Broadband’s rural reach: How electric co-ops reduce the digital divide
The Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives plans to connect 200,000 rural residents via fiber within five years.
As electrification spread across the United States in the 1930s, electric co-operatives stepped up to provide service in rural America when traditional electricity providers felt doing so would not be profitable.
Now, co-ops are stepping up again, this time to close the digital divide. An effort in Virginia has connected 30,000 rural residents to the internet through fiber since 2017 and plans to hook up another 200,000 in the next three to five years.
The work is being driven by the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives, which was established to provide a “singular, unifying voice for cooperative broadband interests.” VMDABC Chair Casey Logan, who is also CEO of RURALBAND, an internet service provider that operates in the southeast of the state, said co-operatives answered the call from their members to provide broadband.
“We heard the need from our local communities that they needed a reliable high-speed internet option, and the larger investor-owned communications companies would not come out to the rural areas,” Logan said.
As in their electrification effort of the 1930s, co-operatives are not driven by profits. While some states have been slow to embrace co-ops as broadband providers, some co-op-based ISPs in Virginia have been pushing rural connectivity for a while.
Gary Wood, the CEO of Firefly Broadband, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, said CVEC surveyed members in 1998 about their needs beyond electricity and found that around 30% of respondents said they lacked internet access. In response, CVEC started to provide dial-up internet the following year and served about 3,000 customers before it moved toward fiber.
“It's been a continual process of trying to find a way to solve the problem for our members who kept asking the co-op, ‘Can you help us? No one else is coming,’” Wood said.
Broadband uses most of the same infrastructure the co-ops do to provide electricity, including public rights of way. This next phase of fiber deployment across Virginia could be challenging, however, due to the topography of the communities and low population density.
Wood said Firefly’s service area includes the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which feature both remote and challenging terrain. Difficulties can include needing to dig into rock or cross marshland to lay fiber.
John Lee, the CEO of Empower Broadband, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative in the south of Virginia, said topography is less of an issue in that part of the commonwealth, giving Empower flexibility in laying infrastructure underground or on poles. The company has “an army of resources” to build out its fiber network across four Southside counties, Lee said.
All co-operatives must deal with low population density, which could drive up the cost of customers’ monthly internet bills if they are not subsidized and if infrastructure costs are not kept low.
In the Blue Ridge service area, Wood said Firefly has around eight customers per mile but added that VMDABC members could take advantage of the enhanced buying power that comes with multiple co-operatives all coming together to buy the same infrastructure.
Despite the progress, rural residents are desperate to be connected.
“I think for us, the biggest challenge here is expectations,” Lee said. “We have a great relationship with our members, and they trust us. I think that's why they started clamoring, and saying, ‘Hey, you guys have got to pick this up, run with it. We need you to step up again.”
A combination of state and federal grants have helped support the co-operatives in their buildout throughout Virginia, including funds from the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
For legislators involved in closing the digital divide in Virginia, the effort is personal. Del. Emily Brewer, who chairs the House of Delegates’ Communications and Technology Committee, said she cannot access broadband internet at her home in her district in the southeastern part of the state.
In a bid to boost connectivity, legislators funded the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative to provide grants to build out broadband infrastructure. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the legislation introduced by Brewer — and backed by co-ops — that allows state agencies to grant telecommunications companies an easement to install infrastructure, like they do for other utilities.
Logan said VMDABC’s unity also means they can speak with “one voice” on issues around legislation and regulation, which is especially helpful when lobbying lawmakers in Richmond. Brewer said the process to legislate to allow broadband rollout is ongoing but is making progress.
“I would say we're peeling back the layers of the onion, if you will, to make broadband deployment quicker, easier, and able to get to the consumer quicker,” Brewer said.
It’s also important to build digital literacy among residents who will be connected to broadband internet for the first time. Logan compared that to the early days, when the co-ops first provided electricity to members and then had to educate them on how they could harness electric power to improve their quality of life.
To do that, he said VMDABC created a “co-operative living room,” where it goes into the communities it serves and helps residents learn how broadband can improve their everyday lives.
“It’s really helped us … connect with our communities to let them know we're not just giving you 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 with it.”
Nationally, electric co-operatives have played a leading role in building out broadband. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, around 200 co-ops are providing or building out broadband, while another 200 are assessing the feasibility of providing service. NRECA said more than 6 million households in co-op service areas lack access to high-speed internet.
To try to capitalize on that momentum, the association in July launched its NRECA Broadband initiative, which it said will offer a slew of extra resources to members, as well as access to experts on legislation and regulation.
In a statement at the time, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said the group aims to “be a strong, united voice in Washington to represent our unique interests and stand toe-to-toe with big telecom.”
Brewer said she is optimistic the co-ops in Virginia will deliver on their connectivity promises, as they have an “enhanced sense of duty” due to their membership model. Lee agreed and promised that this statewide effort will be successful.
Virginia residents “put a lot of resources and a lot of confidence in the electric co-ops, and we appreciate that, and we're going to deliver, I can tell you that right now,” he said. “We'll deliver. We'll be there. We'll get the job done. And we'll get to everybody just as soon as we possibly can.”