their easements which have been used for electric service to extend those easements so they also apply to equipment and lines needed in order to supply broadband service. Electric cooperatives have already been at work on providing Internet service in Georgia: Habersham Electric Cooperative operates Trailwave Network, and the Pineland Telephone and Jefferson Energy Cooperatives have partnered to bring Internet service to their communities.
In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan has just approved SB 634 which similarly underscores how electric cooperatives can use their easements to provide broadband. Meanwhile in Alabama, HB 400 will codify in existing law that electric cooperatives have the ability to offer broadband service and that their easements are valid for that use. Alabama HB 400 has passed in the House and is now working its way through the Senate. Alabama cooperatives North Alabama Electric and Tom Bigbee Electric already provides high-speed Internet service in their service territories.
Cooperatives Bring New Tech to Rural Areas
Bipartisan Bills Introduced to Correct Tax Law Hindering Rural Co-op Broadband
Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.
Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.
Addressing Legal Ambiguity
Georgia Telephone and Electric Cooperatives Partner for Better Business Connectivity
Last August, Pineland Telephone and Jefferson Energy Cooperatives in Georgia began developing a project together to bring fiber connectivity to businesses in the small towns of Louisville (pop. 2,200) and Wrens (pop. 2,000). This February, the partners finished construction and celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony. The event marked marked another instance in which cooperatives are working together to improve connectivity in rural areas.
The project began in Louisville last summer when the cooperatives realized they could team up to reduce costs and improve Internet access for businesses in Jefferson County. In a July 2018 press release, Pineland Telephone commented:
“Rural America lacking the broadband service needed to compete globally is on everyone’s radar, with Georgia and national legislation being considered so that improvements can be developed. Instead of waiting on funding and policies that may not come, cooperatives working together determined a way to make advancements in the communities in which they serve.”
Pineland’s Dustin Durden told the Augusta Chronicle that both cooperatives deployed fiber simultaneously. Jefferson Energy worked on construction between Bartow and the Louisville area, which were then connected to Wrens, while Pineland began with fiber within the town of Louisville and then worked within Wrens. Working together, they were able to finish the project in about 18 months.
As Durden explains in this Facebook video, Pineland, Jefferson, and the city of Louisville are using the infrastructure to make free Wi-Fi available in the community’s downtown park:
Fiber for Electric Efficiencies and Expansion
Doug Dawson Shares Surprises and Safe Bets - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 353
Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting and author of the POTS and PANS blog, was willing to sit down with Christopher for episode 353 of the podcast this week. Christopher interviewed Doug in Austin, Texas, at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit. They discussed all sorts of happenings in the telecommunications and municipal network space.
In addition to 5G and the hype that has surrounded it for the past year, Doug and Christopher make some predictions about where they think the technology will go. They also talk about the involvement of Amazon in the satellite broadband industry and what they think that means for different folks from different walks of life.
Other happenings that Doug and Christopher get into include different public-private partnerships that Doug has been watching and some new models that he’s seen this past year. He’s noticed that communities are more willing to work outside the box and that an increasing number of local communities are moving beyond feasibility studies to investment. Doug and Christopher talk a little about Erie County, New York, where the community is developing a middle mile network, and Cortez, Colorado, where the town has attracted several private sector companies because they worked hard to develop the right infrastructure.
Check out POTS and PANS for Doug's great articles.
This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Great Lakes Energy Planning FTTH Expansion in Rural Michigan
Great Lakes Energy (GLE) is considering expanding their Truestream fiber Internet access and voice service to more rural areas in the northwestern region of Michigan’s lower peninsula. In a recent news release, the electric cooperative announced that they began sending engineers to their Boyne service area to collect necessary information for analysis as they explore possible deployment in the area.
Growing One of the Largest
Last summer, we reported on the co-op's pilot project in the Petosky service area and their long-term plans to bring gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to their 125,000 members. The cooperative decided to begin with residential service and potentially expand to business subscriber offerings in the future.
Subscribers from the pilot area have reported positive feedback. Brian Bates, who is also the owner of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petosky, posted speed test results on the Truestream FB page and commented:
“Truestream is more than 400 times faster than speeds we were able to get with our previous Internet provider. And for 75% less money with no contract and unlimited everything!”
By January, approximately 9,000 potential subscribers had registered interest via the Truestream website.
Better Broadband Coming to Boyne
Boyne City is located directly south of the city of Petosky and the GLE Boyne service area includes parts of five counties in the surrounding region. GLE will conduct a second field study this fall if results of the first study are favorable.
“If the findings are positive,” said [Lacey Matthews of GLE Communications and Communications], “Great Lakes Energy may budget for expansion of the fiber network in 2020, pending approval by the Great Lakes Energy Board of Directors in late 2019.”
Broadcast TV Dispute Hinders Co-op Fiber Project in East Tennessee
Plans for Holston Electric Cooperative to offer television service as part of its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network deployment are on pause following allegations from the east Tennessee co-op that broadcasting company Nexstar Media Group refused to engage in “good faith” negotiations over retransmission consent agreements.
Holston Electric Cooperative established its broadband subsidiary, HolstonConnect, in late 2017 after a state law change removed restrictions on rural electric co-ops. Currently, HolstonConnect is in phase one of its FTTH project, which will bring high-quality Internet access to underserved communities in Rogersville, Surgoinsville, and nearby areas. Subsequent deployments will connect the remainder of the cooperative’s service territory, partially aided by federal funding from last year’s Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction.
From the start, the co-op planned to offer a “triple play” of broadband, voice, and video services. However, failure to come to an agreement with Nexstar, one of the nation’s largest station operators, over access to essential local channels has delayed the delivery of television services to HolstonConnect subscribers. In early March, Holston filed a complaint against Nexstar with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), arguing that the broadcasting company demanded exorbitant fees and unfair station tying arrangements during negotiations with the co-op.
“Failure to Negotiate in Good Faith”
To carry popular television programming, networks must sign cable retransmission consent agreements with regional station operators. The FCC requires that these companies behave in “good faith” and make tangible efforts to engage in negotiations.
North Carolina Broadband Bills Benefit Local Communities, Co-ops
Two pieces of recently introduced legislation in North Carolina’s General Assembly show a potential to help grow broadband in rural areas. In the past, state lawmakers have kept publicly owned Internet networks tightly reined in to protect cable and telephone monopolies operating in the state, but the restrictions may be loosening as state leaders recognize the need for more options.
The FIBER NC Act
The long list and leadership positions of sponsors attached to H 431 indicate that the FIBER NC Act shows promise. It’s four primary sponsors include the Rules Committee Chair and a Finance Committee Chair, which also bodes well for the future of H 431. Our friends at the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) tell us that they expect a similar companion bill with equal muscle behind it to come from the Senate.
The FIBER Act would change existing barriers to allow municipalities and local government the authority to invest in publicly owned broadband infrastructure in order to work with private sector partners. The bill also includes procedures that local governments must follow if they decide to pursue a public-private partnership, including conducting a feasibility study, and proper notification and execution of meetings. Within the language of H 431, the authors include specific instructions for publication and advertisement that describe the opportunity to lease the infrastructure.
Bipartisan support of the bill and the fact that almost 50 House Members, in addition to the four sponsors, have signed on add to the optimism that H 431 has a bright future. Folks at NCLM have expressed strong support for the bill and are galvanizing constituents to encourage elected officials to move H 431 forward.
It’s first stop is the Committee on Energy and Public Utilities. If it passes there, H 431 will move on to Finance and then to the Rules Committee.
Read the full language of H 431 and follow it’s progress.
Untying Cooperative Hands
Co-op Cooperation in Rural North Carolina: RiverStreet Working with Electric Co-ops
In an effort to find ways to connect some of the state’s most disconnected communities, RiverStreet Networks and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives recently announced that they will work together for a series of pilot projects across the state. The initiative has the potential to discover new options for high-quality Internet access for residents and businesses in areas that have been left behind by national Internet service providers.
Going All Out
North Carolina’s RiverStreet Networks is bent on bringing high-quality connectivity to people living and working in rural North Carolina. After expanding their physical infrastructure through deployment, the communications cooperative started to acquire other fiber networks in various areas across the state. Most recently, RiverStreet merged with TriCounty Telephone Membership Corporation.
For RiverStreet, branching out among areas of the state were there is no high-speed Internet access is an opportunity to tap into an underserved market, not only an underserved population. It’s become obvious in recent years that rural communities want high-quality Internet access at least as fervently as in densely populated areas where big corporate ISP already have a monopoly. After upgrading their own members, RiverStreet was looking for growth; partnering with electric cooperatives is the next step to reaching more subscribers.
Listen to RiverStreet’s Greg Coltrain and Christopher discuss the merger and RiverStreet's plans to bring broadband to rural North Carolina: