Electric Co-ops as a Vehicle for Bringing Fiber to Rural Areas

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I recently listened to an interview with Randy Klindt, General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, a rural electric co-op building a gigabit fiber network in Central Missouri. It reminded me that the nation’s rural electric co-operatives can be effective vehicles for deploying advanced communication infrastructure in relatively high-cost and underserved rural areas.

Like most electric co-ops, Co-Mo serves a very rural area. Its service area spans 2,300 square miles and includes roughly 31,000 electric meters. That’s only about 13.5 meters per square mile.

As Klindt points out, member owned co-ops like Co-Mo have a different perspective than private companies when it comes to investment horizons. While the latter tend to prefer payback in a 3-5 year timeframe, co-ops view both electricity and communication networks as long-term infrastructure investments with payback timeframes in the 10-20 year range.

According to Klindt, Co-Mo, as a member-owned organization, approached the network investment as a long-term economic development project. He also notes that it was funded without the benefit of government grants or loans (Co-Mo had applied for funding under the ARRA broadband stimulus program, but its application was not approved).

The co-op is also using the network to support smart grid functionality for its core electric power business, which improves the project’s overall economics. And, like other electric utilities, Co-Mo already has in place much of the infrastructure needed to support construction, maintenance, billing and customer service for a communication network within its footprint.

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