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Tri-County Rural Electric Delivering Connectivity, Expanding Partnerships, in Appalachians - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 383
Tri-County Electric Cooperative in north central Pennsylvania has listened to its members' wishes and is developing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for Internet access. While Christopher was at the October Broadband Communities Economic Development event in Alexandria, Virginia, he met up with Craig Eccher, President and CEO of the co-op, to learn more about the project and the cooperative.
Craig describes how the infrastructure was needed for basic electric operations - to improve communication between substations - and that members had also begun to request Internet access from their co-op. When they sought information through a survey, the results were supportive, but cooperative leadership needed to take a creative approach to get members to attend a meeting for discussion about project details. Craig describes how the demographic support surprised and encouraged them and how state and federal funding provided the boost they needed to confirm the project.
The cooperative is redefining partnerships both in the community and in ways that go beyond the co-op's service area. Craig talks about business and member partnerships that will help expand the use of the infrastructure. He also describes how the project has breathed new life into the role of the cooperative within the Appalachian community it serves and how, while happy with the new excitement, it's important to manage expectations.
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Craig Eccher: The whole project itself has made the rural electric co-op relevant again to its membership.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 383 of the Community Boadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. While Christopher was at the Broadband Communities economic development forum in Alexandria, Virginia, last October he interviewed several people for the podcast, including this week's guest, Craig Eccher from the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative in Pennsylvania. Craig and Christopher discussed the cooperative's fiber optic project that will bring high quality Internet access to the rural areas within their seven county service area. Located in the north central region of the state and in the Appalachians, large Internet access providers have been hesitant to deploy there due to lack of population density and the challenges in a rugged geography. Craig talks about some of the reasons why the co-op chose to invest in the project, the main impetus being the wishes of cooperative members. He discusses the creative approach they took to find out members' wishes. Christopher and Craig also touch on the co-op's partnerships with established municipal network Chattanooga EPB and with cable companies that serve in the area. There are benefits that go beyond connectivity, and as an electric guy, Craig is sure to point those out. Now here's Craig Eccher from Pennsylvania's Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Another live edition — this one also from Alexandria, as we'e here at the Broadband Communities event, talking about economic development. I just pulled Craig Eccher, the president of Tri-County Electric in my home state of Pennsylvania. Welcome to the show.
Craig Eccher: Thanks Chris. Really enjoy being here.
Christopher Mitchell: You were just on a panel with some other rural electric cooperatives, and it was a wonderful discussion. We'll capture some of that here. You know, you came across my radar because of this ambitious project that you're doing. Can you start off by just, you know, describing where you are in Pennsylvania and what you're working on regarding fiber?
Craig Eccher: Chris, we're in north central Pennsylvania, close to the New York border. We cover about 5,000 square miles, seven counties we're in. It's a beautiful area of Pennsylvania. The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is there. We call it the wilds of Pennsylvania. It's a beautiful area, but it is very rural, and we have low density — about six customers per mile. About four years ago, we started embarking on looking at running Fiber-to-the-Home because there is a lack of high-speed broadband in our region. So, you know, typical speeds run around two meg, and with today's technology, that's a pretty tough sell when you're trying to operate equipment. It's about a 2,800 mile fiber build to the home. We'll be serving most of our membership and some of the folks outside of our territory also. So, we're excited about it. We're breaking ground, we're stringing fiber in two weeks, so we're excited to be able to bring this to our membership.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So you're about to start turning people on for some beta testing type of stuff.
Craig Eccher: We will be turning on some folks. We call them "friendlies," where we basically say, "Hey, here's our service. It's free. We just want to test it out." We'll probably do about 50 friendlies, but overall over a five year period we'll probably end up with about 10,000 customers — maybe more than that, but right now we're looking at about 10,000.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you how we got this started. I'd love if you could just tell us a little bit about the challenges you had with engagement, how you resolved those, and that helped to lead to this mandate for doing broadband work.
Craig Eccher: Well, you know, Chris, I'll be the first one to say I wasn't probably the first one out of the box who said, "Hey, let's do this." I'm an electric and a gas guy, not a telecommunications guy. Although, I will say I was getting a lot of requests out of my own staff, the engineering department, because we have 26 substations. We're putting intelligent equipment out in the electric system, so we can improve our reliability. The trouble is we just didn't have good communication to those substations, let alone devices downstream from those substations. So this was coming on our radar screen, and I was being asked that, you know, maybe we should pursue this. What really drove the decision is the input from our membership, the electric membership, asking us to do something with broadband like what we did with electric back in the '30s. So we started issuing surveys, and surprisingly it was like an 80 percent response rate on "Yes, we want you to do this." So, we made it a strategic initiative. We started looking at it from a financial standpoint. Chris, I understand why the incumbents don't do this. It's very ugly once you get out in that rural area. So we have a pretty risk averse board, and they said, "Figure out a way we can do it," because we had been through different acquisitions in the past where we expanded our footprint with other electric utilities and gas companies, and so we did. And it was a good story to tell. Legislatively. It was a great story to tell. Pennsylvania stepped up to the plate and we secured $17.1 million from Penn DOT to help expand the network. We ended up with $1.5 million in a state grant. We ended up very successful in the CAF auction with $33 million, and just recently we received an Appalachian Regional Commission grant for $2.5 million, which actually is making this work because from a financial standpoint it was really ugly. But now moving forward, financially it's very feasible. We're excited about it.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say that, are you in a state in which you now have all the funding committed that you would need to go everywhere —.
Craig Eccher: No.
Christopher Mitchell: — or that you have a sense of you have enough to get a good start, and you have a sense that you'll be able to find the additional funding you'll need in the future to finish it off.
Craig Eccher: We have enough to take enough risk off the table for the cooperative. It's a 2,800 mile build. It's about an $80 million project. So we definitely have enough that makes it — takes enough business risk off the table. Obviously, we'll be looking for additional grant funding, but this gives us the ability to put this project on a fast track of 500 miles a year. Without that grant funding, it would have been impossible. To even get going in the first piece, we needed about $25 million to really make this a go. That may have been more of a 10 year project at that point, but right now we feel pretty good about where we're going with this. The interesting part is the partners you bring along the way. You know, we're thinking Fiber-to-the-Home, Fiber-to-the-Business, and now we're looking at backhaul, we're looking at middle mile solutions, and we have a lot of people coming to our table, which is making this project even more exciting and more feasible. And I said earlier, it makes us feel relevant again with our membership. They're excited.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that discussion about how you moved your engagement with your members to the fair — I just want to do a very brief overview of that because I think people will find that interesting.
Craig Eccher: Well, one of the things with rural electric co-ops, we hold an annual meeting every year. We get the members together, and we talk about what we've done, what we're gonna do. Our issue was — and this is typical for most co-ops — we had less than one half of 1 percent attending the annual meeting. It was pretty costly to put that on. It was on a Saturday, and we put together a mini fair and food and the whole works. So we just didn't have many numbers coming out, so what we ended up doing is we partnered with a local county fair. It was the largest county fair in our territory, and we ended up taking our membership that would attend the annual meeting from about 180 members to now over 1,200 members. Along with guests, we're talking about 2,500 people are attending this event. This was a big win for the county fair because we've turned their Tuesday into a Saturday. And the reason we made it on Tuesday — our demographics are largely an elderly population. It's senior day on Tuesday, which was perfect for us to help us manage costs on this fair, but it gave us a chance to really engage the membership. And surprisingly, the discussions that came at this annual meeting, we didn't hear anything about reliability, we didn't hear anything about cost of electricity. What we heard is "When are you going to run broadband," so we found that really interesting. And so, that kind of aligned with what we saw in the surveys, and I think those people that were attending the meeting had filled out surveys.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure, right. When you show up, you get listened to.
Craig Eccher: Yeah. You know, we actually had a member standing up complaining about Verizon, and I get a kick out of this, and I told him, "You're at the wrong tent. You need to go down three tents."
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So mentioning the senior population, you have a senior to senior program.
Craig Eccher: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Tell me about that.
Craig Eccher: It's a fantastic program. It's something that we talked about and developed in staff meetings. Knowing we have an elderly population, when we run the hundred megabit serving your home, you can use it for telemedicine. You can use for banking. You can use it for communicating with your family, your grandchildren. You know, it's unlimited what you can use this for, especially in a rural area. If you want to get to somewhere, you have to drive. The weather's not always the best, especially in northern Pennsylvania.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, for people who don't understand, there's not a lot of straight roads in that part of Pennsylvania.
Craig Eccher: No, no. That's right. That's right. And a lot of them are dirt, and you're in the Appalachians, is where we live. So we started talking about this: how do we help this generation or this segment of our customer base? And so we created this program called senior to senior, and we worked hand in hand with the Department of Education and the Department of Aging, where we would take seniors in high school and train them to work with senior citizens to utilize computers, iPads, to access their banks, to work with their healthcare providers, to learn how to Skype and Facetime, and just an array of functions that you could do from your house and not have to leave the home. It's been great to students. The students get credit at the high school for this. Elected officials love it. I think it's made us relevant. It's made the Department of Aging relevant again. It's made Department of Education relevant, and it's a great interaction with the seniors in high school with the elderly population. We're running this throughout the county, seven different areas in each county. We'll be rolling this out from county to county as we build the broadband out.
Christopher Mitchell: Do you have any good stories about what the seniors in high school have gotten out of it? Aside from credit for school.
Craig Eccher: Well, I think the seniors in high school finally figure out, you know, there's something they have to offer to a group that they actually look up to, and you see them engage. It's great, and it's great to see the seniors take interest in what they're doing at their high school and what they want to do in their future. So not only are they teaching at the same time, but they're learning from people they're instructing on what their career paths could be. And I just think that's a great transfer of information between generations.
Christopher Mitchell: And I would hope also build more stronger social ties. So people, when they maybe go away to Penn State or something like that, they'll come back because I think ultimately that's what we're looking for in a lot of these regions is making sure that people perceive there's a lot of value in returning to where they grew up.
Craig Eccher: From the cooperative side, that's the reason why we're really doing this. You know, it's just not so that we bring high speed Internet into your home, but we're actually going to make our rural areas more competitive. We're hoping to see small business develop over time. We'll see a younger generation because when you try to live in your cities today, especially your tier ones, I don't know how anybody affords to do that anymore. So we're going to see — I'm convinced we're going to see migrations to tier two cities and then back to rural areas. But if you want to see that migration, you need for the new generation — especially the millennials — you need to have infrastructure so that they can do what they do in the urban areas. They also really appreciate the environment, and so you need to be able to engage them with outdoor activities. So I think communities that really are investing in infrastructure for outdoor recreation, they're going to hit it off. So if you have infrastructure for technology, you have infrastructure for recreation, and I always laugh about this: the microbreweries. Real critical too in that equation.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, I'm a big fan of the work James Fallows and Deb Fallows have done. They've — you know, not very close to you, but they were in Erie, Pennsylvania. They've been to Allentown and Bethlehem. They write a lot about how breweries are an important part of a sign that a community is on the upswing rather than the downswing.
Craig Eccher: I agree. It's a place to socialize. It's great to, yeah, discuss current events.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, let me switch topics entirely to something that I was really excited to hear you say. I had no sense that anyone was doing this, but you've partnered with Chattanooga.
Craig Eccher: Yeah. They're helping us with our tier one, tier two calls. We visited Chattanooga early on — very impressed with what they've done so far with that city. They've transformed that city into a high tech city. The EPB, their municipal association — fantastic folks that work there. And after working with them for a short bit, I just thought these are the folks that if we want to be successful, you want to partner with successful other entities, and Chattanooga really turned that on. We've had them visit us now. Their team have come up to visit us. We're excited about it. So, they will be a critical partner of our rollout.
Christopher Mitchell: Now what do you — so when I look at Chattanooga, I like a lot of the things you saw. You're an electric guy though. Chattanooga received $111 million from the Department of Energy specifically, I think, to get a sense of what could be done with the electric grid. As an electric guy in a part of Pennsylvania that gets severe weather — you know, all of Pennsylvania really does — what do you see when you look at Chattanooga that's gonna help the electric?
Craig Eccher: Chris, you know, it's funny you bring that up. When I visited Chattanooga, went down with a senior staff team, we're focusing on the rollout of fiber and broadband, but what really caught my ear, because I am an electric guy, they reduced their outage hours that their customers see by 50 percent because of the rollout of fiber. That really caught my ear, and I said, "I need to know more." And so where that led is, because they had the fiber rollout, they were able to put smart devices in their substations, downstream of their substations, and so they really created what we call a self-healing electric circuit. So even though they still have the same number of outages per year — and I'm sure they've cut those down too, but I mean, they still have a high number of those, like we all do.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, they've had a rash of tornadoes.
Craig Eccher: But they've also been able to cut the time in half of what their customers see, as far as a power outage. That's phenomenal. And you know, in today's day and age, electricity isn't a commodity. It's a service. You need it. And the only way they did that is by putting a smart devices in the field, and in order to make those smart devices work, they have to communicate. You need a fiber backbone, and that is a benefit of rolling out fiber. And in a rural network, it's even more critical because your feeders and your circuits are so much longer. You know, if we can shorten the amount of folks that are exposed to a power outage, that's a win.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, yeah, I mean it saves you money. One of the things that I was amazed that Chattanooga has gotten a lot of attention for some of these things, but the things you don't think about is, like, they have to call people back from their families and sometimes at dinner time or other times because when the power goes out, you need to have crews that are trying to figure out what's going on. They have to get people answering the phones. If you have this automation, it really takes some of the stress off of your workforce.
Craig Eccher: Yeah, it does. You know, right now currently, think about the power lines running through the Appalachian mountains. Sometimes those lineman have to walk a mile or more through those hills. Now we can actually pinpoint the outage more precisely, save that time, save that wear and tear on those lineman. I gotta tell you, you know, that's one thing I don't think we give enough credit to is those linemen that are out there. You're right. I mean, they get the call Thanksgiving day. You know, it is probably raining, snowing, sleeting — that's when they're out there.
Christopher Mitchell: They'd rather be hunting probably.
Craig Eccher: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: Or doing something more fun.
Craig Eccher: And so they're out there doing — you know, and that takes a toll on their body. So the more precision we can have saves time, reduces outage time to the customers, but it also really helps the linemen out in the long run. And so they're looking forward to it too, this technology as it rolls out, so we're excited about that.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things you mentioned is that I would have assumed the cable companies would look at what you're doing and just be uniformly hostile and horrified, but it sounds like you have a better relationship with them than I might've expected.
Craig Eccher: Well, we've been working very closely with the cable companies. I gotta tell you, I'm pretty impressed with what they do. They get technology. They're some of the leaders in technology out there when it's coming to broadband deployment, but the areas that we're going to going to serve are areas that they don't want to serve. And so, we're finding ways to partner with each other, doing joint projects together, leveraging each other. Now, there probably will be some overbuild here and there, but for the most part we're not going to see it. And this is something that I've gone around and talked quite a bit about, is that I hear the topic, "There's no broadband in rural America. There's no, you know, good broadband in rural Pennsylvania."
Christopher Mitchell: Often said by people who've never been in rural areas.
Craig Eccher: That's right, and the fact is there are pockets of good broadband in rural America. There are pockets of good broadband in rural Pennsylvania. And many times it's the cable companies and it's small telcos that are actually providing that.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. No, we've written a little bit about — I worked on a study with a professor at Penn State on Pennsylvania for the Commonwealth to consider what to do. And actually, one of the people who introduced me to you, Kevin Klane, introduced me to some of his other clients in Pennsylvania — these locally owned, family run companies often that have been tremendous at serving all of their own customers with fiber and then expanding into nearby areas.
Craig Eccher: Yeah, and we're working with those folks. And one of the things that we sit down and we talk about, you know, is if you're providing 25/3, 100 meg, I don't wanna overbuild you. It makes no sense, and that saves us money, right? So I don't want to go head to head if you're providing a great service. I think it's not justified. So we do see those pockets. So if you'd take a look at our buildout on a map, you'll see we're building all around those pockets, although we are doing joint projects with those folks, sharing fibers. So I think it's a win-win. It is amazing when I hear there's no broadband in rural America because there are pockets of good broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, no, that's one of the things that we've done is we've looked at — the example that I often use because it's so striking is 70 percent of North Dakota by landmass has Fiber-to-the-Home available. The best broadband in North Dakota is not in Fargo or Grand Forks where, like, the majority of dense population is. It's where 60 percent of it is actually rural telephone co-ops. 10 percent of it is independent companies. But there's a lot of places. Like half of South Dakota has Fiber-to-the-Home. I think, you know, on the order of 20 to 30 percent of rural Minnesota has Fiber-to-the-Home. There's tremendous pockets. The sad part is then you go a few miles away — and this is actually what I want to lead into with you is that, you know, I don't want to — you don't have to belabor the point, but I am frustrated when I look at the fact that the result of the CAF auction is that there are people who are going to be getting your service and very close to them, there's people who are going to be getting Viasat. And the problem is not so much just that Viasat is going to be having money to serve them, but that then you or another telephone company or someone else couldn't get money from ReConnect or a different source to bring a high quality fixed connection to that place.
Craig Eccher: That's an interesting scenario because when we were in the auction, you know, we don't know for sure, but I suspect Viasat was one of the folks that were competing against us in the auction. We're not even sure yet how Visat's going to fulfill their obligations under CAF. I mean that's yet to be seen. Yeah, I mean, that's a scenario that can play out, that in the next auction that would come along if some of those census block groups would come back up, we may want to go after those, but now we won't. That's a dilemma that I think — it's a policy issue that FCC needs to really, really work on it.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I know NRECA is definitely focused on this, and many rural broadband advocates are focused on it because — you know, I don't even see it as a criticism of ViaSat so much as it's a program in which, you know, if it's going to take you three or four years to build there, then it's really great that they have a Viasat option, but it shouldn't make it less likely you're able to build there.
Craig Eccher: That's right. But without economic support, it's going to be very, very difficult is what we're finding because, I've said, we're six customers per mile — not even six customers per mile density. That's a tough model when you take a look at the revenue that'll come back per mile on that build.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and six people per mile or six potential customers per mile isn't as bad in Minnesota where it's a lot easier to just throw a plow in and get fiber in, but you have those pesky mountains.
Craig Eccher: The mountains, trees, rock, you know, the terrain, and most of it, 95 percent, is going to be overhead and utilize infrastructure that we have. It's a tough build, but yeah, it's a good dilemma you bring up.
Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything else that we should talk about before we move on? I've wanted to have this interview for a while, so I'm really glad you came to this event and we had a chance to catch up.
Craig Eccher: Well, I'm glad too, Chris. I think this has been good. Just to throw out to your listeners that the whole project itself has made the rural electric co-op relevant again to its membership — not that we'll ever feel what it was like back in the '30s, but I think we're close. And you know, it's great when your members are yelling out, you know, excited about the build. On the other hand, it's probably something a large company would love to have. It's meeting their expectations because everybody wants it now. So we're being very surgical in our marketing on how we publicize it but the reality is we have 2,800 miles — actually we have about 3,300 miles of power lines. We cover about 5,000 square miles of territory. You just don't build this overnight.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right.
Craig Eccher: And meeting that expectation is really the toughest thing to do, but I always ask myself, "Well I bet Verizon would love that issue."
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Craig Eccher: To have that, so we just go to work.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Great. Well, thank you so much.
Craig Eccher: You're welcome Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Craig Eccher from Pennsylvania's Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/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 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 helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 383 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.