Robert Hance, president/CEO of Midwest Energy & Communications, addressed the role of rural electric cooperatives as a change agent in bridging the rural digital divide today during the 94th Annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, VA.

Hance was a panelist for the track entitled “Encouraging Rural Prosperity: The Importance of E-Connectivity.” The session addressed obstacles to expanding access, improving public-private partnerships, and other changes needed to facilitate broadband buildout in rural areas. The panel was moderated by Jannine Miller, senior advisor for the Office of the Secretary of the USDA, Rural Development. Other panelists included Peter Stenberg, economist for the USDA, Economic Research Service, and Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTRC – The Rural Broadband Association.

Hance specifically discussed the role of a smarter electric grid to provide both utility and consumer benefit with better safety and reliability, and how MEC leveraged its fiber communications infrastructure investment to deploy fiber internet service across southwest Michigan.

“Broadband has significant implications for the rural space, especially from an economic development perspective,” Hance said. “We have to equip our rural communities with the right tools and infrastructure so they can remain relevant and sustainable.

“80 years ago electric cooperatives were organized to bring power and light to rural America when incumbent providers wouldn’t,” Hance said. “Broadband is as important today as electricity, and geography shouldn’t define a person’s scope of opportunity. We’re living out our original mission and bringing first-in-class innovations and solutions where others won’t.”

Now in the fourth year of a five-year deployment, MEC has over 6200 fiber internet, phone and local television subscribers. The co-op board and leadership are now looking at next steps, including consideration of building to members in southeast Michigan and expanding into non-electric areas in southwest Michigan.

Hance is an outspoken advocate for rural broadband, and is frequently tapped on a national and regional level to address the digital divide and MEC’s approach as a leader in rural broadband deployment. Last week he was a featured presenter at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ annual Winter Policy Summit, and addressed the Connect America Fund Phase II auction.