Carla Gabbard of Teleworks (left) provides customer service training in Booneville, Ky. (Photo courtesy Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment)
Carla Gabbard of Teleworks (left) provides customer service training in Booneville, Ky. (Photo courtesy Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment)

The talk of getting broadband into rural communities isn’t just about fun, games, and home entertainment. Today, it’s about better health care, more jobs, and sustainable growth in a changing economy.

For electric co-ops who see unmet needs in these areas and are looking to bring modern connectivity to their territories, it’s not always necessary to go it alone. There may be a willing partner with similar community goals just down the street.

“Partnerships involving telephone and electric cooperatives are actually well-positioned to succeed where others have faced difficulties in reaching rural America,” says Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. “People need to get excited about the power of two leading community associations working together.”

In Kentucky, a partnership between a telephone cooperative (telco) and an electric co-op is bringing tele-health care services to the underserved population of McKee.

Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC) and Jackson Energy electric co-op, both headquartered in McKee, are collaborating on a program with the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Lexington, Ky., that allows veterans to teleconference with healthcare providers from a secure private room in McKee’s public library.

“Electric cooperatives and telephone cooperatives are both committed to their communities,” says PRTC CEO Keith Gabbard. “Reliable, affordable high-speed internet service makes rural communities stronger by connecting them to distant cities, services, and the rest of the world.”

Since 2015, the two co-ops have also collaborated on a telework program that has trained more than 350 home-based customer service and support representatives and placed them in jobs that previously did not exist in their service territories.

“These projects have provided jobs, hope, and pride to the communities served,” says Carol Wright, Jackson Energy’s CEO. “We invested $30,000 in the Booneville telework project, and the economic impact has been estimated at $1 million.”

Tim Bryan, CEO of NRTC, which serves both electric and telephone members, says when building a challenging business model like extending broadband into unserved areas, “partnerships make sense.”

“In our experience, electrics and telcos working together is particularly powerful because each entity offers something unique that can benefit the success of the endeavor,” he adds.

In Arkansas, Ouachita Electric Cooperative found a similar partnership with an investor-owned rural telephone company.

For more than a decade, Ouachita Electric has offered satellite internet service. But it proved insufficient for most businesses, and many members still relied on dial-up at home.

“Businesses could not locate in our service territory without reliable broadband internet service,” says Ouachita Electric General Manager Mark T. Cayce. “If schools have broadband and students do not have broadband at home, they can’t get their work done.”

To turn things around, the Camden, Ark.-based distribution co-op worked with investor-owned South Arkansas Telephone Company to create Arkansas Rural Internet Service, a fiber-to-the-home company, in July 2016. In February, their first customers began receiving service.

“East Camden, here in our service territory, is the first city in Arkansas with the capability of providing every home in the city limits with 1-gigabyte internet service,” Cayce says. “We intend to have high-speed internet service available to all of our members within three years.”

Cayce says rural telephone providers have technical expertise that complements the infrastructure owned by electric co-ops.

“Between the co-op and the phone company, we have 180 years of serving our communities,” Cayce says. “By bringing fiber into our system, we’re leaping from the Stone Age to having some of the best internet service in the country.”

Back to the May Cover Story: Getting Broadband Off the Ground.

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