United Studies Feasibility of High-Speed Broadband
Internet Deployment Throughout Service Territory
Things have been creeping along at a snail’s pace for a number of United members, and they are honestly getting fed up with it. Though a slower groove is often valued in country lifestyles, slower is the bane of country existence when it comes to dragging internet access.
Consumers fortunate enough never to have scrounged to receive the benefit of modern technology may have never stopped to consider that for millions of rural Americans, the hope of wrangling high-speed internet access has been nearly as desperate as getting connected with electricity was for rural folks more than 80 years ago.
Back then, it took the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and the formation of electric cooperatives to energize rural lives and economies, and to revolutionize the nation’s countryside with an equitable footing in an increasingly modern world. A century later, electric co-ops are being tapped to bridge a similar critical technological divide that now limits rural Americans from experiencing “digital opportunities” made available in urban and suburban communities where high-speed internet access is more readily available.
Broadband (typically defined as 25 Mbps service and greater) has become as much a critical staple in everyday modern life as electricity.
Though once considered a luxury, internet access has now arguably become a common, indispensable interface underpinning innovation, productivity and integration across the American and global economies. It opens portals to jobs, education, information, healthcare, public safety, entertainment and nearly every resource and service imaginable.
A vast number of rural Americans are increasingly locked out of the ever expanding world that unfolds online simply because of their zip codes—where internet service is too slow to download the vast streams of data. So far, the fast lanes of the digital super highway haven’t yet connected many of the smaller dots on the map.
Where We Stand
In United’s 14-county service territory, about 87 percent of United members currently lack access to affordable and/or reliable 25 Mbps broadband service. That is the minimum standard broadband internet speed, as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to adequately serve a single user or multiple users with light internet use.
The digital divide that exists here and elsewhere has prompted federal support through a partnership of federal agencies and national organizations.
Federal grants and low-interest loans have partially helped not-for-profit electric co-ops finance the capital investment needed for broadband build-out in rural areas, and regulatory relief from the FCC has allowed co-ops to enter a domain once reserved for primary telecommunications providers.
Encouraged by the support, electric cooperatives are stepping in to provide their members high-speed broadband service where no other providers will. Approximately 90 electric cooperatives across the U.S. (about 11 percent) now provide broadband service to their members. Another 200 are studying the viability of expanding such service to their members—including United.
After hearing frequent member discontent with poor or no internet connectivity during regular community meetings and other cooperative gatherings over the last several years, coupled with appeals for United to seriously consider developing and providing a superior alternative, an objective was developed in 2017 to launch a preliminary study to determine whether the cooperative could feasibly deploy a broadband network that could provide competitively priced high-speed internet service to every member who wanted it.
Imperative to the Future
The time had come, according to United CEO Cameron Smallwood, for taking a good, hard look at such a project because he said it really boiled down to whether rural communities could continue to survive without access to high-speed internet in today’s economy.
“It’s a quality of life issue, certainly,” Smallwood said. “The only internet service a great many of our members can access today is a lot slower and more expensive than it is for their distant urban neighbors. And if they are frustrated by the fact they reside in a marginal zone, then you can imagine how the absence of that amenity would affect community economic prospects. People and businesses are moving away from places, or choosing not to move to locations where internet service isn’t available. Communities without high-speed internet access have a hard time competing for or holding on to needed commerce.”
Beyond the value that a broadband network could add to economic development within United’s service territory, the market study was modeled specifically to include a high-speed broadband internet network that would allow all members to have competitively-priced access to targeted download speeds of 100 Mbps or greater.
The preliminary study showed, however, that a few pockets within United’s territory would be limited to 50 Mbps. Fiber optic to home service could be provided to about 75 percent of the membership, and high-speed commercial-grade wireless could be provided to about 25 percent of the membership.
As an additional asset to such a network, a central fiber optic backbone within the system could also be used to enhance United’s operational and data delivery systems.
Though this project would be particularly significant from a scope and cost standpoint, the study is one part of the due diligence United exercises routinely in its analysis of any operational initiative, whether the project proceeds or is dropped from consideration.
“Why are we even looking into this? Well, it is simply because we answer to our members. We see our members. We listen to our members. And we have always acted on meeting our members’ service needs to the best of our ability,” Smallwood said. “Not so very long ago, more and more members began asking us when we would provide them with a solar energy rate option. We listened then, too, and we found a way to build a community solar plant at a very competitive cost. The result of providing that renewable energy solution is helping reduce participating members’ energy costs now, as well as for the next 19 years. In short, we take pride in providing solutions, and we never stop looking for ways to expand and improve our services to our members.”
Heeding the Call
“As with other electric co-ops, we’ve more recently begun to hear our members identify another service need that perhaps only an electric cooperative has the means to provide a solution to, even if it falls outside what has traditionally been defined as our core service,” he said. “It doesn’t seem likely the large telecom providers will ever have a financial incentive to extend a fixed broadband network to sparsely populated rural areas. We have our roots in the rural communities and areas we serve, and we are uniquely committed to working to improve the lives of our members. We think we have an obligation to fully explore the feasibility and benefits such a project might provide our membership and to our greater service territory before we arbitrarily decide it doesn’t fit our business model.”
As an additional means of obtaining continuing member feedback while the feasibility study progresses, a member advisory committee, composed of two members from each of United’s seven board of director districts and two at-large reps, has been organized with the objective of garnering genuine input and viewpoints related to the proposed project, from both a member and a consumer perspective.
Listening to Members
As I continue to age, I am finding out my body doesn’t quite work as it did when I was younger. When I work out in the yard, paint a room or work with my handful of cows, I tend to feel it the next day. Another thing I have noticed is that all the years of abuse my ears have taken due to loud music, driving a tractor and using power tools (all without hearing protection) have taken a toll on my ability to hear like I once did. There are times when my wife and I are in the same room, maybe watching a show on TV or working in the kitchen, where there is a smidge of background noise. In the past, I had no problem hearing her—this is not so much the case anymore. And, funny enough, her hearing is not much better than mine at this point (I am probably going to pay for that statement).
While it is sometimes frustrating to repeat myself, and I know she feels the same, we do get a good laugh thinking about what our lives in future retirement may be like. Sound familiar? And no, I am not talking about selective hearing. Obviously, listening is a very important part of any relationship; we just have to be able to hear!
United Cooperative Services is YOUR electric cooperative. As employees of the cooperative, we understand the meaning of this statement. How can we meet our mission of providing exceptional service and value without listening to our members? Simple answer: we cannot.
I am grateful that we have members who regularly give us feedback. There are many ways we hear from our members.
We routinely get phone calls with feedback, both positive and negative. We get feedback from telephone surveys, both positive and negative. We speak to multiple civic and community organizations across our territory every year and we get feedback, both positive and negative. We have community meetings every year where we specifically host meetings to promote face-to-face feedback with our members in their own communities—and while those comments are always mostly positive, sometimes we get negative feedback there, too.
Anytime we get negative feedback, we analyze whether it is a specific issue related to just that member or something many of our members are experiencing.
To that point, we have made many changes in the years I have worked at United based solely on feedback from our members at these different venues.
Another thing that comes out of these member communications is that we get suggestions for new products or services our members wish for us to consider providing.
A few years ago, at about every community meeting we hosted, we had members asking if there was going to be a day when the cooperative could help members with solar power. If you’ve followed reports of our work, we took this suggestion, studied it and figured out there was a feasible way for the cooperative to meet that desire. Today, we have more than 3,000 members signed up with the United Community Solar project, and they are now saving money on their electric bill each month. We still have some subscriptions available, and there is no cost for a member to enroll. If you are not saving money on your monthly electric bill through this program, you sure could be with a simple phone call into your local United office. Just call and ask to be a part of the Community Solar Program—it is that simple.
During 2018, again through the community meetings, phone calls and our telephone-based surveys, we started to hear another question more frequently—“Can United provide broadband internet service to all of its members?” Interestingly enough, this comment is resonating across rural America; I think due to the simple fact there is an obvious and certain urban/rural divide for high-speed internet service. For our purposes of discussion, we are defining high speed broadband as internet speeds greater than 25 Mbps download speed.
Electric cooperatives across the nation are in different stages of meeting this clear need in rural America. Because of member interest in this subject, along with what other electric cooperatives are doing to benefit their members and communities they serve, we cannot sit idly by and do nothing. A number of our members have asked, so we have taken a first step by performing a market and feasibility study for providing broadband service to our members.
I want to be clear on a few things. First, your board has NOT made a decision at this point to offer broadband service. We are still studying all the possibilities of providing this service. Second, due to the impact of such a decision, we will NOT go forward with a decision like this without membership input. Another major point is, if we were to offer this type of service, it would be done in such a way that our membership would be extremely satisfied and proud of the service offering—the service would be designed to completely bridge the broadband divide in the rural areas that we serve.
We do understand a small percentage of our members do have access to speeds of over 25 Mbps. Our preliminary market study shows about 13-15 percent of our members currently enjoy the benefits of broadband internet service. This also means that approximately 85 percent of our members do not have such an opportunity. I can’t say at this point that I know where the data obtained from this study will lead us, but I can say that we are continuing to listen to our members’ suggestions, needs and desires. Because we are YOUR cooperative, we will continue to listen.
Now that you know we are looking into the possibility of providing this service to our members, we will be “all ears” when we are talking to you about this possibility. Your board of directors authorized the creation of a broadband membership advisory committee, composed of members from all across our service territory. Those members have already provided great insight on the topic from both a member and consumer perspective.
Realistically, it is impossible to have every member of United to serve on this committee, but we still want your comments on the topic if you would like to share them. Feel free to call in or stop by any office and share your comments with one of our member service representatives, or any other employee for that matter. Your comments will make it back to the full team, and we will consider them as we continue discussing the merit and feasibility of offering this important service.
Your board of directors has also authorized a more in-depth planning study to clarify the many details related to providing broadband service to our members. We want to make sure we have all the information needed, and review all options that are available. As members and owners of this cooperative, we understand you expect us to be thorough in all that we do, and we will always strive to exceed your expectations in that capacity. And remember, we have been and always will be ready to listen to your comments, suggestions, and feedback. Again, this is YOUR cooperative. And as I said earlier, listening is a very important part of any relationship. God bless, stay tuned, and be safe!