BARC Connects intern Brendan Lynch (right), among the first to sign up for the company's broadband service, now sells plans door-to-door. Here he calls on Brittany Laminack of Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)
BARC Connects intern Brendan Lynch (right), among the first to sign up for the company’s broadband service, now sells plans door-to-door. Here he calls on Brittany Laminack of Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)

BARC Electric Cooperative’s broadband roll-out hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Below are some words to the wise from BARC leaders to co-ops considering a fiber-to-the-home project.

Go to the Density

Start in the densest population area of those committing to your broadband service. That could mean blending in areas outside your electric service footprint. Let the immediate payback from the initial phase help pay for expansion into less-dense areas.

Lexington, Virginia, home to Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, gets its power from an investor-owned utility and has internet options from national companies. But customers who have signed up say they believe the co-op has better service and competitive prices.

“We did a competitive analysis of other service providers and their speed tiers. Our goal was to create a strong value proposition for customers to switch over to us,” says Gary Sickler, BARC Connects general manager. “We focused on offering significantly faster speeds and free managed Wi-Fi.”

Sell It

Co-ops delivered electricity 80 years ago when big utilities refused to serve rural America. Now these co-ops are reigniting that trusted relationship with broadband.

But this time, marketing will be required.

As a broadband provider, “you have to think like a competitive business and market yourselves,” says Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric. “Get out and sell it.”

Crowdsourcing online proved inexpensive and effective in getting early commitments. Coverage by local media also helped get the word out. BARC’s marketing strategy also includes a superhero husky dog mascot named Butch, and the company slogan, “More Byte,” to distinguish the co-op from competitors.

Save Where You Can

A broadband subsidiary does not need gleaming offices or an address on Main Street. A functional space with room for spools of fiber, replacement poles, trucks, and equipment will do.

BARC Connects bought an old school to house its headquarters for $1 from Rockbridge County with the promise to preserve the building, create jobs, and deliver broadband. The front yard now sports 550kW of fully subscribed co-op community solar.

Co-op Advantage

Building a broadband subsidiary for your co-op members and beyond is a major endeavor. Keep in mind the co-op advantage. Co-ops already own trucks, substations, poles, wires, and other equipment. Upgrades for entering the broadband space improve overall service. By replacing all its poles for broadband, BARC Electric increased reliability and inventory knowledge.

Co-ops have a rich history of partnering and are willing to share lessons learned and strategies that can help others weighing the broadband business.

Plus, for-profit internet service providers have no anchor customers. “We all have a tremendous competitive advantage. The electric utility is the single-biggest customer of our internet subsidiary. It’s like building a shopping mall and having Macy’s already committed,” Keyser says.

Being Local is Key

BARC Connects has a 24/7 call center yet customers should have all the tools and know-how to enjoy their service before the installer leaves.

“The installer will review with the homeowner how to -log into the router, how to check voicemail, how to do three-way calling,” Sickler says. “The technician will work with customers so they will feel confident with working their TV service.”

Build on the co-op’s reputation for great customer service when offering broadband, Sickler says. Most internet customers aren’t used to getting personalized attention and care from their provider. High-quality service can be a major selling point for a co-op’s broadband service.

Brace Your Co-op for the Broadband Challenge

An electric co-op may have the poles and lines, but co-op broadband requires new skillsets, resources, and timelines to avoid delays for members who have committed to this new service.

“We put in lots of long hours, weekends to make it happen as quickly as it did. We all wanted this to be a success,” says BARC Connects General Manager Gary Sickler. “If you’re doing broadband 8 to 5, don’t plan on being operational in a year.”

Tips to consider when embarking on broadband:

1. Give your co-op plenty of time to build its IT network.

“The planning fallacy is a real thing,” says Mike Keyser, BARC Electric Cooperative CEO. “Build a lot more time into your buildout plans than you want or expect. Everything takes longer than you think it will.”

The RFP process to hire a builder for your fiber network could take several months. Get a design in place, and allow ample time for the reviews and decision-making.

Set up the necessary field equipment and data centers in advance. Pre-order fiber wheels, strand, hooks, replacement poles, and other equipment to avoid build delays.

“Once you have the design down, have the equipment and people in place competent to support it,” Sickler says.

2. Create a solid customer management system.

A broadband customer management system (CMS) to do billing, receive orders, and store customer data must be built. This can require months to complete and it will involve training personnel, quality assurance testing, and customization for billing.

“Broadband bills in advance while electric bills in arrears, so if you’re planning to use your current customer information system, this needs to be considered,” Keyser says. “In our case, it made more sense to have a separate CMS and billing system for broadband.”

3. Get the right personnel.

Hiring staff with solid telecom experience can be a challenge in rural areas. That may involve contracting, recruiting, and convincing skilled workers to relocate. Call center reps must know the products backwards and forwards.

“Invest in the right type of technicians. That is not always the cheapest option,” Sickler says. “You have to have the right personnel in place to make it happen. Don’t skimp.”

Back to the May 2018 cover story, ‘The Beauty of Fiber’

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