For many electric co-ops, the move into fiber just makes sense.
At United Electric Cooperative Services—an electric co-op that serves 86,000 different locations across parts of 14 different counties in North Texas—this was exactly the case. Many members didn’t have reliable internet service—others had none—and the co-op found they were fielding questions about connectivity over and over again.
“Everything a co-op does is about its members,” said Marcellus Nixon, vice president of internet services at United Electric Cooperative Services. “Our mission statement is to provide exceptional service and value, and one of the things we saw popping up was the need for reliable internet.”
Nixon spoke at a recent Fiber for Breakfast live video series, where he detailed how the co-op entered the fiber game, and why other electric utilities should consider fiber as another service for their members.
“People always ask, ‘Why would an electric co-op go into internet?’” Nixon said. “We felt like we could bring the same service and provide the same value for internet that we do to members for electric services.”
The co-op started by gauging the interest of their members. These “boots-on-the-ground” surveys included sending members a ballot to vote, meeting with them face-to-face to discuss what the needs were, and examining what services were currently available in the area. Much to Nixon’s surprise, 91 percent of members voted in favor of providing internet.
Once the co-op knew the need was there, they set off to conduct a feasibility study. There they looked into the initial fiber design, costs, and which areas could be served and when. Having the bigger picture laid out in front of them helped the co-op determine a price point they were comfortable with, and the formation of a general deployment plan.
“We wanted to know what areas made sense,” Nixon said. “The only way you can find this out is to do a feasibility study and find out how many homes you want to pass, gather the costs, how you can deploy the fiber, what your regions look like and what services you want to offer.”
One of the more surprising findings was just how many people didn’t have internet. He heard stories of members driving 20 minutes to a nearby Starbucks so their kids could turn in homework or they could work from home during the pandemic. They also discovered gaps in their area where they couldn’t accommodate fiber-to-the-home. Knowing this, they made plans that included fixed wireless but only as a temporary solution for Internet.
Their plan used existing co-op infrastructure to build out the fiber network. Using electrical substations at the connection point and existing poles to hang strands, it not only modernized the grid, but was built into an existing connectivity network.
The United Electric Cooperative Services plan is relatively new: Its first customer was connected in May 2020. Already, they’ve passed 1,000 homes and plan to have another 1,200 by the end of next year. As the program expands, Nixon said he expects for other carriers to use the co-ops fiber. They also want to dedicate connecting anchor institutions, such as schools, municipal buildings and libraries.
“We can help out in those situations if they’re close to our backbone,” he said. “And we can bring in some of our electronics to light some of their businesses and potentially non-member areas.”
Right now, the fiber is only going to co-op members. But as they continue to flesh out their fiber plan, Nixon said the sky is the limit.
He said any co-op that has a connectivity need in their community should at least consider doing a feasibility study. That way they will have a clear picture of what is happening in the network vs. what is possible. And this isn’t only true for large co-ops. Nixon said these projects can be made as large or as small as any one utility would like to make it.
“The biggest lesson learned is that anyone can do this,” he said. “If you think you have a need, do the research, do the feasibility study, the boots on the ground work and talk to your members. Let your constituents tell you how you’re doing and use it as fuel to continue your projects. Even doing the study will shine a light on the people that need it most, and you’ll be surprised by the momentum you’re able to carry.”
Join us for the next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. ET. The topic: 5G & Fiber Networks Workforce Needs.