The Role of Co-ops in Advancing the Broadband Vision

A panel moderated by Bernadine Joselyn of Blandin Foundation. When rural Minnesotans first needed electricity and then telephones, cooperatives formed to meet the challenge. Today, we are seeing an expansion in the role that cooperatives are playing in meeting rural broadband needs. Leaders from four rural cooperatives will share how they are dealing with the demand for better broadband from their current members and neighboring communities. Learn how these cooperatives make their decisions about partnerships and new markets:

  • Stacy Cluff, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative
  • Robin Doege, Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative
  • Kent Hedstrom, Runestone Telecom Association
  • Kristi Westbrock, CTC-Consolidated Telecommunications Company

Todd-Wadena Elelctric Coop – only have 3.5 members per square mile. So population density is an issue. Deploying a smartgrid was a driver as well. We’ve been tlakign about broadband for 5-6 years and nothing has change. Last year we started to really look into broadband. We’ve been working with WCTA and Blandin. We did a feasibility study. We learned that a fiber build-out would be $48 billion. The costs are so high and ROI to hard that a 50 percent match doesn’t help much. We need 75 percent. So we are supporting others that are building out local broadband – we are working WCTA.

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative – Half of our members are seasonal. We have been providing internet access since 1997. We realized that the incumbents were not going to come into our area. We’ve applied for grants and been unsuccessful. We are talking with CTC to form a partnership for FTTH. Aitkin County is least served. We’ve seen more people move to our satellite rather than keep incumbent DSL

CTC – post broadband surveys to gauge impact of grants. Served 468 customers – many seniors, few children, very rural. Sent surveys out 9 months after they got broadband. Reliability and tech services is more important than price. Home have multiple devices. Only 2 percent did not use the Internet – despite the average age. 36% found that having broadband helped their businesses.

Runestone – biggest community is 1300 people.

How do you decide about partners and new market?

  • We have three people approach us about going into their area. We told them what we needed. They got it – it being letter of support for a grant application. That drive helps.
  • We look for community drivers and champions. The community seems to think that someone is making big money with the rural networks and that’s not the case. If it were the big providers would offer service.
  • The payback models are over 9 years, which means we have to go slower. City and counties need to be able to help pay or the State needs to look at 70-80 percent match.
  • We can’t take unnecessary risks.
  • We look for experts.
  • Projects need to be realistic and
  • We look at areas that really need our help – those who won’t be served by an incumbent in 2 years

Advice to share:

  • The 50/50 grant model doesn’t work
  • If we really want border to border we need to rethink 50/50 model
  • The challenge from the incumbents need to be revisited.
  • Wireless might be helpful in low population density areas.
  • Our legislators don’t know what the technology should be. They don’t understand the technology.

At Assn of MN Counties – we talk about projects that are in process. We sometimes need funding too. We’re looking at a pocket of money for partial projects.

Federally they had ongoing funding – recognizing that there was a need for continued support. But that is no longer the case. We need to let the Feds know it’s a problem. If Minnesota wants to stay progressive they want to look at continued funding too.

Metro legislators don’t know why they might support rural projects.

Advice for really unserved communities

  • Have skin in the game – maybe even getting funding from some of the subscribers.
  • Community champions
  • There isn’t a cookie cutter solution
This entry was posted in Blandin Broadband Summit 2016 by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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