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Co-op executives: Rural broadband vital to Oklahoma’s 21st-century economy

Travel along State Highway 10 in Grove and you will find the typical array of rural small-town businesses with one notable exception: a 35,000-square-foot assembly plant belonging to Ferra Aerospace, a global aeronautics company headquartered in Brisbane, Australia. Ferra has an outsized presence in a town of 6,600 people, supplying some of the defense industry’s biggest contractors with turnkey parts for cutting-edge jets and helicopters. As an international firm, Ferra cannot operate without access to reliable, high-speed internet service. This small town on the banks of the Neosho River was able to meet Ferra’s requirements thanks to BOLT Fiber, a subsidiary of Vinita-based Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative.

Rural communities must have access to high-speed internet service if they are to thrive in a 21st-century economy. That’s why an increasing number of consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives in Oklahoma and across the country are taking on the challenge of broadband deployment. Fortunately there are encouraging signs that Washington understands the importance of rural broadband access. Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has made bridging the digital divide a priority and created an advisory committee to help his efforts. The FCC plans to highlight the need for rural broadband throughout August.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of 119 House and Senate lawmakers urged President Trump to include broadband access as part of a federally funded infrastructure package, telling him that “rural communities cannot attract and retain business and human resources if they are insufficiently connected.”

According to FCC data, 40 percent of rural Americans have no high-speed broadband access or inadequate access. In 10 states, that percentage exceeds 60 percent. In Hulbert, more than 85 percent of consumer-members in Lake Region Electric Cooperative’s (LREC) service area lack access to broadband internet. LREC is working to change that by bringing fiber broadband to their membership.

New residents in LREC’s service territory are already benefitting from this critical service. Two of the first five lots sold in Fort Gibson’s Dawson Ridge Development went to government workers who require a high-speed connection to work from home. The challenge and high cost of rural broadband should not be underestimated. Rural service territory is often rugged and remote, which drives up the cost of deployment. At the same time, there are fewer customers to defray the costs. But experience proves that these challenges can be overcome.

More than 75 years ago, electric co-ops cleared the same hurdles when illuminating the nation’s countryside. Now, electric cooperatives power and empower 56 percent of the nation. We look forward to working with Congress, the administration and local stakeholders to repeat this success with rural broadband service. The payoff will be well worth it.

Just ask the people of Grove, where Ferra plans to expand its operations by year’s end and hire 75 more employees. Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Meyers is CEO of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.

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