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North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 188

North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.

This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services.

Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.

Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Shoot-Out Over the WiredWest: MBI Pulls Funding in Massachusetts Saga

Officials from WiredWest Communications Cooperative in western Massachusetts spent years working with small towns creating a collaborative plan to develop a regional fiber network. The deadline for participation was, January 9th, a little more than a month away, and even though the trail had been thorny, the path now seemed clear. Suddenly, the state revoked critical funding, sending the carefully planned and negotiated project into shambles.

WiredWest Coop Born, Reborn, Ready to Ride

More than five years ago, a group of small towns in Western Massachusetts formed a communications cooperative that evolved into the WiredWest Communications Cooperative Corporation. Their goal was similar to that of any cooperative organization: use the collective resources of the member towns to construct a much needed utility - a fiber-to-the-home network (FTTH) - that could address a persistent problem for a group rural communities - the lack of quality Internet access.

The number of participating towns in the coop has fluctuated over the years; 44 towns are currently official members. Its business plan and operating agreement have also changed as member towns come to consensus on what presents the best path for their local needs.

As the coop refined its model, the business plan, and the operating agreement, WiredWest volunteers worked to secure early subscriber commitments from residents and businesses. Each community obtained a certain threshold of commitment in order to join the coop. To date, WiredWest communities have obtained approximately 7,000 early subscribers.

Each town must establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), a process consistent with Massachusetts State Law. The MLP is the entity that is responsible for owning and operating a municipal fiber network. WiredWest describes itself as a cooperative of MLPs with delegates from all 44 member towns as decision makers. The coop's business model also requires a series of votes to ensure local accountability before a town can be considered a member of WiredWest:

  • 40% of townsfolk have to pledge to take the service and each submit a $49 deposit
  • Each town needs to pass a vote by 2/3rds majority to join the coop and commit to funding the venture
  • After that, each town is responsible for choosing its own best course of funding (whether municipal bonding or not). 

The WiredWest operating agreement requires each member community to commit for a period of 10 years. If member towns decide to then withdraw from the coop, the other member towns will buy them out. According to the agreement, WiredWest will use revenue from the network for operating expenses and, once earnings are at a break-even point, excess revenue will be used to pay the member towns' debt service. The network as a whole will belong to all member towns of the cooperative.

With the roster at 44 and each community seemingly satisfied with the cooperative model, business plan, and operating agreement, cooperative member towns chose January 9th as the deadline to approve the operating agreement.

A Look Back

MBI's 1,200-mile open access network, MassBroadband 123 was completed in 2014. The middle-mile network was funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding and state funding. The hope was that private providers would then build out the last-mile to subscribers which would connect to MassBroadband 123. When that plan did not come to fruition, the state agreed to supply more funding to jump start local projects in order to get residents and businesses connected.

The local communities needed the funding, but taking the money put them in the position of meeting the needs of a powerful partner - the partner that controlled the much needed funds on which the entire project depended.

In June 2014, the state legislature provided addition funding for rural connectivity in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state entity that owns and operates the middle mile MassBroadband123 fiber network, was chosen as steward of $40 million, a large percentage of that funding.

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For the past several years MBI has met with WiredWest board members, provided funds for a planning grant, and helped the group develop plans to connect the WiredWest network to MassBroadband123. In April 2015, MBI conditionally promised up to 40% of the funding for the WiredWest project; the funding would cover approximately one-third of the estimated $120 million to deploy the network. Word of the state grants helped build momentum and towns that wavered in the past decided to join the cooperative.

Throughout the talks with MBI, WiredWest representatives continued to meet with local communities to discuss the possibility of joining the coop. For towns that were committed to joining the effort, WiredWest offered advice on how to proceed. Most of the communities needed to form an MLP and all of the towns needed to take the proper steps to fund their share of the network costs. 

The 44 member towns of WiredWest intended to split 2/3 of the project’s costs, and the remaining $40 million would have been covered by state and federal grants distributed through MBI. In keeping with state law, when a municipality needs to bond to fund a project, the decision must be taken up at a series of town meetings. The process requires community involvement and takes places over the course of months in Massachusetts. Over 20 towns had already committed to municipal bonding for the funding by the end of 2015.

State Funding: Here One Day, Gone The Next

The plan appeared to be on track. A consulting firm hired by WiredWest to review the business plan reported that it was sound and financially feasible. As local officials prepared to commit to the operating agreement, MBI contacted each of the 44 communities urging them not to sign on. MBI released a statement saying WiredWest would require “fundamental revision in order to succeed as a reliable framework.”

As part of their announcement, MBI stated that it would not release the $40 million in state funds for the project.

MBI also released a more thorough report, written with the help of a consultant, detailing their concerns with the plan. MBI determined the WiredWest plan to be “overly optimistic and perhaps unachievable” in its projections for the network’s expected subscriber base and revenues versus costs. MBI stated that is was concerned with the accuracy of projected take rates due to the percentage of seasonal properties in the region.

map-wired-west-2016.pngMBI also took issue with the cooperative structure of WiredWest and the fact that individual towns would not exclusively own the infrastructure in their own communities. MBI Director Eric Nakajima told the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Nakajima said that WiredWest’s operating agreement contradicts a “Last Mile Broadband Policy” approved by MBI’s board in July [2015]. This policy states: “Last Mile local and regional broadband networks, having been constructed entirely through investments by the (state) and local residents, either as property-taxpayers, renters, or broadband subscribers, will be owned by their respective municipalities.”

Local public ownership is certainly the ideal when it comes to FTTH networks but where a town is small, investing in its own network can be impractical. Pooling resources in a regional effort like WiredWest may be the only option for rural communities like those clustered in western Massachusetts.

Ultimately, Nakajima wrote “the current draft of WiredWest’s operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the Commonwealth, the towns, or their residents.” 

WiredWest immediately scheduled a meeting about the withdrawl of promised funds. A coop chairman commented on the issue of ownership, throwing in a stab at the age-old conflict of state vs. local control:

“The ownership issue has been an ongoing issue, but WiredWest is nothing but the towns,” said Steve Nelson, chairman of WiredWest’s legal committee. “The question is, do the towns own individual little pieces, or can the towns pool their money into a larger, more sustainable network? The towns are putting up almost two-thirds of the money. We shouldn’t be dictated to by a bunch of Boston bureaucrats.”

WiredWest Responds

In response to MBI, about 75 WiredWest officials and town delegates crafted a rebuttal to MBI’s critique and wrote a response to MBI’s more specific breakdown of the business plan. They corrected what they felt were several mischaracterizations of their business plan.

For one, WiredWest’s consultant previously told them their projected overall costs for the network were “conservatively estimated.” In addition, WiredWest rejected MBI’s assertion that the projected take rate for the network is unrealistic. Instead, WiredWest said they expected their take rate to be in the 75 to 85% range, similar to the take rate that the nearby Town of Leverett has reached for its municipal network. While such a rate may seem high for a municipal network that faces competition from an incumbent, where there is no competition it is not so surprising, as in Leverett. WiredWest’s projections suggest this take rate to far exceed the 47% take rate they say is necessary for the network to at least break even.

In the rebuttal, WiredWest also took exception with MBI’s suggestion the 44 member towns will transfer ownership of the network to WiredWest and effectively lose out on the network’s potential profits while still being responsible for the debt obligation for the network. From WiredWest:

“It is misleading to imply that WiredWest...is an entity separate from the towns that would operate the network on their behalf. It is a cooperative of the towns, by the towns and for the towns. WiredWest is nothing but the towns.”

WiredWest further found fault with MBI’s claim that the coop model violated the state policies and regulations making it ineligible for funding. Coop Board Members especially criticized the claim that the coop structure did made the entity ineligible for funding due to MBI's Last Mile Broadband Policy passed around the same time WiredWest was changing its structure. WiredWest representatives felt that they had been excluded from any input into the new policy and that the implementation of such policy directly undermined local control and the will of the towns.

"Git Along, Little Doggie…"

As MBI and the WiredWest communities meet to decide how to proceed, the state agency encounters skepticism, frustration, and local ire.

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On December 16th, an MBI scheduled meeting in Greenfield to present the consultant report was filled to capacity. People in the lobby bearing "We Want Wired West" signs had to be turned away so stood outside in angry protest.

At the meeting, MBI's consultant presented a series of slides suggesting that the WiredWest financials omitted a number of necessary expenditures. Jim Drawe, a Cummington resident who developed the cooperative's financial model, took issue with the consultant's analysis and pointed out that the consultants, "don't know us and don't know our region."

Kimberly Longey, an alternate WiredWest delegate from Plainfield, recently wrote to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, describing the need for flexibility from MBI. In small communities like Plainfield, she writes, MBI's solution of a city financed and owned municipal network is not a realistic option. There are only 648 residents and the town operating budget is only $1 million. Plainfield has voted repeatedly to join WiredWest because they do not have the means, financially or otherwise, to build or manage their own network. She writes:

We have more than 25 square miles of township and more than 50 miles of road, most of it dirt...[WiredWest] is a cooperative of some of the smallest, poorest and hardest to wire towns joining with wealthier communities to band together to build a regional network able to serve them all....Towns have the right and responsibility to choose their broadband solution.

My town has chosen WiredWest.

Meetings between MBI and WiredWest are scheduled as the two entities try to move forward to bring better connectivity to the people of western Massachusetts.

WiredWest map and Fibertown image courtesy of WiredWest.

This article written with considerable contributions from Hannah Trostle and Tom Ernste.

Rural Kansas Cooperative Continues Fiber Network Expansion

In July, the Columbus Telephone Company (CTC), a cooperative in rural Cherokee County, Kansas, announced plans to expand its fiber-to-the-home network to the nearby city of Pittsburg. 

When CTC built the fiber network in 2004, it was the first 100% fiber-optic network in the state. This expansion marks the first time the coop has expanded outside Cherokee County, located in the southeast corner of the Sunflower State. 

New Branding for New Expansion

Last year, CTC announced the creation of Optic Communications, a new brand the company started to expand beyond their original footprint. The news of the expansion to Pittsburg comes after the network’s first expansion project last year. They built a fiber-optic ring that now links together Cherokee County’s three major cities: Columbus, Galena, and Baxter Springs. The coop has also acquired Parcom, LLC, the leading Verizon retailer in the region.

Subscription Details

Residential rates for stand alone Internet access from Optic Communications are $40 for 10 Megabits per second (Mbps), $50 for 20 Mbps, $65 for 50 Mbps, and $90 for 100 Mbps. All speeds are the same for both upload and download. Gigabit service is also available but rates determined on a case-by-case basis. Optic also offers customized bundles including subscription options for any combination of Internet access, phone, and cable TV service. 

Rates for the different bundled packages vary based on the number of cable TV channels the customer wants, access to DVR and HD capability, and which tier of phone service. The network also offers designated Internet access and phone rates for business customers.

A Long History of Innovation

The people in this rural community have a long legacy of telecommunications innovation. In 1905, a group of Columbus-based farmers started the CTC coop to bring telephone service to their rural homes. Throughout the 20th century, CTC provided phone service to people living within the 2.4 square mile serving area within the City of Columbus.

Now, over 100 years later, CTC continues to innovate and expand its publicly owned fiber-optic network, bringing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the people of rural Cherokee County and beyond.

Another Coop Story: Wiatel Wires Western Iowa

Iowa, known across the country for its agriculture, is known in other circles for its exciting community broadband projects. Earlier this year President Obama visited Cedar Falls to praise its municipal network and to support other efforts to improve rural high-speed Internet access. One of those efforts is Wiatel. This small telecommunications coop is beginning a $25 million project to upgrade its network from copper to fiber throughout its entire service area.

Fiber Connectivity

The cooper network that Wiatel uses now is sufficient for basic phone service, but upgrading to fiber will future-proof the network and provide better Internet speeds. The coop is based out of Lawton, a small town of about 1,000 people, but the coop serves an area of 700 miles. Wiatel hopes to start burying the fiber cables in the summer of 2016. Once the project gets started, officials from the cooperative estimate they will connect all residential and business customers to fiber within 24-30 months.

Wiatel is part of a long-growing movement as rural coops build fiber networks or upgrade to fiber to improve services for members. Just check out the Triangle Communications coop in Montana, the Paul Bunyan Communications coop in Minnesota, or Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama. They’re providing next-generation connectivity at reasonable prices to rural communities often ignored by the large incumbent telephone and cable companies.

Coops: An Alternative

Without an immediate return on investment, large corporate providers have little incentive to build in sparsely populated areas. Traditional corporate providers must answer to shareholders seeking short term profits. Cooperatives are owned by the people they serve, giving their shareholders a practical, real, tangible interest in the success of the endeavor and the community it serves.

High-speed Internet can prove a great benefit to rural communities. Many of these rural areas lack access to the healthcare resources available in urban areas but local clinics with high-speed connectivity can bridge that gap. Rural schools need faster, more affordable, more reliable connections. High-speed Internet is becoming essential for farming, which has become a high-tech industry over the past few decades. 

Being overlooked by large profit-oriented companies is nothing new for rural communities. One need only look at the history of the telephone or electricity. Large private sector telephone and electric providers thought that rural areas could not offer the density for a solid customer base, and residents’ need for cutting-edge technology went unrecognized. To serve their own needs, neighbors banded together, obtained grants and loans from the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration, and built the infrastructure that guaranteed the survival and growth of their rural communities.

“…for many, many years to come”

The coops now moving toward fiber technology are considering the long-term prospects of the community. As the Wiatel General Manager Heath Mallory explained:

“Once we get the fiber in the ground, I really think this network will probably serve our customers for many, many years to come.” 

The community is definitely excited for the new fiber. On the local news, reporter Elisa Raffa explains the positive impact the network will have on local businesses and residents:

Two Fiber Networks Collaborate: Aim to Bridge Digital Divide in Georgia

In October, the North Georgia Network (NGN) cooperative announced the formation of a new partnership with Georgia Public Web (GPW), a pairing that will conjoin two large fiber optic networks that together cover most of the State of Georgia. The newly announced partnership will enable the two organizations to more effectively confront their shared mission to improve broadband access across the state. Paul Belk, president and CEO of NGN, expressed his enthusiasm for the new partnership:

GPW is a great company for NGN to work with, as we have similar goals to serve communities challenged with ‘the digital divide.’ The companies are great links to each other because GPW serves most of the state with the exception of NGN’s footprint. Together we create a complete solution.

Two Networks Become One

This partnership connects GPW’s nearly 3,500 mile fiber optic network that stretches across most of the state to NGN’s 1,600 mile network. As Mr. Belk noted, a look at NGN’s network map shows that it covers one of the few remaining service areas in Georgia that GPW’s massive network map does not reach.

The North Georgia Network is a “corporation of cooperatives” with a mission to bring fast, reliable and affordable broadband access to rural Georgian businesses, government facilities, educational institutions, and medical centers and to more broadly help advance the state's economic development objectives. Georgia Public Web is a non-profit corporation in Georgia owned collectively by 32 city governments that strives to bring broadband connectivity to underserved communities in rural and urban Georgia. The partnership will allow the organizations to combine technologies, resources, and their unique areas of expertise to form a more efficient single network that spans their shared coverage areas.

GPW/NGN Podcasts

In a June podcast, we spoke with GPW’s President and CEO David Muschamp about the organization’s efforts to improve broadband access across the Georgia. We also spoke to NGN’s CEO Paul Belk in a 2013 podcast about the history and objectives of the North Georgia Network.

Montana Coop Turns Up the Speed: 16 Counties, 23,000 Square Miles

Montana may have high speed limits on roads, but this Montana coop’s network will let you surf the web even faster. Triangle Communications received an almost $30 million loan from the USDA to provide rural Central Montana with high-speed Internet access.

Triangle Communications will finish upgrading its aging copper network - a technology mostly used for telephone - to a fiber network that can support both telephone and high-speed Internet. The loan comes from the USDA’s initiative, announced in July, promising $85 million to improve connectivity in rural areas. The Triangle Communications coop is upgrading its entire system spanning 16 counties (that’s more than 23,000 square miles from the Canadian to the Wyoming border!). 

Since 1953, the coop has been at the forefront of changing technologies. It’s based in Havre but expanded in 1994 with the purchase of 13 exchanges from US West (now known as CenturyLink). The coop began upgrading to fiber in 2009 in order to provide its members with state-of-the-art service and technology.

For more information about the network and the award, check out local news coverage of the almost $30 million loan and Triangle Communications’ video.

 

Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our schools...as a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 

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The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

Small Town Coop, Big Gig Connection

In an April 2015 press release, the telecommunications cooperative Nemont Communications announced their plans to make the small, rural town of Scobey, Montana the first gigabit community in the state. The network will serve commercial, governmental, and residential customers in this Northeastern Montana town of just over 1,000 people. This speed increase to gig-level is a result of upgrades to the existing fiber network.

Scobey is inside of Nemont’s 14,000 square mile service territory where they began upgrades to fiber in 2007. The cooperative dates back to 1950 when farmers in the area organized to form their own telephone systems. The current service territory spans parts of Northeastern Montana, Northwestern North Dakota, South Central Montana, and Northern Wyoming. 

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide 

Nemont CEO Mike Kilgore sees the plan for Scobey as a first step for the largely rural state of Montana to push toward ultra high-speed Internet in every corner of the US:

“On January 18, 2013, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued the Gigabit City Challenge to bring at least one ultra-fast Gigabit Internet community to every state in the U.S. by 2015. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of our talented employees, Nemont is proud to report that Montana now has a Gigabit community.”

USDA Broadband Funding for Rural Projects; Coops On Top

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:

Alaska

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.

Minnesota

Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million loan.

Northeast Service Cooperative will receive two $3 million grants and, through a partnership with the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, provide broadband service on the the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Montana

Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will upgrade their system with fiber through a $29.95 million loan.

Oklahoma

@Link Services will receive $1.5 million in grants to provide broadband services in Seminole County.

South Carolina

FTC Communications will improves its wireless to 4G/LTE with a $12.38 million loan.

Virginia

Scott County Telephone Cooperative, with a $2.1 million grant, will provide one gigabit to 540 locations in Dickenson County to increase economic development.

Wisconsin

LaValle Telephone Cooperative will use a $7.61 million loan to deploy fiber.

It is no longer surprising to find faster, more affordable, more reliable Internet networks in rural areas served by coopertives. Minnesota's Farmers Mutual Telephone CooperativeCo-Mo Cooperative central Missouri, or Farmer's Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama are only a few we have covered. As large corporate providers fail to provide modern services, rural cooperatives have stepped up to offer services to their members and improve economic development prospects in the communities they serve.