Matt Kincaide knows what it’s like to live thousands of feet below the surface of the Earth, sometimes for days. The veteran miner worked Colorado’s Western Slope for 13 years until April 2016, when the mine was closed, and he was laid off.

He figured his only option was to pick up his family and move where there was work.

“In this area, it’s hard to find jobs that pay comparable to what I was making at the mine, especially for someone who just has a high school diploma,” Kincaide says.

But his plan to move away took a turn for the better thanks to the work of a local electric cooperative. The 34-year-old Delta, Colo., native found work with a “different view of the world”—running fiber-optic cable as a subcontractor for Elevate Fiber, the broadband subsidiary of Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA).

“I feel pretty fortunate and blessed,” he says.

DMEA began ramping up its broadband project in early 2016, polling members on their interest in high-speed internet service. The response was emphatic.

“Member support has been a constant for this project, from the research phase to the launch, to where we are today,” says DMEA CEO Jasen Bronec. “None of this would have been possible without that grassroots momentum that defines the cooperative spirit.”

The smallest of the co-op’s communities were the first to reach the sign-up minimums set by Elevate Fiber. In Paonia, with a population of 1,650, 346 customers—313 residential, 33 commercial—were up and running as of February 10. Commitments by members in Orchard City, where the population is 3,000, are over 139 percent of the minimum, and construction is underway.

“By reaching their sign-up goals first, these small communities show a need and excitement for economic development and their belief that broadband will help,” says Virginia Harman, DMEA vice president of member relations and human resources.

Nationwide, the story for rural regions isn’t so bright, with large populations still lacking an easy on-ramp to the information highway.

According to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, “1 in 10 Americans lacks access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband.” The federal government defines high-speed internet access as at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading information and 3 Mbps for uploading.

In rural regions, it’s exponentially worse, with 40 percent of residents—about 23.4 million people—lacking access to 25/3 internet, compared to 4 percent of those living in urban areas, according to the FCC.

This rural/urban disconnect “disproportionately impacts the ability of small businesses operating in rural areas to successfully compete in the 21st century economy,” the FCC states.

In Oklahoma, attracting and serving businesses was a primary goal of one rural co-op’s broadband push.

Fiber and Fighter Jets

In the far northwest corner of Oklahoma, where acres of prairieland sway with Indian grass, sits an unlikely international hub: the IT control center for multi-national aviation systems developer Ferra Aerospace Inc.

Based in Brisbane, Australia, and with offices in the metropolises of Los Angeles, London, and Bangalore, India, Ferra supplies some of the biggest names in the commercial and defense aerospace business with critical software and hardware systems. Their projects include the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the F-18 Hornet, and the CH-47 Chinook.

So why would a thriving aerospace engineering firm with contracts all over the world set up shop in the tiny windswept Oklahoma town of Grove—population 6,623—hours from the nearest major city?

Plant manager Mike Tackkett says the answer is simple: a burgeoning regional aerospace community, U.S. contracts, and cooperative broadband.

BOLT Fiber Optic Services, a subsidiary of Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, has provided gigabit broadband to the region since June 2015.

“Because of BOLT, global IT can be handled out of Oklahoma,” Tackkett says. “It’s a lot more reliable and lot faster than what is available for that cost anywhere else.”

Ferra first opened its Oklahoma operation in 2013. It later bought 10 acres of land and built a state-of-the-art, 35,000-square-foot facility in September 2016. Among other benefits, the massive expansion allows for assembly of F-35s, Tackkett says. Design evaluations, changes, and peer reviews “can take place across the world, no problem,” thanks to Bolt’s reliable, high-speed service, he continues.

“What we primarily do at our location here is project management and final assembly,” Tackkett says. “A lot of data is shared, so speed of download is pretty important.”

Beyond the quality of the broadband, he says, the personal touch of working with a co-op is a major benefit.

“Most of the people actually working there are local,” he says. “They helped us plan ahead to make sure everything was set up for our future expansion.”

He recalls a recent project where the city of Grove was widening the highway in front of Ferra’s facility. To avoid any service interruption or damage to the power lines or fiber, BOLT buried the lines underground.

“BOLT is good to us,” Tackkett says.

Since its creation, BOLT has installed more than 2,000 miles of fiber and has plans to complete its 3,200-mile network in August. Officials say the project has helped bring noticeable streams of employment to the community.

“We have seen hundreds of jobs come to our rural areas strictly due to the fiber network,” says BOLT Manager Sheila Allgood. “We’re seeing businesses set up shop here because of the access to fiber. But the expansions of current businesses have been where we have seen the largest impact to our communities, through adding jobs and all the economic impact that new construction brings with it.”

Tackkett says Ferra plans to further expand its Grove operations by the end of 2017 and increase its homegrown 15-member staff to 100 by 2020.

Other broadband benefits are behind the scenes but just as real, Allgood says.

“We hear from medical offices who can see more patients in a day because they’re not waiting on the electronic medical records to slowly download,” she says. “Convenience stores, marinas, downtown shops, they’re no longer waiting minutes on the credit card machine to process.”

Allgood says for her, one family’s story puts an exclamation point on the value of broadband.

“Their child had to move in with a relative who lived in town because they didn’t have access to internet at their rural home, and the child could not do homework and keep up the grades at school,” she recalls. “When BOLT delivered fiber to their home, their child moved back in and now can get homework done and study as needed. This shouldn’t be the situation for any American family.”

Unfortunately, it’s not unique.

Tennessee Broadband Bill

Gibson Electric Membership Corp. (EMC), headquartered in Trenton, Tenn., powers nearly 39,000 meters in western Tennessee and Kentucky. But when it comes to high-speed internet access, most of their members are in the dark.

Over platters of barbecue sandwiches at an annual round of district meetings hosted by Gibson EMC, farmers and residential members beseeched the co-op to bring broadband to their area. One member told how his son had to travel nearly an hour from his home outside Clinton to Paducah, Ky., to apply online to colleges. Another member studying for a master’s degree described driving 20 miles from Gadsden to Jackson, Tenn., to find a spot with enough broadband to download her college coursework.

“We feel our students are falling behind their urban peers,” said a frustrated Dan Rodamaker, Gibson EMC’s president and CEO.

Rodamaker and several other Tennessee co-op CEOs are anxious to get their members onto the right side of the digital divide. State numbers show that 34 percent of rural Tennesseans—more than 800,000 people— either lack any internet access or sufficient access to meet the minimal FCC standards.

Tennessee state law has prohibited electric cooperatives from providing retail internet service. But that is changing.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam this year crafted legislation to lift the broadband restrictions on co-ops and recognize co-ops “as uniquely situated to assist in bridging the broadband accessibility gap.” The General Assembly passed the bill on April 10.

Haslam promoted his broadband plan at a Nashville legislative rally held January 31 by the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA; statewide) and asked co-op leaders to support the bill as it made its way through the state’s General Assembly.

In his State of the State address the day before the rally, Haslam said co-op broadband would “help spur deployment in rural unserved areas, opening them up to economic investment and job growth.”

TECA Executive Vice President and General Manager David Callis applauded the efforts of the statewide’s 23 member co-ops to promote the broadband bill, saying “access to high-speed internet has the potential to shape the future of rural Tennessee.”

Rodamaker says once signed, the new law will allow co-ops to “improve the quality of life for our members, to help them meet the need not served by anyone.”

Haslam was expected to sign the bill by late April.

'No One Else Offered'

Back in Colorado, Terry Salisbury knows Orchard City better than most. His great-great-grandparents were among the first homesteaders in the area. Now, thanks to DMEA and Elevate Fiber, he sees his two-by-three-block, no-stoplight hamlet on the verge of a new frontier.

“People want to work from home, but they can’t get hired because their internet is too slow,” Salisbury says. “Having a good quality connection would really enhance our lives.”

That’s what got him to meet with neighbors, hand out fliers and yard signs and, by any means necessary, “beat the bushes” for Elevate Fiber sign-ups. Orchard City needed 312 subscribers committed to at least one year of service to get the co-op to come in. Sign-ups have topped 400.

“I went out and pounded on doors. I talked to people everywhere I went,” Salisbury says. “We got our people signed up pretty quick.”

Salisbury is retired from his business as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. He looks forward to instantly downloading photos from his son in New Mexico.

Without broadband to access the internet, “we are pretty much limited to our telephones,” he says. “No one else offered to put in broadband beside Elevate.”

DMEA made the move to bring broadband access to homes and businesses after completing a recent fiber-based system communications upgrade.

Launched in June 2016, Elevate Fiber can deliver up to 1 gigabit service to Montrose-based DMEA’s more than 27,000 members across Montrose, Delta, and Gunnison counties. When the project is completed in five to six years, the co-op will have laid about 4,000 miles of fiber.

“At less than a year old, Elevate is already a catalyst for economic development,” says Becky Mashburn, marketing and public relations administrator for the co-op. “Since we’re building our fiber network from the ground up, we’re seeing boosts from the start with construction. Now that we have live customers, our members and businesses can improve their daily operations too.”

Elevate Fiber has eight staff and has contracted with Outback Power to run fiber to the home. Outback works with Lightworks Fiber & Consulting, a local fiber splicing company that has 65 employees, including former miner Kincaide.

Without the Elevate Fiber contract, “I wouldn’t have hired this many people,” says Lightworks co-owner Teresa Neal. “I would have continued working out of my house and stayed at under 20 employees.”

She says the big job from Elevate Fiber is “trickling down” into the local economy through her company’s leasing of 20 trucks, renting equipment, and buying fuel and lumber, among other things.

On a recent morning before starting his fiber work in Hotchkiss, just a dozen miles or so from the mine where he used to work, Kincaide reflects on what’s in store for his quiet Colorado county.

“I think broadband will definitely be good for the community,” he says. “A lot of positive things will come out of it we don’t even know yet. Mining has been a big part of Delta County for a long time, but, at the same time, you’ve got to be flexible. Life is always changing.”