Challenges and opportunities: Bridging the digital divide the electric co-op way

The case for US electric cooperatives entering the broadband market is overwhelming. For many, it isn’t a question of when they become internet service providers but how best to go about it.
Power lines

Electric co-op territories cover 56% of the nation’s landmass. Of the nearly 850 electric distribution cooperatives, about 230 have deployed broadband to date, with several others in various stages of feasibility and investigation. Still, there are at least 14 million electric cooperative members without high-speed internet, presenting a real opportunity for other co-ops to be leaders in broadband just like they have been with electricity. 

There are challenges and barriers to entrance faced by other new entrants that electric co-ops simply do not face. Here are some key advantages that set utility providers apart:

  1. Extensive infrastructure: Electric co-ops already possess extensive infrastructure, including poles and rights-of-way, which can be utilized to deploy fiber optic cables or other broadband technologies. This significantly reduces both the cost and time required for deployment.
  2. Community trust and understanding: Having established trust and a deep understanding of their communities, electric co-ops can facilitate smoother project rollouts and achieve higher adoption rates.
  3. Government grants and subsidies: Electric co-ops are well-positioned to apply for and receive government grants and subsidies aimed at closing the digital divide, especially beneficial in rural areas.
  4. Agility and focus: Being smaller and more focused than large ISPs, co-ops can be more agile in deploying new technologies or upgrading existing infrastructure to meet the evolving needs of their communities.
  5. Relationships with policymakers and regulators: With established relationships with policymakers and regulators from their primary operations in the energy sector, electric co-ops are positioned to effectively advocate for favorable broadband policies and regulations. This benefits their deployment efforts and the broader goal of expanding rural broadband access.
  6. Leveraging broadband infrastructure: Electric co-ops are in a unique position to leverage new broadband infrastructure to offset grid management costs and improve grid resiliency, enhancing both their efficiency and service reliability, and positioning their electric system for growth and enhanced operations. 

The case for co-ops entering the broadband market is solid. What utility providers might need a better grasp of is how to satisfy booming data demand while maximizing ROI.

Obstacles to overcome

Yet with all the advantages electric co-ops may have – including being able to point to over 230 successful reference cases – there are significant hurdles. 

  1. Financial challenges: Significant initial investments are required to launch broadband services, along with concerns over long-term return on investment and ongoing operational costs, which can strain financial resources.
  2. Technical obstacles: The deployment of infrastructure in rural areas presents complex challenges, necessitating continuous technological upgrades to ensure the network remains competitive and meets evolving standards.
  3. Regulatory compliance and rights-of-way: Co-ops must navigate the intricacies of regulatory compliance, secure necessary rights-of-way for infrastructure and remain competitive in obtaining government funding – tasks that require strategic planning and advocacy.
  4. Community engagement: Building a substantial subscriber base requires fostering digital literacy within the community and developing effective marketing strategies that ensure widespread adoption and ongoing support.

Looking ahead into 2024 and beyond, it’s vital to note that cooperatives are strategically positioned to leverage federal funding from programs such as the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. However, it’s also crucial to be aware of BEAD regulations, which mandate that numerous network components, like optical line terminals (OLTs), must adhere to the Build America, Buy America (BABA) standards.

One advantage aiding electric cooperatives as they navigate broadband challenges and opportunities is the evolution of broadband technologies. This includes innovative Combo PON technology, which offers dual benefits that align perfectly with their needs and capabilities.

Combo PON: Two networks for the price of one

Combo PON OLTs enable the use of legacy Gigabit passive optical networks (GPON) and 10 Gigabit symmetrical PON (XGS-PON) simultaneously. Connecting reclosers is a good example of an application of Combo PON. Reclosers are protection mechanisms used to improve the reliability and stability of electrical distribution networks. Connecting them to central control systems via an environmentally hardened, power-efficient GPON optical network terminal (ONT) provides enough capacity to enable real-time monitoring, automated management and coordinated fault response, ensuring a more efficient and safe electrical distribution network.

Meanwhile, today’s internet subscribers demand an increasing amount of bandwidth to game, stream and work remotely. Businesses require high-quality edge services. And let’s not forget 5G, which uses 10,000 times more bandwidth than LTE and requires a deep, fiber-rich network to support significantly more 5G access points. To cope with today and tomorrow’s data demand, you must invest strategically. While GPON is great for smart grids, XGS-PON ONTs are better for satisfying subscriber needs in access networks and help you keep pace with long-term demands. With a Combo PON OLT, you can use the same fiber to serve distinct purposes. Two birds, one stone – and rapid restoration when fiber needs to be repaired.

Implementation, practical steps and the power of Mosaic One

Implementing a fiber-rich network across your electric distribution system offers a transformative upgrade to a 21st-century communication infrastructure, significantly enhancing your operational efficiency. This fiber network acts as a comprehensive sensor and communication tool, enabling precise localization, remote monitoring and control over field assets, thereby streamlining operations. Traditional, purpose-specific communication systems like SCADA, metering systems or corporate networks can be integrated into this more unified approach, easing network management and reducing costs.

At the customer/member level, the reach of your electric infrastructure traditionally ends at the meter, potentially limiting the understanding of electricity usage based on the systems currently in place. Existing metering data may not provide the depth of information needed for modern operational demands. Decisions regarding upgrades to transformers, feeders or even substation transformers for a community are influenced by factors such as electric vehicle adoption, distributed energy generation and population growth. A dense fiber network, extending communications to or near your customers, prepares you for significantly enhanced communication capabilities, offering a level of data detail that supports long-term operational decisions.

The advantages of a broadband network extend beyond the meter, offering continuous service and insights about member usage. Quality of service for fiber broadband users is often judged based on their home Wi-Fi connectivity, underscoring the importance of selecting advanced Wi-Fi service delivery gateways (SDGs) that are centrally managed for peak efficiency. This is akin to the benefits realized from real-time home meter communications. Consider the rare complaints to electric cooperatives about non-working appliances – a stark contrast to the expectations for broadband services, where issues like gaming interruptions or webinar connectivity demand immediate, device-specific remote support. Adtran’s Mosaic One is one such platform designed to elevate customer service responsiveness and interaction, ensuring member satisfaction through superior broadband network management. This strategy not only keeps members content but also aligns with the goal of enhancing broadband infrastructure for improved service delivery.


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