Rural America Is Building High-Speed Internet the Same Way It Built Electricity in the 1930s
The number of electric cooperatives beginning to offer fiber optic broadband service to their members has surged in recent years.
Rural Electrification Administration (REA) erects telephone lines in rural areas. Image: National Archives and Records Administration.
From sticking antennae on grain silos to teaching neighborhood teens how to do home installs, it’s fascinating to document all the innovative ways underserved communities are building their own internet. But for many rural areas of America with little or no access to broadband, the answer to closing the digital divide could be something that predates the internet itself.
Electric cooperatives were developed across the US in the 1930s as part of FDR’s New Deal. These not-for-profit organizations received federal subsidies to build out electricity infrastructure to power up rural America. Co-op members pay to join, and pay for their electric usage, but any extra money is reinvested into the co-op, or paid back to members.
Now, many of these co-ops are taking on the digital divide by offering high speed fiber optic internet to the home for their members. As of this year, 60 electric cooperative across the US have started broadband projects, according to a recent policy brief published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for local solutions for sustainable development.
“If you go back five or six years there were five or fewer electric co-ops that were doing fiber internet to businesses and residents,” said Christopher Mitchell, co-author of the paper and the director of community broadband networks for ILSR, in a phone interview. “Now there are 60 and I’m guessing there will be more than 100 by the end of next year.”
Mitchell explained that electric co-ops are uniquely well positioned to start community owned internet projects, because they own all of the infrastructure connecting homes in the area. In many cases, the co-ops are already investing in gigabit fiber loops to keep their systems online, so the only hurdle is sending out fiber to the home.
But that’s not cheap—and the cost is the main reason cited by Big Telecom for why it doesn’t make sense for them to build out to rural communities where there may only be a handful of customers. To cover the cost, some co-ops have opted to apply for grants or one-time subsidies. Others, such as the Co-Mo Electric Co-op in central Missouri, haven’t relied on government funds at all, opting instead to fund the project themselves with the help of a bank loan.
“In our experience, electric cooperatives can build fiber networks in rural areas at population densities of greater than five homes per linear mile without needing any subsidies,” Mitchell said. “Below that, they should get one-time subsidies, but then they can continue to operate the network without needing any further funding.”
Compared with other options like wireless broadband, high-speed fiber to the home delivered by a local electric co-op actually ends up being more affordable in the long-run, according to Mitchell, because the infrastructure doesn’t need to be replaced.
But just as many communities are beginning to jump on the co-op craze, President Trump’s leadership at the Federal Communications Commission could set up roadblocks to co-ops looking to expand to internet. In his move to dismantle net neutrality rules, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has made it clear he does not consider the internet a utility, which is how these co-ops are treating it, and some of them may be looking to FCC-backed grants, such as the Connect America Fund, to get up and running.
But Mitchell told me even if the FCC is less willing to award funds to co-ops, he still expects this trend to continue, with local communities taking the same approach to the internet as they did to electricity so many years ago.
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