The Wire: Leading the Charge for Rural Broadband

August 2018 -

An interview with Rural Utilities Service Administrator Kenneth Johnson

As with electricity in the last century, high-speed internet in the early 21st has rapidly transformed from a luxury into a necessity of life. And, as in those earlier times, rural America trails the rest of the country in getting connected. In March, Congress appropriated $600 million to help spur broadband connections through the country’s less populated areas. To spearhead that effort, President Donald Trump earlier this year tapped Kenneth Johnson, a longtime electric cooperative executive with deep experience in rural broadband.

As chief executive officer and general manager of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Missouri, Johnson oversaw planning and installation of a fiber-to-the-home network delivering broadband to nearly 16,000 homes and businesses. The landmark, five-year project is already paying off in both business development and quality of life in rural Missouri. Johnson sat down with THE WIRE to discuss why a similar transformation must happen across the country.

THE WIRE: An estimated 24 million Americans lack access to highspeed broadband internet – with a disproportionate number in rural areas. What’s behind that divide?

Ken Johnson: Providing broadband in rural areas poses unique challenges. Difficult terrain increases the cost of construction and maintenance. Lower population density means fewer subscribers per mile, so the economies of scale for infrastructure are lower. That translates into higher rates, often in low-income areas, and reduced ability for companies to recover their deployment costs.

THE WIRE: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has identified rural broadband as a top priority. Why is this a critical issue?

KJ: Broadband access creates educational opportunities for young people and enables us to train tomorrow’s workforce. E-connectivity, like affordable power, is a catalyst for economic development. It’s central to an area’s ability to attract and develop businesses. Broadband supports healthcare and emergency response, as well as our ability to combat serious challenges such as the opioid epidemic. In short, broadband is essential to helping rural communities prosper, and ensuring a quality of life on par with the rest of the country.

Even before Co-Mo’s broadband project was finished, you could see people’s attitudes changing. Businesses were becoming more vibrant. Jobs were created – and saved.
THE WIRE: Why should that matter to people who live in cities?

KJ: Rural America is the breadbasket of the world. It provides goods and services that support the rest of the country, and exports agriculture, minerals and forestry products to the whole world. Much of the country’s manufactured goods come out of rural America. Without e-connectivity, the rest of America cannot efficiently access those goods. Supporting economic development, education and health services in rural America – including broadband – is good for everybody, regardless of where you live.

THE WIRE: What roles do the USDA and the RUS play in this effort?

KJ: The USDA’s rural development programs support infrastructure, housing and businesses. As part of the USDA, the RUS works directly with the utilities, including water, electric and telecommunications, that provide services to rural communities. Our key concerns include access, affordability and safety of vital basic services, as well as economic development.

THE WIRE: What are your main rural broadband goals for 2018 and beyond?

KJ: The $600 million that was just appropriated by Congress will create a pilot program to finance broadband infrastructure for high-speed internet service for rural homes and businesses, farms, schools and health facilities. One of our top priorities right now is to develop that program to be as effective possible.

THE WIRE: What has your own long experience at electric cooperatives taught you, and how will co-ops help solve the broadband gap?

KJ: Co-ops can play a pivotal role in helping to fill the broadband gap. At Co-Mo Electric, bringing broadband to our members wasn’t easy. It took a lot of commitment and leadership from our board. It required new partnerships. And it required risk, because no one had done it like this before. At the same time, we felt we didn’t have a choice if we were going to meet the needs of our members. We needed to have confidence in our community’s future, and that was going to be hard without broadband. The investment has transformed that Missouri community. Even before the project was finished in 2017, you could see people’s attitudes changing. Businesses were becoming more vibrant. Jobs were created – and saved. That was very exciting to see. We also helped enhance education and healthcare services. Increasingly, we’re seeing similar success stories around the country.

THE WIRE: What can an electric cooperative that’s interested in getting involved in broadband do to get started?

KJ: I always encourage the co-ops to think about their hometown’s digital future. You really have to step back and think about your community. The choices are not going to be the same for all co-ops. Some communities, especially those that may be served by a telecom provider with perhaps a recently financed RUS loan, are already building fiber to the home. Some communities have great opportunities to partner with existing telecom, cable or broadband providers. So look around and check your resources.

THE WIRE: What loans, grants or other resources are available from the RUS?

KJ: I’ve been here only a few months but I assure you that our agency will be working very hard to help our co-ops and other borrowers meet their members’ needs. Through our lending programs, RUS can make low-cost financing available for fiber-based smart grids. That’s really a key. For electric co-ops, broadband service could be attached to a smart grid build-out. Other components of a broadband project might or might not be funded by RUS, but there are opportunities through different parties to leverage your assets and help bring broadband to your area. Our mission is to help harness all available resources.

THE WIRE: How do private partners fit in with RUS plans to bring high-speed internet to rural America?

KJ: Partners like CoBank, which has made infrastructure investments in co-ops and communities for decades, help us do far more with the resources that we have. Such partners can draw on deep expertise when offering insights on how the projects we help fund can generate growth, improve economies, add jobs or offer education to schools. That’s the best form of partnership I can imagine.

THE WIRE: Assuming these efforts are successful, in what ways will rural America be transformed?

KJ: Rural America already has great inherent strengths. Its people, productivity and ingenuity inspire all of us. Having lived in rural areas for my entire career before coming to Washington, I also know there are big challenges. Modern utilities – whether providing clean water, affordable electric power or high-speed broadband – connect rural America to its future. This call to action will enhance rural prosperity and contribute to the strength of our nation’s economy.

Also in this issue:

  • Introducing Beacon, a Strategic Planning Product for Electric Distribution Cooperatives
  • Case Study: Tombigbee Electric Cooperative

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