A Virginia electric cooperative’s for-profit broadband subsidiary is acquiring a telephone cooperative that also delivers high-speed internet in a bid to expand the region’s educational and economic opportunities.
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative CEO John C. Lee Jr., who also heads EMPOWER Broadband, said the acquisition of Buggs Island Telephone “is a big piece of that puzzle.”
“There is no doubt that joining forces puts us in a stronger position to deliver a third critical service to our members: world-class internet access,” he said.
Approvals by the Federal Communications Commission and the Virginia State Corporation Commission are expected by March 31, 2020.
EMPOWER Broadband, based in Chase City, and BIT, headquartered in nearby Bracey, announced Nov. 14 at the Lake Gaston Volunteer Fire Department that 76.5% of BIT’s members voted in favor of the acquisition. BIT bylaws required approval by two-thirds of its membership for any transfer of assets.
“The merger of our two systems’ resources and talents will quickly deliver educational and economic development opportunities across Southside Virginia,” said David Jones, chairman of the MEC and EMPOWER Broadband board of directors.
The support stems from MEC serving the telephone co-op members for decades, said Lee. “They knew who the acquiring party was,” he said. “We’ve had a good relationship with these members.”
Like EMPOWER, BIT delivers fiber-to-the-home. The two co-ops will assess their fiber-optic networks, review areas for subscriber density and optimize existing facilities to advance broadband deployment. Customer subscriptions will drive service in new areas, the co-ops said.
EMPOWER recently received a nearly $3.8 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program to deploy fiber internet service to 1,254 households, four educational facilities and two “critical community” facilities. EMPOWER has also bid successfully in the FCC Connect America Fund II reverse auction and won several state grants to build broadband.
MEC first studied entering the broadband space in 2017, and EMPOWER began fiber-to-the-home for members this quarter.
“We did a lot of homework on this. We really, really thought it through,” said Lee. “In the end, to me, it came down to putting our youth on a level playing field with youth of urban areas with internet access. That pushed us over the line—recognizing the importance that internet access has on education.”
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Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.