Early Member Buy-In Buoys Broadband Proposal
The day many United members had feared might never come has recently spun closer to a new dawn.
After a cooperative member advisory committee voted unanimously that United should consider providing high-speed broadband internet service to its entire membership, the judgement furthered hopes for legions of members that the digital divide that has stymied their access to modern internet technology might soon be bridged.
At the same time, the up vote also showcased one of the benefits associated with cooperative membership—member-owners have a voice in how their cooperative operates, which is one of the more unique aspects of the cooperative business model.
For the 14 randomly selected members and two at-large reps who had agreed to provide appraisals of the proposed endeavor, the trajectory of United’s broadband movement at that juncture was solely theirs to decide. As members representing the cooperative’s seven director districts, the group was charged with the responsibility of deciding whether additional action on the budding broadband proposal would move forward or instead be shelved for lack of apparent benefit to the cooperative and its members.
Even by the most conservative observation, the advisory committee lacked no enthusiasm for the project’s possibilities, despite its risks—the balance and judgement of which most companies, more often than not, make without seeking stakeholder perspective or input.
With one vote cast, however, one more has been called to help guide a decision that potentially could mark another epic service milestone in United’s history—the deployment of what has been characterized as a technologically “future safe” fiber-optic broadband service to most member residences, and limited only by terrain constraints or to the few service territory areas where fiber build-out might not be practical due to cost.
Considering the magnitude of such an undertaking, United’s board of directors has called for an additional ballot proposition to gauge the membership’s preference for having the cooperative consider advancing with such an initiative.
A ballot proposition packet mailing to every member began June 1, 2019, along with the cooperative’s continuing broadband member education campaign formally launched with an advance report in the May issue of Texas Co-op Power magazine.
Member response to the ballot proposition can provide invaluable input that would help determine whether there is a membership consensus supporting new financial commitments and services required for deployment of high-speed broadband service throughout United’s greater service territory—at an estimated total project cost of near $200 million.
A “Get Out the Vote” campaign also has been launched on social media to coincide with the ballot proposition mailing, as well as being featured on a newly dedicated broadband web page, www.united-cs.com/broadband, designed to provide a convenient hub for member contacts and comments regarding the broadband proposal, broadband project FAQs and as a central resource for obtaining continuing updates and detailed information on broadband project developments as they are made available.
Members found the broadband page almost immediately after it went live during the first week of May, and they went to work on its comment/contact section.
If any uncertainty existed beforehand about the level of member interest in seeing the cooperative provide broadband service, reassurances were plainly given when droves of affirmative member remarks and questions began pouring in on the web page.
“Having a voice in how your cooperative operates is one of the many benefits of your membership, and because this project would be particularly significant from a scope and cost standpoint, member input on this issue is vitally important in assisting your board of directors in determining which course of action to take regarding this potential opportunity for cooperative members,” United CEO Cameron Smallwood said.
“The idea of deploying broadband service now wasn’t initially inspired by United planners. After hearing from more and more members who urged us to take up the banner as their cooperative and find a way to provide the needed service because no other provider would, we felt obligated to explore the feasibility for offering high-speed internet service. We’re trying to do that exploratory research as objectively and as prudently as we can,” he said.
The gulf between affordable and reliable internet service options is surprisingly vast through most of United’s service territory, 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 folks living in urban areas,” he said.
A preliminary feasibility study, the findings of which were reviewed with member advisory committee members earlier this spring, estimated 87 percent of United members currently do not have access to affordable and/or reliable 25 Mbps high-speed broadband internet service, which is already near the lower-end of bandwidth capacity for downloading vast streams of data.
Following that analysis, and in view of lessons learned by other cooperatives during similar broadband deployments, United revised its early vision for a proposed broadband network to include more fiber and less wireless in the event the broadband deployment project matured. The reasoning was fairly straightforward: fiber offers virtually unlimited bandwidth, it has fewer technical downsides than wireless, it has a long reach with respect to signal integrity and it is widely considered as standard medium that is predicted to remain relevant for a long time.
While those revised plans weren’t set in concrete, they were included as the basis for developing a very stable broadband network that would be considered today and tomorrow as the “gold standard” in telecom technology, Smallwood said.
As such, he said the network would serve as an asset to the membership and the cooperative for many years to come. Those network design provisions have been included in a more in-depth Executable Project Plan that was approved for development by the cooperative’s board of directors in April, and that will be conducted by National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative to include a more extensive analysis of United’s distribution system and market, system engineering design and build-out scheduling for a central high-speed broadband backbone and service network.
The proposed system would be designed with the goal of making 50 Mbps available to all members, but with an added projection that 85-90 percent of members would have the option to receive at least 100 Mbps or greater.
Further, the extensive analysis would begin to validate the cooperative’s goal of providing competitively priced service plans (without sales gimmicks) that are set with the aim of being the lowest available in the market, and delivered in tandem with United’s superior brand of reliability and service.
After member advisory committee members were given an overview of preliminary feasibility study findings that included build-out options, network design, project costs and ratios, financing, service ranges, subscriber tolerances, timelines and a host of other project modeling detail, the group provided input on a variety of topics that included their perspectives as both members and consumers.
Those discussions ultimately centered on the significance of such a project to the cooperative, and the added benefits it could bring to members.
When Chris Karas added his voice to those of the other advisory group members about whether United should continue to plow forward, or cover tracks already made, in studying the hefty proposition, the Mansfield member, perhaps unwittingly, leaned on the cooperative ideals of democratic member control and concern for community in his comments.
He first suggested that United members should have a say in advising the cooperative whether they would uniformly support such an immense undertaking, and he added that seeking a member consensus determined by a simple majority (50.1 percent), rather than by a super majority (66.7 percent), would be more fair to rural members who struggle to find reliable internet service at an affordable price, and who likely would be voting for their “ best and perhaps only” opportunity to get good internet service.
“We have very good internet service where we live,” Karas said. “In fact, finding a good internet service option was one of the main considerations for deciding where we would move. So while I honestly can’t say whether I would switch if given the option, I do know I would vote for such a proposition because I wouldn’t want the fact I enjoy good internet service to keep other members who don’t from receiving equally good service from the cooperative.”
Another committee member said she thought consumers can generally appreciate when a company tries to grow its business services around benefiting the consumer rather than benefiting itself and its profits at the expense of the consumer, and she was convinced United’s purpose in studying the feasibility of providing broadband service was for no other reason than to benefit members and provide a needed service.
Other committee members reported they were paying “ridiculous” prices to receive unsatisfactory internet service currently, which for two members was approximately $100 or more per month for 3 Mbps in one instance, and 10 Mbps in another member’s case.
The advisory group also agreed United’s member-focus and service attributes would only make a broadband service offering even more attractive to members—both to members who currently had high-speed internet, and certainly for those who didn’t.
“I’m excited that my electric cooperative might again be able to provide a solution to a need that just hasn't been answered, just like it did when it connected rural families with electricity,” another committee member said at the end of the meeting.