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Electric Utilities and Rural Coops Are Increasingly Important in Nation’s Broadband

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot from the session at Broadband Communities Virtual Summit

October 2, 2020 – Electric utilities and rural cooperatives are increasingly building out broadband, agreed panelists at last week’s Broadband Communities Virtual Summit.

Sheryl Riggs, CEO of Utilities Technology Council, believed that while utilities will probably not surpass other providers to become a primary source of broadband, they will become an increasingly important element of the internet landscape.

Matt Sayre, managing director of Onward Eugene, went further and said that in places where private sector internet providers haven’t stepped up their game, electric utilities might well become the primary source.

Rural communities are likely to see even more of this, said Hank Blackwood, chief technology services officer for Dalton Utilities, for the 33,500-population city in Georgia. Still, their prevalence will depend on the community, said Phil Sharps, manager of technical services at Clarksville Connected Utilities in Arkansas.

Each utility has their own reasons for deploying broadband through their networks.

Riggs explained that for UTC, it’s about closing the digital divide. That divide is a problem not only in rural areas, but also in suburban and urban areas.

Utilities are in a unique position to provide high speed broadband through their networks at affordable prices because of their existing infrastructure, she said.

Most of the panelists in the session, which was streamed on September 24, worked with existing infrastructure, Sharps explained that Clarksville Connected Utilities installed its fiber only in 2018 as part of a supervisory control and data acquisition system.

The SCADA system allowed Clarksville to upgrade its systems for Internet-of-Things technologies, and also to provide internet service to the town.

Sayre said that both the private and public sectors can play to their strengths and invest in utility-deployed broadband.

The public sector is well positioned to invest in infrastructure because long-term investment is what it does best. That allows the private sector to innovate, which is what it does best, he said.

The session, “Who Will Connect America’s Broadband,” was moderated by consultant Heather Gold.

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