Several rural communities have high-speed Internet service in Oklahoma, thanks to the hard work of the local electric cooperative. Headquartered in Hulbert, Oklahoma, Lake Region Electric Cooperative is already laying the necessary infrastructure for an extensive Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
Lake Region Electric Cooperative offers FTTH service to more than 1,000 homes in the rural communities around the city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. As with electrification, the cooperative is once again providing a much needed utility where no private company would go. This is the internetification of rural America.
Grounded In Community
Lake Region Electric Cooperatives is rooted in rural Oklahoma: it serves the rural communities east of the city of Tulsa and north of the city of Muskogee. The land is rocky, covered in trees, and surprisingly hilly. To get to the headquarters, one must go up a short dirt drive off the main road heading into the town of Hulbert. I dropped by the office to learn more about how the project started and spoke to Communications Specialist Larry Mattes and Fiber Coordinator Eshwar Prasad Beemraj.
For years, the Lake Region Electric Cooperative sent out a survey to its members, and each year, the co-op members wrote back that they needed Internet service. The large private provider in the area had not updated their infrastructure in decades. Like many electric co-ops, Lake Region had helped make Exede satellite Internet service available to their members, but it wasn’t enough. People came to board meetings and annual meetings to voice their concerns.
The co-op had to act and the staff developed a plan to bring the fastest Internet service that they could to the co-op members. They created pilot projects in two areas near the center of their service territory; both were a success. To manage demand for the service, the co-op uses the CrowdFiber platform to track which areas have the most interest. Members can pre-register for the service on the Lake Region Electric Crowd Fiber site and put down a small deposit of about $50.
A Natural Extension Of Service
The electric system is already a network of wires that transmit electricity from generation plants through substations to people’s homes. Lake Region Electric Cooperative had installed fiber to their substations in order to improve communications internally and co-op leaders realized that their existing infrastructure could be repurposed to provide Internet service.
Co-op employees map out where Lake Region fiber is and identify demand for FTTH service. They note if the co-op has access to the utility poles and what easements may apply. In some cases, they’ve gone door-to-door to update the easements that the co-op formed with property owners years ago. These easements gave the cooperative access to a section of the property in order to provide electric service, but these must be re-written in order to apply to fiber optic cables and Internet access. Then the fiber coordinator determines where to put the Point-of-Presence (POP) that will connect homes to the rest of the network. Lake Region Electric also serves small offices and businesses, including Cherokee Nation Businesses, owned by the Nation.
Lake Region Electric has always focused on building an affordable, reliable network for the members. The co-op took out about $20 million in loans through CoBank, the national cooperative bank, to support the Phase 1 of the project. CoBank has funded several other electric cooperatives fiber network projects. Lake Region Electric started its pilot project in 2012, and spent the next 6 years determining the best way to build forward throughout the entire service area. Lifelong members swear by top-tier Internet service offered by the co-op at reasonable prices.
Read about them in the CoBank 2017 report “Making the Move Into Broadband: Rural Electric Co-ops Detail Their Experiences.”
Residential Internet Service
|50 Mbps/50 Mbps||$49.95|
|75 Mbps/75 Mbps||$69.95|
|100 Mbps/100 Mbps||$99.95|
Lake Region Electric also offers video and telephone service.
Explore the entire project at https://register.lrecok.net/#Zones
Electric Co-ops Moving Forward
Lake Region Electric is just one of the many electric cooperatives that have taken on the challenge of providing high-speed Internet service. At MuniNetworks, we currently track about 60 electric cooperatives with fiber projects. Some have received loans from CoBank; some found support through the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and others have gone into the project alone.
These cooperatives offer tremendous opportunity for rural areas, building new networks in areas that are underserved or not served by large private providers. Fiber networks from coo-ops may “monopolize” the rural market, but they are entirely controlled by the members, the rural people who take Internet or electric service from the co-op.
These fiber networks may nevertheless continue to avoid regional economic centers because rural electric cooperatives often do not serve smaller cities. Lake Region Electric, for instance, goes around Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which has its own municipal electric utility. Some cities are trying to work with the nearby electric cooperatives in order to extend these next-generation networks. For instance, Morristown, Tennessee, is forming a partnership with Appalachian Electric Co-op. Learn more about the proposed plan on Community Broadband Bits Episode 203. The work of small municipalities and rural cooperatives may close the digital divide between rural regions and urban areas.
Explore more MuniNetworks.org research on our Rural Electric Cooperatives page or in our 2017 report “Electric Co-ops Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.” Listen to our interview with Mel Coleman from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) on the fiber project from North Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Community Broadband Bits Episode 243.
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Image of the Tahlequah © Caleb Long [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons].