It was no secret to the team at Glades Electric Cooperative in Moore Haven, Florida, that electric utilities across the country were getting into the broadband business. But it wasn’t until the utility conducted a survey of members in early 2022 that it realized just how pressing the need was in the local community.
“We knew we had a significant number of members without any kind of access, and our suspicions were confirmed,” says Jennifer Koukos, Glades Electric Cooperative’s chief communications officer. “We found that 20% did not have internet in our area of any kind. Not just high-speed but no internet access, which we found hard to believe in this day and age.”
Those numbers aren’t uncommon in rural communities across the country. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a connection with minimum download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, more than a quarter of rural Americans nationwide lack access to internet at those speeds.
That was the case with Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Port Orford, Oregon, where a 2018 survey showed 20% of its membership was underserved when it came to internet access. By creating its own fiber internet provider called Beacon Broadband, the utility could not only improve the quality of its electric service, but could continue the mission it started more than 80 years ago.
“Back when Coos-Curry Electric was formed in 1939, rural residents there couldn’t get electric service to their homes,” says Shelly Yockey, Beacon Broadband’s director of corporate services. “The cooperative changed that. So, really what they wanted to explore was how to do the same thing with fiber internet.”
Changing the Market
To tackle these new projects, both utilities turned to Conexon for help. The internet consulting company would take the lead on engineering and construction, but each cooperative would ultimately own the finished fiber network on its electric system.
For Glades Electric, the key was being able to offer fiber access to its consumers and improve the infrastructure of its electric system without having to become an internet service provider itself. Instead, the utility will lease a portion of its fiber service to Conexon Connect, the internet provider arm of Conexon, which will offer service directly to members once construction is complete.
“We didn’t want to learn the broadband business or set up an ISP,” Jennifer says. “It was like a lightbulb went off once we saw that opportunity. We realized we could be the solution without having to be an internet company.”
Coos-Curry Electric took a different approach, establishing Beacon Broadband as its own internet subsidiary. The project is still in its early stages, with several hundred customers connected. But Bill Gerski, vice president of sales and marketing, has already seen a response from other providers, such as Zipply Fiber and Spectrum.
“The way we see it is a high tide lifts all boats,” he says. “Once these companies found out Beacon Broadband was going to start providing fiber, lo and behold, look who came in and built fiber in some of these areas. We think we’ve done a really good job of creating competition in the marketplace where we are now.”
Bill still backs the product Beacon Broadband offers over any of its competitors. But he also recognizes the challenge of being an internet provider is different from anything the electric utility has faced. And it’s one he’s eager to tackle.
“This is the fun part,” Bill says. “The difference between an electric co-op and us is that everybody takes the same electric service and you have one company. We now have three internet companies, and the member gets to choose between them. We have to do our job and earn the right to be in that home.”
For all the new challenges that come with bringing internet service to underserved areas, both electric utilities have been encouraged by the enthusiasm and support of their consumers. When Coos-Curry launched a preregistration program in the early days of its announcement, more than 2,000 people put down $50 to reserve service that was still years away.
“The response from Glades Electric members has been overwhelming,” Jennifer says. “We’ve never had people reach out in extreme support the way they did with this. In fact, those letters of support were very helpful in some grant applications to express what it would mean to these residents that are not currently served.”
It’s also an effort that takes the utility back to the roots of their mission. Just like their earliest members brought electricity to areas that were still in the dark, today they have the opportunity to do the same with high-speed internet.
“We saw Zipply Fiber upgrade some of their infrastructure, but they’re still not going to serve those underserved areas,” Shelly says. “They’ve clearly said it’s not cost effective. So here we are, just like the co-op did back in 1939 and the 1940s, where we’re going to serve those underserved areas. We’ll find ways to make it cost effective because people in those areas deserve fast internet, too.”
Today, many people not only need a
high-speed internet connection but expect it to connect without the hassle of cables. These best practices help get the most from high-speed internet.
Frequency. Most routers use 2.4 gigahertz and 5 GHz bands, but devices may only work with one or the other. Cellphones, tablets and PCs typically rely on 5 GHz, while smart doorbells and cameras tend to use 2.4 GHz.
Location. To get a strong signal to all devices, place the router on a shelf in a central location above furniture height.
Interference. Concrete or brick walls, metal surfaces, glass and mirrors can all block a Wi-Fi signal, so be aware of these when placing a router.
Antenna. Many routers have removable antennae. To boost the signal, use a high-gain antenna and aim it in the desired direction.
Repeat. A wireless repeater can be plugged into any outlet to help boost the wireless signal on another floor or the other side of a building.