Can Rural Utilities Work Together to Fill the Rural Broadband Void?

Can Rural Utilities Work Together to Fill the Rural Broadband Void?

Let’s be clear…there is A LOT of landmass in this great country of ours.  All you have to do is get on an airplane and whether your jaunt is a short hop or a long haul, you are flying over miles and miles of land with not a lot of people. NTCA members, community-based local broadband providers, cover about 37 percent of the landmass over the United States and that certainly feels like a lot when you’re driving from Sioux Falls to Wall, S.D. Put into perspective that rural electric cooperatives cover nearly 70 percent of the landmass with their service territory – and that means they have a decent swath of their coverage that is served by larger carriers who have not made rural broadband service a priority for that share of the market. That leaves a lot of rural consumers without many options.

Tensions have been quite high in the parts of the country where, sadly, rural utilities are choosing to overbuild their independent counterparts.  That seems like breaking a code of cooperation in these rural communities and certainly does no great service to the rural consumers they both serve. It’s even more of an issue when limited federal support is at stake and we are pitting federal dollars against federal dollars for the same consumer in a low-density market.  Not the best use of limited federal resources for sure!

However, anyone who knows me, knows that I tend to think in terms of scope, scale, partnerships and opportunities and how all of those can be packaged together.  I appreciated getting the invitation from our neighbors at NRECA to address their rural electric cooperative national board yesterday on some of the many ways rural broadband providers and their electric counterparts might think about working together to bring their collective strengths and skills to the table to continue to bring broadband deeper into some of the currently under and unserved parts of our country. This invitation to address the NRECA board has come my way the past 4 or 5 years and I find a way to talk as fast as possible to share as much as I can! The gratifying part of the discussion this year was that I spent less time my giving my formal presentation and more time on actively engaging with the electric leaders on how we might work together, what models are working in the field, what do fiber swaps and managed agreements look like and if there’s a way for USDA to incentivize partnerships in any available funding. It was a fun and robust discussion and I was delighted with the engagement. Does it mean that we won’t have electric coops looking to overbuild their RLEC neighbors?  Of course not but I am looking at the partnership lens to flip threats into opportunities when the right incentives are on the table.

Here are some things to be thinking about in terms of possible partnership advantages instead of head on competition with one another:

– overlapping consumers

– existing fiber investments from both utilities

– efficiencies and scope and scale achieved

– possible additional sources of revenue

More to follow tomorrow as Nancy White and I host an NTCA webcast on the challenges and opportunities of partnering as she brings her background of working with rural utilities in Tennessee and Kentucky.

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