A "First of Its Kind" Broadband Co-op is Born

Five electric cooperatives in three states have joined forces to form a new broadband co-op with a mission to bring high-speed Internet service to the unserved rural parts of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

The formation of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Broadband Cooperatives (VMDABC) was announced at the start of the new year, harkening back 76 years ago when those same three states formed the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC) to bring electricity to the rural areas in those states.

“This association is the first of its kind in the nation,” said VMDABC Board Chairman Casey Logan, CEO of the Waverly, Va.-based Prince George Electric Cooperative, and its broadband subsidiary, RURALBAND.

“This is truly a historic day,” Logan said when the tri-state association was announced in January. “Much like the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives was created 76 years ago during the formative years of rural electrification, today’s formal organization of a broadband association will improve the quality of life for our members.”

The VMDABC will begin its work with five founding “Class A members,” each of which are in various stages of building Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks.

In addition to Prince George Electric Cooperative, the four other founding Class A members are the BARC Electric Cooperative, based in Millboro, Va., and its subsidiary, BARC Connects; the Arrington, Va.-based Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and its subsidiary, Firefly Fiber Broadband; the Choptank Electric Cooperative in Denton, Md., and its subsidiary, Choptank Fiber LLC; and the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, based in Chase City, Va., and its subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband. Collectively, they provide electric service to 135,000 members.

Envisioning a Path Forward

Based on the structure of the electric cooperative association, VMDABC will offer various classes of membership, including co-op affiliates that provide retail fiber service, co-ops pursuing middle mile construction or “backbone” fiber, as well as other types of broadband entities and vendors.

“I hope all cooperatives with any level of interest in broadband will join this association, and work with us as we once again strive to bring a much-needed service to our rural service areas,” Logan said.

The electric coop association will provide management and technical support to VMDABC through a management services agreement. However, the VMDABC will have its own legislative representation in the Maryland and Virginia state legislatures “to address the growing need for a singular, unifying voice to speak for cooperative broadband interests,” said VMDAEC COO Brian Mosier.

“We look forward to assisting these broadband cooperatives in areas including legislative advocacy, communications, and marketing,” he said.

At this stage it’s unclear how (or if) the cooperative will bring new wireline broadband to unserved locations. Press language and current coverage suggests it will look to provide management services and technical assistance to one another as well as smaller cooperatives in the region who don’t want to or can’t build middle-mile infrastructure in order to build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) for members, or perhaps share existing and upcoming backbone capacity in pursuit of faster and more efficient deployment.

On the other hand, it’s possible that ultimately VMDABC ends up focusing most of its energy on lobbying the state legislature for funds or policies more favorable to broadband deployment by electric cooperatives, which would also move the needle on bringing access to homes and businesses.

A new law passed last summer allows electric cooperatives in Virginia to use existing easements to hang fiber on poles outside of their current electric footprint to simplify and speed the process for those pursuing broadband projects.