Electric cooperatives turned the lights on for many rural residents who were left in the dark until the 1930s. Now they plan to connect members to the world through broadband deployment in those same communities.
A federal court last year defined broadband as a utility – ranking it as essential as electricity and the phone – that should be made available to all. For its part, Great River Energy is looking to collaborate and combine resources with others to help Minnesota meet the state Legislature’s goal of all businesses and homes having access to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 megabits per second by 2026.
“Our cooperatives have the attitude, expertise, customer base and financial strength necessary to be successful in meeting this challenge,” said Jeff Borling, economic development lead at Great River Energy. “With ready public sector partners and resources available, there is great opportunity.”
There are a number of socioeconomic benefits to internet connectivity, including people having access to more affordable education options, readily available medical care and information, and the opportunity to search and apply for job openings online. Broadband access also fosters economic growth, an area in which co-ops play large role for their communities.
Great River Energy and its 28 member cooperatives are part of a network made up of more than 700 electric co-ops across the country that are in various stages of planning, installation or completion of deploying broadband across their respective regions.
“Our electric cooperatives believe they have an obligation to economic development, so it was very natural for them to leverage the systems they have to also provide broadband,” said Martha A. Duggan, a senior principal for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Great River Energy hosted and co-sponsored a meeting with the Blandin Foundation, Calix and CoBank for co-op managers, board members and staff to learn more about broadband deployment strategies and existing successful partnerships.
A number of Great River Energy’s member cooperatives have applied for or have received funding from the state of Minnesota’s Border to Border grant program. The grant’s focus is to provide state resources that help make the financial case for new and existing providers to invest in building infrastructure into underserved areas of the state. It can provide up to 50 percent of project development costs with $5 million as the maximum amount.
Arrowhead Cooperative, one of Great River Energy’s members, has already included broadband in the services it provides after the USDA awarded the co-op more than $16 million in grants and low-interest loans to build a broadband network throughout Cook County. In addition, Cook County awarded the co-op a $4 million grant from its 1% sales tax fund. This project has connected local, rural communities to the rest of the globe.
Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, another member, partnered with a telecommunications company to apply for a Border to Border grant in an effort to install approximately 128 miles of fiber optic cable and provide fiber to the home for approximately 740 Aitkin County residents.
“We recognize the need for the rural areas that we and our cooperatives serve to stay connected to the rest of the world and will continue to aid them in receiving funding to bring these projects to those communities,” said Tom Lambrecht, Great River Energy’s manager of economic development services.