By Jared Patton | March 10, 2021
Coast Electric’s rural communities see miraculous results with the co-op’s rapid deployment broadband service
Many communities in America still lack access to broadband internet service, in the same way that they lacked access to electrical service a few generations ago. An unfortunate but well-documented trend across America is that rural communities frequently lag behind more populated areas when it comes to advancements gained from new technologies and investments in infrastructure. Often, when private corporations consider broadband infrastructure investments in a rural area, the costs far outweigh the benefits. It takes a lot of capital to build out necessary infrastructure like telecommunications networks, and more often than not, the private sector’s focus on short-term Return on Investment outweighs public need.
Co-ops invest in communities, not in short-term gains
It has historically fallen to local co-ops to remedy those trends, especially given the fact that they serve 93% of the counties in the United States that suffer from persistent poverty.
This lack of access to reliable internet service doesn’t just limit social and entertainment options in these communities, it also negatively impacts the quality of life through barriers to the same digital services enjoyed in other places like telemedicine, online education, and employment opportunities, among several other digital amenities that more populous communities take as a given.
Thankfully, co-ops continue to lead the drive to provide reliable internet access alongside other necessary services in these areas while weighing public good over profits.
Service at the speed of light: Mississippi’s broadband miracle
Coast Electric in Kiln, MS, launched a new broadband subsidiary and went from zero lines of fiber-to-the-home service in August of 2020 to over 800 connected in February 2021.
This phenomenal achievement was made possible thanks to Coast’s, proactive assessment of the need for fiber in their community, having begun to explore expansion into broadband as early as 2018, as well as by engaging with their state legislature to remove legal and financial obstacles to broadband expansion.
At that time, Mississippi prohibited electric cooperatives from providing other services through their power lines, so the co-ops spent the next year lobbying for that capability. The result, 2019’s Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, allowed electric cooperatives in the state to supply broadband service as well, provided they do so via a separate business entity. With the path forward made clear, Coast turned their attention to exploring the ins and outs of the broadband business, eventually choosing to enter the market with a tentative launch target of 2021.
Of course, that timeline wouldn’t come to pass thanks to the arrival of covid-19 in March of 2020, but Coast and other cooperatives in Mississippi wouldn’t be deterred. With the needs of communities like Kiln elevated to a national priority, the Mississippi legislature approached cooperatives with $1.2 billion of Federal CARES Act funding in hand, working out a deal where the co-ops would match some of the funds to rapidly deploy fiber networks across the territories that needed it most. For Mississippi, ranked 42nd out of 50 states for broadband connectivity in 2020, this began a broadband rush of such magnitude that the Magnolia State could claim one of the highest connectivity rankings within five years. For Coast, this meant a roughly $6 million grant which they then matched for a total of $15 million to launch Coast Connect, their broadband subsidiary.
As stated previously, Coast went from zero fiber lines on their poles that August to over 800 connected homes and growing in six months.
Ordinarily, a feat of this magnitude wouldn’t be possible, but Coast had the benefit of working with some of the best vendors in the utility space to speed up their deployment. SEDC’s Velocity provisioning solution allows multiple systems from different vendors to connect with billing and accounting data from the utility to seamlessly bring broadband management into the workflow of multiservice utilities.
Other vendors such as Conexon and Calix also provided invaluable resources to Coast and other Mississippi co-ops in the same position. This broadband miracle, made possible by cooperatives working hand in hand with state and federal legislators, is not only a testament to the efficacy of the cooperative spirit, but also a clear signal that the future of equity in America lies in the practical union of government resources, public need, and private partnership.
The progress towards bridging the digital divide achieved in Mississippi is repeatable across every state. Though this particular instance was a response to disaster, proactively tackling this issue should be on the table for every American neighbor, regardless of where and how they live.