Electric Co-op Finds Three Ways to Deliver Broadband to Rural Residents

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative has acquired a local cable television company to help deliver rural broadband to unserved communities through its subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband. (Photo By: EMPOWER Broadband)

An electric cooperative in Southside Virginia just scored a hat trick of creative solutions in deploying broadband to its region.

First, in 2019, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s for-profit broadband subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband, acquired a telephone cooperative with some fiber assets in its electric territory to optimize internet access and accelerate deployment for its underserved communities.

Then last year, the Chase City-based co-op partnered with Dominion Energy Virginia for middle-mile fiber to help connect the investor-owned electric utility’s customers in that sparsely populated part of the state.

Now, Mecklenburg EC has acquired a cable television company that will allow EMPOWER Broadband to continue expanding its high-speed broadband service to another 2,000 homes and businesses.

“The opportunity to fast-track the delivery of service to so many homes is a game-changer for those communities,” said David Jones, EMPOWER Broadband’s chairman.

“The timing and impact presented by this development allow us to overcome the hurdles of inadequate internet faced by families and students in these areas, and EMPOWER is delivering this much needed service.”

Conversion and upgrade of equipment from CWA Cable TV Inc. to EMPOWER Broadband’s network is expected to begin in March, a couple months behind schedule due to supply chain shortages. The job should take about three months.

“This is a perfect example of co-ops adapting their technology mission and circumstances to bring the best broadband service possible to their member-owners in a timely manner,” said Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior regulatory director for broadband and telecom.

EMPOWER Broadband is investing about $1.5 million to convert the existing analog television system’s coaxial cable network into a fiber-fed Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 3.1 system.

“By converting CWA’s existing facilities in three communities that are infrastructure challenges, we will be able to radically accelerate broadband deployment to our members there,” said John Lee, president and CEO of Mecklenburg EC and EMPOWER.

“This DOCSIS technology is almost identical to fiber in performance, is hardwired so it is weather and terrain proof, and it has available system upgrades that ensure its ability to continue delivering robust, reliable service even as additional customers take advantage of this excellent broadband option.”

Launched in 2018, EMPOWER has connected more than 4,000 homes and businesses, schools, medical and emergency facilities with broadband and telephone services.

To learn more about growing opportunities for co-op broadband, check out the first episode of LiveWire, NRECA’s new video series.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.