Anyone living in a rural area of Ohio knows there’s a problem with internet service. Unlike in Hamilton County, for example, where nearly every single household has access to service of at least 100 megabits per second, only about a third of households in Vinton County can get even 25 Mbps — and one out of four can’t even get 10.
There are similar black holes of broadband all over Ohio — and of course, the factor they all have in common is their rural location, so it makes sense that electric cooperatives will play a role in rural broadband deployment.
The need for speed
Lack of high-speed internet access affects students’ ability to learn, individuals’ ability to work, and businesses’ ability to prosper, because every day the world is becoming more digital. Online classes, remote work, and Zoom meetings are becoming more and more the norm, and without broadband, those digital tools are simply unavailable.
There can be no doubt that electric cooperatives will play a part in bridging that digital divide.
“Part of our mission statement is to ‘improve the quality of life for our members and community,’ and broadband would undoubtedly do just that,” says Jeff Triplett, general manager of Marietta-based Washington Electric Cooperative. “Right now, too many people in rural areas, a great many of whom are members of electric cooperatives, are being left behind because of the lack of affordable high-speed internet.”
State and federal governments have recognized the problem and have recently enacted measures to ensure that more Ohioans — particularly those who are likely to be served by electric cooperatives — are afforded an on-ramp to the information superhighway.
The newly formed BroadbandOhio Office will oversee state and federal funds designed to make deployment of rural broadband more affordable.
Ohio-based telecommunications companies now have access to nearly $400 million in state and federal funding to deploy broadband to the state’s unserved and underserved areas, and the recently passed federal infrastructure bill designates an additional $65 billion for high-speed internet in rural areas around the country. The Biden administration’s proposed 2023 budget would add $150 billion in funding that could provide grants and low-interest loans to help with costs of bringing broadband to rural areas.
The exact parts that each of Ohio’s not-for-profit, member-owned co-ops play in expanding broadband coverage will depend on the individual co-op — each of which is best-positioned to determine exactly what part it can and should play in the solution.
Where co-ops can help
First and foremost, electric cooperatives own the poles that internet providers need to use to run the necessary fiber optic lines to their members. In many cases, however, those poles are likely to need an upgrade in order to carry the extra lines safely.
“Because of the state and federal money that’s now flowing in, we’re definitely seeing an uptick in requests to attach to our poles,” says Todd Ware, general manager at The Energy Cooperative in Newark. “We’re committed to speeding up the process to determine which poles need to be replaced, and to getting the new poles up as quickly as possible — it’s especially helpful that telecommunications companies now have access to funds to pay for the upgrades.”
Triplett and Washington Electric secured a grant to upgrade more than 200 miles of the co-op’s main-line electrical routes so they’re ready for commercial internet providers to deploy fiber optic cable in that part of Appalachian Ohio, where the largest gaps exist.
Studies at one Ohio co-op showed that the co-op could tackle the problem itself. Consolidated Cooperative, with offices in Delaware and Mount Gilead, has offered diversified services, including natural gas and propane along with electricity, for decades, and co-op management was able to lean on that experience in its ongoing efforts to bring retail broadband to its members. “There’s no doubt our experience providing other diversified businesses paved the way for the cooperative to provide retail broadband service,” says Consolidated CEO Phil Caskey. “There are clear rewards for our members who now have service and for all our members who now benefit from the robust communications system we’ve had for our electric system for the last 10 years.”
Co-ops get creative, collaborative
Other co-ops, however, have studied various solutions to mitigate some of the risk, and have determined their best solution is to secure strategic partnerships with telecommunications companies to bring broadband service to their members. Butler Rural Electric Cooperative, based in Oxford, has partnered with Cincinnati Bell to expand the Bell fiber network to co-op members in Butler and Hamilton counties. “We’re fortunate to have a willing partner right next door who shared our goals,” says Butler CEO Tom Wolfenbarger. “We know that doesn’t exist everywhere.”
Even if they’re not able to provide the service, most co-ops are doing other work to help pave the way for it. At North Western Electric Cooperative in Bryan, co-op crews are connecting all of the co-op’s electric substations with a loop of fiber optic line. For now, that line improves outage and other communications, but the co-op took the opportunity to install enough capacity in those lines to be ready for broadband expansion in the future.
Most co-ops have at least explored possibilities and done the extensive research necessary to be able to make informed decisions about getting broadband to their members .
“We know there is a need for service,” says Ed VanHoose, general manager of Wellington-based Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative and Attica-based North Central Electric Cooperative. “That’s why we will continue to investigate, evaluate, and review every avenue possible until our members have the same access that urban communities have had for years.”