COVID Complications Were Sometimes a “Blessing in Disguise”

Randy Sukow


Talk about bad timing. If there ever was a good time to schedule a pandemic of indefinite length to disrupt your business, it wouldn’t be while preparing the imminent roll out of fiber optic broadband service in rural Tennessee. But about a year ago, that was what Cumberland Electric Membership Corp. faced.

In January 2020, Cumberland EMC’s plan was to light up its first fiber customers and sign up 5,000 by the end of the year. “We didn’t have to refine that goal. We were really proud of that. It definitely was a team effort,” said Bruce Anderson, a Cumberland EMC information system specialist, (pictured left above) during “Launching Fiber During COVID and How it Changed the Way We Do Things.” The breakout session sponsored by NRTC Broadband Solutions was one of the early highlights on the first day of NRECA’s TechAdvantage conference.

Anderson’s job was to lead training of customer service representatives (CSRs) and technical service representatives (TSRs) in how to use the software needed to complete home installations. He got the project started with an in-person training session with supervisors during the 2020 Presidents Day weekend. But before the co-op could hire and train the bulk of its CSR/TSRs, the pandemic-related office closures hit. “We did not have a backup plan. [Hands-on] was the way we were going to do training,” Anderson said.

Did Cumberland EMC ever consider delaying the broadband launch? “The conversation did happen, but it was quickly answered. We knew that [local residents] needed internet now more than ever,” he said. “I had the option of working at home because I had internet. That wasn’t an option for any of these people that didn’t have internet.”

Tennessee did not allow electric cooperatives to offer broadband service outside their service territories until it changed a state law in 2017. Many living in remote areas near Cumberland EMC were completely unserved, which was a major incentive for the cooperative to begin its broadband project.

After ruling out all the possible ways to hold in-person training sessions, the co-op decided to implement remote training sessions. Anderson held up two especially important tools that made the project work: the Microsoft Teams platform and a video archive of the training sessions for CSR/TSRs to consult.  He was able to interact with users during the training sessions and encouraged them to call him with questions after viewing recordings.

Moderator Ashley Brown of NISC (left above) talked with Magan Morgan, a Cumberland EMC customer account representative before the session. Morgan praised the recordings as “easy to follow” and especially liked the ability to pause and review portions of the training. “COVID-19 was somewhat a blessing in disguise,” Morgan said. “Yes, it was hard. And we had to adapt and do things differently. We did succeed. And we learned a lot.”

Anderson foresees using a combination of in-person and remote training in the future. Before the pandemic, he considered “hands-on” and in-person training to be to be the same thing. Today he knows, “users learn the most with hands on. Now they can be hands-on wherever they are,” he said.

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