Cooperating for Connectivity: Cooperative Approaches to Rural Broadband

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.

To learn more about these cooperative approaches to building rural broadband access, you can watch a recording of the webinar, “Cooperating for Connectivity” here.

Appalachia Cooperates Tours the Region’s Cooperative Economy

On January 27, the Appalachia Cooperates Initiative (ACI) hosted the “Exploring Appalachia’s Cooperative Economy” webinar. Our center manager, Hannah Scott, and cooperative program specialist Ryan Kline prepared a presentation on the region’s cooperative efforts. Together they explored the co-op model’s foundations, cooperatives as economic development agents, and collaborative efforts in Appalachia today during the webinar. According to the program organizers, the virtual event was a success, with the webinar having almost 100 attendees. That number does not include additional people who registered but could not attend and requested the recorded webinar.

Central Appalachia fosters a network of cooperatives as diverse as the people who call the region home. ACI is a learning network connecting cooperative, community, business, and economic developers and advocates in Central Appalachia interested in expanding cooperative efforts in the region. The CFAES Center for Cooperatives works with cooperators across the region to coordinate speakers and promote regional cooperative development.

Though you may not have been able to participate in the webinar, it is not too late! Because of increased interest, we have recorded the entire webinar for anyone interested in exploring cooperatives throughout Central Appalachia. You can contact the staff for a recording of the whole webinar!

For more information, or to learn more about what our Center offers, email us or check out our website.

CFAES Center for Cooperatives kicks off Appalachia Cooperates Initiative

A group of individuals interested in growing co-op culture in central Appalachia filled the meeting room March 22 at the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center in Charleston, WV when the Ohio State University CFAES Center for Cooperatives hosted the inaugural meeting of the Appalachia Cooperates Initiative.  The group ranged from farmers and small business owners, to attorneys, credit unions, and cooperative business development agencies.

Featured speakers included Dr. J. Todd Nesbitt, Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Geography at Pennsylvania’s Lock Haven University and Leslie Schaller, one of the founding members of Casa Nueva, a successful worker-owned restaurant cooperative and also the Director of Programs at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) in Athens, Ohio.  Nesbitt, who has studied and developed a course on sustainability in Appalachia, shared “A Case for Economic Distributism in West Virginia.”  Schaller shared the history and development of Casa Nueva and insights on the success of the cooperative business.

Participants also heard from Gail Patton, Executive Director and Ursulette Huntley, Program Director at Unlimited Future, Inc., a non-for-profit microenterprise development center and business incubator, who shared their experience with the development of one of West Virginia’s first non-agriculture cooperatives.

During lunchtime, attendees viewed the film, Shift Change, and learned about worker-owned co-ops not far from the Appalachian region and around the world.  “Seeing how a worker-owned co-op can empower members of a community and provide jobs and economic growth for an area helped to spark some ideas among those in attendance,” said Joy Bauman, program coordinator at the OSU CFAES Center for Cooperatives.

Daniel Eades, West Virginia University Rural Economics Extension Specialist and Michael Dougherty, West Virginia University Community Resources and Economic Development Extension Specialist led a discussion about challenges with developing businesses in Central Appalachia, ways Appalachian communities are uniquely positioned to develop businesses, and what resources and tools work well in Central Appalachia’s environment.  This activity led to much discussion and discovery of ways those interested in growing the cooperative culture in Central Appalachia can network to assist each other and share solutions.

OSU CFAES Center for Cooperatives program manager Hannah Scott spoke about resources and technical assistance offered by the Center and encouraged participants to stay connected and consider becoming involved on a regular basis with the Appalachia Cooperates Initiative group.  “Getting cooperative-minded people together to connect and learn from each other’s experiences will help them build a network that fosters cooperative business,” Scott explained.

Scott said that the CFAES Center for Cooperatives will soon be planning another activity for those interested in the Appalachia Cooperates Initiative, and that she hopes to hold quarterly events for the group over the coming year.  If you are interested in developing co-op culture in Central Appalachia, for more information, or to be added to the Appalachia Cooperates Initiative email list to be notified about upcoming events, contact Joy Bauman at 740-289-2071 ext. 111 or email bauman.67@osu.edu.