High-speed broadband through fiber network connections may soon become a reality for all Coos-Curry Electric Coop (CCEC) customers. The company has spent the past couple of years exploring the feasibility of the project, including town hall meetings in the communities of Gold Beach, Port Orford and Coquille last week.
CCEC’s service territory is 2,475 square miles. A full build-out of a fiber-to-the-home system would make service available to nearly 15,000 households and businesses. “Coos Curry Electric is very member-focused,” General Manager and CEO, Brent Bischoff said. “We want to ensure that if we are going to provide this broadband service, we make it available to all our members. It will be a future-proof option that’s high quality and high speed.”
“What prompted the discussion was the observation that a lot of our members are outside the more urban areas and are either underserved or have zero connectivity,” said Jacob Knudsen, CCEC marketing and member services manager. “I think it’s obvious to everyone, the impact that has on the urban-rural divide and the economic impact on our area.”
“The benefits are not just the revenue stream that could potentially come to the cooperative and its members,” said Paul Recanzone, special projects manager at CCEC. “The other benefits to members are the increase to property value, the opportunity for live and work chances, the opportunity to grow education, the opportunity to extend health care into individual’s homes through broadband, and opportunities we can’t even imagine right now.”
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, both in identifying a real need in the community and in our members’ support of CCEC fulfilling that need,” Bischoff said. “Our research indicates that we can provide a better service for a similar or lower cost than the incumbent internet providers.” In addition to the town hall meetings last week, the coop has conducted two formal surveys and held one-on-one discussions at open house events.
“We expect the CCEC Board of Directors will have the information they need to decide on the next steps by the end of mid-year 2020,” Bischoff said. “Assuming the Board decides to move forward with the project, there will be a period of design and construction preparation. Several activities will take place in parallel. Formal design and engineering work will start, funding will be secured via some combination of grant and loan activity, and the legal operating entity (a CCEC subsidiary) will be formed.”
“The cooperative needs a solid business plan that will function through the long term without jeopardizing the power side of the business,” Recanzone said. “There will be no cross-subsidization from the power side to the broadband venture if the cooperative engages in it.”
“Part of the research has been looking into funds that are available that would help offset some of the very high capital costs that Coos-Curry Electric would have to take on in order to reduce the risk to all of our members and reduce the cost of the end product,” Knudsen said.
The fiber optic infrastructure is expected to cost about $40.2 million and the associated lasers and electronics are expected to cost about $4.6 million, according to Bischoff. The project would be built in phases over about two years. After the build-out, the broadband subsidiary would have 8 employees, and they may need to increase CCEC staff by 1 to 4 people. The project would create an unspecified number of temporary jobs during construction.
John Huffman, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development State Director of Oregon and John Holman, Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Telecom Programs Field Representative for Washington and Oregon were on hand at last week’s meetings to discuss possible funding streams. The USDA makes available grants, low-interest loans, and loan and grant combinations through the Broadband ReConnect pilot program.
“RUS is actually the evolved Rural Electrification from the 1930s,” Huffman said. “That’s what RUS is in modern-day form.”
“Under RUS, we do have the telecommunication programs,” Holman said. We have an infrastructure loan program that has been around since the 1940s that was designed for the old telephone company and getting telephone service to rural communities. Now we are in discussions for getting broadband into communities. Other grant opportunities are for the service providers to help them build out their projects to serve underserved areas.”
“There are several coops around Oregon that are providing internet service,” Holman said. “Throughout the nation, electric coops — many, many, many of them — are providing electric and broadband at the same time.” Holman noted that an electric coop in Missouri was one of the first to provide broadband to all of its patrons. “It’s not foreign for us to be sitting around talking about it.”
U.S. Senator Merkley has been working the past three years to bring high-speed internet to rural America. Merkley’s rural development subcommittee has put more than a half-billion dollars into bringing high-speed internet to rural America.
“Electric cooperatives were founded in the 1930s and ’40s on the principle that power was a necessity to sustain the lives and lifestyles of people in rural America,” Bischoff said. “CCEC is convinced that the same is true today regarding internet connectivity. Just like nearly 100 years ago – if a local cooperative won’t fulfill that need, then it is unlikely someone else will.
“We are uniquely qualified to meet this need due to our reputation and relationship with our members, access to low-cost capital, and we are extremely familiar with building and operating a utility infrastructure in this rugged coastal environment.”