We recently had a message from Henry on our Facebook page. He’s not a member, but looking to build in southwest Michigan and asked about a specific property address in Dowagiac. “We are looking at building at this address, which is currently vacant land. Does Midwest service this address for electric and fiber?”

One of our new fiber internet customers, Margaret from Niles, shared a slightly different perspective. “Lack of decent and affordable internet access was the one major negative for our continued satisfaction in living in a rural setting in an area which we have otherwise enjoyed for 30 years. When we bought the property, that wasn’t even a consideration. Now I feel that not only are we gratified, but our property value has increased should we ever need to move.”

In a time when electric cooperative territories across the country are losing population, fiber internet is creating new reasons and opportunities for folks to stay in or return to the rural space.

I’ve long argued the electric cooperative message has lost relevance, especially among younger and newer members. Very few remember the day the lights came on; they just want to know the lights will indeed come on when they flip the switch (or tap the app in today’s more automated world!).

Like the electrification of rural American in the 1930s, we created a financially feasible approach to delivering an essential service to the unserved and underserved in the rural space, and that is creating new relevance for our model. Today’s members are living out the experience of lighting their homes and businesses with fiber internet.

Jonathan Chambers said it best at an April gathering of Michigan electric co-op leaders. The former chief of the Office of Strategic Planning at the FCC said electric cooperatives are the ONLY solution for bridging the digital divide in the rural space. No one else is coming.

I believe he’s right. Just like the incumbents wouldn’t power the rural space in the 1930s because it didn’t pencil financially, the big boys in today’s internet playground aren’t interested in our space. We’re certainly on their radar as they work to keep us from accessing federal funds designated to bring broadband to rural America, but they’re not planning to use their funds in our back yards.

We didn’t develop this business for huge financial gain, although I do believe it will someday exceed the size of our electric business. We did this out of response to a membership that was frustrated living in the digital divide and looked to us for a viable solution. And we receive daily affirmation that we are doing the right thing. We’re in year two of a five-year build, and now have over 2000 active customers and another 2000+ signed up in zones where we have not marketed or started construction. Interestingly, we have nearly 1000 remote backers, non co-op members in surrounding communities who also want a piece of what we’re building.

We’re changing the landscape of opportunity for our members in southwest Michigan, and continuing to fulfill the mission around which we were created in the 1930s. That’s relevance.