Board of Directors votes to provide United members
with high-speed broadband internet service
It was a direction that, for months, thousands of cooperative members had urged United leaders to consider taking—and to please hurry up about it.
United Cooperative Services’ Board of Directors elected unanimously at its regular monthly meeting in September to proceed with the development of a fiber-optic, high-speed broadband network designed to serve the internet needs of its members throughout its 14-county service territory in North Texas.
Seven raised hands marked the launch of what will be remembered as an epic new tale in one electric distribution cooperative’s pilgrimage as a member-focused service delivery company.
Nearly a third of the cooperative’s 61,000 members voted in a ballot initiative to determine interest in their cooperative providing high-speed broadband internet service to its members.
Of that voting total, 91 percent responded positively to a proposition posed in June and July asking whether United should consider embarking on such an effort. The proposition drew one of the largest membership responses of any previous ballot measure in the cooperative’s history.
“Over the last several months, in an exercise that exemplified one of our Seven Cooperative Principles, which is Democratic Member Control, United sought and received member input on this initiative,” said United Board President Patsy Dumas. “Member response has been overwhelmingly in favor of the cooperative bringing high-speed broadband internet service to its members. The members have a voice, we have listened, and now we can get to work in earnest to bring this service to them.”
The multi-year project is expected to begin in December with the construction of a central fiber-optic backbone that will link and enhance communications systems at the electric cooperative and serve as the nucleus from which a residential broadband network will be built. The system will yield fiber-to-the-home internet service speeds in excess of a gigabit to a majority of cooperative members, and more than 100 Mbps service speeds to most members served in more remote areas via a fiber-based fixed wireless network.
PROJECT GETS A JUMP-START
In advance of the cooperative’s effort to gauge the membership’s wishes for having the co-op diversify its longtime core services as an electric provider to include broadband service, an earlier, separate decision made by the cooperative’s board to build a fiber-optic backbone to buoy United’s operational communications will now jump-start the development and build-out of broadband by months.
Accordingly, with each phase of the backbone’s construction, it is expected that fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) residential services will be offered to most areas after concentric rings have been connected within the backbone to ensure network redundancy (system reliability).
At the same time, members served in more remote areas—regions initially targeted to receive fiber-based high-speed fixed wireless service—may, in some cases, be offered service sooner than areas that are earmarked to receive FTTH as the network backbone construction expands to include wireless tower placements.
WHILE YOU ARE WAITING
While wise men have, for ages, touted patience as a virtue, it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention United members are anxious to receive a service that still has not today completely left the drawing boards and is being carefully designed to fulfill the internet needs of members for many years to come.
Members have offered, both literally and figuratively, to dig their own trenches if such sweat equity would speed fiber-optic service delivery to their homes.
Before the official announcement was released that the cooperative would move forward with the project, members provided a steady stream of messages to the cooperative:
“Build it, please!”
“Quit talking about it, bring it on!”
“Where do I sign up?”
“The service quality and the price I’m paying now is terrible—hurry!”
“Please help us join the rest of the world.”
Once the project was given the green light and an announcement was posted on the cooperative’s website and released to area media, the messages have since conveyed a popular sentiment:
“How soon will you get to my neighborhood?”
Large-scale projects take time. Only a few United members still can remember the time when electricity wasn’t immediately available at the flip of a switch, what it took to extend electric power to rural areas nearly a century ago or how long folks had to wait before they had electric light shining from their homesteads at night.
No one can recall with any certainty how many years it took for United’s service territory to have the main electric delivery system constructed starting back in the late 1930s. Rural electrification is a largely forgotten revitalization movement affecting rural Americans who would have likely never received the modern convenience of electricity if not for the Rural Electrification Act and the subsequent formation of electric cooperatives.
World War II largely interrupted the Herculean task to power rural America, which leads some observers to conservatively estimate it took seven to nine years before the distribution systems serving members in this area were completed.
NO EASY IN EASEMENTS
Extending high-speed broadband internet service to members should have fewer obstacles, but if project planners had to pick from a list of “Rome wasn’t built in day” challenges it would be in the area of easements. And as it turns out, rather than digging their own fiber-optic trenches, it’s realistically the one considerable hurdle members can help the cooperative circumvent to expedite build-out of the network.
Thanks to passage of Senate Bill 14, a bill that was ushered through the Texas Legislature during the last legislative session, cooperatives such as United are now legally authorized to provide broadband services along with their electric services without obtaining new easements for every utility connection, as long as a cooperative informs property owners in writing that the co-op intends to attach those services to existing easements and provides property owners 60 days to contest the attachment of those broadband services to those easements.
As the project progresses, some United members will receive a letter stating the co-op intends to add broadband services to existing electric infrastructure now serving members. United CEO Cameron Smallwood said members can speed the process of broadband services development, for themselves and for their neighbors, by not responding to the notices, or by calling the cooperative if they have any questions or concerns.
“The spirit of working together cooperatively has certainly made United what it is today,” Smallwood said. “For more than 80 years, this cooperative has stood as a testament to what can be done when we all work collectively to benefit the whole, not just the one. We need our members’ help now, just as we did when this cooperative was first formed. Members helped us back then by granting the cooperative easements that would allow the cooperative to bring electricity to them and their neighbors. Our members can help us get broadband services delivered more quickly today by not objecting to our wish to add broadband services to existing easements.”
Beyond the challenge of easements and uncertainties that revolve around weather delays, the project will be no less rigorous in scope than rural electrification. Total project cost has been estimated at slightly more than $200 million, which includes construction of 4,263 miles (3,788 overhead and 475 underground) of fiber-optic line, 213 fixed wireless tower sites, 3,530 pole replacements to accommodate loading or clearance and additional tree trimming. The job will take at least five years to complete, which is thought to be an aggressive estimate for a deployment this size.
HIGH-SPEED INTERNET WITH BREATHING ROOM
While the network is being designed and sized to afford every member basic internet service with 100 Mbps or higher, as noted earlier, one distinction that will be apparent in the network’s working design will be the lack of bandwidth compression (stacking) that is problematic with many telco systems due to oversubscribing a system beyond the capacity of their infrastructure. United’s broadband network, on the other hand, will be designed for optimum streaming service.
High-speed broadband internet and telephone service will be offered as part of the new service, leaving members with the option of selecting their personal preferences for TV since there are a variety of competitively priced streaming TV providers and services to choose from in the marketplace who offer easy sign-ups and no contracts.
Billing for broadband services will appear as separate line items within a member’s regular monthly electric bill.
“This new service direction obviously represents an immense undertaking for us,” Smallwood said. “But our members—many of whom have been underserved or not served at all with adequate internet services—asked us to find a way to provide high-speed internet service, so we have responded. While we still have many details to work through, we fully intend that this system will be designed and operated to ensure our member-owners will get exemplary service quality, dependability and response that has been our hallmark as an electric provider, and which isn’t common within the telecommunications industry today. Since we are committed to the philosophy that superior service and quality are mutually inclusive to superior product value, the pricing gimmicks that are prevalent in the telecommunication world won’t be part of our marketing efforts. As a nonprofit cooperative, we believe members will realize that our internet service cost structures will be fairly static fixtures that remain as competitive as anything offered within the market.”
Interested members should become attuned to seeing regularly updated information about the broadband deployment and more specifics about service cost structuring as more of the system’s nuts and bolts come together. Every communication medium available to the cooperative will be used to resource broadband information, including a dedicated broadband page introduced earlier this year on United’s website.
As the system is built, a major emphasis will be placed on informing members when services are expected to become available in their area, and to allow members who already have or may be considering contracts with other providers to plan accordingly.
Part of that strategy will include a build-out map on the broadband website page that will reflect updated progress on the network’s construction.
“We’re ready to get rolling, and we know many of our members were ready ‘yesterday’ for us to do so,” Smallwood said. “ But we also want all our members to know we are committed to being fair and balanced in the way we approach our build-out of the network. So while we are fully focused on recapturing, as quickly as possible, the capital outlay our members have entrusted to us to get this new business underway, we also want folks in both the densely populated and the remote areas of our service territory to see that we’re working to provide services as quickly as we can to both demographics. In other words, we will want to sign up as many subscribing members as possible as we move forward with construction of the network. In some of our more rural service areas, we won’t have as many members to draw from, but they are just as anxious, if not more so, to receive service than other members who may already have functioning—if less than adequate—internet services today.”
The network will receive primary internet service feeds from separate providers at two different locations (referred to as head-ends in industry parlance)—one in Stephenville, and the other in Burleson. The two separate feeder points maximize system redundancy and reliability due to an outage event.
And as a matter of practicality and logistics, those locations are where project planning calls for the first backbone rings to be configured. Additional rings will radiate out from those starting points until the entire network is connected to the fiber-optic backbone.
United’s broadband deployment—once realized—carries with it the expectation that the service quality members receive will never be off-par with the very best available to consumers anywhere in the Metroplex or the nation.
Smallwood said the project spells a whole new era in United’s service delivery. All that is needed now is a little more time and patience from every stakeholder in the massive project, and some timely help from members in streamlining the easement process.
By CAMERON SMALLWOOD
United Cooperative Services CEO
As many of you are aware, I am a great fan of the cooperative business model.
It is a very simple business model where the member/owners of the cooperative agree to do certain business with the cooperative and, in return, share in any profits from the cooperative. Carrying out the governance of the cooperative, each member is allowed the opportunity to work together to select candidates for the governing board of directors. The members then collectively select the directors that they believe best represent their local areas through their director voting process. Ultimately, the members are involved continually in all decision making at the cooperative, thereby hopefully meeting the needs of the members of the cooperative in providing whatever service that cooperative provides. This is how your electric cooperative works.
Because we are a large electric cooperative, it is more challenging to get member feedback from each member in order to make the best decisions possible for the membership of the cooperative. Further, we fully understand that we serve a very diverse membership, so that in of itself makes it even more challenging to implement programs, processes that are optimal for each member in every case, but as employees that work for you, we do everything we can to exceed your expectations.
I want to brag on you, the members and owners of our cooperative. I want to congratulate you on being a highly engaged membership. Case in point: during the last decade, many of you have reached out through conversations, survey responses, letters and comments at community meetings that you desired for United to enter the broadband internet business. In listening to our members, we decided to perform a feasibility study and engage a group of our members to look more in-depth at that idea. After this review, this group of members along with our staff felt it necessary to suggest to our board of directors that we utilize our membership to make the next-step decision of what to do relating to this challenge many of our members are facing—lack of high-speed broadband internet service. Your board of directors agreed that the members should have a say in how this should move forward, and as all of you are aware, ballots were sent out in June and July of this year.
Thanks to your engagement on this topic, we received close to 20,000 ballots back on this important topic. The response was historic for your cooperative.
We received one of the largest responses on any election measure since United was formed, and as we have already noted, 91 percent of our members voted in favor of their cooperative investing in bringing high-speed broadband to the membership. Because of your strong engagement on this issue, our board of directors unanimously authorized the start of this project at their September board meeting. We wouldn’t be here without your engagement in your cooperative.
As we begin to roll out this project, it will be imperative that you stay engaged. A project of this size is quite monumental, and it will take the effort and engagement of all members to make it a success. I want all members to know and understand that your employees will do everything we can to meet and exceed your expectations – on the electric side and in the future on the broadband side of this business.
So I wish to wrap up with a great big THANK YOU. You, members, are what make the cooperative business model so special. Look at the vast network of electric distribution system that we operate and maintain today. This would not have been possible without you as members. I believe in years to come we will be saying the same about the broadband system. As this Thanksgiving season comes around, I think it is clear we have much for which we should be thankful. I pray wonderful blessings for each of our members and their families and that all would be safe throughout the coming holiday season.