Broad Thinking: Why the co-op model could be a key to closing the broadband gap

An individual working at a computer.

The current public health crisis has moved many of life’s daily tasks online. Without reliable internet, some rural communities are at risk of being left behind.

The impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency are vast and varied. While we recognize and thank the many people who continue to do the essential jobs of feeding, moving, and caring for America in person, many Americans are now working, learning, and connecting online. Everyday tasks like work meetings, classes, grocery shopping, religious services, doctor’s appointments, hangouts with friends, and more, have moved online. But what happens when you don’t have reliable internet access at home? Millions of rural Americans faced this question long before the current public health crisis and in our current context, the broadband divide between urban and rural America has become more pronounced than ever.

Connected Nation Ohio, an organization that studies and provides resources for rural broadband connection, estimates that approximately 710,000 Ohioans do not have internet access at home. That doesn’t include people who have internet access that is unreliable or prohibitively slow. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that almost 30 million Americans are “unable to reap the benefits of the digital age.” In 2017, the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity recognized the expansion of high-speed, high-capacity internet as a key infrastructure priority in rural America. Beth Ford, Chief Executive Officer of Land O’ Lakes, one of the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives, has highlighted the far-reaching effects of the problem and called for significant infrastructure investments in broadband, reminding people that, “there is a shared destiny between urban and rural America.”

Cooperatives are not new to problem-solving on behalf of rural Americans. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, in the mid-1930’s as many as 90% of rural homes lacked electricity. By 1953, more than 90% of America’s farms had electricity. This transformation was the result of the rapid growth of rural electric cooperatives, which currently provide electricity to 56% of the nation’s landmass and over 20 million member-owners. Co-ops are owned and controlled by their users and provide services to member-owners at cost. Today, nearly 100 rural electric cooperatives are investing in infrastructure to bring high speed internet to their member-owners.

In some communities, the cooperative model is being explored anew to determine whether a community-owned enterprise can help close the broadband gap. Groups are coming together to assess whether they can form cooperatives to invest in the infrastructure to connect their homes and businesses to broadband service providers. The enterprises would be controlled by community members through an elected board of directors.

Community members in Washington County, Ohio have begun exploring options for a community-owned broadband enterprise. David Brown, who is leading the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative Exploratory along with additional volunteers from the community, explains, “Most areas have no broadband access at all and rely on slow, expensive and unreliable technologies like cellular hotspots and satellite internet.” After conversations with elected leaders, local economic developers, and others, the group surveyed the community about their current broadband access and interest in joining a broadband co-op. They started engaging with community members via a Facebook group where they share updates and information. The group has over 925 members after just three weeks. While they have a lot of work ahead to develop their co-op, David Brown shares that the group’s vision is to, “bring affordable, reliable broadband access to rural areas in SE Ohio that will create economic opportunities, connect communities and encourage members to be a part of the solution to a problem that has long plagued the area.”

When exploring a cooperative model in any industry, it is vital to explore the feasibility of an enterprise and to develop robust business plans. At the same time, organizers should educate their potential members on the co-op model and help them understand their role in a newly formed business. The College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Center for Cooperatives at Ohio State has been assisting new and emerging cooperatives since 2001, helping groups understand the co-op model, explore the feasibility of a new co-op, develop the business plans and structure for a new enterprise, and more.

If you would like to learn more about broadband cooperatives or to explore an opportunity for community-owned enterprises in your community, contact the CFAES Center for Cooperatives!