Bringing Connectivity to Rural Areas is Not a New Issue

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Rural Texas communities are taking a page out of an old playbook when it comes to closing the digital divide since less than one percent of those with electricity co-ops have access to broadband. The same reasons advocates use to promote broadband today were used eighty years ago to push rural electrification, reported Science Friday.

Bringing “electricity to rural areas was all about economic development and reaching the full potential of our economy,” said Jordana Barton, senior community development advisor for the Federal Reserve.

In a 1940 film funded by the Rural Electrification Administration, power companies argued that the cost of building infrastructure to sparsely populated regions wasn’t profitable. Sound familiar? Now those same rural electric cooperatives are stepping in to take on broadband expansion, according to Science Friday

“Rural electric co-ops are a natural fit because they own poles and they own infrastructure. So it is cost-effective,” said Barton. She added that co-ops could make a significant impact because they already serve many of the people lacking service.

Since 2010, nearly 100 co-ops across the country have started serving hundreds of thousands of members with broadband internet. In Texas, seven cooperatives are now providing broadband to members.

According to Bill Hetherington, CEO for Bandera Electric, “I’m not trying to be a telecom. What I want to do is provide to my electric members a service that they don’t have.” His company has already hung 500 miles of fiber optic cable on poles and another 250 miles to homes, covering 3,200 members or 10 percent of its overall subscription base.

“You’re not doing this to make money. You’re doing this to allow your communities to survive and to be here 20 years from now,” Hetherington added.

It may take more outside funding to get rural communities connected, though. Last year saw increased federal funds, including $600 million in loans and grants from the Department of Agriculture, and more than $200 million from the FCC. According to Science Friday, national leaders for America’s co-ops want the Commission to move forward on a $20 billion rural broadband fund.

“Well, there was a groundswell like this 80 years ago,” said Mike Williams, CEO of Texas Electrical Cooperatives. “People in the country looked over the horizon at the city and saw lights, and modern conveniences, and said, ‘we want that.’”  Comments? Email Us

August 15, 2019

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