Fiber Growth On The Horizon
by Bob Hance on Tuesday, May 4, 2021
For years we’ve been known as the local electric cooperative that also provides propane and telecommunication services. Within five years we might be better known as a regional telecommunications provider that also provides electric and propane services.
In December we were tentatively awarded $37 million through the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide fiber internet in unserved and underserved rural areas across southern Michigan. With these funds, awarded through a reverse auction format, we will construct 3,223 miles of fiber in 267 census block groups in 16 counties, making our service available to more than 40,000 new homes and businesses across southern Michigan.
We’ve been in a growth mindset for several years now as we live out our mission of delivering first-in-class innovations and solutions where others won’t. Our priority was obviously our own electric customer base, and since 2015 we’ve invested about $75 million to build an advanced communications network to enhance our electric distribution grid and bring fiber telecommunications services to our electric customers.
We always realized the potential beyond our electric service territory, and have been approached regularly by individuals, townships, entire counties and other organized groups with the same need and desire for robust broadband and no access to viable solutions. With a strong focus on prudent growth based on sound financial modeling and adherence to certain critical tenants, we established some metrics by which we evaluate growth opportunities without negatively impacting our electric customers. In other words, these partners must bring money to the table so that our electric customers, owners of the co-op, do not shoulder the costs. At the end of the day, growth in our fiber and propane businesses ultimately helps us better manage the financial future of the electric cooperative for our owners, the electric customers who comprise our core business.
To date we’ve worked with Lyndon Township in southeast Michigan and the villages of Marcellus and Mendon to build fiber infrastructure. We’ve also had several smaller residential and business opportunities.
Rural broadband has long been a national priority, as seen with RDOF and earlier auctions, but the pandemic ultimately shined the brightest light on the critical need for all Americans to have access to viable solutions. MEC’s decision to build a pure fiber network has proven to be the wisest choice that we could have made for our customers. Now, even more money is being funneled into local communities through the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus program approved earlier this year. As a known and respected provider of the fastest and most reliable service available in the region, we’re fielding a lot of new inquiries.
We’ve started work on the five-year RDOF project and will continue to consider other growth opportunities as they come along, always evaluating based on what’s best for the co-op and our owners. There is a lot of change coming our way, but the one thing that remains the same is our strong commitment to our customers’ service experience.