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Successful Broadband Takes Forethought and Caring About the Community

Randy Sukow May 14, 2019

NRTC’s TechConnect 2019, meeting this week just outside Austin, TX, has been an opportunity for rural telcos and electrics who do business every day to trade their ideas and secrets to success. The highlight of a breakout session on broadband technology today had three experienced electric managers describe their early fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments and the factors that led those services to attracting take rates well above expectations.

Lynn Hodges, CEO and General Manager of Ralls County Electric Cooperative in Missouri; Bob Hance, president and CEO of Midwest Energy & Communications in Michigan, and Ken Johnson, former general manager and CEO of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri (pictured left to right), could all point to specific instances when preparation of such details as hiring contractors, planning pole upgrades, and making careful analysis of the communities they were serving made a difference.

For example, planning “make-ready” issues was critical to Co-Mo’s FTTH project. “We could probably spend our whole time here on make ready … Make ready could make or break your entire project,” said Johnson, who currently is NRTC senior VP, Broadband Programs. Make ready issues refer to the condition of utility poles before fiber deployment Replacing poles can be extremely costly. Co-Mo used several “creative” ways to upgrade polls, length their heights and increase space for additional lines.

Another way to prepare is to ensure that the co-op culture is fully behind fiber projects. Linemen and other employees sometimes tend to be wary of new businesses, especially businesses that could interfere with the order of electric lines on the poles.

“When we launched the fiber business, especially the long-term employees felt like this was a phase and it would probably pass … My line superintendent treated his line like it was his younger sister and he didn’t want anybody messing with his younger sister,” Hodges said of the Ralls County Electric project. “What won the employees over was the membership ... When my line superintendent went out, he said they were more interested in the fiber than the electric. He finally said, ‘I don’t know if we can survive without this.’”

Hance discussed the need to plan the decision whether to create a subsidiary to operate a broadband service along-side electric. The co-op had earlier experience with a subsidiary to enter the propane business. The ultimate decision not to go with a subsidiary again led to cooperative culture issues. “Ours is probably the purest play smart grid/broadband that I know. The co-op owns every bid of the assets that we have built,” he said. It has proven to be the most efficient way to run a complex business.

Johnson suggested carefully studying the communities planned for fiber service before construction. Some communities, he said, have infrastructure from failed and abandoned cable operations that could be inexpensive to buy and convert for fiber systems. He also advised cutting costs by working with other electric utilities when there is an opportunity. Municipal utilities, he said, often are open to working with cooperatives.

In some cases, opportunity comes to the co-op once the word gets out that it is investing in fiber. Hance told the story of an industrial park located adjacent to Midwest Energy’s service area that had absolutely no access to broadband service. Area ISPs refused to even extend DSL. Midwest Energy found that it could build out fiber service affordably. Twenty-four out of 28 business subscribed and were amazed when the cost to them was significantly lower than expended.

“We’re not only saving jobs but we’re saving jobs for Michigan. Most people would probably relocate to Indiana. It’s close enough, if that’s where they can get service,” Hance said. “The biggest surprise we have had is the number of home-based businesses and the number of people who are working at their homes and how fast it’s growing.”

The panel gave many other examples of issues that need careful advanced planning. Fortunately, the task of building broadband is getting easier, Johnson said, because there are more tools available to research potential service areas and plan deployments than there were when Co-Mo first began building.

“We’ve got NRTC, which has a whole host of services. Technical expertise that they’ve hired at NRTC is top-notch, and we are going to be here after the build,” he said. “Just figure out how you’re going to take care of your members, because there is so much more to do behind the scenes than just physically building out the network.”

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