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Fiber-to-the-Schoolbus: Ozarks Electric Connects Students During the Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 411
Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic pushed schools online, rural cooperatives and other local broadband providers have been coming up with innovative ways to connect students during this difficult time. Ozarks Electric Cooperative, with its broadband subsidiary OzarksGo, is one of the co-ops that caught our eye over the past few weeks with its creative solution.
This week, Christopher speaks with Steven Bandy, General Manager of OzarksGo, about the history of the co-op's fiber network and its new efforts to expand broadband access during the pandemic. They discuss the beginnings of Ozarks Electric's Fiber-to-the-Home network and the co-op's plan to connect all of its members in growing Arkansas and Oklahoma communities. OzarksGo has even expanded into a nearby city where it doesn't offer electric service after seeing that the community needed better quality connectivity. Co-op members are extremely enthusasitc about the co-op's fiber network, and Steven explains how people moving to the area target the Ozarks Electric service territory in their home search.
Christopher and Steven also talk about the effects of the pandemic on the co-op's fiber network, which has seen an increase in interest. Steven shares how the cooperative is partnering with a local school district to connect Wi-Fi hotspots on busses and in community buildings with fiber optic backhaul. In addition to bringing broadband access to students in response to Covid-19, OzarksGo has also increased speeds at no cost to subscribers.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Steven Bandy: One of my employees reached out and said, "Hey, is there something we could possibly do here?" And I said, "Yeah." He started reaching out and got ahold of the superintendent. And the next thing we knew, we were out there hand digging in lines to school buses and building mobile hotspots for the school district.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 411 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Today, Christopher is joined by Steven Bandy General Manager of OzarksGo at Ozarks Electric Cooperative, one of the largest cooperatives in the United States. Steven gives us a short history of how the co-op first got into the broadband business and how they've been growing and managing the increased demand for fiber optic networks since then. Steven also talks about new challenges introduced by the pandemic and how OzarksGo is working to serve their local community during this difficult time. They found ways to work with community partners to build mobile hotspots for local school districts, enabling students to get their homework done well outside of the classroom. Here's Christopher talking with Steven Bandy, General Manager of OzarksGo.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm talking to Steve Bandy, the General Manager of OzarksGo at Ozarks Electric Cooperative. Welcome to the show.
Steven Bandy: How are you doing today, Chris?
Christopher Mitchell: I'm doing well. And it's great to talk to you. We've been tracking your progress quietly from afar and are enthusiastic about your fiber network. So I'm looking to learn more about that. I guess the first thing I'd just like to get a sense is, for people who aren't familiar with you, and I guess the more than 75,000 meters that you connect, what's your service territory like, and what's the culture like around there?
Steven Bandy: Well, we are in a really kind of a rapidly growing area, which is a nice problem to have, but presents its own problems. We have nine counties we serve, we have even increased a little bit since last year, we're serving about 79,000 members now on the electric side. We serve Northwest Arkansas, Northeast Oklahoma, a very vibrant area with really big businesses in the area that help out, like Walmart and Tyson's, J. B. Hunt and of course the university of Arkansas is also here in Fayetteville, which was one of the larger employers in the area. So we are in a good spot and deploying broadband in the area and our members are very satisfied with what's coming out to them.
Christopher Mitchell: I can believe that. I have no doubt that there are challenges of managing growth, but I'm sure that there are other folks who will be listening to this who are thinking, "I'd rather have that problem than the other one."
Steven Bandy: Very true. Very true.
Christopher Mitchell: So what's your background? How did you get involved with the Ozarks Electric Cooperative?
Steven Bandy: I came on in 2016, is really when the project was really getting ready to take off. And I had some experience within a utility sector of bringing up kind of non-regulated entities within the utility, which the broadband is for us as a non-regulated piece. So I came in as vice president of member relations and worked through that. I've had operational background, and then transferred over into the general manager of OzarksGo in 2019. So I've been here with the project since it started, but it's growing and growing every year.
Christopher Mitchell: And what was the first time the cooperative got involved with fiber optics? Was it in 2016 to connect residents or was there... I know some electric cooperatives have done wireless projects in the past or dabbled in other ways.
Steven Bandy: Yeah. Well, I mean, we're completely a Fiber-to-the-Home, but we really started on the electric side because this whole project in the fiber for a cooperative is really for our communications aspect, outage responses. There's a lot of things that we can do and offer our members down the road with this fiber. And we already had fiber within our plant and just looked at connecting the rest of it to look at the benefits that we could provide for our member with OzarksGo.
Christopher Mitchell: And I guess you're about halfway through, is that right? The deployment?
Steven Bandy: Yes. A little bit over halfway and trying to speed up as much as we can.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm sure that there's a challenge with trying to speed up. I'm guessing that your members are increasingly desirous of getting connected, but now you probably have to go a little bit slower in some of the home connections to take care.
Steven Bandy: Yes. The whole pandemic here is really kind of been an impact to us. We're really starting to see some of the impacts of some of the supply chain right now. I believe a lot of companies and co-ops who are really in this are really seeing this too with some of the shutdowns and the things going on. So we have done everything we can and the precautions of keeping our installs going the best we can, asking questions, working with the members if they're allowing us to come into the home. It's the best of times and worst of times when you're trying to go through some of this. So it has been impacting to us as a company, especially a startup company.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the reactions we've seen from different ISPs around the country that are offering the highest quality connections in their region, is it seems like there's been a spike in signups. And I'm curious if you've seen that in areas where you may have been serving for more than a year or two already. Have you seen people suddenly valuing a high quality connection more now?
Steven Bandy: Yes. We have seen a pretty good increase in our signups and trying to get out to them. And of course with everything going on, that's a challenge in itself to get out there and serve them in a timely manner. But we have experienced increases sign ups and the demand of, "When are you going to get here?"
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure. And so your plan right now, you're a six year plan. I don't remember if it's six years and six phases, but your plan is to connect every one of your electric customers, right?
Steven Bandy: Yeah, and that's the challenge. I mean, it's a 7,000 mile plant. Basically that took us over 80 years to build. We're trying to do that in five to six years or less. So when you think about rebuilding your entire plant, what took you 83 years to build, that's pretty significant accomplishment when we get there.
Christopher Mitchell: And are you able to go almost entirely aerial then?
Steven Bandy: Yeah, it's primarily aerial. We do have underground. We really are looking forward to get out of the underground section of it this year, but it's primarily aerial.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of my favorite stories, there's so many electric cooperatives that are doing really great things and we have a list that we like to talk to. But seeing the photo of your team connecting a school bus with a fiber cable, it's delightful. So tell us why you brought a fiber to a mobile school bus. Well, I mean, obviously not mobile at the time, but nonetheless, a technology of the school bus, is designed to be mobile. So how did you bring a fiber to it?
Steven Bandy: It's really was interesting. We were trying to figure out ways to kind of reach out to the communities, reaching out to schools, doing things. And then on the news one night it showed one of our local schools here, school districts was going to try to hook up school buses out into the rural areas. And it was really kind of a challenge for us because we're just now building that area. So we didn't have a plant all in at this point or lit. One of my employees reached out to said, "Hey, is there something we could possibly do here?" And I said, "Yeah." Started reaching out and got ahold of the superintendent. And next thing he knew, we were out there hand digging in lines to school buses and building mobile hotspots for the school district.
Christopher Mitchell: Was this something that was new? I mean, do you have a relationship with the schools? Are you building fiber for them already? Or was this something that just was put together at the last second?
Steven Bandy: It's kind of put together. I mean, as a cooperative out in the community, we have really good relationships with all of our school districts and what we can do to help, especially in the rural areas. There's a lot of rural areas that really need... The reason we're doing this is the underserved areas. And the way we're looking at it is back in the way that the cooperative brought electricity out early '30s, we're kind of doing the same thing. We're going to bring something out that no one else will do. That's the best thing we think we can do for a cooperative for our members.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, Arkansas is considered one of the lesser connected states with about three quarters of the population having access. Most of the people that you're building to, and also the people that are now dependent on your wifi areas, are they mostly then unable to get service in their homes?
Steven Bandy: They can get service but it's relatively slow. Like you said, we are getting some cap funding from the FCC that can help us get out into these areas. So that already tells you right there, you know they're less than the 25 free standards. So we go out there to start putting line in. I mean, you drive through areas and people drive up and ask you, "Timeframes. When? How are you going to get there?" We built out into one area for one of the other local school districts. We had to run from our substation where we had fiber for communications and we were out there trying to get it hooked up and get it ready for them. And I can't tell you, at least 10 people stopped by seeing our trucks and just started asking questions about, and so excited about the fiber coming out into the area.
Christopher Mitchell: It's almost like you need an extra staff position just to manage the crowds you're attracting.
Steven Bandy: Yes. It's kind of funny, we go somewhere and they see our trucks and you can kind of have to have a ring around everybody so they can do their work. So, that's true.
Christopher Mitchell: So have you heard any reaction from the community in terms of where the hotspots are or anything that surprised you in terms of reactions to them?
Steven Bandy: I mean, the reactions have been very positive and very thankful for what's going out there because they pull up and get access to their school. And there was a really good story of one of my network guys was out checking some of the connections when we first were hooking up and put one in kind of at a local church. And he drove by to kind of check and there was a family out there had a little kitty pool and a table set up with their computers and a picnic lunch and just enjoying the beautiful weather and also getting their schoolwork done. So, I mean, there's stories like that and just the people that reach out and have the ability to get connected to allow their kids to be able to do the schoolwork has been just really rewarding for us.
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm also curious in areas where you've been serving. Have there been surprising use cases for how people are using their home service? Are you're attracting any folks from California or the coasts to come in and settle in that area?
Steven Bandy: I mean, according to the realtors, it's become one of the questions when somebody is buying a home in the area. "Is it within Ozarks' electric territory?" Because they know of the fiber and the broadband deployment, and they're wanting to buy homes in the area just for the Internet access. That they've heard the good news about it and the good word it's out there. So that's what we've heard back from the realtor section of what people ask. We've had interest when people post speeds when they get connected, they'll post their speeds on Facebook or Twitter or other channels. And we get hits where, "Hey, I want that." And people come to our website and sign up knowing we're never going to get there. I think the furthest one we've ever had away from here is Australia.
Steven Bandy: That's the furthest request we've had for service so far. So when the word gets out, and it's amazing what people want, there's a lot of concern of, "People in the real area, they don't want to get service." We're at a 30% and they want that service. People want that high speed, the ability to be able to live where they kind of were born and grew up and where they're comfortable. So I think it's a great service for our membership.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, actually, I guess I should start by saying that you have a very attractive offer. The basic tier is $50 a month for 100 megabits symmetrical, which you've doubled during this pandemic period as one of the many things you're doing to benefit the community. But I'm curious, are you seeing a significant number of people that are taking that gigabit tier for, I believe it's $80 a month for a symmetrical gigabit?
Steven Bandy: We have seen some increases really over this last few months because where we ended the year where we're at now, it's been a pretty good little push. I would say, it's not jumping probably to where we want it to be, but people are signing up and grabbing that gig service a little bit more because it's amazingly quick.
Christopher Mitchell: What's the next big milestone? You mentioned you're trying to speed things up. Is that going to change the schedule much?
Steven Bandy: Yeah. I mean, of course we're trying to do everything we can to maintain the connections like we can, but we're, like I said earlier, running into some issues there just with supply chain. But I mean, our next goal is get to that 20,000 mark. I mean, just little milestones. We hit 15 early in the year, pretty much hit 16,000 within six weeks. And we're about to clear 17,000 probably about mid month this month. So it's growing, there's a lot of demand for it. We're doing everything we can to manage around the pandemic, meet our members' expectations and just our next milestone, "Let's just get to 20."
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm curious if... I was actually reading about the Arkansas broadband plan for the state and it looks like from my perspective, I'm very focused on encouraging local solutions, it looks like a pretty good program. And do you ever feel like you were wrong to go early before there was state money available that may have helped you to build out?
Steven Bandy: No, I don't think we'll ever look back at that decision. The state funding is really a good thing for a lot of areas to get some smaller communities hooked up. But at the level that it's at, it currently is not set up to really fly an entire project like we were doing. We're looking at it, it's a great offering from our governor. And we'll look at that and be glad to work with communities. It's really where communities and ISPs join together. They're really a good program to look at and looking forward to see how that can help serve other communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And one of the things that I'm of course worried about is just as the states are really going to take a pounding with their finances. And I'm hoping states like Arkansas are able to keep finding a way to put money in and it sure would be nice if the federal government helped out more. So let me ask you if there's any real unique results or opportunities you've had, that you may not have foreseen that that popped up on you?
Steven Bandy: I think probably the most unique one is the city of Stilwell in Oklahoma. The provider there had left with providing the area service and we had to come in and work with the city and had to go through a city election to be able to serve the area. And it was really a new thing for us because we're doing everything we can to serve our membership first. And we felt the need to be able to do this because it was a community that was suffering and we were built all the way around it. So we wanted to provide a service. So we try to get the communication out. We serve the area. It's been a very, very good thing for the area and us as well for making sure that our people in our area can stay where they, like I said earlier, grew up and live.
Steven Bandy: We've had a business as a van that came in to use that gig service. One that form that we did an article on, it was kind of an Internet cafe, computer repair location, where people could come in and have some coffee, get their computer repaired, download games on that gig service. I think another key aspect that's been an opportunity for us is the agricultural sector. It's a poultry area, but to have a farmer be able to control his farm on his cell phone now, be able to get that communications versus having to go in and try to do dial up in some locations to be able to communicate with what's going on really helps their productivity and increasing their yield on what they're trying to produce.
Steven Bandy: So we've had some really good opportunities within the communities. Free wifi for the county fairs, local community events that we provided wifi for. I mean, people reach out because they know we're going to have to do everything we can because most of the areas where these things are happening, the members are the ones that are coming in to really enjoy the services. And we're glad to be able to provide some free service there.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I would say, I think one of the things that people don't always appreciate when you're talking about the ag producers, is that it isn't... I mean, it is great that they can control the farm from their cell phone, but it's also really important that their kids have a high quality of life because we want to make sure that those kids have the opportunity to go back. They shouldn't feel like they have to sacrifice if they want to live that lifestyle as they grow up.
Christopher Mitchell: It just reminds me of many of the conversations I've had in South central Minnesota, where we've seen a new cooperative born that is serving a lot of the towns in an ag producer area. And I just heard over and over again, regarding your story about Stilwell, is that there's a real symbiosis. You need the town to support the ag folks around it and ag folks need the town. You can't just let one of them rot. You really need those things. Both need to be healthy together. So I'm glad you were able to do that. But I'm confused. So they had to have an election because they don't get electricity from you? Is that how it worked?
Steven Bandy: Yeah. It's provided by the town. They provide the utilities there. But to come in, we had to be elected in to be able to be a new utility, use the pole and the access agreements and everything that we needed, which it was a really easy election, but you still follow the grounds of franchise fees and everything that we've got to do for their... It was an election we had to go through.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm glad that worked out because I know sometimes municipal utilities, cooperative utilities, and IOUs sometimes find it hard to work together. So I'm glad that y'all made that happen.
Steven Bandy: Yeah. I will even say in some of the hotspots that we put up and Stilwell, I worked with the mayor over there. She had contacted us, we worked through some things and basically she just straight up said, "If there's anything you need from the utility, let us know." And you can see another utility in the area working with us as the provider of Internet on if we needed electricity on the poles or additional poles set or something like that to be able to provide a community wifi. And it was really nice. I mean, she basically just said, "If you need anything from me, just give me a call and we'll have a truck there too."
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's a great place to leave it. Thank you for taking time this morning. I know y'all are busy, but I really appreciate getting a handle on what's happening down there. Just one other thing is, I didn't really make a big deal, but you are one of the larger electric co-ops then. Probably in the state, but also the country.
Steven Bandy: Yes, we're classified in the larger sector of the co-op with the 79,000 members.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much. And I hope you have a great weekend.
Steven Bandy: All right, thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Steven Bandy of OzarksGo. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 411 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.