While Missouri is known as the “Show Me” state, one of its electric co-ops is showing the rest of the world how to sustainably deliver fiber broadband to low population density regions. United Fiber, a subsidiary of United Electric Cooperative, started deploying fiber in 2011 and has built a network of 3,200 miles delivering gigabit connectivity to nearly 25,000 residential and commercial customers. In the process, the broadband operation has generated $25 million in annual revenue, funds that are being used to lower customer electric rates.
“We have about 7,500 members and 10,000 [electric] meters,” said Darren Faran, General Manager of United Fiber and Chief Development Officer and Energy Services Manager for United Electric. “That’s an average of about two and a half meters per mile – not homes per mile, meters per mile. That could be a water pump or a barn, a lot of different things. The thought of bringing fiber seemed like a bit of a pipe dream in 2010, but we saw the limitations early on of satellite and wireless.”
United Fiber’s broadband dream was jumpstarted by having existing utility infrastructure in the form of electric poles installed and maintained over 80 years and an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grand and loan award of $21 million to build out service in rural areas. Other funding came in 2019 and 2021 through CAF II and RDOF, adding an additional $28 million in capital monies for expansion of its fiber network.
Serving Rural Northwest Missouri, United found over 40 communities near its electric market area that didn’t have broadband. United found it could successfully deploy fiber in more population-dense towns nearby, using the revenues to “average out” costs between more and less dense areas.
Being the leader in fiber deployments for the region has delivered significant benefits for United Fiber, including growing its commercial customer base from 387 in 2016 to around 2000 in 2022 and the creation of 54 jobs supporting the broadband network. In one community with a competitive cable provider, United Fiber has a 70% penetration rate.
“Most smaller communities we serve today did not have any cable broadband service and we're just relying on very poor DSL to get by,” Faran said. “As a rural provider, we've seen the challenges of keeping people in rural America. If you lose your community hospital or school, it becomes a lot harder to keep people there. When people are looking for a place to live now, one of the first things they look at is access to fiber broadband. We've really changed the economic outlook of this area and we've taken down those broadband barriers.”
Listen to more about Missouri’s fiber success stories from Darren Faran of United Electric on the Fiber for Breakfast podcast.