Full Speed Ahead
Fiber broadband in the boondocks? In northeast Oklahoma, Lake Region Electric Cooperative is making it happen.
In 1964 the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assembly line and electricity arrived at the home of Robert and Jane Young of Coweta, Okla. It was a late upgrade by any measure, but for the Youngs’ 11-year-old son, Stan, it brought television, and the world, to his doorstep.
Today, Stan Young equates the arrival of electricity to another vital rural conduit—broadband telecommunications. As member services director for Lake Region Electric Cooperative (LREC), Young’s experiences make him an outspoken advocate of LREC’s bold, some might argue, risky venture to extend fiber optic cable to every home and business on their electric system.
“We’re bringing communications technology to rural areas in the same way we brought electricity in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Young says.
Based in Hulbert, Okla., LREC’s web of power- lines weaves over 3,040 miles in Cherokee, Wagoner, Adair, Muskogee, Mayes, Rogers and Delaware counties. The rugged Ozark foothills, blessed with lakes, clear-flowing streams and abundant trees, attract tourists, retirees, commuters and second homeowners who enjoy the region’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities.
At 7.9 members per mile of line, LREC claims the second highest consumer density of Oklahoma’s 30 distribution co-ops, yet 85 percent of its members lack access to advanced broadband technology. In some areas, this includes basic telephone service.
“Sure, internet is a problem, but some of our members can’t even get landline telephone unless they pay the full cost of running the line,” Young says. “And cell phone service is impossible because of all the hills.”
Across the nation, it’s the same tired tune: Roughly 34 million Americans lack advanced telecommunications capabilities, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as broadband data transmission with speeds of at least 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps up. Lofty goals set forth under the FCC’s 2009 National Broadband Plan aim to serve 100 million Americans with 100 Mbps broadband service by 2020; however, critics claim this overlooks millions of residents, most of them rural. First in line for federal funds earmarked for delivering broadband to underserved areas, major telecom providers have made slow if not reluctant progress.
Meanwhile, rural residents, businesses and towns find themselves suspended in the bardo of substandard service. Ignored by the kingpins of telecommunications, some are turning to their local electric co-op for answers.
In Oklahoma, LREC and Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative currently offer fiber broadband for members. A report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association finds 21 electric cooperatives in the U.S. offer broadband via fiber for their members, and this number is rapidly growing.
Jonathan Chambers, former head of the FCC office of strategic planning and policy analysis, believes electric co-ops are key to bringing true high-speed broadband communications to rural America. In a recent podcast for the Community Broadband Network, Chambers praised co-ops who are building fiber networks in the most remote areas and doing so affordably without government support.
Cooperatives are uniquely positioned to provide fiber-to-the-home, Chambers says, because they have the infrastructure—meaning poles, equipment, bucket trucks and rights of way—in place.
“They are used to responding to emergencies in the middle of the night,” Chambers adds. “They have equity in their system, and they have the capacity to borrow funds to continue to build.”
Furthermore, he believes cooperatives are well suited to fiber because they are member-owned organizations and have a built-in base of interest before the project begins.
But making it work takes leadership, Chamber stresses.
At LREC, customer satisfaction surveys made it clear that members desperately wanted better internet service. More importantly, they trusted their co-op’s ability to provide it.
With approval via member vote at their annual meeting, LREC’s board and management devised a plan, backed by engineering and financial studies and underscored by their long-standing commitment to improve rural life in northeast Oklahoma.
In 2014, they created Lake Region Technology and Communications, a subsidiary corporation responsible for extending fiber-to-the-home capable of two-way data transmission speeds beyond their membership’s wildest dreams—100 Mbps. With fiber’s ability to carry multiple streams of information with no loss in speed, LREC can offer the revered “triple play.” For members, this means virtually unlimited TV channels; telephone service with free long distance; and turbo-speed internet—think endless streaming—all at a savings of roughly $40 to $100 per month.
At the Earplug Superstore east of Fort Gibson, owner Tom Bergman couldn’t believe the news.
“I heard something about a five-year plan to run fiber through this area, and I thought, ‘Yeah, right. Better put another zero on that,’” he recalls, laughing. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Fiber reached Bergman’s business in 2013 as part of LREC’s initial fiber build-out. Among other aims, the two-year pilot project would test the accuracy of their financial projections. Working alongside experienced fiber contractors, co-op employees deployed 260 miles of fiber cable, stringing it pole to pole beneath the overhead neutral wire.
“Running the fiber overhead allows us to reduce our make-ready costs significantly,” explains Hamid Vahdatipour, LREC general manager. “If we’d chosen to bury fiber in the ground, this project would not be possible. It’s simply too cost prohibitive.”
As Vahdatipour recalls, those inaugural miles supplied the critical learning curve. LREC linemen made the not-so-distant leap from stringing electric lines to raising fiber, strengthening the system with extra anchors and guy wires along the way. To handle fiber repairs and splicing, LREC hired four skilled technicians. Thanks to an earlier experience with ice-laden cable, they knew firsthand that fiber held up better than power lines. Above all, LREC’s financial projections worked.
“We saw more revenue and fewer expenses than we thought,” Vahdatipour recalls.
Confident in their numbers and abilities, LREC began expanding fiber service in October 2016, bringing the total number of members served to over 900. Eventually, the co-op aims to run fiber to all 22,400 accounts at an estimated completion cost of $65 million.
It’s not exactly chicken feed, Vahdatipour concedes, but LREC is accustomed to dealing with longer returns on its investment. Easing the financial burden is a $20 million loan from Cobank, which will finance the first phase of fiber deployment. A $500,000 grant from FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) should pay $50,000 annually over the next 10 years. The co-op has yet to receive the CAF money, but Vahdatipour remains “cautiously optimistic.”
One thing is certain: LREC’s fiber deployment will continue with or without government support. After all, the added financial, administrative and physical challenge of bringing fiber to Oklahoma’s isolated hills and dells is innately familiar.
“We can’t let the fear of what might or might not happen, guide our business decisions,” says Vahdatipour. “If we let risk curtail us, our members would still be living in the dark.”
Fiber is Coming
Along the back roads that wind from Tahlequah to Wagoner, and New Tulsa to Porter, the buzz is palpable: Fiber is coming.
LREC’s best predictions show their fiber program will pay its way in five to seven years. As it has since 1949 when the co-op organized, LREC’s success will depend ultimately on its members. More fiber subscribers bring added revenue, allowing the co-op to extend service to increasingly isolated areas.
To encourage the all important member buy-in, LREC is pressing replay on its populist past.
“We’re letting our members spread the word for us,” says Larry Mattes, LREC communications specialist. “They’re going door to door, putting up yard signs and handing out flyers to get fiber to their area, just like our first members worked to get electricity.”
Members are encouraged to sign up online and pay a $50 fee, refundable to them once their service is connected. With 11 zones designated for fiber, member participation dictates the direction the co-op will build and helps them avoid overbuilding. An online map with status bars for each zone encourages competition by allowing members to check their progress.
It’s crowd sourcing done co-op style, Mattes says, and it’s working. In three months, one zone moved past the critical 45 percent participation rate necessary to deploy fiber cost effectively; two other zones are within the 10 percent mark. Thus far, some 1,543 members have paid the advance deposit necessary to secure their commitment.
As fiber deployments go, LREC is still in its infancy, but its impact is already rippling the stagnant waters of rural development.
Located at the edge of town, the Dawson Ridge Housing Development advertises “the finest home sites in Fort Gibson.” Developer and local tag agent Barry Steveson says having available fiber at his properties adds immense value that attracts buyers.
“I was the first development to get fiber, and it sure didn’t hurt me any,” Steveson admits.
Two of the first five lots sold in Dawson Ridge went to government workers from Tulsa who must have a high-speed connection to work from home. The broadband TV service didn’t hurt, either.
“They love that the TV service is available,” Steveson says. “And it’s cheaper than other providers.”
Co-op members Mary Kennedy and Melissa Moffett own homes in the hinterlands east of Fort Gibson. Before LREC fiber arrived, they endured DSL service from another provider.
“They advertised it as high speed, but we’re savvy. We’ve lived around the world and we know what fast internet is,” Kennedy recalls.
Moffett found the disappearing data dilemma to be particularly aggravating.
“We were paying for vapor, basically,” she admits. “Then LREC hooked us up—and wow—we’re in the modern world now!”
There’s no doubt that bringing the Cadillac of broadband conduits to the boonies opens the door to vast opportunities made possible via telemedicine, distance learning, advanced emergency services, smart home automation and voice over internet. For Vahdatipour, however, the value is more intrinsic.
“Without high speed internet and all it provides in the way of games and entertainment,” says the grandfather of five, his voice trailing. “Well, we might not be the favorite grandparents to visit anymore…”
In the end, it’s all about connection. For LREC and its members, that is full speed ahead.