NRECA – the national association for rural electric cooperatives – recently invited Kristi Westbrock, CEO and general manager of Consolidated Telephone Co. (CTC) in Brainerd, MN, to tell her story of innovation and creative thinking. CTC has been engaged in broadband partnerships with Minnesota electric cooperatives for a decade and it has been a good experience for CTC, their employees and the people the serve. If you ask Kristi, she would love to do it again and again.
Kristi noted to the crowd gathered at the TechAdvantage session that “CTC wants to help you if you’re a thousand miles, 1,500 miles, whatever away. If you’re working with a consultant today on a project, that’s work we could do from an operator perspective for you … Our business is not consulting; our business is partnering.”
Westbrock has a few partnership irons in the fire and currently works with Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative in Aitkin, MN, and Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, Lutsen, MN, to provide fiber-based home broadband. Mille Lacs EC is located near CTC’s telephone service areas while Arrowhead is a three-plus hour drive away. Distance has not been an impediment to CTC in providing knowledge, experience and other assets to a successful telco/electric partnership. Kristi and her team have proved that you don’t even need to be next door neighbors to make this work.
CTC and its partners were highlighted last June during a U.S. Department of Agriculture “listening event,” that NTCA was an active partner in, where USDA gathered information to plan its current ReConnect grant and loan pilot program. The reaction to the way the Minnesota telco and electric cooperatives worked together made an impression to the point that USDA is actively encouraging such partnerships. We’ve had numerous conversation with USDA officials on this front and were only hoping to see a stronger nod to partnerships with “extra credit” points doled out for partnerships in the newly released ReConnect program.
Per NRTC’s blog, Jannine Miller, an advisor to Secretary Perdue at USDA also spoke at the conference and was quoted as supporting possible partnerships with the following comments. “Why would you do that? Well, the most important thing is to get the services delivered and keep them being delivered. Once you build it, you have to service it. It’s not always the easiest thing to try to support Wi-Fi at home or interact with the FCC and understand all those rules and nuances. Telecom companies and telecom cooperatives understand all these. That is their business model. If you’re able to find one and work a partnership properly that has mutual benefits, this is an incredible way to go.”
So what is part of the secret sauce that make these partnerships work? Westbrock described how was when CTC entered the Arrowhead and Mille Lacs partnerships: “We just got along.” Their common goals for their businesses and their communities helped them get past issues like financing, revenue sharing and other potential barriers.
“I think we are losing some of our philosophy of what cooperatives are supposed to be doing together,” Westbrock said. “It is really important as we build out networks that co-ops should be coming together. I know there is opposition on both sides of that, but for us, we can tell you that it works really well.”
Having spent hours talking to Kristi about this in the past, her advise is relative basic and common-sense. She advised simply setting up a meeting and exploring how closely the co-ops’ goals and views of community needs match. The entities might just find themselves brainstorming on ideas for addressing those needs in a grassroots project. And for any electric and telephone cooperatives that decide a partnership makes sense, Westbrock said that CTC is ready and willing to do what it can to help them get started. That is what I call the true spirit of collaboration!