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'You're Doing This To Allow Your Communities To Survive:' Rural Electric Co-ops On Broadband

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Electricom workers hang steel lashing wire for BEC broadband internet expansion. Jonathan Leyva, left, describes the process.

The internet has become a necessity, and access is lacking in rural Texas.  At least 1.8 million Texans don't have broadband internet access. Estimates are as high as 80 percent of those without access live in rural communities. This is part three of TPR's multi-part series: Connecting Rural Texas.

Some rural Texas communities are turning to an old playbook to connect the hundreds of thousands lacking access.

There are a myriad of reasons to bridge that digital divide, from slowing the brain drain in that area, to spurring innovation in farming and reinvigorating small town economies.

The same reasons advocates use to promote broadband today were used eighty years ago to push rural electrification.

“Because bringing electricity to rural areas was all about economic development and reaching the full potential of our economy,” said Jordana Barton, senior community development advisor for the Federal Reserve.

Going back to newsreel and films from that era, the barriers to both movements were also the same.

“But the power company says….say it costs too much. Say a lot of things,” said the farmer in a 1950s film funded by the Rural Electrification Administration. Like the power companies of the '30s, internet service providers today have argued the cost of building infrastructure to sparsely populated regions isn’t profitable.

The same rural electric cooperatives— formed with federal loan dollars to reach millions of homes with electricity — are stepping in to take on broadband.

“Rural electric co-ops are a natural fit because they own poles and they own infrastructure. So it is cost-effective,” said Barton. She studies broadband internet access for the Federal Reserve, and she says coops can make a big impact because they already serve many of the people lacking service.

Since 2010, nearly 100 co-ops across the country have started serving hundreds of thousands of members with broadband internet.  

Credit Courtesy of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

On a quiet Hill Country road, a group of contractors for Bandera Electric Cooperative hang steel lashing wire on utility poles. The steel cable will later be paired with a fiber optic cable, carrying high-speed internet.

Jonathan Leyva was 15 feet  in the air, standing in a hydraulic lift bucket. He pierced the wooden utility pole with pneumatic industrial drill. Thunder rumbled in the distance. He stopped and shouted down, “Mason, do you have your phone on you?”

“Can you check that radar and see how far rain is, lightning is away from us? I hear thunder, I just want to be safe about it,” he said. 

He worried the steel cable could become a 20-mile long lightning rod.

Mason Boyer-Seufer, an apprentice lineman, stood below, also wearing a hard hat and neon green safety vest.

“I hope it doesn’t get rained out,” Mason said. They lost the whole day of work yesterday to weather. “Oh yeah, it was terrible. Raining cats and dogs.”

He took out his phone. The storm was going to miss them.


Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Mason Boyer-Seufer looks off towards a storm.

Bandera Electric is one of seven Texas electrical coops now providing broadband to its members. Taylor Electric in Abilene, Victoria Electric, Jackson Electric in Edna, Guadalupe Valley Electric in Gonzales and Tri-County Electric in Azle also provide broadband.

“I think it’s two or three poles down there. We can start there, or where Tony and his guys left off,” said Wes Haughton, staring down at construction sheets. He was trying to determine how far back they needed  to hang the wire. Workers dragged the steel cable off a giant spool up the road. It ran out after an eighth of a mile.

Preceded by three excited dogs, retired San Antonio firefighter Larry Reed walked to his property line to watch the men work. He sported suspenders, a straw hat and a long white beard.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Larry Reed leans in to hug a passing neighbor as he watches Electricom workers hang cable.

He was glad the storm was going to miss the area because he uses satellite internet.

“It works ok when the weather is perfectly clear, but when it rains — or we have any storms —  it all shuts down,“ he said.

He said there aren’t any other internet options though, but he may go with Bandera Electric.

Bandera Electric has hung 500 miles of fiber optic cable on utility poles and another 250 miles to people’s homes.

“I’m not trying to be a telecom. What I want to do is provide to my electric members is a service that they don’t have," said Bill Hetherington, CEO for Bandera Electric.

3200 co-op members have signed up, about 10 percent of their 30,000 members. It grew 200 percent last year, and they see it expanding quickly.

“You’re not doing this to make money. You’re doing this to allow your communities to survive and to be here 20 years from now,” Hetherington said.

Hetherington said the city of Bandera’s annual economic growth ticked up into double digits since BEC started providing the service two years ago. Other Texas electrical co-ops are paying attention.

“We get calls every week wanting to know how we made it work,” said Hetherington, who estimated they’ve interacted with around eight other co-ops. None have jumped into broadband yet.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Bill Hetherington, CEO of Bander Electric, stands next to the co-ops broadband expansion plan. BEC wants to be able to offer it to 80 percent of its service area by 2022.

Co-ops power homes for 4 million Texans — according to the statewide advocacy organization Texas Electric Cooperatives— but provide only around 30,000 with broadband, less than one percent.

“They’re not huge risk-takers,” said Mike Williams, CEO ofTexas Electrical Cooperatives. He describes the members as older, and more fiscally conservative, who serve a population that is often lower income.

“There gonna make sure this makes sense before they do it,” he said.

In the last three years the numbers have been rising quickly though, and Williams is glad.

Co-ops that can make the economics work should move forward, or rural communities will continue to shrink.  

“I frequently say to groups: You can’t sell or provide electricity to people who aren’t there anymore,” he said.

It may take more outside funding though to make those economics work though. Last year saw increased federal funds, including $600 million in loans and grants from the Department of Agriculture and more than $200 million from the FCC. But national leaders for America’s co-ops are calling for more. They want the FCC to move forwardon a fund that could mean $20 billion over several years for rural broadband.

The message to rural residents is similar to the message from the 1930s.

Like rural electrification, it will take years and money.Unlike rural electrification, it is unclear how long the technology will last in the field. 5G wireless data is still largely untested in the field and requires dense placement, whereas some of the infrastructure placed 80 years ago is still in use.

But more people are taking up the issue. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AARP, USDA, FCC, along with Big Tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft. And increasingly rural communities are pushing lawmakers for the sake of their elderly parents who want to grow old at home and for their kids who can’t complete their studies at home.

“Well, there was a groundswell like this 80 years ago,” said Williams. “People in the country looked over the horizon at the city and saw lights, and modern conveniences, and said, ‘we want that.’”

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter@paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org