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“We Just Really Liked Them” – Good Chemistry Leads to Successful Broadband Partnership

Randy Sukow

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“We Just Really Liked Them” – Good Chemistry Leads to Successful Broadband Partnership

A new broadband ISP is taking consumers living in the rugged terrain of western South Carolina by storm. A year after lighting up its first customer, Upcountry Fiber now serves more than 3,000 subscribers with more to come as the network grows. Those attending a Monday session at NRECA’s TechAdvantage conference heard about the factors leading to a successful partnership of Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative (BREC)/West Carolina Tel (WCTEL). Their chief advantage, the partners say, has been a similar business culture and harmony among the two staffs from the beginning.

BREC President and CEO Jim Lovinggood said his cooperative had waited in vain for large cable TV and telecommunications companies to fill the gaps in broadband coverage to its electric customers. He and WCTEL CEO and former NRTC Board Chairman Jeff Wilson informally discussed the issue and recognized their shared interest. WCTEL was already providing fiber service to its customers on the day Wilson joined the cooperative in 2013. WCTEL also had entered management agreements to help other broadband providers in other states.

It wasn’t until June 2018, months into the COVID pandemic, that the boards of both companies met for the first time to put the project into action. Lovinggood and Wilson credit their earlier contacts and similar outlooks for the rapid success that followed. The partnership officially formed that Fall and had built enough of the network to begin serving customers within nine months of June meeting.

“It was very obvious to me just how much we aligned with each other philosophically as companies,” Lovinggood said. “We just really liked them. We liked working with them. We liked talking to them. Our staffs liked getting together and talking.”

“Early on [after joining WCTEL] I heard quite a bit about Blue Ridge Electric Co-op and a lot of it was centered on what they were doing in the community, on economic development, charitable work and what they gave back to the community … We culturally aligned so well,” Wilson said.

The fiber network is using BREC rights of way and construction crews under contract to the electric utility. WCTEL handles home installations and uses its long experience with fiber service to develop additional features, such as video service. Lovinggood referred to how much WCTEL’s fiber experience has contributed to the project’s success.

Upcountry, with the aid of NRTC’s CrowdFiber, used surveys to determine which areas had the greatest demand so that it could build to those areas first. It was among the factors that allowed the partnership to begin taking in revenue from the network so quickly.

The Upcountry XGS-PON fiber network is expandable to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). Current customers have the option to order 250 Mbps, 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps. All plans provide symmetrical service.

“I don’t know if there is a more timely topic [than broadband partnerships] with all of the attention on bringing broadband to the unserved across rural America today with billions of dollars,” said Bernie Arneson of the Pivot Group (pictured right in the video above), who moderated the TechAdvantage session. “I think partnerships will be key to helping solve that problem.”

A point of pride, however, is that the partners have so far built with their own capital and without government support.  We’re one of the few out there, in our neck of the woods at least, that’s currently billing. Everyone else has their hands out there waiting for money before they commit to going anywhere,” Lovinggood said.

Will Upcountry seek grants from the new programs when it becomes available?

“No doubt. We’re definitely going to try,” he said. “This is a big project.”

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