Local Power Companies Stepping Up to Bring Internet Service to Rural America

Monday, August 08, 2016
(photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)





By Cecilia Kang, New York Times


ZENA, Okla. — From his living room, Clinton Creason can see the electric pole outside that his father staked 70 years ago to bring power to this remote area of hilly cattle pastures.


Electricity came late here but transformed life on the farm. It freed families from washing clothes by hand and cutting wood for the stove.


In December, Creason saw a new addition to the utility pole that may be just as transformational — a subsidiary of his local electric cooperative, Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, hung a fiber optic cable on it. That enabled Creason and the 120 residents of Zena to pump high-speed internet service into their homes for the first time.


“The cooperative is doing it again, but now the light bulb is the internet,” Creason, 82, said.


Creason’s experience with the electric co-op puts him at the leading edge of a trend unfolding in rural spots nationwide. For years, such communities have largely been left out of the digital revolution. Telecom and cable companies shunned the areas.


Now high-speed internet is finally reaching these remote places, but not through the telecom and cable companies. Instead, local power companies are more often the broadband suppliers — and to bring the service, they are borrowing techniques and infrastructure used to electrify the United States nearly a century ago. In some cases, rural municipalities are also using electrification laws from the early 1900s to obtain funds and regulatory permissions reserved for utilities.


“This is the new New Deal,” said Sheila Allgood, a manager of Bolt, the broadband subsidiary of the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, referring to government efforts under President Franklin D. Roosevelt that brought infrastructure to rural America in the 1930s. “Now we’re doing what cable and telecom companies don’t want to do, just like we did for electricity when the big private power companies didn’t want to come here either.”


Today, about 40 electric cooperatives in towns like Cassopolis, Michigan, offer or are in the process of building networks to provide high-speed internet service, compared with just one in 2010, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit focused on community broadband networks.


To Learn More:

Lack of Internet Access Puts Low-Income and Rural School Children at Disadvantage (by Cecilia Kang, New York Times)

Obama vs. Obama over Rural Broadband Internet (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Rural Broadband Plan Detours to the Suburbs (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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