Pandemic reveals need for high-speed broadband in rural Oklahoma
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Six electric co-ops currently provide fiber broadband services in their area. Recently, Central Rural Electric Cooperative, Stillwater, and Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative, Seminole, announced their decision to extend fiber to members.
- Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative
- East Central Electric Cooperative
- Lake Region Electric Cooperative
- Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative
- Oklahoma Electric Cooperative
- Ozarks Electric Cooperative
Brandi Bohannon, six months pregnant, needed help. Just two weeks into Oklahoma’s emergency stay-at-home order, the Eufaula schoolteacher found herself housebound with her husband and two school-age sons, all struggling to adjust to the COVID-imposed reality of earning and learning from home.
“We realized pretty quickly that our internet service just couldn’t cut it,” Bohannon recalls.
With multiple users in the home trying to log on, Bohannon couldn’t download files. Her sons weren’t able to access lesson plans. Emails never arrived. Adding to Bohannon’s worries, she was about to give birth during the worst global pandemic in more than a century. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t see her doctor virtually.
Luckily, Bohannon’s electric co-op offered fiber broadband to members, but the 5,000-mile buildout hadn’t reached her yet.
“We were struggling,” she says. “Finally, I called Billie Been at East Central Electric and said, “I need help.’”
East Central Electric (ECE) is one of six electric cooperatives in Oklahoma currently offering fiber broadband services to members. With a 75-year history of providing critical utilities to the underserved, electric co-ops understand the shortfall in rural broadband access. Even cellular data service is thin in some locations.
“The FCC defines high-speed broadband as service at 25mbps upload and 3mbps download. But 25/3 isn’t fast enough to handle the needs of today’s user,” says Jeremy Hendrickson, manager of ECE’s fiber subsidiary, ecoLINK. “Zoom, VOIP and other video conferencing applications won’t function correctly at those speeds—and they never will.”
To keep society’s wheels on track, ECE officials approved emergency fiber extensions to teachers and government employees working from home. For the Bohannon family, a happy ending.
“We haven’t had a single problem since getting the service. Now, we have the tools we need to succeed,” Bohannon says.
Many more Oklahomans to go
A study by Oklahoma State University finds 800,000 Oklahomans lack a high-speed broadband connection to their home; roughly 24% are students. Some live beyond the reach of a broadband provider, or in terrain plagued by unreliable signals. Others live in areas considered broadband accessible by FCC definitions, but the speeds are too cumbersome to meet the needs of today’s user, much less the demands of a nation in lockdown.
Fortunately for Oklahoma’s fiber co-ops, the technology manager at Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) read the tea leaves early on. He realized the pandemic would not only change user behavior; it would slow the delivery of equipment required to handle the uptick in service requests.
“When the pandemic hit, we were ready, and we were able to help other co-ops by providing them with the network equipment they needed,” says Kayla Brandt, creative director of OEC Fiber.
OEC increased its bandwidth to handle the pandemic surge, which arrived as predicted—and how. The convoy of work/school from home users logging on upped OEC’s network traffic by 237%.
“Our average user has eight devices in the home. While the number of devices for our subscribers has stayed the same throughout COVID, the usage of these devices jumped, nearly doubling our daily bandwidth peak,” Brandt adds.
As the pandemic marches on, high-speed broadband access becomes more than a way to cull boredom; it is the vital link to a semblance of normalcy. Teleconferencing with co-workers and family, attending virtual classes, watching live streams of church services, and maintaining doctor appointments via telemedicine, helps people stay connected, employed, educated and healthy. For those without reliable internet, rural communities offering a fiber solution become a shining oasis.
Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (NOEC) provides fiber-based internet, telephone, and TV service through Bolt Fiber Optic Services. Their service area includes Grand Lake, a summer vacation mecca dotted with marinas and residential developments. Nick Bowers, Bolt account specialist, says when it dawned on second-home owners that they could ride out the pandemic at their lake house and maintain fast, reliable broadband, plenty of them jumped on it. As a result, several lakeside communities reported a welcome off-season boost in sales tax collections.
“When you can continue to work full time, earn the same salary, and live at the lake full time, why not do it?” he adds.
Some city dwellers find their rural fiber broadband service outshines that of urban providers. In July, former townie Chris Plank moved his family from Norman to rural Goldsby, an OEC electricity and fiber area. Plank co-hosts the nationally syndicated sports radio show, Arnie and Plank, from his home where he enjoys blip-free internet service—no stutters, lags or freezes.
“Even my producers in Los Angeles notice the difference,” Plank says. “I mean, it’s one thing to live in the country and have bad service, but we had bad service when we lived in town.”
The glowing need
Access and reliability aren’t the only barriers to broadband access; many families can’t afford it. At roughly $50 per month for latency-free 100mbsp service with no data limits, co-op fiber broadband may be the best bargain around, but it’s still a hit for a family on a limited income. To ease the burden of cost, Oklahoma’s fiber co-ops help low-income members connect with federal and tribal assistance programs that cover a portion of the monthly fee.
In eastern Oklahoma, Lake Region Electric Cooperative (LREC) and Ozarks Electric Cooperative serve some of Oklahoma’s lowest-income counties. Both co-ops stepped up to provide hotspots in key locations within and beyond their service areas so the general public could enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Glen Clark, manager of marketing at LREC, remembers the first evening their Tahlequah hotspot went live. “There were cars in the parking lot, and the interiors were glowing from the light of the cell phones,” he recalls.
In Stilwell, Ozarks Electric’s fiber internet subsidiary, OzarksGo, set up three hotspots after local school administrators voiced concerns about students without broadband falling behind. While many Oklahoma schools used federal relief funds to provide students with Chromebooks and personal hotspots, for rural residents the solution isn’t failsafe.
“Personal cellular connectivity can still be a challenge in our rural communities because they need to be in range of a cell tower to send and receive data. We wanted to help them overcome this by providing hotspots within our network at gigabit speeds,” explains Steve Bandy, general manager of OzarksGo.
While Ozarks Fiber is available in many locations, the buildout is still underway. “We knew there were people out there we hadn’t reached yet, or who couldn’t afford it. We set up hotspots because we wanted to do as much as possible to help them get through this,” Bandy adds.
While the COVID crisis continues to shine a harsh light on the dim prospects of those mired in the digital divide, it casts Oklahoma’s fiber co-ops as heroes in a story as old as the New Deal.
“The pandemic has made people aware that high-speed broadband service is just as important as electricity,” says Brandon Fisher, manager of Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative’s fiber subsidiary Wave Rural Connect. The co-op serves 59,000 members; 7,000 of them located in eastern Oklahoma. “We’re providing a necessity that will make rural America stronger, and America stronger,” he adds. “And we take pride in being able to make a difference.”
While some co-ops have been able to successfully offer fiber broadband services, this capital-intensive endeavor may not be feasible for every distribution electric cooperative in Oklahoma. Every electric cooperative is independent and autonomous and they have different circumstances in their unique service territories. In many cases, fiber services may not make economic sense for a cooperative in a way that would benefit all members equitably.