In the News: Christopher Mitchell
April 5th, 2018
Media Outlet: High Country News
The Kit Carson Cooperative, an electricity provider that we’ve covered in both our Energy Democracy and Community Broadband Networks initiatives, is providing broadband access to member-owners of their rural community. The High Country News and reporters Leah Todd and Marisa Demarco covered the cooperative’s story for their publication and reached out to Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative.
His contribution is here:
An increasing number of rural electric cooperatives in the U.S. are launching locally run fiber-optic internet networks, a model researchers cite as a way to bring New York City-speed internet to rural areas ignored by major telecommunications companies who can’t make enough return on investment. Of the roughly 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S., 60 offer fiber-optic internet access. That’s up from just a dozen or so a decade ago. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos, since 1944 the sole electric provider in much of northern New Mexico, was one of the first. It took 10 years and three tries at federal funding to reach where Kit Carson is today: nearly 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cables entrenched underground, strung along mountainous highways and dangling over an 800-foot-deep river gorge, reaching 6,300 customers to date with a waitlist of 12,000 more. …
The New Deal established rural electric cooperatives to do the work the big companies would not. The U.S. set out on a massive subsidy program, offering low-interest loans to rural electric co-ops.
“Essentially, rural infrastructure has generally been delivered by nonprofits,” said Chris Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who studies cooperatives and other community-led broadband networks. For-profit companies need to make more money than they invest. Co-ops don’t. Any extra revenue over co-ops’ costs simply goes back into the service, or to co-op members. Now, nearly 100 years since the New Deal, more than 1,000 nonprofit telephone and electric cooperatives operate in rural America.
Then why is so much of rural America without high-speed internet? As many as 39 percent of rural Americans can’t access a high-speed connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In urban America, on the other hand, only 4 percent lack access.
One argument is, simply, it takes time. It took decades for electricity to reach rural parts of the country. And, after all, not everyone agrees the internet is a public utility in the same way electricity is. Others point to the powerful telecommunications lobby, and their influence on a national discussion about whether subsidies should go toward incentivizing major telecommunications companies’ outreach to rural areas, or to locally owned initiatives.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Mitchell said. “Any electric utility is a slow-changing thing. You still hear today people claim the rural problem will be solved by 5G or satellite. For 20 years, we heard rural broadband will be taken care of by new technologies. The reason rural electric (co-ops) are getting involved now is they’re realizing that’s not true.” …
Kit Carson exhibited many of the success factors researchers point to when studying co-ops that successfully add internet service to their business. Kit Carson invested in fiber optics, which is the most expensive upfront but has the fastest speeds, highest reliability and cheapest upkeep in the long term, said Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The co-op had a strong champion in Reyes, who in Mitchell’s terms, “isn’t just trying to get to the end of the day and punch out.”