Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts: They provide services that the market is not filling in their area, and they do it very well.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hey there. This is the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And I’m Lisa Gonzalez. Today, Chris interviews Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts. She is Manager of Industry Affairs for Rural Infrastructure Issues at the Utilities Telecom Council. Alyssa and Chris discuss the growing role of cooperatives in bringing broadband to rural America. Unlike large ISPs, that need to provide maximum profit for distant shareholders, cooperatives are owned by the people they serve. As a result, their decisions take into account their benefits to the local community. As Alyssa notes, cooperatives know how to fill the gap left by big corporate providers.
We often focus on restrictions that prevent municipalities from offering telecommunications services. But cooperatives often face similar state barriers. As we look for ways to expand to residents, businesses, and other entities, co-ops can play an important role — that should not be restricted by state legislation. Co-ops reinforce the concept of local choice.
Here are Chris and Alyssa.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I’m Chris Mitchell. And today I’m speaking with Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the Manager of Industry Affairs for Rural Infrastructure Issues at the Utilities Telecom Council. Welcome to the show.
Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: The Utilities Telecom Council, often dealing with rural issues — UTC abbreviated — what is it?
Alyssa: UTC is a global trade organization, and we represent critical utilities. So that could range anywhere from electric, gas, to water utilities. And our primary focus is on their telecommunications that they use to support their core business. Our issues range anywhere from spectrum issues, cybersecurity, smart grid and network modernization, colocation and joint use, and then, of course, rural broadband.
Chris: When did you get involved in all this? I assume it is not a 50-year-old organization.
Alyssa: We’re actually a 60-year-old organization….
Alyssa: … which is interesting — yes.
Chris: For 60 years, UTC’s been — has recognized the incredible importance of the overlap with telecommunications information, to monitor and take care of utilities’ needs. Is that the, sort of, reason for its being?
Alyssa: Absolutely. And that’s exactly it. And we think, you know, as important as it was 60 years ago, it’s even more important today, with what’s going on in the — especially — electric world.
Chris: And so you have members that are publicly-owned, private-owned, cooperatively owned — you span the whole big gamut, right?
Alyssa: We span the gamut. We’re non-discriminatory when it comes to utilities.
Chris: One of the things I’m really curious about is how the attitudes of your members toward broadband has shifted over the years. is there — has there been a sort of interesting shift?
Alyssa: One thing that I will say is — RBC is a relatively new organization that’s an independent operating unit within UTC. And so how this kind of started was — There were a number of utilities that were providing broadband over power line service. And when that company went out of business, we started having these conversations of — what do we do — how do they tell their members that they’re going to have to go back to dial-up or satellite, both of which they found insufficient? And how to they provide their services, you know, to their members?
And so we formed this kind of loose-knit alliance, called the Rural Broadband Initiative. And it just kind of quickly grew. And — it started as a group of about seven — turned into 70 in about 3 weeks. So at that point, we knew we needed to bet organized and form a our own association, or find an association that would be able to house these issues and advocate for them properly. So we kind of shopped around, with the different trade associations, and we just found, with UTC having such a focus on the communications piece of the utility industry, that it was a perfect fit.
So a little over a year ago — I think it was March of 2013 — RBI became part of UTC, and then became RBC.
Chris: For most of its history, if I had to guess, UTC has probably been interested in telecom, for more the internal needs of utilities. And it sounds like you brought more of a focus on how these can supply, you know, telecommunications services to outside entities.
Alyssa: Yes. That’s — And that’s absolutely correct. And I think what’s so interesting is — and such a neat part of this — is that both needs can be met easily with one company. And that’s our, you know, utility.
Chris: Is the group you’ve been working with for a while the — focused on rural broadband — I guess there’s two different things we often hear from people, whether they’re in the state capitals or or inside the Beltway, who are representing the interests of the big companies. One is, these folks in rural areas don’t need it, they don’t care about it. And the other is, we’ve met all their needs anyway. And so, let’s tackle the first one. Do people in rural areas need better broadband services? Do they even care about it?
I’m going to give you some interesting facts here. So one of the things that I think is most telling is — when I spoke to my co-ops — one of the things that they reminded me of, that I had forgotten, is that farmers are actually the original technologists of this country. They were the leading factors in the Industrial Revolution. And one of the things that I think people don’t realize, or don’t want to acknowledge, is that farmers don’t just want broadband, they need it to survive. So that’s the first point I want to make.
And the second point I want to make is — Every time Midwest Energy, which is a rural electric cooperative in Michigan, has a district meeting, they have a series of questions that people ask their utility about. And, nine times out of ten, what they’re asking is — We don’t have broadband; how can you help us get it? And I think that’s very telling. There — You’re great with electricity, and you do a great job with that — that’s nice and we take that for granted — but we want broadband; help us get it.
And even BARC Electric, which is in southwestern Virginia, did a study recently, surveyed their members, and they found that 80 percent of their members thought that broadband was either essential or an important pert of their life. So I think those “facts” are easily dispelled. And I guess what I would say, again, to some of these folks that are doubters or questioners, who are, maybe, taking us down a path that’s not quite accurate, come out and visit these rural communities. Come out and talk to these rural schools. Come out and talk to rural business owners. They will tell you, time and time again, that if something doesn’t change they’re going to be left behind.
And we see that continually with kind of this rural out-flight that we’re seeing. You know, in 2010 was the first time that we saw rural America in this country decline in population. It’s been a consistent trend for the last three years, and those numbers are growing. And we really believe a lot of that is, in fact, due to broadband. They’re not able to work from home. If you’re a home-bound patient, you can’t get medical care you need. We have veterans in this country who live in rural areas, that don’t have easy access to a VA facility, because it’s just not financially feasible to build one everywhere, that could take advantage of this.
And we have schools that aren’t able to offer standardized testing properly, because they’re having to schedule it based on their IT department, instead of on what students and teachers need.
So, that’s a complete falsehood. I cannot tell you enough times how often this happens.
And I’ll even give another example. So, Johnson County REMC, which is in Indiana, built a fiber middle-mile backbone to carry their SCADA data. And so their residents — or his members — Chad’s members — saw this fiber going into the ground. And they started asking the crews, what are you doing? And they said, you know, well, we’re burying fiber. And they said, oh, fantastic, when are we going to get broadband? When are we going to get broadband?
Well, the system that they build, initially, is for the middle-mile, with plans to expand, but every day now, at Chad’s Co-op gets a call saying, when are you going to bring me broadband, and why don’t I have it yet?
I could go countless stories of this — examples all over the country where this is happening — where members are looking to their rural electric utility to provide them this service that they don’t have. ‘Cause this is what they do. Co-ops don’t just provide electricity. Some of them provide trash. They provide propane. Some of them do computer repair. They do electrical work, They provide services that the market is not filling in their area. And they do it very well.
Chris: You know, that’s one of the reasons we’re such big fans of co-ops — because of the way they meet their needs of their members. They’re structurally accountable to them specifically to do that. However, you know, there’s certainly been cases where we find some of the leadership within the co-op is resistant, because they’ll read some of the propaganda that has been created by, you know, someone at AT&T or Comcast, pays to say, you know, municipal networks are a big failure. And some of the co-ops then read that and think, weil, I don’t know if we want to get involved in this business. It seems really hard.
And so, I’m curious. You know, you must have had some of these same conversations as well. How do those normally go?
Alyssa: What they’re most concerned about is their financial liability with this. But it’s not more expensive to build broadband in rural America than it is in urban America. In some cases, it’s cheaper. So that’s the first myth I think we need to throw out there and say it’s not true. The real difference is that the return on investment is far lower. What they find that with the capital investment that this requires, they need a little assistance, and they need some help.
I am finding every day that more and more co-ops are stepping forward and saying, how do I get involved? They’re watching some of the early adapters and adopters out there that are providing this service. You’ve got Kit Carson in New Mexico. You’ve got Co-Mo in Missouri. They’re offering gigabit service. I believe that Kit Carson is getting ready to, as well. You’ve go Northeast Oklahoma, which is getting ready to do a massive fiber build.
And what we’re seeing is that their issue is not — are they’re getting the take rate. Their issue is that they’re getting far more people than they thought they would get. Most of the co-ops are finding right now in the pre-signup phase, before doing any advertising, they’re hitting between 30 and 40 [percent] pre-subscriber. When they start turning on the service, we’re seeing that anywhere between 50 and 60 percent are subscribing to services.
I think with th4e success of these organizations doing this, we’re going to continue to see others, that maybe have been more skeptical in the past, get involved. And I don’t begrudge them being hesitant. Because no one wakes up in the morning in this world and says, boy, I really want to build a broadband network, this is going to be a lot of fun. Or, I’m going to get rich doing this, right? They do this because their members call for it. And as their members call for it, I think we’re going to continue to see them step up to the plate, and get involved, and get engaged — much like they did in the ’30s and ’40s with electricity.
Chris: I think that’s a really good reminder — that that’s something that they provide. And I would say, it’s not just that their members demand it. It’s also that, you know, they correctly recognize that they are not going to have anyone else come in and do it for them. That they really need to do it for themselves.
And I want to echo what you said. You’re absolutely right regarding the cost of building in rural areas. I was just speaking with folks in Danville, Virginia, where Danville Utilities does a wonderful job of providing Internet access, and has for over ten years. One of their biggest employers in the region, a very large employer, had been trying to figure out how to get a better Internet connection. And they had solicited bids. And, you know, I think they couldn’t find anyone that would expand to them for less than a hundred thousand dollar up-front cost. And the electric utility said, oh, we’ll figure out a way of doing it. And, you know, it took ’em two days. They just plowed it in the ground.
The return on investment is much better in San Francisco. But you sure as heck can’t put fiber in the ground in two days to get anywhere.
Alyssa: And that’s absolutely right. And I think, you know, it’s not just the businesses that are demanding it. It’s really schools. I mean, if you look at what some of these networks are doing, like the North Georgia network, and Douglas Electric, in Oregon, they’re doing this not just for their businesses but really for their schools and for their medical centers too. Douglas Electric has done some fantastic things. They wired the community college. Now they have free Wi-Fi on campus. They’re able to offer online classes. Five years ago, they had none; now, they have over 400 offerings. Their schools are able to schedule their testing, again, when teachers feel it’s best for students — the best time of the day for them, not based on how do we split this network out into eighty million pieces and hope to God we don’t lose students when they’re taking the tests.
Alyssa: It’s just this concern and care for community, and it’s something that’s so deeply ingrained in the cooperative culture. I think it’s really what makes them special.
Chris: I’d like to end by asking you about some of the states that make it a little more difficult for electric co-ops, for instance, to get into this. You and I had talked about this briefly before, and I know that UTC really frowns on all the states that have made it hard for municipalities to build networks. But we haven’t yet really dug into the ways in which some states actually make it difficult for co-ops to get into this.
Alyssa: We know that Tennessee has some pretty strict laws prohibiting this. And it’s something that we’re looking at, and hoping that, you know, Chairman Wheeler will rule on. I would extend this even to the state of Washington. Washington doesn’t have rules against cooperatives doing this, but they specifically have laws outlawing public utility districts from providing this service. Not municipals, and not cooperatives, but public utility districts, which act much like an electric co-op. So it is an issue, and I think we’re going to continue to see cooperatives challenge this. And, again, we’re really hopeful that, with the Chairman’s strong words lately, that he’ll take a stand and say enough is enough. We should be for competition. We should be for broadband expansion. And we should be local community choice.
Chris: Tennessee actually makes it difficult for cooperatives to build. We’ve spent so much time talking about municipalities. I don’t want people to think that we’re confused. But, as you said, it appears that Tennessee makes it very difficult for cooperatives to offer broadband service. And in Washington state, they specifically outlaw the ability of the public utility districts to deliver retail services. They can do wholesale services, which — it can be very difficult to make those pay for themselves, particularly in rural areas. But we’re seeing these very real limitations on cooperatives in a number of states, in addition to the states that limit municipal networks.
Alyssa: Absolutely. And we saw it in Georgia. You know, they’ve been trying for the last couple of years to ban this for co-ops in Georgia as well, and create restrictions for municipalities, too. And I think, again, to me, this is such a simple way forward. It’s good public policy. It’s good public policy in the fact that it’s good for communities. And it’s good for the security of our grid. I mean, this — telecommunications and the core critical communications that utilities need — it’s going to affect their core business. And no one in their right mind is going to let someone else control their core business. And utilities need the security and the reliability of their own networks to be able to haul the data today. And we aren’t even beginning to talk about what’s coming in the future — when you’re talking about adding electric vehicles, when you talk about renewable integration, when you talk about microgrids, when you talk about real-time pricing — you cannot have latency. You need instant, instant access — instant two-way communications. And that’s something utilities are starting to need today and are going to need in the future. The earth is shifting right now in this world.
Chris: Yes it is. And because of the work of people like you — and, I like to think, myself, you know — it’s shifting in many ways in our favor. So we can end this show with a smile. Thank you for coming on.
Alyssa: Thanks so much for having me, Chris. I really appreciate it.
Lisa: We have quite a few stories on co-ops on muninetworks.org, including some of the cooperatives Alyssa mentioned in the interview. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on July 29th, 2014.
Thank you, again, to Waylon Thornton. The song is called “Bronco Romp,” and it’s licensed using Creative Commons. Have great day.