Fiber to the Home: Investing in the Future of Rural Communities

High-speed internet has emerged as a major stimulant for rural economic activity by providing employment opportunities to rural families across the country. Successful companies depend on reliable broadband access, and many businesses will not consider settling in a rural community without it. The absence of broadband can be very costly— research indicates that a high percentage of rural American households without reliable access to broadband face economic hardship and earn lower median household incomes than urban counterparts.

With economic opportunity so closely tied to broadband access, late-adopting rural communities risk losing families that will form the next generation of rural America. Many electric cooperatives recognize this challenge and have taken the necessary steps to meet current and future technological demands. CoBank, a national cooperative bank, has partnered with Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (NOEC) to meet broadband challenges in Northeast Oklahoma with a unique fiber-to-the-home project.

Introducing Broadband to Northeast Oklahoma

NOEC began deploying broadband service to its members in 2014 through its subsidiary, Northeast Rural Services, Inc. (NRS). They launched BOLT Fiber Optic Services, a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project formed to offer gigabit internet, HD television programming, and VoIP telephone service.

“We created BOLT Fiber Optic Services because our members asked for it,” says Anthony Due, general manager of BOLT Fiber Optic Services. BOLT was an instant success, and members from all over Northeast’s service territory quickly signed up for the high-speed internet service.

“When we started BOLT, our members were ecstatic. The take rate has been phenomenal—BOLT currently has over 7,200 customers, and about 400 of those are commercial customers. We’re adding both residential and commercial customers daily,” says Due.

The BOLT network is configured with fiber optic cables running from NRS’s headend at their Vinita, Oklahoma, office all the way to each member’s network interface box that is placed on their home or business. BOLT’s unique FTTH setup provides steady, reliable access to broadband compared to many legacy fiber networks that only carry fiber to the node of a customer’s network, which can result in inconsistent, asymmetrical bandwidth with limited reliability.

“CoBank supports NOEC’s commitment to revitalizing the Northeast Oklahoma rural economy and their efforts to improve the standard of living for communities they serve,” says Tamra Reynolds, CoBank’s regional vice president for electric distribution in the southern region, who helped NOEC obtain financing for the BOLT Fiber project. “CoBank and USDA’s Rural Utilities Service are providing the financing for the BOLT FTTH project, which will expand its fiber network to cover much of the 1,558 square miles of rural areas in Northeast Oklahoma.”

“We appreciate CoBank working with us on the fiber project, and we value our longstanding relationship,” says Due.

Economic Development in Northeast Oklahoma

With the rollout of BOLT Fiber Optic Services, Northeast Oklahoma experienced a boom in economic development. One example is the Shangri-La, an 8,000-square-foot meeting and conference space with a 120-room hotel that was recently constructed in BOLT’s service territory.

“The owner of the new hotel and convention center on Monkey Island said he would not have built either without access to high-speed internet,” says Due. “So we know that BOLT was instrumental in bringing those businesses here.”

Other businesses such as Ferra Aerospace, an Australian aviation assembly company, have greatly benefited from the high-speed internet that BOLT provides. Due notes that ongoing discussions are taking place with new businesses currently looking to move into the Northeast Oklahoma area.

Finding a Financial Partner

The BOLT Fiber Optic Services project demonstrates how electric co-ops can successfully partner with CoBank to help deploy broadband in their rural communities and invest in the future of rural families. “We understand that no two coops are the same, and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so we continuously look at new ways to work with our customer-owners,” says Reynolds.

Electric cooperatives are a logical option for delivering rural broadband, particularly given lack of incumbents providing service in these areas. Co-ops have existing, beneficial relationships with their members and a history of reliable, cost-effective service, in addition to a proven record of project management and construction experience. With their unique qualifications and the necessity of broadband in rural communities, the number of electric co-ops investing in broadband projects, and therefore rural families, is likely to continue growing at steady rates. CoBank’s team of financial experts are committed to the success of rural America and are available to help start your co-op’s broadband project.

ANTHONY DUE is the general manager of BOLT Fiber Optic Services.