Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., hosted Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on a recent trip to Walberg’s rural Michigan district, where Pai publicly heralded efforts by electric cooperatives to bridge the digital divide.
During his visit, Pai got a firsthand look at a co-op broadband initiative, watching crews from Cassopolis-based Midwest Energy & Communications hang fiber and install equipment.
“He was fully engaged and engrossed in the whole construction process,” said MEC CEO Bob Hance.
Pai’s trip preceded the much-anticipated Jan. 30 vote on the rules for the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion reverse auction aimed at bringing high-speed internet to the country’s unserved communities.
Pai and Walberg’s itinerary included a discussion about the challenges of rural broadband with Hance, Craig Borr, president/CEO of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association, and Sally Talberg, who chairs the Michigan Public Service Commission. Walberg is an MEC member and serves on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FCC.
Currently, only three electric co-ops deliver fiber-to-the-home in Michigan, but Hance said that number could more than double with help from the new FCC funding program.
“The RDOF is a great catalyst,” he said. If co-ops win bids in the RDOF, that will “provide relief to some of the boards about the capital commitment” for broadband.
MEC won a $5 million grant in 2018 from the Connect America Fund auction, a precursor to the RDOF. The co-op’s highly successful broadband deployment has a 70% take-rate in its most mature areas and nearly 12,000 residential and business subscribers in just five years, said Hance.
“We get calls every day from people outside our member network asking, ‘How come you can’t serve us?’” he said.
Phase I of the RDOF auction will allocate $16 billion to unserved census block areas identified by the FCC, and Phase II will auction the remaining $4.4 billion. An official schedule for the auction has yet to be announced.
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.