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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Rural America is building its own broadband network


Shaw Smiths home is snuggled against a backdrop of rolling peaks and deep valleys in eastern New Hampshire, isolated enough it would seem for Smith to hunker down during a pandemic. However, living far from an urban area, where small populations are spread out, is not without its challenges. One is the lack of good, reliable internet, now made worse by the lockdown.

The internet is something most of us take for granted; so much of our lives are online nowadays, even more so during covid. For Smith, internet access means having healthcare, connecting with family, making a living, or — as he points out — attending school. “The internet is vital to my life,” he says. But it is not always reliable.

Smith is a high school biology teacher who began remote teaching from home in the northern spring. His satellite-based internet is iffy, though. It only works when the sky is clear, and a satellite is passing overhead. So, he checks the weather daily and goes to great lengths to ensure he can teach a class.

“There is simply no doubt that in a rural community like ours, there are so many homes that don’t have the kind of internet they need,” he says, adding that some students weren’t able to study because their families didn’t have decent internet.

“There comes a point where everybody’s got to have it,” he stresses. But there has not been an internet service provider that will build the infrastructure required to bring his community high-speed broadband. “There’s fewer people per square mile in rural communities. They don’t want to do it if they don’t get a profit from it. And, while I get that and I can intellectually understand it, I think there’s a point at which communities have to say, ‘Hey, we have to take care of people before profits.’”

So, with a new sense of urgency, the community itself is stepping in to fill the gap, in the form of a cooperative.

Co-ops have in the past bought electricity to rural communities across the US when power companies wouldn’t. Now, they are laying fibre optic cable to provide high-speed broadband. Back in the 1930s, rural communities weren’t able to persuade electricity providers to cover their neighbourhoods, or they were hit with exorbitant charges. In response, those communities formed electric cooperatives, applied for loans and hired people to lay hundreds of kilometres of line. About a decade later, they added the telephone. Today, there are about 840 of these co-ops across the US, and many of them are now laying fibre to get their communities online.

“If people didn’t know it before [covid-19], broadband is now a necessity,” says Randy Klindt, founder of Conexon, a consulting company launched about five years ago to help rural electric co-ops with fibre optics. Electric co-ops already serve rural areas, dead-end roads, and farmland, covering two-thirds of the nation with more than three million kilometres of electric distribution line. It’s a natural fit for them to add broadband.

Nearly 19 million Americans dont have broadband access today and they are spread out over vast distances. Klindt has met with co-op boards across the country and sees the shift in demand firsthand: kids at-home trying to log on and complete schoolwork, competing with parents on a limited internet connection; businesses transferring their services to the web; and the rapid expansion of telemedicine. Suddenly the future is here.

In the last five years, Conexon has worked with 200 electric co-ops; 50 of them are building fibre networks today. Each month they instal 4,000 kms of fibre, connecting almost 15,000 homes and businesses to the internet.

Many electric co-ops needed money from the federal government to get started. In 1935, President Roosevelt launched the Rural Electrification Administration, which went on to fund more than 400 co-ops. Now, co-ops are bidding for federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to get their communities online. For instance, Mississippi is seeing an explosion of new broadband projects piggybacking off existing electric co-ops. About 18 months ago, only one or two co-ops were doing this. Now, with the CARES Act putting money toward broadband, more than 15 co-ops are building a fibre-optic network across the state. Most projects take years, but Klindt says 75 crews are working on his four Mississippi projects.

Meanwhile, in June, 900 members of the non-profit, member-controlled New Hampshire Electric Cooperative petitioned their board to amend its mission to include broadband. On October 14, the co-op voted 88% in favour.

For Smith, it’s no more having to get creative to get online. He had been driving to the elementary school or local library and park as close as possible so he could tap into their wifi, which would often drop out. He will no longer have to create backup lessons for students to do offline in case the internet drops out, which had been doubling his workload. And no more using a basement in a closed downtown retailer for days during dropouts.

ABOVE Virginia's BARC Electric Cooperative in the Lexington area installing fibre optic cables to the existing electrical grid

PHOTO Preston Keres/USDA/flickr

I think theres a point at which communities have to say, ‘Hey, we have to take care of people before profits.

Shaw Smith, teacher

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