In Terms of Bringing Broadband to Rural America – the Future is Cooperative

As we all know, a few years ago many rural electric cooperatives were skittish when considering whether to offer fiber broadband services to their members. Building new infrastructure can be costly, and in rural areas, the low population density and rough terrain can be challenging.

Back in 2019, East Central Energy (ECE), a member-owned electric cooperative headquartered in Braham, Minnesota found themselves asking if it was time for them to upgrade their network with fiber optics. Formed in 1936, the cooperative provides electric service to more than 62,000 homes, farms, and businesses in east central Minnesota.

ECE hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to evaluate the possibility of broadband deployment in their service territory. That study provided evidence that entering the broadband business would put ECE’s financial position at risk. This resulted in the board’s decision to forego broadband at that time.

Fast forward to 2020, and the pandemic emphasized the importance of broadband. Suddenly broadband was no longer a luxury, but instantly became a necessity. The digital divide between those with high-speed internet and those without resulted in a lack of opportunities for ECE’s members in terms of telework, online schooling, telemedicine, and overall quality of life.

Electric Cooperatives are a Strong Partner to Local Communities

Because electric cooperatives are community-based and have a sense of community commitment and investment, ECE made the decision to take a second look at a regional solution to broadband. They believed deeply in the importance of connectivity for their members and felt it was important for the cooperative to pursue it further.

ECE serves some of the most economically disadvantaged counties in Minnesota. The deployment of fiber broadband would be a key component to spur continued growth and development across their 14-county service area.

From an internal perspective, owning and operating a fiber network would provide ECE with smart grid technologies and help to increase the efficiency, reliability, and performance of their electric distribution grid.

They started exploring federal, state, and local grants and funding sources, as well as conducting a new feasibility study and putting together a comprehensive plan. They found that with the appropriate funding from various new grants and other sources that were now available, it made fiscal sense to move forward with a full fiber-to-the-home project. 

Partnerships are Key in Successful Broadband Deployments

While grants are an important component in funding broadband infrastructure projects, they also have strict project completion requirements to receive funding.  Supply chain issues or delays could result in problems meeting those deadlines. 

ECE already had a long-standing relationship with Wesco because they supplied the cooperative with electrical T&D, MRO, and communications products, plus supply chain services. They knew that Wesco was a dependable partner. One they could count on to deliver the products and solutions for their latest endeavor, building a scalable, future-ready, and cost-effective fiber network. Not only could Wesco provide the fiber cable for the project, but they could also deliver a wide assortment of fiber-related products from all the leading suppliers in the industry.  Some of those items include cabinets and enclosures, cable and wire management, duct, drop cable, fiber accessories, vaults or handholes, conduit, installation equipment, and more.

Building a Fiber Network is Not an Overnight Task

ECE’s new fiber deployment project, ECE Fiber, began Phase 1 of 5 phases in May of 2023 with project construction scheduled to take place over the next five years. Construction will consist of both overhead and underground fiber lines throughout ECE’s service territory and will provide high-speed connectivity to the homes and businesses in their community upon completion.

Creative Solutions Keep Project Organized

ECE Fiber needed a way to track their project inventory.  Because of Wesco’s expertise with these types of projects, ECE looked to Wesco for solutions. ECE already had a procurement system on their electrical T&D side, but they needed a mobile warehouse management tool that would sync with that current procurement system and help them track, analyze, and maintain their fiber project inventory. Wesco’s MWM (mobile warehouse management) tool provided a perfect solution that not only interfaced with ECE’s procurement system but also gave them bar coding capabilities to streamline their receiving, work release, and inventory of fiber project components. This met a variety of goals for the project including documentation of receiving and shipping, increasing effectiveness of warehouse processes, accurate accountability of inventory, and overall streamlining their processes. When completing a project on time is of the essence, this proved to be a valuable tool for their fiber project inventory. So much so, that ECE is considering using the same system MWM tool for the T&D inventory process.

Benefits of a High-Speed Fiber Network

Having high-speed broadband connectivity will benefit homes, businesses, and farms, as well as furthering economic and community development in the area. It is critical to e-learning and for telework, telemedicine, and training resources. ECE Fiber will enable resource optimization for agricultural lands and support the use of precision agriculture tools. 

Cooperatives Moving Forward

Electric cooperatives are helping to solve the digital divide gap across the nation and have been instrumental in many large-scale broadband deployment projects. Furthering their commitment to the community, ECE recently announced their plans to build a new building to house employees from both the fiber and electrical sides of their business. While providing energy is their first goal, they are looking forward to also delivering high-speed internet to their members. 

Why Wesco?

A supply chain solutions provider like Wesco gives electrical cooperatives a partner with the expertise to help them navigate the complexities associated with broadband projects, accelerate deployment, streamline processes, and transform their communities.

With years of experience with fiber broadband projects, Wesco has built a reputation in the industry as the go-to technology provider delivering cutting-edge products, services, and solutions for designing, building, and deploying future-ready fiber optic networks.

Fiber optic cables blue and yellow

Experienced Support for Fiber Broadband Projects

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