Almost one year ago, as we were still in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many changes the public health emergency created in our work, home, and social lives, I wrote an article highlighting the cooperative community’s attention to the lack of reliable broadband in rural America. In that article, “Broad Thinking: Why the co-op model could be a key to closing the broadband gap,” I highlighted the work of rural electric cooperatives who are expanding their services to include broadband. These same co-ops were vital to bringing electricity to rural Americans in the 1930’s. I also highlighted new, grassroots community groups who are pooling their resources and time to bring broadband access to their community, like the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative in Washington County, Ohio.
Recently, the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Center for Cooperatives hosted a webinar with guests Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative, and David Brown, co-founder of Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative, who shared their experiences bringing connectivity to rural, Appalachian communities using cooperative approaches. Although the two are approaching broadband access using different infrastructure, at different scales, and with different histories, their mutual-ownership, cooperative model is similar. Brown shared, “The dedication of a cooperative to the community, rather than to making a profit and that representation of the membership in the decision-making process – those were all elements that led us to adopting a cooperative model.” Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic after realizing that many community members could not effectively participate in remote schooling, work, and other opportunities and has since started providing broadband to members using a mixed-technology approach.
While BARC Electric Cooperative has a longer history – the co-op formed to provide electricity services in the 1930’s – and connects over 12,500 meters to the electric grid, the co-op model is also vital to their efforts to bring broadband services to their community. Keyser shared, “We’re all about service to the membership, and as long as we’re recovering our cost of services, we don’t have shareholders that have to have a return [so] we can live with a longer payback on this investment…” The co-op has installed almost 800 miles of fiber in a project that will eventually bring broadband access to their entire customer-membership base.