Cooperatives: The Unsung Heroes of Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, February 22, 2021

Digital Beat

Cooperatives: The Unsung Heroes of Broadband

Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of such an important conversation. It is truly an honor, as I believe deeply in the importance of connectivity and the role that counties and cooperatives play in that endeavor. I was asked to talk about a few things today: the importance of broadband in a time of COVID; the important role that cooperatives play in broadband deployment; and the different technologies that deliver broadband to our homes, offices, and schools. But I am also happy to answer any and all questions, so please don’t be shy to ask.

Broadband and COVID

Let’s start with the importance of broadband. This is probably an argument we are all familiar with, but just to remind everyone: broadband is not a luxury it is a necessity – one that some have called a civil right and even a human right, as the UN did a few years ago. Broadband has also never been more important than it is now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. First and foremost, it’s a life and death issue – those with high-speed broadband are more likely to social distance than those without.

It is also necessary to receive health updates, especially as we are all looking towards the Virginia Department of Health for our time to be vaccinated. Telehealth is more important than ever in this pandemic, and those without broadband can be left without a doctor and a lifeline.

Broadband access is also a contributing factor to student success. We’ve all heard stories of students having to do their homework from the parking lots of libraries or McDonalds. This is what FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel calls “the new homework gap” because, as one study found, upwards of half a letter grade separates those students with broadband and those without broadband. Upwards of 15% of students lack reliable broadband at home according to the Pew Center. When parsed by income, a full 35% of students in households earning less than $30,000 a year lack broadband. Put simply, un- and under-connected students are being left behind.

More generally, broadband in a community may lower unemployment, raise local GDP, and attract new business. For homeowners, broadband, and especially fiber to the home, increases home value by upwards of 3%. The absence of broadband, of course, makes a home that much more difficult to sell.

Long story short, and to use a quote from Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, “everything is better with better broadband.”

Not all broadband is considered equal

One question I often get when I give talks like this is: “what is broadband?” So, I want to spend a few minutes unpacking this, because not all technologies that we use to access the internet are created equal. Making the correct choices for your community is a crucial component of county broadband plans, and I know that Rappahannock County has just created a Broadband Authority to do exactly this.

Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as an “always-on” connection of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps per second upload. This definition was set back in 2015, and many now critique it because it has failed to keep up with how much Americans use the internet. Right now, the average download speed in the US is 173 Mbps download and 63 Mbps upload. So, our current definition is out of date, to say the least. Nevertheless, tens of millions of Americans cannot connect to the internet at all, let alone at 25/3. 

There are two ways we access the internet: with wires and without.

With wires, DSL, or digital subscriber line, is the most deployed broadband access technology in rural America. DSL connections are the copper wires owned and operated by telephone companies like CenturyLink. Despite its prevalence, the problem is that these types of connections are slow and outdated, oftentimes not able to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. More than this, DSL gets worse the further you are away from the network node. So once you’re about 3 miles from the access point, your internet is going to slow down considerably. AT&T and other providers have also begun phasing out their DSL networks, leaving many in rural America without an alternative.

Cable internet, or coaxial, or coax-hybrid internet is the most deployed type of connectivity in urban areas. These connections are owned and operated by cable companies like Comcast Xfinity. The benefit of cable internet is that you get blazing fast download speeds, which is great for binging Netflix. The problem is that the upload speed, which is so important for business and for video conferencing like we’re doing, is slower. More than this, cable internet suffers from something called “network congestion” – the more people on the network at the same time, the slower it becomes. Here in Charlottesville, my husband and I have Comcast, and we have definitely noticed slower service during peak working hours when everyone in our neighborhood is trying to make a Zoom call. It can make teaching really difficult!

Then there’s fiber optics, the “future-proof” and “gold standard” technology. It offers blazing-fast download and upload speeds, doesn’t degrade with distance, and is not impacted by how many people are on the network at the same time. The problem? It is expensive: Upwards of $27,000 per mile. And this is where counties and cooperatives and localities tend to struggle – how to raise the money necessary for fiber-to-the-home?

On the wireless side, counties like Culpeper are deploying towers with fiber-optic connections that transmit broadband wirelessly. This is known as “fixed wireless” and is provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers or “WISPs.” Fixed wireless has proven to be an important form of connectivity on its own, and for some counties, a mid-point towards fiber-to-the-home. It’s not as fast as fiber, and certainly comes with drawbacks like suffering from inclement weather and requiring line of sight, but many counties, particularly rural ones, are erecting a series of towers that are connected at the back end with fiber optics so that residents have meaningful connectivity. Fixed wireless is particularly useful for rural communities and agricultural spaces since one tower can cover a rather large distance. Others, however, say that nothing short of fiber for all will suffice. Again, the type of connectivity should be in tune with the community and the community’s needs.

Also on the wireless side is satellite, which many people don’t even consider viable because it is so problematic. Hughes and ViaSat are the two satellite internet providers in the country. Often times when I bring up satellite in rural areas, people roll their eyes at me, because it is expensive, slow, suffers from lag and inclement weather interruptions, and comes with tiny data caps. Still, the FCC considers satellite a viable complement to wireline broadband. It is available to almost everyone in the country, perhaps 99% or so. That said, I know of many residents who have to augment their satellite connections with mobile hotspots to ensure they are always connected, but at tremendous expense – sometimes $300 a month.

Many of you may have also heard about StarLink – Elon Musk’s SpaceX broadband service. StarLink is a type of satellite broadband called LEO or “Low Earth Orbital,” where the satellite sits closer to the Earth than traditional geosynchronous satellites like from Hughes or ViaSat. Theoretically, this proximity allows LEOs to provide faster and stronger service. Trials suggest StarLink is providing faster service, upwards of 100/20 in certain communities, but this pales in comparison to the original hype around LEOs, which promised speeds of gigabits per second. StarLink and others like it are just getting going, and the technology is still unproven at scale. A recent study, for instance, suggested that StarLink will reach capacity in only 8 short years. There’s still so much we don’t know about these networks. Despite this, the FCC recently awarded StarLink almost $900 million in funding. StarLink’s competitors are challenging this award, claiming that it overexaggerated its capabilities to the FCC.

We could say the same thing about 5G. While urban areas are getting a taste of what 5G can do – like blazing-fast mobile connections and the potential to replace your home broadband network – it is still in its trial stages and the type of 5G found in urban areas, known as millimeter-wave 5G or high-band 5G, is unavailable to the rest of the country. So far, 5G has not lived up to the hype mobile providers like Verizon and T-Mobile have promised us.

I get worried when I hear counties say that they are considering pausing their broadband plans in hopes that StarLink or 5G will arrive soon. Truth be told, these technologies are years away from being deployed in rural areas across our country. There is also uncertainty around cost, in addition to time. Communities that decide to pause will be waiting for something that may never come. In contrast, there are very real solutions available to counties today.

I know I’m talking a lot, but I want to add that I wrote an article called Everything you wanted to know about broadband (but were afraid to ask) which is a laypersons guide to broadband deployment, and I asked our hosts to send out the link to the piece in case anyone has any questions about broadband technologies.

The Unsung Heroes

So, let’s talk about co-ops. I have spent the last 5 years traveling the country researching and writing about broadband in rural communities, and it is without a doubt I say that co-ops are the unsung heroes of rural broadband. I realize I say this after REC just announced that they are pausing their broadband deployment plans, so I get that my statement may be met with some frustration and I am happy to answer questions about co-ops that anyone may have.

There are about 260 telephone cooperatives and 834 electric cooperatives spread throughout the country. Today, more than 100 electric cooperatives have retail fiber-optic broadband services. Co-ops are laying down the fiber necessary to meet the needs and demands of a digital rural America.

Here in Virginia, the celebrated example is the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative or CVEC’s “FireFly” which offers fiber-to-the-home and business in parts of Albemarle, Amherst, Appomattox, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Louisa, and Prince Edward counties. It has made exceptional use of various grants from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, to USDA ReConnect, to the CARES Act.

So, why do I say that co-ops are the unsung heroes of broadband? First and foremost, they have a history of rural connectivity, second, they are distinctly local, and third, they have the infrastructure in place.

A sense of history

Co-ops, both telephone and electric have been connecting rural America for almost a hundred years. Many electric cooperatives, got their start in the 1930s after the Roosevelt government passed the Rural Electrification Act, which created and funded the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA, in turn, funded the creation of electric co-operatives across the country. Many have thus called for a “new deal” for rural broadband just as there was once one for rural electricity. The reason why rural Americans did not have electricity then is the same reason they do not have broadband now – rural service is considered what economists call a “market failure.” By this, I mean that the larger providers don’t see a path to a quick return on investment. In their logic, there are not enough customers and they live too far apart to make a profitable go of connectivity. The REA was created to correct this market failure and ensure that everyone was connected, first with electricity in the 1930s and 1940s and then with the telephone in the 1950s. This was a huge success. In my forthcoming book, I write about the linkages between electricity and telephone in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and rural broadband today. I argue that we need to bring back some of the energy from that time to finish the job of connecting all Americans with what Jonathan Sallet of the Benton Institute calls high-performance broadband.

They are local

Second, co-ops are distinctly local and community-based, which means local accountability and community investment. Unlike the national providers like Comcast, CenturyLink, and AT&T, we see co-op leadership and board members at the grocery store or have direct access to them. Oftentimes, we may even have their phone numbers! Many co-ops begin providing retail broadband, not because of the immediate return on investment but because of a sense of community commitment. Because of this sense of community, moreover, and unlike the national providers, co-ops are not driven by quarterly profit margins and returns. They understand that the returns for rural connectivity cannot be measured in quarters but in years. They see it, instead as an investment in the community.

They have the infrastructure

Third, many electric cooperatives have been upgrading their networks with fiber optics – connecting substations and headquarters in a so-called “smart grid.” In other words, they have a fiber middle mile already in place. It may be easier, then, for them to extend that middle mile to the last mile and offer retail broadband. Building new infrastructure is costly, lengthy, and resource-intensive, making what infrastructure co-ops already have - the crucial middle mile - immensely valuable. For this reason, the Institute for Local Self Reliance has proclaimed that “the future is cooperative” for rural broadband.


Electric co-operatives do, of course, face challenges in deciding whether to offer retail fiber broadband service. The key one is investment. Electric co-ops tend to be conservative with their finances and risk-averse. They have a good thing going with electricity and know that electricity provides a steady flow of income. As such, they may be skittish to enter into new products and territory. But, the NRECA - the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association - found that across the country, the absence of broadband in electric cooperative areas leaves untapped upwards of $68 billion. In contrast, it will cost $40 billion to expand broadband in all coverage areas of electric cooperatives. Long story short, there is a market incentive for electric cooperatives to deploy broadband.

The second area of concern for co-ops is customer service. Electric cooperatives, unlike telephone cooperatives, are not equipped to handle the service needs of telecommunication customers. When I was doing the research for my book on rural broadband, it was explained to me how you don’t call the electric company when your toaster breaks, but you do call the telephone company when your phone line is out. The same thing is said about the internet – we call our provider when the internet is out and electric cooperatives may be unprepared for that level of customer service engagement.

These are real concerns for electric cooperatives and I am certainly sympathetic to them, but, in my opinion, the rewards and community investment outweigh the risks.

Conclusion: The Future is Cooperative

In conclusion, I agree with the Institute for Local Self Reliance that the future of rural broadband is cooperative. If it is not provided by cooperatives themselves, then cooperation is the next best thing. I am inspired by the work of Firefly in central Virginia, and the agreement between Dominion Energy and Prince George Electric to offer fiber to the home service in Surry County, and between Dominion and Northern Neck Electric Cooperative to offer fiber to the home to residents of Northumberland, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster, and Stafford counties. Orange County has gone a different direction by creating its own ISP, and I am looking forward to seeing how that project develops. I am also inspired that so many counties are having these conversations and are putting together their own broadband authorities and broadband plans, just as Rappahannock is doing today. There are exciting things happening in our commonwealth that we may look to for inspiration and best practices. I know that there are frustrations here, but I hope the decisions of REC do not stop you from advocating for broadband for your homes and businesses. You are the true digital champions of your county. I am happy to help that cause in any way I can. Thank you.

Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and a former-Faculty Research Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Farm Fresh Broadband: the Politics of Rural Connectivity (MIT Press).

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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