Rural Cooperatives Deliver High-Speed Internet for Less

Tired of waiting, some rural residents are funding their own Wi-Fi networks to bring broadband to their homes

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposed a rule update in April that would make it easier for people to install wireless repeater antennas—also known as signal boosters. In some rural regions, Wi-Fi can be the best way to extend the reach of fiber-optic networks at broadband speeds and at affordable prices.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the lobbying group that proposed the change, argues that it’s necessary to keep up with market forces that are driving networks toward smaller hubs operating over shorter ranges. The update would also make it easier for communities to build more of their own Internet infrastructure. Already, despite rules in 26 U.S. states that create obstacles for community networks, some 3 million Americans, mostly rural, get their Internet that way.

The federal government spends around US $1.5 billion a year to expand broadband Internet service and subsidize plans for people with low incomes. Still, the so-called digital divide remains.

Some communities in the United States have already taken Internet service into their own hands by ­self-funding high-speed fiber and Wi-Fi networks. A handful of rural electricity cooperatives have even launched broadband cooperatives to build fiber-optic infrastructure. One Missouri electrical cooperative, Co-Mo, applied for U.S. stimulus funding to offer broadband to its members. Despite not winning that grant, the cooperative went ahead with its plans and now offers members broadband for US $50 a month.

The phenomenon reaches across the border to Canada, too. Bell Canada’s CAN $100-a-month DSL service didn’t provide enough bandwidth or speed for entrepreneur Brian Reid’s software and business-service companies, so he paid to extend fiber-optic cables from a nearby road to his business in the village of Lawrencetown, Nova ­Scotia. Soon, others heard about his fast fiber and asked if he would share. He suggested the municipality set up a cooperative to cover the costs of connecting his fiber-optic Internet to members via high-throughput Wi-Fi towers that can transmit from 10 kilometers up to 32 km.

“In rural areas, there is just this sense…that they can’t wait for the federal government or the states to do anything,” says Christopher Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Once a fiber-optic line is in place, the hardware to transmit Wi-Fi costs very little. When Reid began researching options for transmitting Wi-Fi outdoors over long distances, he found that the transmitter was the cheap part, costing maybe CAN $1,500. It would cost 10 times as much to lay the concrete and raise a tower, even with volunteer labor.

The Lawrencetown cooperative has since installed four of these towers—including one on a farmer’s silo—and is building a fifth. The high-throughput Wi-Fi he tested early on “kind of blew us away,” he recalls. “I could see 600 megabits per second,” or about 7 times as fast as Nova Scotia’s average fixed broadband speed in 2018.

If government agencies such as the FCC are willing to open up unused licensed spectrum in rural regions, community networks could offer even better service, says telecom engineer ­Carlos Rey-Moreno of the Association for Progressive Communications. “The breakthrough will be at the regulatory level in the U.S. and other countries when they open up 6 gigahertz [and other bands],” he says, to take advantage of technology that can transmit more data than existing Wi-Fi.

Cooperatives have already shown that they can be popular and profitable with today’s technology. At first, the Lawrencetown cooperative, which began offering services in 2017, charged its 150 or so members CAN $60 per month, based on what a neighboring private ISP charged, but the cooperative soon found that it was generating a profit, which it had to repay to members, minus taxes. It has since lowered its prices to CAN $40 a month, and grown its membership to 350, but Reid says it could go lower.

RS Fiber Cooperative, which built fiber-optic service for 6,000 households, farms, and businesses in rural Minnesota, has a similar story. Both RS Fiber and the Lawrencetown co-op relied on municipal loans or backing to build the initial infrastructure. They’ve both since become self-sufficient.

And being first with fiber is always an advantage, Mitchell says: “It’s a hard business plan to make work, but if you can make it work…[you’ll] probably have an effective monopoly for many years.” The only difference, Reid says, is that the community owns this monopoly.

This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “Rural Co-ops Deliver High-Speed Internet.”

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