A co-op future for broadband in America?

‘It’s galling to see billions wasted on big companies when we know local providers would provide better connections to millions more homes’

Electric co-ops are being called on to fill the gaps in high quality broadband provision in the US, which is patchy, especially in rural areas.

Experts have pointed to the “Google lottery”, with some areas areas benefiting from the fast Google Fiber service.

Launched in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2011, the service was rolled out to other communities across the country. It had the advantage over rivals of promising connectivity to its network for 100% of a region, rather than just the areas where it made the most economic sense.

But the project has now stalled, with onlookers blaming the cost of laying fibre and the expectation of new ultrafast wireless technology.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) told Government Technology magazine that cities which had received Google Fiber were winners of “the Google lottery”.

Last year, the ILSR put out a report which said the problem of poor connectivity also extended to rural areas.

“Despite receiving billions in federal funding to help rural Americans access the internet, the biggest telecom companies have focused investment on urban areas, leaving rural communities with DSL that the cannot meet the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband definition,” says the report. “Meanwhile, co-operatives and local ISPs that have received far fewer subsidies have invested much more in rural communities.”

“It’s galling to see the billions wasted on those big companies when we know that local providers would provide better connections to millions more homes at a fraction of the public expenditure,” says Mr Mitchell. “The big monopolies have utterly failed rural America while remaining the darlings of the DC Beltway.”

The problem has left onlookers pointing to moves to provide alternative models – such as community broadband or provision by electric co-ops. It is hoped the co-ops will use existing fibre to offer broadband, offering a cost-effective service without taking up extra space.

For example, legislators in Mississippi voted in January to lift a state ban on electric co-ops providing broadband – and are also discussing the issue of bonds to build out fibre infrastructure across the state.

And last week, electric co-ops in Georgia gained the legal authority to provide broadband services. State governor Brian Kemp signed into law Senate Bill 2 last week, which is intended to open the door for rural citizens in the state to receive high-speed internet services through their local electric co-op. Alabama and Tennessee have taken similar steps.

North Carolina is planning to follow suit, with a bill to authorise the state’s 26 electric co-op to chase a share of the $600m available in federal funding for broadband, and alter regulations which add to the cost of developing broadband infrastructure for co-ops.

Government Technology points to the example of BoCo, a community-owned broadband model in Botetourt County, Virginia.

Related: UK co-op pioneers a new approach to sharing broadband infrastructure

Craig Settles, a broadband expert who helps municipalities and co-ops create successful business plans, said in an online report about BoCo that it is “among the pacesetters of community broadband networks”, driving innovation by developing a diverse range of partnerships.

In an area where only 70% of people have internet access, BoCo promises full bandwidth, countywide, to combat social exclusion and drive economic development.

One of the keys to this process, says Mr Settles, is “participating in a new trend of co-op/government partnerships” – including a broadband summit in September 2018 which gathered private and public organisations, policymakers, and other key players.

“By holding the summit first,” he said, “the commission developed a better handle on the community’s needs and could better engage consultants before selecting one.”

BoCo has secured a £2m federal grant and developed partnerships with two electric co-ops which were planning to offer broadband in the county – Craig Botetourt Electric Cooperative and BARC Electric Co-op.

This fits with a push across the country to involve electric co-ops in broadband provision.

But some industry experts are sceptical, pointing to a similar initiative in Kentucky which has gone over budget and fallen behind schedule, drawing flak from the state auditor.

And the plans face a fightback from conservative interests. Brent Skorup, senior research fellow at the the free-market oriented Mercatus Center, said state subsidies for electric co-ops could hurt private providers in the market and scare off unsubsidised companies.

Coupled to electric co-ops’ common monopoly on utility poles in rural areas this could give them “the incentive to raise the cost of access for other broadband providers,” the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy website reports him saying.