Monday, February 04, 2019

Electric co-ops seen as popular solution to rural broadband, but may take years to improve rural access

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill Jan. 29 to let rural
electric cooperatives form subsidiaries to provide broadband,
but that could take five to 10 years, the Tupelo Daily Journal
reports. (Associated Press photo by Rogelio D. Solis)
Here's a trio of articles illustrating how the lack of quality, affordable broadband affects residents in small towns and rural areas, and how an increasingly popular solution for the problem, rural electric cooperatives, isn't a magic bullet:

Business owners in rural Nebraska have a hard time functioning without broadband, Chris Dunker reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. Jessika Benes, for example, recently opened a mobile veterinary clinic in Adams County, pop. 31,364. Though the local internet service provider advertised decent speeds, in reality Benes said she gets download speeds of 3 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps.

"The molasses-slow speeds have made it difficult to effectively manage her website where her clients book appoints, have hampered her ability to pursue continuing education online, and have delayed the deployment of telemedicine services," Dunker reports.

Retired teacher Molly Radford, who lives in rural Georgia near the Florida line, gets even worse speeds. Though she pays for 3 Mbps download, it is so slow it barely registers on most speed tests. "Her frustration boiled over last year when it became clear her provider – the only one available – had no plans to upgrade service in the area as promised. When she confronted the carrier, she was told she would lose access to what little service she had, in addition to her phone line, if she canceled her internet service," Jill Nolin reports for the Valdosta Daily Times in Georgia.

Radford and the rest of Brooks County's 3,300 residents get their internet service from an electric cooperative. State legislators are trying, for the third time, to pass a measure empowering electric and telephone cooperatives to provide broadband. "A lead proponent of the measure, Rep. Penny Houston, a Republican from Nashville, is pushing the idea this year with a sense of urgency, citing a looming application deadline for $600 million in federal loans and grants for rural broadband," Nolin reports. "Enabling the state’s 41 electric co-ops, or electric membership corporations, to enter the broadband game would bolster the state’s case for claiming a share of that money. Mississippi’s governor signed a similar measure into law last week."

Though electric co-ops are now allowed to offer broadband in Mississippi, it could take five to 10 years before individual houses get hooked up, and some areas might never receive it because of the expense of building out the infrastructure. "The associations have to be slow and deliberate in the decision-making process. In addition to the high costs of creating the infrastructure, they cannot raise electric rates to fund the project. And running a fiber optic cable does not guarantee that everyone on the road will want to sign up for internet," William Moore reports for the Daily Journal in Tupelo.

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