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Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative Steps Up, Offers FTTH in Missouri's Bootheel - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 344
Missouri is one of the states where electric cooperatives are taking the lead in bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas. This week, we talk with Jack Davis, Vice President of IT and Special Projects at Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative. The co-op is in the midst of deploying Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to members in their service area, located in Missouri’s “Bootheel” region.
The mostly agricultural area consists of three counties that extend down from the southeast corner of Missouri and is surrounded by Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The co-op brought electric service to homes in the region in the 1930s and Jack and his colleagues are performing a similar service today by bringing broadband to a region where large corporate ISPs haven't invested much in infrastructure. In this interview, he describes what Internet access is like for people in the region before the cooperative decided on the project, and how strong support from residents and businesses has helped the cooperative determine the services to offer.
Jack and Christopher also discuss how the geography and environment influenced engineering and design plans, how locals are responding to the new service, and potential plans for growth in the region. In this conversation, you’ll also hear about some of the partnerships that Pemiscot-Dunklin has forged with other cooperatives in order to offer better services to cooperative members.
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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.
Jack Davis: The goal of our Fiber-to-the-Home project is to serve our rural membership, for the ones that have the desire. Now you know, obviously if we have some rural members way out in the middle of nowhere that aren't interested, we're not going to build it out there, but if the desire is there, we're going to serve 100 percent of our membership.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 344 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Jack Davis's grandfather also worked for the Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative. While his grandpa worked to bring electricity to people in Missouri's Bootheel region, Jack is working on a project that will connect residents and businesses to high quality Internet access. The electric cooperative is deploying a Fiber-to-the-Home network, and people who have had poor connectivity for decades are signing up. In this interview. Jack and Christopher discuss the decision to invest in fiber versus other technologies. They also talk about the storm 10 years ago that influenced that decision, how the project is going, and how it's being received by rural residents. Now, here's Christopher and Jack Davis talking about the rural Fiber-to-the-Home project from the Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative in southeast Missouri.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis. Today I'm speaking with Jack Davis, the vice president and CTO of Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative. Welcome to the show, Jack.
Jack Davis: Thanks Chris. Great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: So the first thing I should ask you is where you're located because I understand you're a bit sensitive if people accidentally type the "boot hill" of Missouri. [laughs]
Jack Davis: That's a common mistake with people that aren't from here . . . But we're in the little appendage at the southeast corner of Missouri that looks like it should be part of Arkansas, pretty much, and it's called the Bootheel just because it looks like the heel of a boot. That's where the name comes from. A lot of times people will think "boot hill," like "h-i-l-l," but it's actually a "bootheel," like "h-e-e-l."
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and you're one of the early electric cooperatives — one of the first ones formed after REA, it looks like.
Jack Davis: We were formed in 1937 — is when the co-op got its start. It's been a big part of the community here for years and years. My grandfather was a service foreman here. He worked here for 42 years and retired. I've been with the cooperative now for about five.
Christopher Mitchell: All right, and one of the things that you just mentioned to me is that if we look back in history, it's 10 years since a major ice storm. And so before we get into the broadband discussion, I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about that and maybe how it changed the direction of the cooperative's thinking.
Jack Davis: Yea, whe had a storm in 2009 and this is right at the 10 year anniversary of that. There's a lot of information, pictures and things like that, out there on the Internet about it, but having lived through it, we were predicted to get a major ice storm. They were calling for it for days ahead of time, and I remember going to bed that night thinking, "Well, you know, we're in for it." This was before I was with the cooperative, but I was still a member. And the next morning, we woke up and we still had power, and I thought, "Boy, we made it," you know. At about 9 or 10 o'clock that more in the power went out and I thought, "Well, here we are." And you walk outside, and it was just creepy because there was about an inch and a half to two inches ice load on everything, on trees. You could hear branches just crashing and falling everywhere, ad it was kinda creepy because there were none of the ordinary sounds that you hear.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, it just sucks it all up.
Jack Davis: Yeah, and then night fell, and this whole area was just black. Anyway, that lasted for about three weeks — where I live, anyway. We had people out from anywhere from — I think we got the first ones back on in about two weeks, and a lot of people didn't have power for three to four weeks. It took out about 80% of our system at the time and our G&T was working hard to get the substations going again, so we were prioritizing on that, what they got going, we were able to go in and get customers back online. It was a major ordeal. We had thousands of linemen here from other cooperatives helping, and like I said, it took out about 80% of our entire system.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that much ice, you sort of — I was just thinking that maybe if you had everyone running as many appliances as they could all night long, you might have gotten enough heat to prevent it from forming. That seems like it would have been a potential experiment.
Jack Davis: Yeah, it was definitely an ordeal, hopefully a once in a lifetime ordeal, but since then we've replaced most of the damage in our system. We work, you know, every year or two to shore that up and make improvements to hopefully avoid this in the future.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. So let's talk about the way that you're getting into fiber. You're doing Fiber-to-the-Home. What's the goal of the Fiber-to-the-Home. Is it to serve everyone then?
Jack Davis: The goal of our Fiber-to-the-Home project is to serve our rural membership, for the ones that have the desire. Now, you know, obviously if we have some rural members way out in the middle of nowhere that aren't interested, we're not going to build that out there. But if the desire's there, we're going to serve 100 percent of our membership.
Christopher Mitchell: And what's the name of it?
Jack Davis: It's Pemiscot Dunklin Fiber. We looked at some different names, and we were trying catchy names and things like that when we started. And in the end we wanted people to realize that this was tied to the co-op because we're proud of our co-op and the majority of our membership are as well. And we wanted those two things closely associated, so we just went with Pemiscot-Dunklin Fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: When I was typing up some notes, I had a little mistyping error and I was thinking you could call it "DunkLink" if you wanted to — put a "k" on the end.
Jack Davis: We went through a lot of iterations in the planning stages and in the end we settled on Pemiscot-Dunklin Fiber and for short, a lot of times we'll just call it PD Fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: And so when you decided to do this, was there a demand from membership? Were they coming to meetings? Were they contacting the GM and the board? How did you . . . Or was this something that you decided to do, you know, as the management team?
Jack Davis: We had a lot of membership contact, and some of this was before my time, talking to our manager, to our CEO, to our board members, seeing what we could do as a cooperative to bring broadband to the rural membership. About the only other option here besides satellite is fixed wireless at the moment. And you know, you're seeing speeds on that system of 2 to 3 Meg, and people were just starving for broadband. One of the first things after the CEO hired me, we were walking down the hall the next day, and he said, "Okay, you're here. Now what can we do about Internet service?" At the time, I really didn't think fiber was an option. I just felt like it was probably too costly — which I come from a dial-up ISP background, back in the 90s. So we started checking into it and we thought, well, a wireless system's probably going to be the way to go, so we kind of started moving in that direction. I was not looking forward to it because I've operated wireless in the past, and I know the issues associated with that. Our CEO wanted to continue checking on the fiber route, so we worked with Conexon — which I think you've had Jonathan Chambers on before.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, many times.
Jack Davis: Yeah, he's a great guy. Conexon is a wonderful partner in this; they're our consultants. So they did a study for us to determine if it was feasible or not, a feasibility study, and the results of that study just blew me away. They showed that not only would it work, but you know, it should work well. So we deliberated for several months there. We had a presentation with the board. There was a lot of questions and answers provided there. And in the end, we decided that if we're going to move forward, that Fiber-to-the-Home is the way to go.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's talk a little bit about how you're doing it because not only are you doing it, but common wisdom is that it's easier for rural electric cooperatives such as yourself to do it in extremely rural areas because you have access to the poles. But from what I know, and as we talked about with the ice storm, you're not even using that advantage.
Jack Davis: That's correct. That's generally one of the reasons co-ops get into this because they can leverage existing infrastructure to build their network out. In our case, with that ice storm that we referred to, our engineering firm calculates an inch and a half of ice load on everything we do pretty much and have to account for that. And just by adding another fiber on our pole spans, we were going to have to go through and do so much make ready, that it was just going to be enormously — it was going to be very costly. So we started checking into the option of going underground. Luckily we have a local company that has done a lot of fiber work for various companies. I won't mention any names, but they're very experienced in the underground boring and plowing. And so, we went to them and, and they were really honestly interested in being home for a while. They'd been on the road for so many years —
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Jack Davis: — that they cut us kind of a sweetheart deal for the project because that way they could be home. So in the end, we decided that instead of going aerial that we were going to go underground. It added a little bit of cost to the overall cost of the project, but if you figured in, factored in the make ready we would have had to do on our poles, it's gonna wind up saving us some money. Plus, it's going to be a more robust system. And with that being said, we're using public right-of-way as well, so now we're not limited on where we go. We no longer have to have pole attachment agreements with other utilities. If we want to go into an area we don't serve, we use public right-of-way and go underground.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're hearing from some of the rural electrics is a challenge with easements. Is that a concern in Missouri? Is that something you had to work through?
Jack Davis: There's been just a handful of times that we've had to get an easement signed from a landowner or something like that. In general, we stick to public right-of-way. We've met with counties; they've been very helpful. They want us in there, so they've been very good to work with. The state has been excellent to work with, Missouri DOT, on giving us the permits that we need. It really hasn't been an issue.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm glad to hear that because too often we hear the opposite, so I'm glad that the system's working for you. What kind of services are you making available?
Jack Davis: So we're offering triple play services. We have broadband Internet, phone, and TV, as well. One of the decisions that we made in the beginning is that we didn't want to invest a lot of money in a headend for video, so we partnered with a Co-Mo Connect, which is another cooperative here in Missouri. They're one of the first ones to get into the broadband game here in Missouri, and they've already got an established headend and they're already partnering with other cooperatives to provide TV service. So we utilize them for our TV service and then we use another company for phone, and so we're providing all three to our membership.
Christopher Mitchell: And do you overlap with any telephone cooperatives?
Jack Davis: We do not. There are no cooperatives here. We've got just the standard — I believe AT&T is the only company that's had landline service here. We do overlap with a cable company in a few of the smaller communities that we serve, but that's really about it.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. What kind of Internet speeds are you offering? What do your tiers look like?
Jack Davis: We only have two tiers. We're offering 100 Meg for $50 a month and one Gig for $80.
Christopher Mitchell: Have you started turning people on yet?
Jack Davis: We have. We've got about — we're right at 600 active subscribers right now. We began turning people on about July of last year
Christopher Mitchell: And what's the mix in terms of what people are subscribing to?
Jack Davis: We're about probably 80/20 of 100 Meg versus Gig. We do have several Gig customers, and that's probably about the ratio as far as the speeds go. As far as TV goes, it's probably a 60/40 mix of Internet only versus Internet and TV customers. And then phone, we're probably having around 15 to 20 percent of our customers take landline phone.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm really curious coming from the Midwest as well — sometimes people talk about Tornado Alley or you know, where the most tornadoes are. It switches almost every year, but you're right there in the path obviously. So is th fiber that you're building going to help the electric system and its resilience?
Jack Davis: We believe it will. We haven't started yet, but we're going to utilize that network for SCADA and things like that on our electric side — outage management. Currently we use a power line carrier system to read our meters, but we are going to connect our electric controls and so forth to our network so that we'll have that real time data that quite honestly we just haven't had in the past.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the other things I was curious about regarding the ice storm is, I presume you had to replace a bunch of poles then. Was it the case then that you still had a lot of original poles? I'm just trying to get a sense of what the pole mix is like for an REC like you in the Midwest because we hear concerns from a lot of folks about poles and you know, putting the fiber up to load them up even further. I'm so in the dark about the kind of policies you have in terms of pole replacement. I mean, is the problem typically that the poles are old or is it just the size of them? I mean, what determines whether or not they are going to be reliable in the event of an ice storm?
Jack Davis: Well, it's a combination of factors. Pole age is definitely one of the factors — class of the pole, which is the sturdiness of it, how well it's built. The structure of the pole is another one of the factors. But when you've got an ice storm the way we had in 2009, there's almost — I mean, it's a act of God. There's almost nothing —
Christopher Mitchell: Right, that's game over at that point for that scale of store.
Jack Davis: Pretty much. About the only thing you could do is go with higher class poles and shorten your span length way down. You know, when you start getting a inch and a half to two ice load on your power lines at some point, you know, the more it builds up — and plus the wind is a factor as well, which you can do things like put devices on your lines to prevent the galloping that you get with wind. But at some point, you know, with that catastrophic ice storm we had, I think we were right in the bullseye of the worst area hit here. And you know, at some point, there's not a lot you can do except sit back and try to rebuild when it's over.
Christopher Mitchell: What kind of a mix of plowing are you looking at? Because, you know, you mentioned the boring and I haven't looked at the map. I'm okay at geography; I'm not great. I'm not sure how much mountainous area you're in there with the Ozarks
Jack Davis: We're several hours away from that. We're actually in a very flat, non-rocky soil here, so that's another reason that we were able to get a great rate as far as our underground installation. This whole area used to be kind of a swampy area back in the 1800s. The Corps of Engineers has done a lot of work putting in flood control here. It's a huge agriculture area now, and it's very flat. The soil, like I said, it's non rocky. The only place you're gonna find rocks are on the county roads, so it's very easy to plow and very easy to bore.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Okay, because that's where up here in Minnesota, in some of our farm country as well, we have that same benefit. But if you had received a sense of, from the feasibility study, that it would have been prohibitive to go underground, if the costs were so great, would that have pushed you back toward wireless or would you have been trying to figure out how to get some of the fiber on the poles?
Jack Davis: I believe we would have done more work towards shoring up our poles and shortening spans. It would have cost quite a bit, you know, more money, but I think in the end we were pretty much set on going with the fiber as long as long as we could make it work.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. The last question I wanted to ask you is the reaction, and first I think the reaction from some of your members that have had it but also I'm curious about the neighboring RECs — if your building it has made them more likely to consider something like that.
Jack Davis: We've only got one neighbor electric cooperative that's doing a Fiber-to-the-Home system at the moment and that is SEMO Cooperative, GoSEMO. They're just north of us, and we've actually partnered with them. We're under the same G&T, generation and transmission cooperative, that provides us our power, and so we're actually connected via a fiber network already. And we partnered with them on some transportation issues that we had, transportation routes. So basically, we purchased a route and they purchased a route, and then we bonded our networks together and provided paths for each other in and out and provided some redundancy for both of our networks. It's worked out really well.
Christopher Mitchell: How have your own members reacted?
Jack Davis: Our own members are elated. We've got one — and keep in mind, these are members that in the past have only had, you know, 2 or 3 Meg connections. But we've got one pretty well known photographer in the area that does a lot of photography work. He got his fiber connected and he bought the Gig package and after they installed it, they said, well, you know, try it out. So he sat down and he had a portfolio that he normally uploads. And that morning he called me and he was laughing so much that he couldn't hardly talk.
Christopher Mitchell: [laughs]
Jack Davis: But he said that normally when he uploads a portfolio package — which is, you know, I don't know how many raw pictures he uploads or whatever to the processor. He said normally he starts it, he types out his description and information, and then he just lets it run. And it usually takes six to eight hours to complete. And he said it was literally done uploading before he got the description typed out. So he was just beyond ecstatic. He was so happy that he almost couldn't talk. But that's just one example. You know, it's almost like thirsty people getting water around here. There's just a lot of excitement, lot of people wondering when they're going to get it — because this is a four year project that we're working on. We're just in the beginning of the second year right now. A lot of the members are seeing the excitement of our other members that have just received service, and they're wondering when they're going to get it, you know. And we've tried to tamper the expectation down. You know, we want people to realize that this is a longterm project and that we're going to get to them just as soon as we can, but it's just going to take time.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Have you seen any population change in terms of areas that might be adjacent to your electric territory, where they're probably served by maybe AT&T or not at all and they're moving over to your area?
Jack Davis: I think we're so early in the game right now that I think it's a little premature to judge anything like that. I haven't noticed anything in particular. I do know that we're getting a lot of inquiries from areas just around our territory wondering if we'll build service out as well as a lot of the communities here that we don't serve electrically. They're wondering if we'll come into town and serve them, and that's something we're going to take a look at, if they're within our electric footprint but we don't serve that little community or whatever. So that's definitely something that we're going to take a look here.
Christopher Mitchell: All right. How are you financing all of this? Is this something that you're able to do with loans or have you needed to find some subsidies? How does all that work?
Jack Davis: Everything that we've done so far, we're 100 percent self-financed. We were not able to get any of the CAF auction money. The FCC wound up taking off just about every census block in our area before the auction due to an incumbent wireless provider that's here, so we were not able to participate in the CAF auction and take advantage of that. So at this point we're 100 percent self-financed through loans. We did receive one $750,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, which is a local organization here to us. We received $750,000 and SEMO received $250,000, but beyond that, we're 100 percent self-financed with loans.
Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned that the wireless providers most people are using in that area are not delivering anything even close to broadband, and so can I assume that you were pretty frustrated at some of the claims that might have been made or if in fact, it was just the anomaly that that a WISP could provide service to a few households and then therefore entire census blocks were removed [from the auction]?
Jack Davis: We were extremely frustrated. We worked with Jonathan and talked to the FCC a lot. In the end, there just wasn't anything we could do. A lot of it had to do with the way the 477 data is reported. This particular carrier also operates a copper network in a couple of towns here where they provide phone service as well as like DSL, and it wound up taking the whole area off the block, which was pretty disheartening. But we decided, hey, we started this without it and we're gonna finish it without it if we have to.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and what would the difference have been? I mean, obviously it would have been easier on your finances, but is this something that you could have done more rapidly if you had the support of the Connect America Fund?
Jack Davis: That was the idea. You know, we're very interested in building our entire area, not just our electric footprint — you know, everything that that lies within our electric footprint, even if we serve it electrically or not. And this would have allowed us to go into some of those more quickly than we'd be able to otherwise.
Christopher Mitchell: And just to clear up for people then, I'm assuming that you have electric footprint and then there's holes within it basically.
Jack Davis: That's correct. Yeah. There's some larger towns that a private utility has electric service in that we do not cover. We just cover pretty much the rural areas with the exception of a few small communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Thank you Jack for coming on. I appreciate it, and it's just so great to hear more stories of how — you know, frankly, in four years, everyone that you serve is going to have better access and I'll bet I can get in a major urban area in Minnesota. So it's a great investment you're making. Thanks for telling us about it.
Jack Davis: Yes, sir. Thank you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Jack Davis from the Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative in southeast Missouri. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out our important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 344 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.