Co-ops that once brought electricity to rural Ohio work to offer high speed internet

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Fiber internet installation
Ryan Keene, a Midwest Energy and Communications fiber installation technician, installs fiber internet at a customer's home. (Submitted photo)

Cooperatives that originally brought electricity to rural Ohio are now looking for ways to provide high speed internet as well.

“Nearly every co-op in the state has studied it,” said Doug Miller, vice president of statewide services for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. The state has 24 rural electric co-ops and each is an independent, autonomous organization with its own board, Miller explained. 

They all have different circumstances to consider, so the fact that some co-ops are providing fiber internet services doesn’t mean it is feasible for the rest. For instance, rougher terrain increases the cost of fiber installation in some areas.

Population density is also a factor. Consolidated Co-op in central Ohio has an average of about nine customers per mile of electric line, while a more sparsely populated area such as Adams County might have only four customers per mile. 

Future advances in broadband technology are a consideration as well, Miller added: “Will that make running fiber to the home obsolete?” 

Co-op boards are responsible for making good business decisions. 

“They don’t want to jeopardize the electric business for the sake of going into the broadband business,” he said. 

For some co-ops, their studies have shown they simply can’t afford to offer internet services. But, Miller added, they might be able to help down the road as technology advances and government funding programs change.  

Fiber networks

Consolidated Cooperative, which provides electric service in Delaware and Morrow counties as well as parts of eight other counties, was the first electric co-op in Ohio to offer fiber internet service for residential customers. 

“Our philosophy is this is a service that is going to improve the quality of life in the areas we serve,” said Dan Jones, chief marketing officer for the co-op. The co-op began installing a fiber-optic network in 2009 as part of its efforts to modernize electrical operations. 

In 2017, the co-op board voted to start providing residential internet service and the co-op currently has 1,700 residential customers connected. The cost to install a fiber cable with 144 strands is not much higher than the cost to install a cable with 48 strands, Jones said. 

So, the co-op used the larger cables, which allowed the co-op to sell extra capacity on the fiber network for commercial use and still have capacity available for residential users. Those cables provide the backbone of the fiber network and additional spurs must be installed to make residential connections. 

Consolidated is gradually extending fiber internet connections within the co-op service area, Jones said. Building out fiber lines to reach everyone who wants service will take time, he added. The co-op is taking a methodical approach, considering where service is most needed as well as the cost of providing the service. 

“We can only build so much fiber with the money available,” he said. 

Extending connections

Another co-op that has been extending fiber internet connections in Ohio is Midwest Energy and Communications. MEC is a Michigan-based co-op that serves members in a few townships in the northwest corner of Ohio. 

“Our board of directors were at district meetings and kept hearing that need from our members,” said Bob Hance, Midwest’s chief executive officer. 

Rural residents were being told by investor-owned internet service providers that bringing internet service to rural areas was too expensive, he said: “If that were true, electricity wouldn’t have gotten out to the rural areas either.” 

In 2014, MEC was the first to receive a “smart grid” loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (formerly the Rural Electrification Service). MEC’s initial goal for the smart grid project was to upgrade the co-op’s communications and load control systems. 

But the same fiber infrastructure that allows the co-op to use advanced technology for managing its electrical grid can be used to provide fiber internet connections, Hance said. MEC began extending broadband service to its electrical service areas in Michigan in 2015 and started expanding into its Ohio service areas in 2019. 

Overall, about 17,000 co-op members are connected. Another 2,000 customers who are not members of the co-op are connected as well. 

“We will build to every member that wants it,” Hance said, adding that it would be available to every member by the end of the year.  

The co-op also will be using funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to extend high-speed internet service to additional households and businesses in southern Michigan over the next five years. 

Collaborative efforts

Agricultural co-ops are looking for ways to extend broadband to rural areas as well. In Auglaize County, a collaborative effort is providing internet connections for rural residents near Uniopolis. 

“It’s just a void area,” said George Secor, president and chief executive officer of Sunrise Co-operative. “When you drive in that area, it’s even hard to get a cell phone signal.” 

Sunrise, a full-service agricultural co-op based in Fremont, Ohio, is a member of the Land O’Lakes cooperative network. Together, Sunrise and Land O’Lakes are participating in Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, along with internet service provider Watch Communications. The coalition began offering service in February of 2021. 

Sunrise Co-op’s role is providing space and electricity on its grain silos in Uniopolis for high speed broadband equipment. 

“We’re just providing the vehicle to get the internet out there,” Secor said. The wireless internet signal extends about eight miles out from the facility and repeaters are able to carry it even further. 

Sunrise is currently studying internet connection needs in other parts of Ohio, Secor said. Rural residents who still lack affordable high-speed connections need to be calling their legislators, he added. There is federal and state funding available to help make connections, but people need to speak up so their areas aren’t passed over. 

Co-op expands

Highland Ridge Tower
Peg Bailey, one of the founders of the South Eastern Ohio Broadband Cooperative, doesn’t have a direct line of sight to the Highland Ridge Tower, but she is able to get an internet signal thanks to neighbors who allowed her to put this equipment on their land. The solar-powered repeater bounces the signal over the hill to Bailey’s home. (Submitted photo)

Farm and Dairy covered the establishment of the South Eastern Ohio Broadband Cooperative last year. It is now providing high speed internet connections to 82 members in Washington County. 

Co-op founder David Brown said residents were tired of waiting for an internet service provider to get the job done. 

“We didn’t have a choice, nobody was going to do it for us,” he said. 

Brown and co-founder Peg Bailey organized a cooperative exploratory group after COVID made the area’s lack of internet access even more critical. Within a few weeks they had hundreds of people interested, Bailey said. 

The area’s hilly terrain and low population density makes running fiber connections to every household expensive, so the co-op is using a series of fixed wireless antennas and repeater stations to extend connections instead. SEOBC started extending service with antennas on a cell phone tower attached to the Highland Ridge water tower. 

The co-op is now expanding coverage using other existing towers, including Multi-Agency Radio Communications Systems towers. Those towers were designed to provide better communications access for first responders and public safety agencies. They were originally funded using tax-exempt bonds, so private companies were not permitted to install equipment on them. Earlier this year, however, the Ohio Department of Administrative Services converted the funding to taxable bonds, which allows for use of the towers by private companies. 

Now Broadband Ohio, part of the Ohio Development Services Agency, is conducting a pilot program offering grants to encourage the use of MARCS towers to extend internet service in underserved areas. SEOBC is one of the groups participating in that pilot project. 

The momentum seems to be shifting for rural areas that still lack high speed internet. 

“We’ve seen lots of interest from state officials,” Bailey said. “It’s nice getting phone calls from them instead of trying to reach them.” 

Following the success of the SEOBC in Washington County, local leaders in Monroe and Jackson Counties are setting up similar co-ops. Each area will have their own board and technical staff, he said. Other areas in the state could benefit from the groundwork laid by SEOBC as well. 

“We have the recipe for this and we can share it,” Brown said.

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