The Co-op’s Broadband Plan For Success

The Co-op’s Broadband Plan For Success

In the battle to deploy broadband, cooperatives (coops) can be a decisive force to cover the rural flanks in states with aggressive broadband adoption goals such as California, New York, and Minnesota. In the more rural states, or ones without stated commitments to broadband, co-ops may have to carry the lion’s share of responsibility if their rural communities are to have a hope for broadband.

This report will help you make the business case for your local co-ops building broadband networks. It doesn’t give you all the answers, but it does point you in the right direction with some questions you need to answer. Co-ops ultimately exist to meet members’ needs, and currently there’s a burning need for broadband within communities across the nation. There are two ways for co-ops to address the need for better, faster community owned broadband networks: the problem-solving approach and the creation-oriented approach. Both can work. But the latter may give you more return on your investment.

People use the problem-solving approach often, when they want something to go away. “Make my taxes go away.” “Unemployment is too high!” “Can we close the digital divide?” Things can get contentious. The problem might not even get fixed. Or the original problem comes back when the money runs out.

When it comes to broadband, the problem-solving approach sometimes fosters a mindset of “just build it (fix the problem) and they will come.” Build ‘x’ number of towers, lay so many miles of fiber, or give large incumbents truckloads of tax dollars and they will somehow magically generate residential customers. On the other hand, with a creation-oriented approach, you bring something new into being. There’s a lot of energy you can get through group brainstorming. Or an approach similar to President John F. Kennedy’s in the 60’s, who presented the vision of going to the moon in 10 years, and challenged those around him to create the best way to make it happen. You create an incredible vision with lots of people contributing to it because they can be a part of the dream.

Rural Danville, Virginia in 2006 had two problems: unemployment was 19% and the available broadband options were dismal. They could have deployed some fiber and solved the problem of lack of adequate broadband. But they went further and leveraged the network to draw new industries to town. They retrained tobacco industry employees. They networked area medical facilities and physicians into a medical community that attracted companies and people. And they lowered unemployment to 9%.

Many communities probably differ from Danville, but the various co-op and community leaders interviewed in this report would agree that having the network is essential, and it solves a problem. But what their communities create with the network is how they’ll achieve maximum return on the infrastructure investments.

With a creation-oriented approach, a broadband-driven solution such as telemedicine services, may motivate and drive support more than a goal built around a gig speed. It’s great to have fast speed when all you have currently is dial-up. But more people will support – and fund – a community asset that creates more education opportunities, improved access to healthcare, facilitates innovation or fuels start-ups.

The following pages help move you down the path to creating a vital community asset. Even if all the community desires is a faster, affordable network, then the ideas, insights, and tips presented here will help you do that as well.

I. Identify the Need, Identify Revenue / Funding

This report is targeted to both those who build broadband infrastructure and to those who use the broadband infrastructure, its applications, services, and technologies to build business– everything you do with the finished network to make it a community asset. Some of the same people carry out both roles. Nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving membership’s needs, electric and telephone co-ops can amortize buildout costs for 20 or 30 years, and are not driven by the “shareholder profits” mindset. This is a key reason co-ops can offer members


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