An Update from the Board President
As you are well aware, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how much we all have a desire to stay connected with our families, friends and co-workers. Unfortunately, the individual experience of connection can be different based on the availability of a high-speed, reliable internet connection. For those of us who are fortunate to have access to broadband, we have been able to connect more often and continue to work, educate our children and access important medical services during the worst of this pandemic. However, this crisis has only magnified the rural/urban digital divide for those without access to broadband. One area in particular that has been highlighted is home internet access necessary for educational purposes. One-fourth of Oklahoma public school students (about 167,000) do not have internet access at home, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Not only is staying connected important to our personal lives, but it is also critical for the cooperative’s electrical distribution system, which works like a living organism. It is constantly changing and evolving as the temperatures fluctuate, load is added and as new technology becomes available. Your cooperative’s ability to connect and communicate with downline devices has a direct impact on the reliability of the system. The more devices we can communicate with from the office, the quicker we can find problems before they become outages.
Electric cooperatives are uniquely positioned to help support the elimination of the digital divide by utilizing existing infrastructure that has been serving rural areas for years. As cooperatives build out communication networks that help maintain high reliability, they may also consider what steps can be taken to help the membership improve their home connectivity at the same time. In Oklahoma, there are six electric cooperatives currently offering broadband services to their memberships.
Making the decision to provide the service of broadband to the membership is one that each cooperative must evaluate independently. There is strong support within all levels of government for the development of high speed internet to rural areas, as well as available funding. There is over $20 billion in one Federal Communications Commission fund alone, with an estimated $536 million that could specifically impact Oklahomans.
Over the past few years, we have heard from several of you that rural broadband is a need. As the president of your board of trustees, I want you to know we are listening to your comments. We are taking steps to evaluate the impact broadband has on the system and the value it would bring to you. I believe it is important for us to do our due diligence on something of this magnitude, and we owe it to you to explore every angle.
The expansion of a broadband network would not only increase system reliability, but also improve the quality of life for the membership. Bringing connectivity to your home resembles when co-ops brought light to rural America and can be an admirable and worthwhile task. Know we are committed to vetting this opportunity and look to make a decision later this year that is focused on bringing value to the cooperative’s distribution system and you, our members.