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!

Cooperative Roots Run Deep

Modern cooperatives, whether they market agricultural products, operate a food store, or purchase hardware supplies, typically operate according to a set of widely recognized cooperative principles. These “cooperative principles” tie cooperatives across the United States and the world together in a larger movement. Where did these principles originate? How did the cooperative model and movement develop?

Cooperative Principles and the Rochdale Pioneers

The cooperative principles recognized by the International Co-operative Alliance, and the broad cooperative community, are generally recognized to have originated from the efforts of 28 working men who founded the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in 1844 and operated a cooperatively owned store that started out selling butter, flour, sugar, and oatmeal. The Rochdale Pioneers, as they came to be known, were working toward social goals that arose out of the conditions of their time, including harsh working conditions. Read more about the Rochdale Pioneers and their efforts on the website of the Rochdale Pioneer Museum.

Watch this video commissioned for the Rochdale Pioneers Museum and the Co-operative Heritage Trust to learn more about the development of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. 

The original rules of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society included:

  • That capital should be of their own providing and bear a fixed rate of interest
  • That only the purest provisions procurable should be supplied to members
  • That full weight and measure should be given
  • That market prices should be charged and no credit given nor asked
  • That profits should be divided pro rate upon the amount of purchases made by each member
  • That the principle of ‘one member one vote’ should obtain in government and the equality of the sexes in membership
  • That management should be in the hands of officers and committee elected periodically
  • That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education
  • That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to members

Today, the cooperative community recognizes seven core principles.

 

Early Cooperation

While modern cooperative principles can be traced to Rochdale, England in the mid-19th century, the cooperative business was not a new form of organization. In fact, mutual insurance companies existed as early as 1530 in Paris and London and various ‘friendly societies’ operated in England in the 1700’s to provide financial assistance to members in difficult times of sickness, unemployment, or death. Purchasing cooperatives operated in various Western European countries by the 18th century and consumer controlled mills operated in England in the early 1800s. The Fenwick Weavers Society in Scotland began collective purchasing in 1769; according to the Rochdale Pioneers Musuem, the society is the “earliest cooperative retail society for which records survive.”

Some cooperative scholars trace the history of cooperation much further than these efforts. Rather, they look to ancient social norms of mutual aid, such as the collegia of ancient Rome’s, the craft guilds of 11th century Europe, and the Ahi movement in Anotolia or what is today, Turkey. Ed Mayo’s short publication, “A short history of cooperation and mutuality,” provides a fresh perspective on these movements and the ways that they were influential in shaping the modern cooperative movement.

Cooperatives in the United States

In the United States, Benjamin Franklin helped to start the first recognized cooperative business, a mutual insurance company, in 1752. Agricultural cooperatives played an important role in the development of cooperatives in the U.S. with the first ag co-ops beginning operations in 1810 in dairy and cheese making. From 1810 until 1887, cooperatives were founded in many sectors of agriculture, including hog marketing, irrigation, fruit marketing, and cotton ginning, among others. The Grange, one of the first farm organizations in the U.S., organized cooperative development efforts while other farm groups like the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union were also instrumental to developing agricultural cooperatives. In fact, Farm Bureau helped to establish Growmark and Nationwide Insurance while National Farmers Union helped to establish CHS, Inc., the largest agricultural cooperative in the U.S. today.

Sources and recommended reading:

A short history of co-operation and mutuality by Ed Mayo
The Rochdale Principles, Rochdale Pioneers Museum
About Toad Lane, Rochdale Pioneers Museum
About the Pioneers, Rochdale Pioneers Museum
History of the Co-operative Movement, International Cooperative Alliance
Rochdale Pioneers Museum Time Machine, Rochdale Pioneers Museum
Cooperatives: Principles and practices in the 21st century by Kimberly A. Zueli and Robert Cropp