NRECA Broadband is celebrating its first anniversary as a growing resource for electric cooperatives in the telecommunications space, from those just starting the process to the co-ops already building a network, connecting customers and competing with seasoned players.
In a Q&A, NRECA Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Connor looks back at the development of this service tier and sheds light on the needs it is meeting today and how it is equipped for the future.
This July marks the first full year of NRECA Broadband. Tell us how this service arm for electric cooperatives came about.
Connor: Our members made it happen. Across the country, electric cooperatives are finding so many opportunities to bring connectivity to their communities. They recognize the value of speaking with one voice as we tell the story of what electric co-ops can do, and are doing, to serve people with reliable, affordable broadband. So, NRECA Broadband became that voice, which is directed at national leaders, policymakers, the media and elected officials. Our effort is populated with highly engaged, smart leaders from across NRECA’s membership who’ve tackled local challenges which have national significance.
What are NRECA Broadband’s priorities and chief tasks to serve co-ops heading into its second year?
Connor: We’ll expand our capacity and sharpen our focus: deeper and more frequent conversations at federal agencies, more chances for co-op leaders to engage, ideas and arguments that folks on Capitol Hill need to hear in order to help us succeed in our broadband mission. NRECA Broadband brings a lot of resources to the table—directly and through partnerships—and every week we discuss new needs we can help meet.
Can you describe the current landscape for rural broadband—in terms of technology, regulations, funding, literacy, etc.—in which electric co-ops are building networks to deliver high-speed internet?
Connor: It’s nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the quality of life for people in rural America. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. There’s a complex interaction between everything you mention. And electric co-ops are moving fast! Faster than these federal programs operate. Consumer demand is also moving fast. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Twelfth Measuring Fixed Broadband report, the weighted average advertised download speed was 307.73 megabits per second, representing an increase of 59% from the Eleventh Report and 111% from the Tenth Report. Yet, the FCC still defines broadband as 25/3 Mbps, a definition set back in 2015.
The government has got to keep up with us and consumer demand or their funding programs won’t deliver on their promises. Federal funding should only be used to build networks that are scalable to ensure they can meet the bandwidth demands not just of today but well into the future.
Creating and sustaining a broadband business means choosing well-intentioned, informed partners. Congress and federal agencies are part of the deal. When it comes to addressing regulatory issues, legislative threats and opportunities or the design of federal programs, NRECA Broadband is there to educate and advocate. We take on those responsibilities and make sure electric co-ops get credit for the important role they play.
There are so many issues to contend with when it comes to electric co-ops deploying broadband and serving that member at the end of the line. What are the unique challenges electric co-ops in broadband face, and how is NRECA Broadband addressing them?
Connor: Competition and regulation. In both respects, telecommunications is a whole different ballgame than energy. The risks come from within the industry as well as the way the industry is regulated. Our goal is to protect electric co-op investments in communications networks and businesses, but I believe the best defense is a good offense. By being emphatic on behalf of our members, we can establish electric co-ops as a trusted solution for broadband, just like we are for electricity.
There’ve been some significant wins for NRECA Broadband during its first year. Tell us about them.
Connor: We significantly increased visibility for electric co-ops in broadband at the federal level and by testifying in the House and the Senate. We had some wins in the agencies as well. We pushed for states to have flexibility in determining which areas are eligible for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program instead of those grants’ disbursement solely relying on the FCC’s National Broadband Map. We pushed hard for improvements of the map in terms of accuracy, and it is better today, but we will continue to encourage progress on behalf of co-ops.
We secured increased flexibility in application of uniform guidance to broadband grant programs administered by U.S. Treasury and are pushing for the same flexibility to be adopted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for its programs.
We have been very successful in getting high-ranking federal officials at NRECA Broadband events. That includes Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andy Berke, who spent an hour with us at the first NRECA Broadband Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., where he fielded questions and shared how he was working toward solutions for affordable, reliable rural broadband.
We also put before our members NTIA administrator Alan Davidson and Evan Feinman, who’s in charge of its $42.5 billion BEAD program, and they shared quality time with our members at the conference and got into the weeds of that new broadband program.
We look forward to even more engagement at our second NRECA Broadband Leadership Summit, Nov. 7-9 in D.C. NRECA Broadband conferences open new doors for our members. And all the behind-the-scenes work to make that happen helps us build stronger relationships with decision-makers for our members.
We have had a great start and are enjoying a huge reputational advantage over our competition in Washington, D.C. We will continue to expand our efforts. All of our co-ops in the broadband business need to be speaking with one voice in Washington, which is why we created NRECA Broadband.
Can you tell us more about NRECA Broadband’s growing number of resources and priorities going forward?
Connor: The key to this program is our ability to scale. That means responding to the unique interests of participants with resources the whole group values. We are continually looking for ways to provide additional value. There’s a lot of action coming our direction: cybersecurity for telecom providers, reauthorization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect rural broadband program in the Farm Bill, BEAD grant programs in every state, additional funding for the low-income Affordable Connectivity Program, a more active FCC, and being heard in this noisy political environment.
We can do a whole lot more as this program gains additional support and co-op participation. I recognize NRECA Broadband is a significant commitment by the electric co-ops and broadband businesses investing in it, so I continue to look to them to guide this effort so we can lead together.
NRECA Broadband is positioning co-ops as a crucial force in rural broadband. Visit cooperative.com/broadband to learn more and sign up.