Josh Webb learned how to splice fiber to the sound of sirens warning of rocket attacks.
“It makes for an interesting work experience,” he says of his four-month stint as a contractor in Afghanistan.
Now he drives a BARC Connects truck over the back roads and rolling hills of Rockbridge County, Virginia, to check on a splicing crew.
A large red fox trots across an open pasture cordoned by a split rail fence under a sky puffy with clouds. “Now,” Webb says with a smile, “I get to look at this every day.”
Webb is the head fiber technician for the broadband subsidiary of BARC Electric Cooperative in tiny Millboro. He grew up on the co-op’s lines in Bath County, which still needs no stoplight.
New businesses bypass this rugged part of the Shenandoah Valley, bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian and Allegheny mountain chains to the west. Young adults tend to pursue their dreams outside these rural vales.
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Webb sees broadband internet access from co-op fiber as a way for rural communities to retain their populations and sustain their way of life.
“You will have broadband and not have to leave here,” he says. “It will allow [for] more people who want to stay in Bath County and work from home.”
BARC Connects is already creating jobs, including Webb’s.
He returned from Afghanistan to a fiber-optics career in Roanoke, Virginia. In 2015, he applied to work on a right-of-way-crew for BARC Electric so he could go home, but he was rejected as overqualified.
When BARC Electric launched its for-profit broadband subsidiary BARC Connects and prepared to build in 2017, CEO Mike Keyser gave him a call.
“I was the second person hired. Being able to build something from the ground up is a pretty big deal,” Webb says. “I saw the potential to climb the ladder, plus it got me closer to my hometown.”
BARC Electric’s service territory is hardly unique when it comes to the broadband gap. NRECA data shows that about 6.1 million households in or in proximity to electric cooperative service territories are without broadband service, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to download data and 3 Mbps to upload.
The electric cooperatives pursuing broadband through fiber to the home are delivering internet access at the fastest speeds available anywhere—up to 1 gigabit, which can download a two-hour high-definition movie in 25 seconds.
By 2024, when the $70 million broadband build is scheduled to be complete, all of BARC Electric’s 10,000 members and many non-members will have access to highspeed internet, Keyser says. And the project will not only be paying for itself but turning a profit.
BARC Connects began selling broadband service for internet, TV, and phone in July 2017. It offers free service drops to the first 1,850 customers who pay a $100 deposit and sign a two-year commitment. Construction costs for a drop average about $2,000 per location. By March, more than 900 had signed up—many of whom are taking higher speeds.
“We assumed most of our members would take the minimum speed of 50 mbps, given how much faster it is compared to their current service. We were pleasantly surprised to see a lot of them electing speeds of 100 mbps or greater. That shows how starved our members are for fast internet,” Keyser says.
The co-op started in 2015 with a $240,000 grant from the FCC Connect America Fund, to be awarded over 10 years. The next year, BARC Connects got a $20 million smart grid loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.
BARC Connects expects to see profitability in two to three years from its phase-one build and true returns nine to 10 years into the project.
With a seemingly unlimited demand for high-speed internet in BARC’s service territory, Keyser can already foresee a day when BARC Connects’ revenue outpaces the co-op’s electric service revenue.
“Imagine getting the best internet, phone, and TV experience possible with the personalized service and responsiveness we provide on the electric side,” he says. “Our service excellence is a huge competitive advantage that becomes a game-changer when you combine it with a fiber-to-the-home network.”
Avoiding Another ‘Black Eye’
As with many U.S. electric co-ops, BARC Electric is experiencing little or no growth. On average, there are 130 new meters served and 130 service terminations a year.
With this in mind, the co-op’s board of directors recognized fiber’s economic benefits to the co-op and the community.
“When they approved the pilot phase, the board had one directive: Speed up phases two and three,” Keyser says. “They don’t want our members to wait any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
BARC Electric, which has just 6.5 meters per mile, leveraged an open-access fiber network built by Rockbridge County to serve the city of Lexington, which receives electricity from Dominion Power, the investor-owned utility headquartered in Richmond. That created a 10-customerper-mile density for the initial fiber build-out.
BARC Connects operates out of a former redbrick schoolhouse, donated by Rockbridge County in exchange for the promise of fiber to the home. A Calix E7 Optical Line Terminal cabinet, which manages the fiber signals, is out back. Community solar panels fill the front yard. Large spools of fiber, along with reels of the silver wire that’s strung between poles to form the network backbone, are fenced in a field. Stacks of fresh-cut pine replacement poles recline nearby.
This isn’t BARC Electric’s first run at broadband.
The co-op teamed with International Broadband Electric Communications to do broadband over power lines in 2010. That company went out of business at the end of 2011.
“It was a black eye,” says Keyser, who joined BARC Electric in late 2010 after serving as CEO of the American Samoa Power Authority. “We had hitched our wagon to their horse. To the customer, it was presented as a BARC Electric service. But we couldn’t control any of it.”
It was then that Keyser resolved “if we do broadband again, we do it ourselves. We control the entire customer experience.”
An online crowdsourcing effort measured interest, and with member enthusiasm and board support, BARC Electric took the plunge.
“No cable company or big telco is going to build out our area,” Keyser says. “We’re the only hope for our members— just as we were when the co-op was founded.”
‘The Best Experience’
Most residents in this Virginia mountain region connect to the internet through dial-up, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), or satellite. BARC Connects will offer fixed residential and commercial packages beginning at 50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload. Multiple downloads within a home or a business at the same speed, and without data caps, also will be a new experience.
“If a customer has a bad internet connection now, they are going to be blown away,” says Gary Sickler, general manager of BARC Connects. “People in this area now experience 10 to 15 minutes to download the local newspaper. With fiber to the home, they will have it in seconds.”
Sickler was Keyser’s first hire for the broadband subsidiary in February 2017, preceding Webb, the head fiber technician. Now it has two fiber technicians, a system administrator, an administrative assistant, and a sales director, with plans to hire more as the service takes off.
A 20-year veteran of the IT world, Sickler recalls the internet of the 1990s, which was considered “just for fun.”
“Now it’s a necessity. People need it for home, schools, online banking, shopping, and communications with loved ones. The user of the internet has changed so much. It’s become a lifeline,” Sickler says.
Progress in the first 12 months bodes well for the BARC Connects project. A 60-mile northern fiber ring to connect the co-op’s substations was built in five months. Construction on the 20-mile southern ring began in March. The entire phase-one build-out will encompass more than 400 miles, and by late fall, as many as 4,500 residents will have broadband access— many for the first time.
BARC Electric replaced all of its old, weathered utility poles to build the fiber rings and ensure strength and ground clearance. About 15 to 20 percent of the fiber installation will be underground, which will require state permits and rights-of-way approvals.
BARC Connects’ two data centers—the central aggregation points—are in Lexington and Ashburn, Virginia, which has a major internet hub. The data center involves hardware, circuits, and software design, and it must be robust and have power and hardware redundancy to withstand failure.
When a broadband fiber consumer uses Google, posts on social media, or sends an email, the information goes across the fiber to switches in a cabinet, and then it’s on to the data center that sends it out to the worldwide web.
BARC Connects hired Conexon, which specializes in building fiber in rural communities, as its fiber network designer, and hired a contractor to build the network. “As part of our commitment to superior customer service, the customer’s gateway and Wi-Fi router is included for no additional charge,” Sickler says.
A technician will do a Wi-Fi analysis at the service location to find weak spots and provide the means to strengthen the signal.
“We test speed so the customer is getting what they paid for when the technician leaves their door,” Sickler says. “We really want to give our customers the best service experience possible.”
BARC Connects can “ratchet up speed for customers in seconds. There is no need for a truck roll to a house for an upgrade to increase the speed,” he says. “That’s the beauty of fiber.”
Co-Mo Electric in Tipton, Missouri, pioneered cooperative broadband in 2011 when it built a model to deliver high-speed internet to all of its members. BARC Electric’s entire board and management team visited Co-Mo in August 2017, around the time that Co-Mo was completing its fiber build-out.
“High-speed internet was life-changing for Co-Mo members. I see a parallel story happening here at BARC,” Sickler says. “It has been an overwhelmingly gratifying experience for me over the past year. But there is so much more to do.”
Survival of the Electric Service
Co-op leaders know that installing fiber network communications creates a smarter, more reliable, and more efficient electric system.
“Today, we rely on customers calling in their outage, and to pinpoint an outage, we patrol sections of line,” Keyser says. “With fiber, we will have sensors embedded in both the fiber network and electric grid. We will know outages have occurred and where before customers even call us.”
The perks of fiber are clear for both electric and broadband service, but the locally owned and operated co-op business model is also a boon. Members had told the co-op they were tired of frustratingly slow internet speeds and “gotcha” pricing from regional internet providers that had no stake, or even an office, in the community.
“Any modern co-op is going to need fiber for communications going forward. If we’re going to build fiber to electric facilities, it’s not that much of a leap to provide fiber to customers at the same time,” Keyser says. “The capacity is already there. That’s one of the reasons why it makes so much sense for electric co-ops to get into this.”
Overall, he says, “we have nothing to lose. The service territory is struggling. People are moving out because there are no jobs. The bigger risk to our survival is not doing anything.”
And broadband should increase the number of new members and energy sales.
“Broadband is real important to the survival of the electric side. You need growth on the electric side,” Keyser says. “That’s what companies look for when moving somewhere: Are the electric rates reasonable, and is there access to high-speed internet? We will be a one-stop shop for both of those needs.”
For Josh Webb, co-op broadband is personal.
“When I was growing up, you aspired to a job at BARC,” he says, but when he graduated from Bath County High School, there were no openings. “That was the whole reason why I left.”
Webb will continue to commute from Roanoke to his job building broadband for BARC Connects until he and his wife can buy a home in the rural community they love—inside the first phase of the project.
“I don’t want to bring the big city to the country,” Webb says. “But broadband service will allow employers to expand their businesses and advance more than they’ve been able to do in the past. It created my job, and I hope we can create a few more.”