FCC Commissioner: Electric Co-ops Play ‘Major Role’ in Rural Broadband

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr listens to electric co-ops on the challenges of delivering rural broadband while visiting OzarksGo in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Carr recognized co-ops’ role in connecting remote communities. (Photo Courtesy: OzarksGo)

Arkansas electric cooperatives delivering broadband internet access to rural communities won praise from a member of the Federal Communications Commission who promised to bring their concerns back to Washington after a recent visit.

“There are too many Americans here in Arkansas and the four-state area that need service, and that’s where these cooperative broadband projects can continue to play a major role,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. The quad state area includes Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

Carr met with several co-op leaders Sept. 9 at OzarksGo, the broadband subsidiary of Fayetteville-based Ozarks Electric Cooperative, where they discussed the challenges of connecting remote areas with high-speed internet.

Among the concerns raised by the co-ops were the delays in receiving millions of dollars in grants from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund after qualifying as broadband providers. Other issues include supply chain crunches and difficulties in hiring and retaining a skilled broadband fiber workforce.

“Commissioner Carr said he is going back and taking our concerns with him,” said Steve Bandy, general manager of OzarksGo.

The first FCC commissioner ever to visit the co-op, Carr called electric co-ops’ broadband projects “an effective model to bring next-gen broadband access to underserved areas.”

“By bringing high-speed internet to areas that previously had only limited connectivity, they have transformed life for many Arkansans and paved the way for future development,” he said.

Carr toured the fiber operations of OzarksGo, which pioneered co-op-owned broadband in the state and connected its first customer in 2017. It now serves more than 27,000 customers in Northwest Arkansas and Northeast Oklahoma.

OzarksGo recently collaborated with 13 other Arkansas electric co-ops to establish a middle mile fiber network that will help them serve their most rural members more efficiently.

The Diamond State Networks LLC, with investments approaching $1.66 billion, is expected to cover more than 64% of the state’s land mass with more than 50,000 miles of fiber to provide broadband access to 1.25 million rural Arkansans, Bandy said.

The company was established last year when co-op leaders met to discuss ways to best serve their members with broadband.

“We knew nobody else out there was going to serve our members the way we would and help Arkansans like the co-ops could,” said Bandy. “In typical co-op spirit, we are deploying broadband much like we did electricity in the 1930s.”

In addition to Ozarks Electric Cooperative, the Arkansas co-ops forming the Diamond State Networks are:

Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. (Little Rock)
Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative (Ozark)
Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative (Hamburg)
Clay County Electric Cooperative (Corning)
Craighead Electric Cooperative (Jonesboro)
Farmers Electric Cooperative (Newport)
First Electric Cooperative (Jacksonville)
Mississippi County Electric Cooperative (Blytheville)
North Arkansas Electric Cooperative (Salem)
Petit Jean Electric Cooperative (Clinton)
South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative (Arkadelphia)
Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative (Texarkana)
Woodruff Electric Cooperative (Forrest City)

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.