Co-ops that once brought electricity to rural Ohio are working hard to provide high-speed Internet access



Ryan Keene, fiber installation technician with Midwest Energy and Communications, installs fiber internet at a customer’s home. (Photo submitted)

The co-ops that originally provided electricity to rural Ohio are now looking for ways to provide high-speed internet access as well.

“Almost every co-op in the state has studied it,” said Doug Miller, vice president of statewide services for Ohio Electrical Co-ops. The state has 24 rural electricity cooperatives and each is an independent, self-governing organization with its own board, Miller explained.

They all have different circumstances to consider, so just because some co-ops provide fiber optic internet services doesn’t mean it is feasible for others. For example, rougher terrain increases the cost of installing fiber in some areas.

Population density is also a factor. Consolidated Co-op in central Ohio averages about nine customers per mile of power line, while a less populated area like Adams County might only have four customers per mile.

Future advances in broadband technology should also be considered, Miller added: “Will this make fiber to the home obsolete? “

Co-op boards of directors are responsible for making good business decisions.

“They don’t want to jeopardize the electricity sector to get into the broadband business,” he said.

For some co-ops, their studies have shown that they simply cannot afford to provide Internet services. But, Miller added, they might be able to help as technology advances and government funding programs change.

Fiber networks

Consolidated Cooperative, which provides electrical service in Delaware and Morrow counties as well as parts of eight other counties, was the first electrical cooperative in Ohio to provide fiber-optic Internet service to residential customers.

“Our philosophy is that this is a service that will improve the quality of life in the areas we serve,” said Dan Jones, co-op marketing director. The cooperative began installing a fiber optic network in 2009 as part of its efforts to modernize its electrical operations.

In 2017, the co-op’s board of directors voted to start providing residential internet service and the co-op currently has 1,700 connected residential customers. The cost of installing a 144-strand fiber cable is not much higher than the cost of installing a 48-strand cable, Jones said.

Thus, the cooperative used the larger cables, which allowed the cooperative to sell additional capacity on the fiber optic network for commercial purposes and still have capacity available for residential users. These cables form the backbone of the fiber network and additional taps must be installed to establish residential connections.

Consolidated is gradually expanding fiber-optic Internet connections in the cooperative service area, Jones said. Building fiber lines to reach all who want service will take time, he added. The cooperative takes a methodical approach, considering where the service is most needed as well as the cost of providing the service.

“We can only build as much fiber as with the money available,” he said.

Extension of connections

Midwest Energy and Communications is another cooperative that has expanded fiber optic Internet connections in Ohio. MEC is a Michigan cooperative that serves its members in a few townships in Northwestern Ohio.

“Our board of directors attended district meetings and kept hearing this need from our members,” said Bob Hance, CEO of Midwest.

Rural residents have been told by investor-owned internet service providers that bringing internet service to rural areas is too expensive, he said: “If this were true, electricity would not be there. also not been distributed in rural areas. “

In 2014, MEC was the first to receive a smart grid loan from the Rural Utilities Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (formerly the Rural Electrification Service). MEC’s ​​initial goal for the smart grid project was to upgrade the cooperative’s communication and load control systems.

But the same fiber infrastructure that allows the co-op to use cutting edge technology to manage its power grid can be used to provide fiber internet connections, Hance said. MEC began expanding broadband service to its Michigan electrical service areas in 2015 and began expanding its services to its Ohio service areas in 2019.

Overall, around 17,000 cooperative members are connected. 2,000 other customers who are not members of the cooperative are also connected.

“We will be building for all members who want it,” Hance said, adding that it would be available to all members by the end of the year.

The co-op will also use funding from the Federal Communications Commission Rural Digital Opportunities Fund 2020 to expand high-speed Internet service to other southern Michigan households and businesses over the next five years.

Collaborative efforts

Farmer cooperatives are also looking for ways to extend broadband to rural areas. In Auglaize County, a collaborative effort is providing Internet connections for rural residents near Uniopolis.

“It’s just a blank area,” said George Secor, president and CEO of Sunrise Co-operative. “When you drive in this area, it’s even difficult to get a cell phone signal. “

Sunrise, a full-service agricultural cooperative based in Fremont, Ohio, is a member of the Land O’Lakes cooperative network. Together, Sunrise and Land O’Lakes participate in Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, along with Internet service provider Watch Communications. The coalition began offering services in February 2021.

The role of Sunrise Co-op is to provide space and electricity on its grain silos to Uniopolis for high throughput equipment.

“We’re just providing the vehicle to broadcast the Internet,” Secor said. The wireless internet signal extends approximately eight miles from the facility, and repeaters are able to carry it even further.

Sunrise is currently investigating internet connection needs in other areas of Ohio, Secor said. Rural residents who still lack affordable broadband connections should call their lawmakers, he added. Federal and state funds are available to help make connections, but people need to speak up so their areas are not overlooked.

The cooperative is growing

Highland Ridge Tour
Peg Bailey, one of the founders of the South Eastern Ohio Broadband Cooperative, does not have a direct view of the Highland Ridge Tower, but she is able to get an internet signal thanks to the neighbors who allowed her to set up this equipment. their land. The solar-powered repeater bounces the signal over the hill to Bailey’s house. (Photo submitted)

Farm and Dairy covered the creation of the South Eastern Ohio Broadband Cooperative last year. It now provides high-speed Internet connections to 82 Washington County members.

Co-op founder David Brown said residents are tired of waiting for an internet service provider to do the job.

“We had no choice, no one was going to do it for us,” he said.

Brown and her co-founder Peg Bailey organized a cooperative exploratory group after COVID made the region’s lack of internet access even more critical. Within weeks, hundreds of people were interested, Bailey said.

The region’s hilly terrain and low population density make fiber optic connections to every household expensive, so the cooperative uses a series of fixed wireless antennas and repeater stations to expand the connections instead. SEOBC began to expand service with antennas on a cell phone tower attached to the Highland Ridge Water Tower.

The cooperative is now expanding its coverage using other existing towers, including multi-agency radio communications towers. These towers were designed to provide better access to communications for first responders and public safety agencies. They were originally funded through tax-exempt bonds, so private companies were not allowed to install equipment there. Earlier this year, however, the Ohio Department of Administrative Services converted the funding to taxable bonds, allowing the towers to be used by private companies.

Today, Broadband Ohio, part of the Ohio Developmental Services Agency, is conducting a pilot program offering grants to encourage the use of MARCS towers to expand Internet service in underserved areas. SEOBC is one of the groups participating in this pilot project.

Momentum appears to be shifting for rural areas that still lack high-speed internet.

“We have seen a lot of interest from state officials,” Bailey said. “It’s good to get phone calls from them instead of trying to reach them.”

Following the success of SEOBC in Washington County, local leaders in Monroe and Jackson counties are establishing similar co-ops. Each zone will have its own board of directors and technical staff, he said. Other regions of the state could also benefit from the preparatory work established by SEOBC.

“We have the recipe for this and we can share it,” Brown said.

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