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Co-op CEOs Offer Insights Into the Rural Broadband Business

Matt Timmons / Jan 15, 2020

Feasibility studies. Subscriber take rates. Debt-to-equity ratios. Equipment, construction and operational costs. These are just a few of the questions electric cooperatives must answer as they plan entry into the rural broadband business.  NRTC CEO Tim Bryan (pictured standing left) gathered a panel of executives who have recently made those tough calls. They shared their thoughts yesterday in Palm Desert, CA,  at NRECA’s CEO Close-Up during a session titled “The Real Cost of Deploying Broadband.”

The panel included, seated left to right: Bob Day, former VP of Strategic Pursuits at Maxar Technologies (formerly Space Systems/Loral); Jeremy Richert, CEO of Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative in Iowa, and Cameron Smallwood, CEO of United Cooperative Services (UCS) in Texas. 

Richert spoke about his experiences building out a full fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) operation at Maquoketa EC. The cooperative is in the third year of buildout and already has more than 3,000 subscribers signed up for service. Keeping his team and board of directors informed and educated on all aspects of the business was one of the most important tasks, he said. Richert also stressed the need to focus on continued member outreach and marketing. Broadband competition increases as the co-op deploys new services.

At the beginning of a project, it is important it is to include all levels of your organization in the feasibility study process, Smallwood said. A broadband project will affect every cooperative employee, so it is critical to give everyone a voice.

UCS is just starting its broadband project. The co-op, after some deliberation, has decided to use multiple technologies to serve a diverse geographic area. It is combining fixed wireless with FTTH, which allows them to serve more of their members faster with a robust broadband service while lowering the initial overall capital cost. As the project progresses and the subscriber base increases, Smallwood said he expects UCS will be able to expand fiber into areas initially covered with fixed wireless. FTTH to every member is the ultimate goal.
Day gave an instructive overview of satellite technologies available today, and an update on new services to come, like non-geosynchronous orbiting (NGO) low-Earth satellites. Such systems have gotten extensive positive media coverage, but it is still unclear how many of the proposed constellations will go into operation, Day said.  NGO backers could find it difficult to successfully deploy and compete with FTTH, he said.

Editor’s Note: NRTC Regional Business Manager Steve Hanson contributed to this item.

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