This month's question: What unexpected ways has your broadband deployment impacted your co-op?

Answer: In January 2017, we launched our broadband project after studying it for over 10 years. At the time of the launch, we identified four key areas we hoped would improve: schools, e-medicine, economic development and quality of life. We thought this project would have a significant impact, but we never could have imagined the speed of change. The virus certainly had an impact, but even without this, job creation has been much better than we expected. We estimate some 1,000 jobs have been created or preserved since we launched. And it’s continuing to grow as people move to the country and do their jobs at home. We’ve also seen measurable economic development increases in our region. With schools, we expected broadband to be used heavily by college-age students, but we’ve seen it help students of all ages. And the expansion of e-medicine is on fire right now. I’m not sure we’ll ever go back. Finally, quality of life in our communities is better. Graduates are not so eager to leave the area. Young people can game with friends all over the world. Grandparents talk to grandkids via FaceTime. Families stream their entertainment and save money. To put it simply, I can’t say I’m surprised by all these improvements. But what has been amazing is the speed and the breadth of change.

Answer: At Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, our approach to offering broadband has always been about getting our members connected. We knew going into our first phase that our area of Minnesota was extremely underserved in terms of having quality internet connections. Our first member was connected in December 2016, and since then we have reached another 2,500 members in our rural areas. Prior to our fiber build, our new residential electric service requests had been growing relatively slowly. But since we started building our fiber network, we have seen new electric services in our completed fiber areas triple in the past three years. We have a large seasonal electric member base, and we are seeing a change here, too. Members are spending more time at their cabins, and some are even moving in permanently because they now can work remotely along with children being able to attend online classes. Having people stay longer at their cabins has been an economic boost to both the cooperative and local businesses. We are also getting calls from real estate agents asking for verification of broadband at homes for sale, with some properties even being bought sight-unseen. There is still much more work to be done, and we are just starting to see the benefits our fiber network will bring to our membership and surrounding communities.

Answer: Our fiber to the premises deployment has sharpened the appetite, and shortened the patience, of our members who aren’t yet served. They are both anxious and eager to receive the service, and, accordingly, we are very pleased with our growing take rates. Despite their understandable impatience for the service, the fact that once again we stepped up to take on a critical need when no one else would has enhanced our strong bond with our membership … and they are elated and appreciative when they do receive our broadband offering. Many of our employees, and in particular the senior management team, have been doing double duty to both organizations for the past two years. As EMPOWER has grown, I have asked a great deal from my team, and they have responded like the professionals they are. The process of populating EMPOWER Broadband with human resources and migrating fiber responsibilities to that entity is promoting an unintentional, but highly useful, review of how we are staffed and how we do things at the electric cooperative as well. That same “gut check” has occurred as we have developed job descriptions, bylaws, policy and safety manuals, and other EMPOWER Broadband organizational needs. Lastly, our venture into the broadband realm has forced all of us to embrace competition and begin thinking outside of the traditional electric utility box.

Answer: In response to members’ requests for broadband and the cooperative’s need to build a robust smart grid, MTE’s evaluation led to the acquisition of an existing, locally owned telecom company, United Communications. United had operated in our region for 70+ years and had transitioned to building out fiber and fixed wireless. Some of the early surprises were a realization of the competitive nature of broadband in portions of our footprint and an honest internal assessment of the lack of advertising, marketing and sales expertise required to be quickly successful. It became clear that the acquisition would need to include areas of expertise that were not core competencies of the electric cooperative, while ensuring a potential partner would be complementary to MTE’s culture. Thankfully this fit existed with United’s owners, leadership team and staff. We anticipated numerous opportunities to create value between our organizations, but those occasions have been more frequent than expected. Executing on those has had impacts on the organizations. Whether it is exponential demands for make-ready, leveraging IT investments or coordinating to attract grant funding, the resource impacts are real and need continued attention. Over the past three years, United has continued to scale rapidly and is building on this growth trajectory. MTE is glad to share its experience and tactics with others evaluating a potential acquisition, but we stress the importance of focusing on a cultural fit above and beyond any other metric.