COVID-19 unites the state in efforts to expand high-speed connectivity.
Face coverings, fist bumps, NFL cancellations, church attendance, school closings, vaccines, and the varied uses of household bleach. At the height of the pandemic, Oklahomans found themselves chopped like salad on topics minor to mighty. But there was one matter even the most estranged could agree on: Rural Oklahoma needs better broadband service.
For Rep. Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, the consensus on broadband may be the silver lining to the dark cloud of COVID-19. The longtime information technology instructor at Tulsa Community College says he tried to convince students and administrators of the problem for years to no avail.
“Then the pandemic hit, and we all went home to telework and online schooling, and it was impossible,” Phillips says. “Everyone on all sides realized we must expand high-speed broadband access so Oklahomans, regardless of their location, can take full advantage of the social services, as well as the educational and economic development opportunities, they are missing out on.”
What the state needed was a carefully designed and well-executed master plan, one that would clearly define the scope of the problem and modernize the state’s definition of high-speed broadband to match the FCC standard, 25 Mbps/download, 3 Mbps/upload. As Phillips explains, these first steps would help lay the groundwork necessary for Oklahoma to qualify for a fair portion of the $20.3 billion in federal grants available for broadband expansion through the American Rescue Plan.
Phillips had little difficulty convincing his fellow legislators. During the pandemic, Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, and other legislators experienced the problem of dawdling broadband firsthand. Leewright and Rep. Charles McCall, R-Atoka, authored legislation passed in 2020 that established the Rural Broadband Expansion Council. With Leewright and Phillips as co-chairs, the coalition of private telecoms, electric and telephone co-ops, municipalities, and other stakeholders is committed to improving broadband access for all.
“Having the private sector involved gives the council validity. Who better to understand the complexities involved in expanding broadband than the ones who are actually out there doing the work,” Leewright says.
Patrick Grace, CEO of Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC), and Daniel Webster, CEO of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (NOEC), represent electric co-op members and rural business owners on the council. Nine of the state’s electric co-ops—OEC and NOEC included—currently offer fiber broadband to their members or are in early phases of their fiber buildout.
“Our presence helps bring the rural perspective to the group,” Webster says. “We’re out there serving rural Oklahoma in the truest sense and have been since the ’40s. Co-ops weren’t thinking about broadband initially, but when other providers wouldn’t do it, we stepped in because we realized it was something our members desperately needed. Like electricity, providing broadband fits our DNA.”
Both Webster and Grace understand the frustrations of rural residents who live in areas declared covered by high-speed broadband yet whose service falls woefully short of the FCC standard. They understand that rural business owners, entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers need adequate internet speeds to remain competitive. They know rural students need it to advance their education, and they know that high-speed availability attracts new industry and new residents to small towns. They also realize the financial risks in extending service to areas with fewer consumers and thin revenue collections per mile.
“It’s a huge investment to build fiber to serve two to five homes. The economics is difficult to justify,” Webster says. “That’s where state and federal grants and incentives can be helpful. They allow a provider to be in business for several decades without worrying about stranded costs.”
For Oklahomans suffering in a broadband dead zone, the council’s early efforts offer hope. The task force celebrated the close of the 2021 legislative session with big wins, including netting a $42 million slice of the state budget to deploy broadband to areas in need. Bills passed encourage providers to improve broadband coverage by offering tax incentives and rebates on equipment used to serve underserved and unserved areas. A new grant program within the Oklahoma Department of Commerce positions the state to snag federal funds for broadband deployment. New positions on the council for a tribal representative and a wireless internet provider ensure future policies reflect the most comprehensive viewpoints, and a state broadband map will provide a thorough overview of broadband availability so that future efforts target areas most in need.
It’s the kickoff in a game plan that looks promising for rural Oklahoma and other pockets of the state that lack a high-speed connection. It also helps the state sync with a nation changed by COVID-19.
Leewright, who also chairs the Senate business, commerce, and tourism committee, says before the pandemic, companies looking to expand in Oklahoma wanted to know about the quality of our workforce and schools.
“Now, the first question they ask me is ‘What is your connectivity?’” Leewright says.