By Greg Mullis, CCC, Senior Vice President/VP of Corporate Services, Tri-County EMC, Ga.
Georgia’s 2018 election, broadband became a talking point for virtually every
candidate. While speaking to over 3,500 business leaders, including many
cooperative employees, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams specifically
called out electric co-ops as the state’s best hope for delivering high-speed
internet to underserved parts of the state. “Hearing Abrams point expectations
in our direction at a high-profile event made it clear we needed a carefully
constructed communication plan to describe a position that was anything but
clear,” commented Kim Broun, Tri-County EMC’s communication specialist. The
co-op’s staff was about to embark on a strategy of hiding in plain sight.
Over the next year a wild and multi-faceted battle ensued in the Georgia House
and Senate for broadband enabling legislation for electric cooperatives. Legacy
telco and cable providers worked to muddy the political waters, with their
allies attempting to insert pole attachment language wherever possible. Georgia
EMC, the statewide associate for Georgia’s cooperatives, pulled off a dramatic
win with a final bill that was favorable for cooperatives. And the attention of
millions of electric consumers and much of the political focus has been on
electric cooperatives ever since.
“We were very concerned about our messaging,” said Broun. “While we worked very
hard communicating individually with our general assembly delegation, we were
not going to say anything through mass communication channels that led our
members to think that we had immediate plans to enter the broadband business.”
Brian Kemp was elected Georgia’s Governor, and he signed Senate Bill 2 (co-op
enabling legislation) into law. With the backing of SB 2 and the expectations
of millions of consumers, Georgia’s co-ops had to decide what to do with
broadband. And what to say about it.
EMC serves almost 22,000 meters in central Georgia, with about 80 percent of
them residential. Growing at nearly 5 percent annually prior to the recession,
the co-op’s accounts and revenue have been flat since 2008.
of about eight meters per mile can be deceiving. We have pockets of high
density, particularly the subdivisions and residential growth around the small
cities served by the state’s IOU and lake areas within our territory,” said
chief executive officer Ray Grinberg. “But we also have large areas of
timberland, much of it federal forest land where there will probably never be
growth.” Making matters worse, most of the cooperative’s substations are
located far from pockets of density. And none of Tri-County EMC’s facilities,
offices or substations, currently have fiber service to them.
Tri-County EMC’s board approved a plan to construct 11 miles of fiber on the
co-op’s distribution system to connect the headquarters office and two
fiber to our office has been our number one goal,” said Grinberg. “It allows us
to be in a position where there are options. We could stop there, we could seek
partnerships, we could create a broadband fiber pilot project, or we could dive
into a full fiber-to-the-home buildout.”
of the direction, most of these will take years to develop.
patience to those wanting an immediate solution is hard,” said Grinberg.
and the process that will be carried out over the next year became the
framework of Tri-County EMC’s communication plan. Until a course of action
concerning entry into the broadband business is determined, there will be an
intentionally small amount of mass communications about broadband. In the 2019
Annual Report, Grinberg was quoted as saying, “Our leadership is trying to
determine our role in bringing internet service to underserved areas of our
service territory. Is that role a partnership, as a service provider, or
perhaps something else?” Similar comments were made at the cooperative’s annual
Conversely, cooperative staff has intentionally sought one-on-one or
small-group engagement on the topic with members and elected officials. The
topic was included in recent satisfaction surveys and introduced by co-op staff
at a town hall meeting, with surprising results. “There was almost no
discussion about internet service and broadband from the members,” commented
Broun. “Their comments mostly focused on questions about energy efficiency and
renewables, which was surprising and perhaps enlightening.”
A continued dialogue with elected officials is considered the most critical
component of Tri-County’s current communication plan. Several meetings with
county government officials and staff have led to the identification of
partnership opportunities and served to temper expectations, the latter being
extremely important since those same officials have ready access to coverage by
the local media. At the cooperative’s annual legislative breakfast, much of the
content was focused on broadband. Georgia EMC employees updated elected
officials and staffers about statewide efforts, with an underlying message of
In December, Tri-County EMC signed a contract to conduct a feasibly study for fiber to the home service. The results of that study are expected by late February. A second feasibility study and a membership survey are in included in the co-op’s 2020 budget. At some point in the next 12 months, a course of action—or perhaps inaction—will become clearer.
signing of HB 2, a significant outcry from the membership or public for
Tri-County EMC to provide fiber has yet to materialize. And across the state,
only a handful of cooperatives have announced entry into the FTTH business. But
talk of dissatisfaction among Georgia’s general assembly continues to grow, a
harbinger of coming political wrangling, this time over funding.
“If the results of the survey [feasibility
study] come back positive and the cooperative’s board elects to move forward,
our communications plan changes dramatically, quickly becoming a marketing
initiative,” says Grinberg. “But a ‘no’ decision will come with its own set of
challenges in communicating to multiple audiences. Until then, our message will
continue to be ‘patience’.”