By Mike Wilson, CCC, Vice President of Member and Community Relations, Ill.

Broadband. Rural broadband. Like most other co-ops, for the last several years, our board members have heard about bridging the connectivity divide at every NRECA event they’ve attended.

Unfortunately, two big things have kept us from seriously pursuing our own broadband solution for our members. We’ve had previous opportunities with subsidiary companies that didn’t end like we had hoped, but more importantly, our member density makes providing broadband services a challenge. With only three members per mile of line, our density is the lowest in Illinois and certainly among the lowest in the country. No matter which way we looked at it, installing fiber for all of our members simply didn’t make financial sense.

Interestingly, though, we were recently approached by a wireless internet company that had been awarded some Connect America Fund II (CAF) dollars in east central Illinois. Their plan is to provide speeds of up to 100 Mbps from a combination fiber and wireless antenna solution. As they prepared for their rollout, they quickly realized that the areas in which they were awarded CAF dollars were very concentrated in our service territory. They wondered if we might be willing to work with them.

While we’re still in the very early stages of figuring out the specifics of a possible partnership, working with a company that MUST make a substantial capital investment in our backyard is worth considering.

The wireless company is interested in working with us to leverage the relationship we have with our members. They hope to do that in several ways:

  • Our members trust us, so they would love our endorsement of their offerings
  • We have established communication channels that target our members
  • Our lineworkers might be able to quickly and easily install poles to improve reliability for our members receiving their wireless signals

For our co-op, there are many reasons to consider a broadband partnership:

  • We won’t have any capital investments
  • We will be able to take some credit for helping provide much-needed broadband to our service area
  • The internet provider will offer our members a discount on their service, which we’ll funnel through the co-op Connections Program
  • We won’t have to worry about the day-to-day management of a new subsidiary
  • We might receive some nominal revenue sharing

Of course, any partnership has potential issues. Will they treat our members as well as we do? Will they be on schedule with their build outs? Is their business culture one that we want to be associated with? How much – if any – of our member information are we willing to share with them?

We will continue to perform our due diligence to see if a middle-ground approach makes sense for our cooperative members.