By Greg Mullis, CCC, Senior Vice President/VP of Corporate Services, Tri-County EMC, Ga.

During 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.”

Ultimately, 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.

Tri-County 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.

“Our density 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.

In 2019, 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 substations.

“Getting 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.”

Regardless of the direction, most of these will take years to develop.

“Communicating patience to those wanting an immediate solution is hard,” said Grinberg.

That reality 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 meeting.

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 patience.

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.

Since the 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’.”