Rural broadband: How electric cooperatives are reducing the digital divide

As electrification spread across the United States in the 1930s, electric cooperatives stepped up to serve rural America when traditional electricity providers felt it would be unprofitable.

Now cooperatives are stepping up again, this time to bridge the digital divide. An effort in Virginia has connected 30,000 rural residents to the Internet via fiber since 2017, and plans to connect 200,000 more over the next three to five years.

The work is led by the Broadband Cooperative Association of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, which was created to provide “a single, unifying voice for cooperative broadband interests.” VMDABC chairman Casey Logan, who is also CEO of RURALBAND, an internet service provider operating in the state’s southeast, said co-ops are responding to the call of their members to provide broadband.

“We’ve heard from our local communities that they need a reliable high-speed internet option, and the larger investor-owned communications companies are not coming into rural areas,” Logan said.

As with the electrification efforts of the 1930s, cooperatives are not driven by profit. While some states have been slow to adopt co-ops as broadband providers, some co-op-based ISPs in Virginia have been boosting rural connections for some time.

Gary Wood, CEO of Firefly Broadband, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, said CVEC surveyed members in 1998 about their needs other than electricity, and about 30% of respondents said they did not have Internet access. In response, CVEC began providing dial-up Internet the following year and served about 3,000 customers before switching to fiber.

“It’s an ongoing process to find a way to solve a problem for our members who ask the co-op: ‘Can you help us?’ No one else is coming,” Wood said.

Broadband uses much of the same infrastructure that cooperatives do to provide electricity, including public rights of way. This next phase of fiber deployment in Virginia can be challenging due to the communities’ topography and low population density.

Firefly’s service area includes the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway, both remote and challenging terrain, Wood said. Challenges may include the need to dig through rock or wade through swamps to lay fiber.

John Lee, CEO of Empower Broadband, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative in southern Virginia, said the topography is less of a problem in this part of the Union, giving Empower the flexibility to build infrastructure underground or on poles. Lee said the company has an “army of resources” to build its fiber network in four Southside counties.

All co-ops must deal with low population density, which, if not subsidized and infrastructure costs kept low, can increase the cost of customers’ monthly internet bills.

In the Blue Ridge service area, Wood said Firefly has about eight customers per mile, but added that VMDABC members can take advantage of the enhanced purchasing power that comes with multiple cooperatives coming together to buy the same infrastructure.

Despite the progress, villagers are desperate to connect.

“I think the biggest challenge for us here is expectations,” Lee said. “We have a great relationship with our members and they trust us. I think that’s why they started yelling and saying, “Hey, you’ve got to take this, run with it. We need you to step up again.”

A combination of state and federal grants, including the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund and funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, helped support the establishment of co-ops in Virginia.

For lawmakers involved in bridging the digital divide in Virginia, the effort is personal. Del. Emily Brewer, who chairs the House Communications and Technology Committee, said she was unable to access broadband at her home in her district in the southeastern part of the state.

To increase connectivity, lawmakers funded the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative to provide grants to build broadband infrastructure. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation introduced by Brewer and supported by the cooperatives that would allow state agencies to grant easements to telecommunications companies to install infrastructure, as they do for other utilities.

According to Logan, VMDABC’s unity also means it can speak “with one voice” on legislative and regulatory issues, which is especially helpful when lobbying lawmakers in Richmond. Brewer said the legislative process to allow broadband is ongoing, but progress is being made.

“I would say we’re peeling back the layers of the onion to make broadband deployment faster, easier, and faster to the consumer,” Brewer said.

It is also important to build digital literacy among residents who will be connected to broadband for the first time. Logan compared it to the early days when cooperatives first provided electricity to members and then had to educate them on how they could use electricity to improve their quality of life.

To do that, he said, VMDABC has created a “cooperative living room” where it goes into the communities it serves and helps residents learn how broadband can improve their daily lives.

“It’s really helped us … connect with our communities to let them know that we’re not just providing this world-class service,” Logan said. “We’re going to give it to you and help you understand it so you can use it and benefit yourself.”

Nationally, electric cooperatives have played a leading role in building the broadband network. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, about 200 cooperatives are providing or building broadband, and another 200 are evaluating the feasibility of providing the service. More than 6 million households in cooperative service areas do not have access to high-speed Internet, NRECA said.

To try to capitalize on that momentum, the association launched the NRECA Broadband initiative in July, which it says will offer members a range of additional resources as well as access to legislative and regulatory experts.

In a statement at the time, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said the group aims to “be a strong, unified voice in Washington to represent our unique interests and stand toe-to-toe with big telecom.”

Brewer said he’s optimistic that co-ops in Virginia will follow through on their commitment to engagement because they have a “developed sense of duty” due to their membership models. Lee agreed and vowed that this statewide effort would be successful.

Virginia residents “put a lot of resources and a lot of trust in electric cooperatives, and we appreciate that and we’re going to deliver, I can tell you that right now,” he said. “We will deliver. We will be there. We will finish the job. And we will reach everyone as much as we can.”

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