North Carolina Co-ops Partner for Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Bonus Episode Five

This is our fifth episode of the podcast project we're working on with nonprofit NC Broadband Matters to share broadband news, challenges, and innovations from North Carolina. NC Broadband Matters works to find ways to bring ubiquitous broadband coverage to residents and businesses across the state.

Susan Cashion, Vice President, Chief Compliance & Administrative officer from Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, and Greg Coltrain, Vice President of Business Development for RiverStreet Networks from Wilkes Telephone Cooperative join Christopher for the podcast. When they met up at an event in Raleigh, they discuss the co-ops' collaboration to bring high-quality Internet access to people who live in rural areas.

logo-nc-hearts-gigabit.png In this interview, we learn more about both cooperatives and about their long histories of serving people who live in rural communities. Each has their own special expertise and this partnership allows them to combine those for the benefit of members who want better connectivity. Piedmont is one of several electric cooperatives that Wilkes, through RiverStreet, is working with to expand connectivity in rural North Carolina. Greg also describes the ways that RiverStreet works with local communities to take advantage of public assets to expand broadband to more households and businesses.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 34 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed.

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license.


Susan Cashion: We have got 144 strands. We're not going to need all those strands of fiber. And so we've got this asset sitting there and when you couple it with the seven cooperative principles, you realize you've got something that you can use, you can leverage it to improve the communities you serve.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to our fifth episode of our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters. I'm Lisa Gonzalez with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina non-profit. Their mission is to attract, support, and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high-capacity internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and the local workforce so each can compete in the global economy. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We're collaborating with NC Broadband Matters to present this series that touches on issues that affect folks in North Carolina, but also impact people in other states.

Lisa Gonzalez: This episode is titled How Cooperatives are Changing North Carolina's Broadband Future. We have two guests, Susan Cashion from Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, and Greg Coltrain, who's representing RiverStreet Networks from Wilkes Telephone Cooperative. They sat down to talk while in North Carolina at an event in Raleigh. Wilkes, through RiverStreet, is expanding broadband connectivity all across the state of North Carolina. One of the ways they're accomplishing their goal is by partnering with electric cooperatives like Piedmont. In this conversation we learn more about both entities, the partnership to bring better connectivity to people in Piedmont's service territory and more about the Wilkes RiverStreet plan to connect rural areas in North Carolina to high quality internet access. Now here's Christopher with Greg Coltrain and Susan Cashion.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, North Carolina's special episode edition. And I'm actually coming to you from North Carolina and I'm not going to say live edition because my colleague Katie has pointed out to me, they are all live in the sense that I'm recording them live and then we are re rebroadcasting them. So it is ridiculous for me when I'm in person with someone to say live. So Katie, you win, I got it, I remembered. Today I'm really excited to be talking to Greg Coltrain, the Vice President of Business Development. Welcome back to the show, Greg.

Greg Coltrain: Hey, Chris. Good to be here.


Christopher Mitchell: So RiverStreet Networks... I think I forgot to include that part of your title as RiverStreet Networks, which is the for-profit subsidiary of the legendary Wilkes Telephone Co-op, which we've talked about many times in the past. That's who you're with. Give us a very quick reminder of what RiverStreet is?

Greg Coltrain: Well, Wilkes is a co-op, it's on the Western part of North Carolina in the mountains, partly what we consider to be the gateway to the mountains. We were formed in 1951, and so we've got about 69 years of operations as a co-op. 2015, we formed RiverStreet Networks. Really it was supposed to be or was designed to be a device to let us take what we've learned and experienced and the skill sets that we have and carry that to other rural areas that are unserved or underserved. We have about 137 employees today. We've been ramping up and gearing up for growth expansion that would be regional in different areas that we've either acquired companies or we've merged with companies. We've been using these growth mechanisms to just kind of grow contiguously across the state. So it really kind of philanthropic, but it is a for-profit company. And so we're charging into the unknown territories to see what we can do.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, when you say for-profit, that's the intention with the amount of investment you're doing. I can't imagine there's a lot of profits on the near horizon.

Greg Coltrain: Well, we say for-profit because we have to delineate between the co-op being a nonprofit in this other area, but since we are using principles we learned through our co-op in that we take the monies that we earn and we invest them right back into contiguous areas that need service. So really it isn't for-profit, but it uses the same principles as the co-op.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. And technically all the profits then go to the co-op.

Greg Coltrain: Correct.


Christopher Mitchell: Anyway, I don't want to spend a whole time talking about that. That's not the interesting stuff. What's interesting is your vision for all of North Carolina and increasingly parts of Virginia that we'll be talking about, we're very lucky. We're here at this event that's organized in Raleigh. So we're here at the invest in broadband event at McKimmon Center at NC state, North Carolina state where the Wolfpack resides. And we pulled in Susan Cashion, the Vice President and the Chief Compliance and Administrative Officer at Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, which is an electric co-op, right very near the RiverStreet Networks area. And you are working with the RiverStreet Networks folks on a partnership. Just briefly tell us a little bit about the electric co-op.

Susan Cashion: Well, hello Chris and Greg. Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, we are located in Orange County, Person County, Alamance County, Durham County, as well as Caswell and Granville County in the rural areas. So we're headquartered in Hillsborough, North Carolina and we are one of 26 electric cooperatives in the state of North Carolina. We were formed... I'll give a little story.

Christopher Mitchell: Please.

Susan Cashion: We were actually incorporated in 1938. So, it took a little bit more than 80 years that Piedmont Electric has been in business and we were formed because the investor on utility companies, they could not make a profitable return on their investment to go to the rural communities. And so we were formed in 1938 and we are continuing to grow. We serve approximately 32,000 meters in the six counties that I had mentioned earlier.

Christopher Mitchell: Susan, you are serving all of these electric meters. How did you decide to get involved with broadband in any way?


Susan Cashion: Chris, I'm sure you are aware. We are owned by our members being a cooperative and we listen to our members. That is one of the benefits of actually getting your service, electricity or telephone, by your members because it is a business organization where your members are basically your shareholders. Frequently we engage with forums with our members. We have multiple ways that they can get their concerns to us, and one of the concerns was the lack of broadband. And so we knew that our key core expertise is in electricity. It was not in providing broadband. And so we decided, along with our board of directors, we needed to help our communities. And we started talking to people and trying to figure out, "How can we leverage our existing assets to help bridge this gap we know is a critical need in the rural parts of North Carolina?" And so we were very fortunate to run across Wilkes Communications and the RiverStreet Networks group as well as our statewide organization. They saw the importance for all of North Carolina, for all the co-ops that reside there to maybe explore some pilot programs.

Christopher Mitchell: How does the pilot project you're working on with RiverStreet Networks work?

Susan Cashion: We have just launched, and when I say just launched, December 1st was the launch date of the pilot program and we are sending out communications to our members. We communicate to them frequently, monthly, weekly, daily, but we did a cover wrap to our Carolina Country, our statewide magazine. We did a cover wrap announcing the pilot program and we've got a joined up build CrowdFiber website, which was pulled together by RiverStreet Networks for us, and we are gauging interest from our members where they see that they need faster internet service or where they are just completely underserved at all. And on this CrowdFiber site, they can do a speed test as well. All of that information is pulled in through this website and RiverStreet Networks can start analyzing the data and seeing where the interest is and then we can proceed from there.


Susan Cashion: The main objective for Piedmont is that we chose RiverStreet because we want to make sure that our partner with this is sustainable. We know how important it is to have a company that has been in business for so long to stay there.

Christopher Mitchell: Although not quite as long as you.

Susan Cashion: Well, that is true. [crosstalk 00:09:21]. We've got a couple of decades on them.

Christopher Mitchell: Only since 1951.

Susan Cashion: And 1938. We are the elder here, aren't we?

Christopher Mitchell: And so Greg, you're working with a lot of different folks and we're going to talk more about that in a few minutes. Different types of organizations. Is it different working with an electric cooperative and electric membership corporation?

Greg Coltrain: I would say that it's comforting because they have a lot of the same mentalities as we do on in focusing on serving that member. It's a member-driven focus. We've also made a lot of the same decisions over the years and our co-op of Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation is governed by board of directors. The EMCs are governed by our board of directors. We're comfortable talking openly with board members about decisions and making those tough decisions. And so that helps a lot. Those are some of the common ground areas, I think we have. I don't know. There's just this warm and fuzzy feeling because we're focused not so much on the money, which is obviously important. You got to be able to make a business case, but it's you start at the end to get to the beginning. And the end meaning getting to that member and making sure that they get the quality service they need and what's that timeframe, and how do you make that happen, and how do you pull together the funding? What networks are there and what partners can you find? Is the county your partner to come along and help you with the EMC mission and the TMC mission and the for-profit mission? It's just multiple aspects all coming together. We've really liked that engagement.

Christopher Mitchell: It's all right. Coming back to you, Susan, I'm curious now. I feel like you're learning the interest of your members. Has there been any surprises and also are you definitely going to be moving forward with some kind of investment as part of this or is this still testing the waters?

Susan Cashion: Chris, that is a great question and it kind of helps explain why we're doing what we're doing. Technology has just immensely changed our lives and at Piedmont Electric we have what they call advanced meters, smart meters, and even that technology continues to evolve. So at all of our substations, our offices, any towers that we have, we are running fiber to all of those assets. That fiber is going to help us provide quicker, faster information back to our cooperative, which is in turn going to improve the service that we give to our members. We're actually in the end of the project. We're in phase three and it was a three-phase project and we hope to be ending that I believe in the second quarter of this year.


Susan Cashion: We have got 144 strands. We're not going to need all those strands of fiber. And so we've got this asset sitting there and when you couple it with the seven cooperative principles, you realize you've got something that you can use, you can leverage it to improve the communities you serve. The fiber ring that we are putting together, that is going to serve as the backbone for RiverStreet. We do hope that this pilot program is going to be successful. What we have seen to date, and we're only talking about what? Five weeks that we've launched this. There has been an extreme amount of interest, so we know that the need is there and we just hope that business case is going to be coupled with of course the reconnect funds in some county, grants and the state grants that we've got. We hope that that's going to justify doing the engineering studies and moving forward.

Susan Cashion: We also feel at Piedmont Electric that the wireless is a wonderful first step. And what attracted us to RiverStreet was that they had the experience in actually doing Fiber-to-the-Home and we hope that ultimately the wireless program that we launch, that it ultimately can turn into Fiber-to-the-Home because we only see that our needs for technology continue to grow. We want our houses to be smart houses. We're going to be doing things that we cannot even imagine and we're going to need that internet strength.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the reasons I really like the co-ops being involved in this both telephone and electric is because of that member-driven attitude because I fear for a profit-driven company, particularly a profit maximizing company in the short term, which I would differentiate between the two, they are going to put in wireless and they may just not have a vision of getting to fiber. When co-ops are starting with wireless, I believe they're going to be looking for every opportunity if the wireless is not sufficient in time to do get that fiber out there. So, I very much share that vision. But let me ask you, have you heard anything surprising or is there a specific story of one of your members that sticks in your head that's particularly powerful?


Susan Cashion: I believe we've all heard the story about having to go to a fast food restaurant with your child in the back of a car so that they can actually do their homework. That is something that is dear to me because we have got members who do not have the luxury to get home in time while their children are still awake to take them to that fast food restaurant so that they can actually get on the internet. We have to be thinking about not only the education of our children but the telemedicine for our seniors, and I am quickly approaching, I all ready have my AARP membership.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, you fooled me.

Susan Cashion: Well, thank you. But you have to realize we've got the technology there and if we do not look at where people can work from home, where they actually can start a business, we are not treating the folks that live in the rural communities fairly. We have got to make sure that all of North Carolina has got the same level playing field and I think that's what the co-ops are. We were formed in the rural areas that didn't have electricity or that didn't have telephone service. And now we've got this wonderful opportunity to really show the value of the cooperative business model. So I'm just very pleased to be in this relationship, partnership, however you want to say it with RiverStreet networks, and we just hope that the interest will definitely support us moving forward with this pilot program. And we hope that it will also serve as the perfect model for some of the other cooperatives in our state.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for coming on, Susan. I appreciate you stepping in at the last second.


Susan Cashion: Well, thank you, Chris. It has been wonderful sharing our story and maybe next year we'll get on a podcast and we can talk about some success stories going forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, absolutely.

Susan Cashion: Thank you, Chris. And it's always a pleasure, Greg.

Christopher Mitchell: Greg, it was really great to hear from Susan, one of the many partners you have across North Carolina and Virginia. Now, I'm going to throw this to you a little bluntly. It looks like you've been on an acquisition spree. You have partners and then you've also been buying up a lot of folks. I'm just curious, what is the overall strategy that RiverStreet has moving forward?

Greg Coltrain: Well, it's kind of twofold in that a lot of our acquisitions have been wireless. We've been doing wireless service in parts of our network for 10 or 12 years, but not at the magnitude that we're talking about wanting to be prepared for in the coming years. And so those acquisitions have been just to get those resources in-house to get people who have the knowledge and the know withal, but also most of these wireless companies are contiguous to our regional build-out expansion. And so that's one reason. The other reason for the acquisitions is just sheerly to get our numbers up and get the cash flowing in so that we can manage the growth that we want to do down the road.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, one of the things that you just said in your presentation was that... You may even have said it's the most important thing, managing relationships. I know that you're customer focused. When we're talking about relationships we're talking about other counties, other electric cooperatives that may be potential partners. Just tell me a little bit more about what you mean by managing relationships.


Greg Coltrain: As a human being, if I'm really passionate about something, I'm going to strive and work harder to make it happen and we have become very passionate at RiverStreet in what we're doing. Our main mission and goal is to message to stakeholders our passion and help them make it their passion.

Greg Coltrain: The stakeholders that we've engaged have been strategically located near some property that we all ready have and if we help them understand what we know, they can be a great partner. If we're extremely transparent with them about what we're doing, if we engage them for their feedback and their concerns, it makes the partnership work a lot better because everybody trusts everybody.

Christopher Mitchell: Now as a part of that, there's also I think managing expectations. As we roll into this, if I remember correctly, you have on the order of 31,000 broadband customers, is that right?

Greg Coltrain: We will by the end of this year.

Christopher Mitchell: You will by the end of this year. I mean, that's depending on who you talk to, it's a lot or a little.

Greg Coltrain: Right, right, right.

Christopher Mitchell: And it's a little in the sense that you're taking on a lot of territory and it's going to take you a long time to build out and you're talking about CAF requirements, the Connect America Fund has a five-year commitment. I don't know what the reconnect is. You have to juggle all these different timelines. How are you managing expectations for people who want broadband yesterday?

Greg Coltrain: It is a challenge. I mean, we're trying to be transparent in the process. We know that wireless is a bridge. The gap to get broadband is something we can deploy quicker. We know about how long it takes to put a tower in and how to install that equipment and the timeframe it takes to actually deploy. So we're pretty candid about wireless is something that we could bring online within a year. In some areas, depending on if you all ready have infrastructure in place, you can bring that wireless service up within maybe a couple months.


Greg Coltrain: Fiber on the other hand requires construction. And so when we sit down to talk with our partners about how to message to their customers or if these are new customers and this partner is a county or whatever, we try to help them understand that you have to engineer it, you have to figure out where you're going to get the funds from, and then you have to start the deployment process. That can take three to five years from the time you start until you actually start serving the customer and getting the customer a viable broadband solution. So I think the biggest thing we're doing is we're being very blunt and straight forward with our partners in helping them understand that.

Christopher Mitchell: What is the message? Is it that every part of North Carolina will have high quality broadband when you're done?

Greg Coltrain: Ultimately that's our goal-

Christopher Mitchell: I just want to get it on the record because I felt like I was that assumption and I don't know if listeners understand that. People sometimes think, "Oh, maybe my area just won't get high quality internet access."

Greg Coltrain: Right. Part of what we hope we're doing is through our conversations, through participating in podcasts like this, speaking at events. I mean, there's a lot of opportunity and obviously RiverStreet can't do it all. We've been real transparent with competitors in helping them understand that this is something that's working for us. Obviously we want to go and grow the areas that we started on, but there's a ton of opportunity out there.

Christopher Mitchell: And you know the economics. You're telling me... This is a softball as it gets because I'm the one that's always telling people this, but we are going to get high quality internet access to every part of North Carolina, right?

Greg Coltrain: Eventually, yes. I believe in that. I believe it will happen. It's just going to take multiple people, multiple entities, multiple partnerships. It's going to take federal funding, it's going to take state funding, it's going to take county and municipal funding. We don't want to leave them out because we've had some counties that have offered grant opportunities to draw us as a partner and then work with them.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And this is actually something I wanted to make sure we talk about. As you mentioned, the best case scenario is we get there over a period of many years. I mean, 10 years, let's say. Maybe more depending on exactly how things fall out. Right now I've made no secret about the fact that I think North Carolina law is slowing that down and I think there's things that get in the way. I think that cities and counties do not have the ability to partner with companies like you. Companies like Open Broadband, which we've talked about before that was presenting in this event earlier. And one of the things that I can imagine someone saying though is, "But Greg, you're partnered with Stokes. You have partnerships with counties." Maybe start by telling me what you can do under current law and then let's talk about what you can't do, how you're limited.


Greg Coltrain: In the instance of Stokes County, they were able to give us grant funds to have us build the network and own and manage it. What we're talking about where the laws could be changed a bit to help would be where county all ready has assets, where they all ready have fiber in the ground, or where a city all ready has fiber in the ground or hanging on poles or wherever it may be. And they want to be able to go into a relationship with us to lease us that asset or they would like to give us an IRU to use that asset. And there's some gray areas there that cause a lot of counties and cities to be a little stand back and standoffish and they're concerned about whether or not they're breaking the law in North Carolina. If you cross the line into Virginia, there's completely different rules in Virginia that allow those counties to do just about anything they need to to get broadband available to their members of their County.

Christopher Mitchell: Just to jump in for a second, in case anyone outside of the great state of North Carolina is listening to this, Virginia does have some limitations. It just doesn't limit the partnerships and the way that you're using them.

Greg Coltrain: That's true.

Christopher Mitchell: So Virginia is definitely an improvement over North Carolina. I just don't want to set it up as the bastion for what [crosstalk 00:23:56] to.

Greg Coltrain: Right, right. That's right.


Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned Virginia, now you're a very active in Virginia. So you would say categorically it is easier to form these partnerships and expand in Virginia than in North Carolina.

Greg Coltrain: It appears to be. I mean, we've had the same kind of engagements in Virginia that we're having across North Carolina. The counties up there, some are establishing grants. Some counties are building their own fiber networks. Some counties are building their own wireless networks. In fact, we have a relationship through one of our acquisitions in a county in Virginia that we helped them build a fixed wireless network years ago that they own, but we manage and maintain it for them. Now, although the wireless technology has been there for a little while and it needs some upgrades, it was a good fit at the time when it was designed and developed. So counties are able to take the initiative there and I'm not necessarily saying in North Carolina that counties would need to get into the broadband business. I'm just saying there are assets hanging out there or in the ground out there that need to be able to be laid on the table for a partner to come along and say, "Can we work out something that makes sense? A good business decision for us to use that to traverse your county or traverse your city to get to the other side where areas are unserved or underserved." And that's what we're asking for.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think it's a very good point to make. I'll note that I do believe cities and counties should be able to make this decision for themselves. Also believe that states can have different opinions than I do.

Greg Coltrain: Sure.

Christopher Mitchell: Regardless of what I believe, it is not on the table for cities or counties to operate these networks in the near future in North Carolina. The legislation and the potential changes in 2020 are purely about public private partnerships. So, we're not anticipating any discussion about counties building their own networks.

Greg Coltrain: And in North Carolina, I should probably say, there have been a couple cases and I think you've showcased these in maybe some of your other podcasts. The City of Wilson has done an excellent job here in North Carolina in providing services to the people there, but we're not saying we want cities to just get in the broadband business. We feel like that there are plenty of providers out there, adjacent and all over and around these cities, that just want to be able to use some of the assets they have to get across or through.


Christopher Mitchell: I don't want to spend too much time talking about the cities because I think it detracts from what you're doing. I think this is a valuable conversation to have. I don't think most cities want to do this, I just tend to think the cities that want to do it should be able to do it. And I think they're big boys, they should be able to take the consequences if they make mistakes as some cities have. Many cities that have made mistakes have then recovered from them. But I think we can leave the city discussion there. The main thing that I really want to get at is this sense of this is a big problem. I mean, what you did in Stokes is interesting to me. If you can have access to a fiber line that all ready exists, it speeds up your time to market, it makes you better able to compete in the federal funding. I mean, that's what happened in Stokes, right? You had access to this and then you were able to be more competitive in an auction.

Greg Coltrain: Well, actually in Stokes County we built it. They just gave us grant funds to build it for their county. It wasn't an asset that they all ready owned.

Christopher Mitchell: My story was way better. I don't-

Greg Coltrain: Yeah, I liked your story though. I really did. So we might have to-

Christopher Mitchell: No. My point is, and I think that this actually is still relevant. If you're able to access a fiber that is all ready there, it makes you able to be more competitive in a federal auction.

Greg Coltrain: Oh, absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: To make sure you're able to get the price per home down enough to get the federal funds.

Greg Coltrain: For sure. I mean, it can make the biggest difference in a grant that you might get for $5 million to build several rural areas. If you don't have to build that backbone infrastructure because the asset is all ready partly there or all there or somewhere in between, you're able to extend that money that you've received and do so much more for so many more people.

Christopher Mitchell: And in particular, I think this is where the business I think really matters. It is not just about the cost, it's... Time is money. So it is about the cost, but the ability to get moving to get customers on the network, it just all speeds up and you can start maybe getting people in the main corridor connected and get revenue through. It changes the business model I think.

Greg Coltrain: That's correct. That's correct. We have some really talented people in our engineering group in-house that have the means to be able to sit down and take a fiber route like that and figure out the best way to capitalize off of that in a much faster turnaround time. So it could take you from having a five-year build out to get somewhere to maybe a year or two years to get the project done.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's finish up near where we started with the electric membership corporations, 26 of them, significant chunk of the state, particularly in the rural areas that most need the service. How are you continuing to work with them broadly?


Greg Coltrain: Well, we've started talking to some other pilots. We heard about Piedmont earlier and the success we've got going on there. But our initial initiative from the statewide level was to try to leverage the assets that they had across the state and leverage the assets that the individual EMCs had. So we were just speaking about the fact that if a county has fiber assets to get into a community that that could save entry time and cost. The EMC has the same assets on the table. And through some provisions that have recently been made through some hard work through advocacy in North Carolina, the EMCs are allowed to share their fiber networks in order to get out to rural underserved or unserved areas.

Greg Coltrain: And so we've got a statewide ring in the state that MCNC has, the statewide electric membership corporations have their association called NCEMC and they have an IRU inside of that fiber network and they connect all of their EMC members, the 26 co-ops. The EMCs have fiber to their substations, or at least some of them do. Some are in the design stages of wanting to build fiber to their substations. Some have actually worked to build microwave transmission and put poles up at their substations. And that's a whole nother discussion because there's an opportunity there to do fixed wireless off the poles depending on elevation and that sort of thing. Some of this can be a real engineering nightmare when you sit down, you got to be real creative in what you try to do. But the EMCs that have fiber to their substations, it creates another intriguing model because now you've got that middle mile transport in the community. You've cut down your transport cost and the middle mile to get there. So now you're truly talking about just focusing on that last mile design and build and that's important in cutting the cost.

Greg Coltrain: We are engaging counties as we go through this process because we think about it like a bar stool and you've got three legs. You've got RiverStreet, and you've got the EMC, and the County. And if you can have everybody at the table discussing this, everybody has their own predefined desire and interest for why they want to be having this discussion. But having everybody at the table, you can go ahead and say, "Okay county, here's the plan. Your county needs a design. You need to know what the engineering cost is going to be. You need a blueprint for your county. We have brought to the table a partner with our EMC and we want to come into your county and we want to see what the opportunities are." We need to engage the interest of people that live there and we need to have an engineering study. We need to have all of these layers that we put together so we know the cost, we know who needs to be served and where they need to be served. And then we take all of that and kind of wrap it up into a business model and go after grant funds, go after state grant, federal funds, anything that's available out there. We put our own private money into it. We put our grants money into it and we make it happen.

Christopher Mitchell: In talking about that, you actually reminded me of something that I wanted to make sure we finished with.

Greg Coltrain: Good, good. You bring out the best in people. You know that, right?

Christopher Mitchell: We've talked about the telephone co-ops, we've talked about the electric co-ops. The RiverStreet is a for-profit, but its destiny may be to be a broadband co-op. And I think this is real important. I've talked with Eric about it. I've talked with you about it. Let's talk about that briefly. That that is the end goal ultimately.


Greg Coltrain: I'm glad you mentioned that because we do champion that message a lot and I've heard Eric say repeatedly our desire is maybe one day to get to a point where we just roll all this into a broadband cooperative. All the properties that we have. The customer and members, they're all ready getting the same benefit one way or the other. Pricing is equalized, the quality of that we provide is equalized. I mean, whether they're a member or nonmember, we treat them like a member anyway. It's in our DNA, it's who we are. And so I think that would be our longterm desire.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Greg.

Greg Coltrain: You're very welcome. It was great to see you again.

Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning in to the special Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. And if you follow @NCHeartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of for the series music, What's the Angle, licensed through Creative Commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time.