Saved from the Internet Abyss
Some rural areas to receive fiber broadband by way of their electric co-op
After years of suffering substandard internet service, rural residents made some noise. Their electric cooperative heard them.
You won’t notice when you cross the line east of Norman, but locals swear it’s there. Some say you pass it around 48th Street; others contend it’s more like 36th. Either way, it’s an inconspicuous border that underscores a world of difference: On the west, live the haves. To the east, the have nots. While lives on both sides appear unremarkably middle class, west siders enjoy a crushing advantage—one with the power to connect lives, improve education, enhance business efficiency, and keep a houseful of disagreeable teens entertained for hours. We’re talking honest-to-goodness highspeed internet. For years, homeowners from east Norman to Little Axe and beyond wanted it. Three years ago, they decided to take action.
What happened next is a story as old as the farmhouse lights. Until the 1940s, rural residents didn’t have them, and then they did, and millions of lives changed, thanks to the groundswell movement that flipped the switch. Formed by people for the people, electric co-ops transformed the U.S. economy by bringing a critical service to areas once thought un-servable. They’re doing it again with broadband internet.
In Little Axe, it started with a public forum. Sponsored by the local chamber of commerce, the meeting in May 2017 drew a crowd; mostly residents and business owners from eastern Cleveland County and outlying communities of Noble, Goldsby, and Slaughterville. All of them fed up with data limits, buffering, slow crawling, temperamental internet service that cost too much and often disappeared altogether when the wind blew. Or it was cloudy. Or the trees began to leaf out.
At the time, local attorney Michael Ridgeway served as president of the Little Axe Chamber of Commerce. A resident of the Norman hinterlands for years, Ridgeway knows about the life of the internet impoverished.
The federal government defines advanced broadband internet as service with speeds of 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload. While Ridgeway and others live in an area considered broadband accessible, the reality is altogether different.
“I have the same DSL service I’ve had since 1995, and they guarantee 3 Mbps download. I run tests, and the speed is 1 to 1.5. It takes me half an hour to download anything when my son in town can do it in a few seconds,” Ridgeway says.
Similar stories rippled through the meeting. Only one local internet service provider (ISP) bothered to show up. Others sent their regrets, telling organizers the low consumer density in the area would never justify the expense of upgrading service.
“It was disheartening, to say the least,” he says.
Fortunately, there were others at the meeting whose motives were less profit-driven. Staff from Norman-based Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) attended knowing the people gathered there, most of them OEC members, were on to something: Across the country, electric co-ops were stringing fiberoptic cable on their existing infrastructure to bring rural residents something unimaginable—internet service with download speeds of 100 Mbps to 1 gigabyte (GB), which is fast enough to download a 4 GB movie in five minutes or less. Two years earlier, electric co-ops in Vinita and Hulbert reignited their age-old mission of meeting local needs by extending fiber to the home (FTTH) to their members. Because fiber cable is made up of up to 844 glass hairs capable of carrying limitless digital signals, they rolled telephone service and TV programming into the deal and offered all three at prices so affordable some people thought they were joking.
“People at the meeting that night understood that some co-ops were capable of doing this and they told us, ‘We want OEC to do this,’” recalls Patrick Grace, CEO of OEC.
Forum participants didn’t know it, but OEC was pondering the possibility of fiber broadband, even going so far as to sponsor a feasibility study. But with a buildout price of $150 million, Grace knew the required investment would raise eyebrows among his cost-conscious board, who were due to discuss findings at their next meeting. Instead, a tight-lipped Grace told members the co-op “would look into it,” but offered little in the way of assurances.
If some took this as a brushoff, they were wrong. OEC staff who briefed Grace on the Little Axe forum included the tales members told of their internet troubles. What happened at the meeting left an impression on Grace. More importantly, the stories opened his eyes.
“I thought we had good internet around Norman, especially in Little Axe. It’s only 5 miles from the university,” he admits.
As fate would have it, the following day OEC directors gathered for their annual board retreat. CEO Grace had plenty to share.
“We told them our members are ready,” Grace recalls. “But we needed to figure out whether we had enough interest to make it work or if this is just a loud minority.”
President of the OEC board of trustees Percy Moreu represents members in the co-op’s second district, which includes Little Axe. He remembers the retreat discussion well.
“When the talks started about OEC building fiber, I strongly supported the decision. Of course, we had to do our due diligence and fiduciary duty to members for a project of this size, scope, and cost, but the need was always clear,” Moreu recalls.
A member survey, careful consultation with co-ops already engaged in fiber services, and an official member meeting with strong turnout from fiber supporters sealed their decision.
“Every rock we turned over told us this was something needed by our members, that no one else was going to do it, and that we could do it and do it well,” Grace says. “We knew we were doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Today, OEC Fiber is underway. Once complete, the co-op’s 43,000 members can surf the web on the Cadillac of internet services, and enjoy better phone service, too, all delivered via a 5,000-mile fiber-optic network of highline-attached and underground cables.
“Now, we are simply trying to manage expectations,” says Kayla Brandt, creative director of OEC Fiber. “We have to make sure we explain that it may take us six years to work through our entire system, but we will get to them.”
Making It Work
What’s happening around Norman is happening for members of East Central Electric Cooperative (ECE), Ozarks Electric Cooperative, Lake Region Electric Cooperative, and Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative. Okmulgee-based ECE announced its decision to extend FTTH in November, a holiday gift warmly received by its 34,000 members. Headquartered in Fayetteville, Ark., Ozarks Electric began extending fiber to Oklahoma members early last year; even reaching beyond their territory to include the townships of Stilwell and Westville where internet service of any kind amounted to zilch.
“The telecommunications company serving those communities basically got up and left in the middle of the night, so they had no service and no way to get it,” says Erin Rogers, marketing and communications manager for Ozarks Electric.
Today, some 8,000 Ozarks Electric members in Oklahoma and Arkansas enjoy FTTH, telephone, and TV service, with the final reach estimated at 77,000. That’s great for local businesses and residents, but with an estimated completion price of $170 million, some may wonder if it’s good for the co-op. After all, how can a local entity make it work when telecom giants could not?
For Ozarks Electric CEO Mitchell Johnson, the answer lies in the cooperative business model.
“We’re always thinking of affordability and quality of life for our members, while investor-owned utilities and telecommunication companies are motivated by profit,” he says.
With co-ops’ get-er-done resolve, the CEOs engaged in fiber are confident they can handle the added responsibility and cost with no negative impact. A tornado outbreak in eastern Oklahoma in December helped quell any concerns about fiber’s ability to withstand rough weather.
“We had several poles on the ground, but our fiber wasn’t damaged,” says Mike Bulbulka, outside plant manager of the Ozarks Electric subsidiary, OzarksGo.
Furthermore, the cable’s ability to function on a damaged pole helped minimize financial losses and enabled ongoing communications with electrical substation equipment.
Fiber technology is essential to making the smart grid smarter, co-op officials say. At ECE, Director of Operations Royce McMahon says fiber integration will save his co-op time and money by allowing them to better monitor and modify the system, identify and isolate problems, and restore service to members more efficiently. Technology is absolutely critical to utility operations.
One more co-op difference is a set of shared values that recognize, despite their local autonomy, electric co-ops play on the same team. That unity helped OEC, Ozarks, ECE, and 31 other cooperatives win a $225 million bid from the FCC’s Connect America Fund II. In 2016, FCC revised their rules to allow co-ops to compete for reverse auction funds along with other telecom providers. When divvied among recipients over 10 years, the money seems thin in the face of a multimillion-dollar fiber buildout, but it’s a help, say co-op officials. More importantly, the lessons gleaned—from the complicated bidding process, to the nuts and bolts of installing fiber to daily operations—will be shared with other co-ops ready to take the next step.
“Those first co-ops had to bulldoze some paths, but they made it easier for us to follow them by sharing what they’ve learned,” says OEC’s Patrick Grace. “We will do the same for the co-ops coming behind us.”
That’s the spirit that pulled rural America into the 20th century. Today, it’s connecting rural residents with the world.