Broadband for the back 40

Co-ops are building smart grid communications with a broadband bonus

If you live in a city you probably have access to several broadband Internet provider options. The same can’t always be said for those living in rural areas. But there’s good news. Many Illinois electric cooperatives are striving to level the broadband playing field for cooperative members. Broadband communications is important to their own business operations and to the rural areas and communities they serve.

For example, one of the first co-ops to enter the broadband arena was Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative in Winchester.

Randy Long, Operations Manager for the Winchester co-op says, “The driving force behind installing our broadband service was our slow SCADA connection.”

Information access is powerful. Illinois Rural Electric Area Serviceman Darren Hayn likes the fact that the co-op’s wireless broadband system gives him the same information in the field as in the office. Mobile computing technology improves efficiency, paper work and organizes workflow by giving two-way access to real-time data in the field and in the co-op office.

SCADA stands for supervisory control and data acquisition and the technology is an integral part of what many are calling the “smart grid.” SCADA systems are used for monitoring and controlling indust-rial processes like electric systems. In order for an electric utility to remotely monitor and/or control their systems, more communications bandwidth is required. 

“We were doing that through an analog system at the time,” says Long. “But we needed faster backhaul to use it for automated metering infrastructure (AMI) and for two-way communications. Now we use the network for SCADA, AMI and voice communications.”

Of course, for Illinois Rural Electric members there was an added benefit. Because the co-op had taken the initiative in upgrading its network, it could now offer the wireless broadband service to its members. 

“In 2006, we started offering wireless broadband services,” says Jenissa Ezard, Director of Marketing for Illinois Rural Electric. “At the time no one else in the community would do it.”

Bruce Giffin, Illinois Rural Electric’s General Manager says, “The fact of the matter is the service territory, particularly on this side of the Illinois River, was substantially underserved even in the old dial-up days. This is for the economic good and the quality of life of our area. It is absolutely consistent with what the mission has been here since 1936. We are not in the electric business, we are not in the Internet business we are in the quality of life business.”

And, the co-ops foray into broadband has certainly had an impact on the community. Specifically, the change in the way the co-op supports its electric members has been greatly improved.

Sean Middleton, Engineering Manager for the co-op, gives an example, “The bar has been raised. When a lineman shows up and a member says my lights have been blinking, the lineman can tell from his laptop how many times it blinked, and resolve the problem much faster. Linemen can even log into the AMI system from their computers in the truck and look up a history on the meter while sitting there.”

Giffin adds, “And, guess what? When they called before, they weren’t calling to tell us how great a job we’re doing. The communications improvements have led to a smarter grid, and a smart grid equals improved service and happy members. Fewer phone calls are an indicator of that change.”

Like Illinois Rural Electric, other cooperatives have also upgraded their communications infrastructure and begun offering broadband services. Shelby Electric Cooperative in Shelbyville faced many of the same issues as Illinois Rural.

Jim Matlock, Shelby Electric’s Vice President of Engineering says, “The hope is to use the wireless to replace our current radio system that is used in both our SCADA and AMR systems. I am looking into what it takes to get our line regulators and switched capacitors (soon to be installed) information back to the office.”

But then there’s the benefit of providing broadband to members too.

Shelby Electric’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Shallenberger says, “Shelby Electric is always looking for ways to ensure its members are not left behind as progress is made.”

Before entering the broadband business, Shelby Electric conducted studies to find out if its membership would be open to the idea.

Shallenberger says, “According to our 2007 survey of the membership, 66.5 percent of the Shelby Electric members surveyed expressed interest in obtaining access to high speed Internet if it was offered. At that time, 36.6 percent of those surveyed who had Internet access at home were using a dial-up connection. We launched PWR-net in June of 2008. Our last member survey, conducted in 2011, indicates only two percent of the membership surveyed uses a dial-up connection.”

Jo-Carroll Energy’s Manager of Broadband Services Jeff Harrelson says the erection of this tower near the co-op’s Palisades substation was a key component to providing communications infrastructure for it’s “smart grid” infrastructure and broadband services.

Of course, anytime you enter into a new business there are going to be challenges. But for 75 years now, Illinois cooperatives have been overcoming those challenges in order to provide services for rural members. Shelby Electric has done a great job of providing wireless services in its territory, but that success itself has become one of the biggest trials to overcome.

“Without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges has been the increasing dependency on the digital medium to transfer more and more data,” says Kevin Boehm, Shelby Electric’s Information Systems Specialist. “People no longer use the Internet primarily as an information source and e-mail exchange. Now, they depend upon it for the operation of their businesses. All of the new mobile devices have also added greatly to the bandwidth required to operate the system in a manner that ensures member satisfaction.”

One of Shelby Electric’s business members, Van Horn, a fertilizer, chemical and seed provider for central Illinois utilizes a central server for its information systems support, customer fulfillment and accounting coming from its satellite locations. That means that locations in Macon, Bethany, Findlay and Cerro Gordo all need to communicate with the same system.

Dan Mogged, Vice President/COO of Van Horn says, “We have our servers in one spot and so we really rely on good Internet access to be able to run our accounting programs, and we’ve struggled in the past. When I switched to the co-op’s service it made a huge difference. Our accounting service needs to work off one server, and I know that other companies like us have a problem with that because of lack of connectivity, but now that we have this service it seems to be speedy enough to handle our needs.”

In fact, at one time Van Horn had to move its headquarters because of poor Internet service, but with Shelby Electric’s offering, the headquarters can be moved back to its original location.

Unfortunately, offering wireless broadband services has some inherent drawbacks, especially when building a system from scratch. There are some areas where service isn’t available yet.

“We still have the challenge of not being able to reach everyone due to heavy tree foliage and terrain-specific issues,” says Shallenberger. “But we have developed many creative solutions to get as many subscribers as we can onto the system. Some solutions are as simple as providing push-up poles to allow for near line-of-sight on our legacy equipment, and another solution is the launch of a new licensed broadcasting product that translates to greater speeds to places we may not have been able to reach in the past.”

Shelby Electric’s goal is to cover its traditional electric service area in total, and its staff always keeps that in mind when considering the future of PWR-net.

“The percentage of members across Shelby Electric’s service territory having a high-speed Internet connection has grown from 40 to 64 percent in the last five years. With fast, reliable Internet service becoming more of a perceived necessity as opposed to a luxury, we anticipate the adoption rate will continue to grow,” says Shallenberger. “We consider PWR-net to have played an important role in this movement.”

Cooperative broadband interests aren’t limited to the central part of Illinois though. Jo-Carroll Energy, Inc. in Elizabeth also offers wireless broadband services. And, the story there is much the same.

Jo-Carroll Energy expanded its communications infrastructure in order to improve the electric side of the business. Much like Illinois Rural Electric, the initial implementation was for support of SCADA, and two-way data communication with all individual “smart” meters.

“These operational enhancements have allowed for significant improvement in data collection, system efficiency and system reliability, thus providing members more control over their energy usage,” says Jeff Harrelson, Manager of Broadband Services for Jo-Carroll Energy.

Once the electric side of the implementation was in place, there was no reason not to follow through with the plan to also offer broadband services to members.

Harrelson says, “High-speed broadband access for all of Jo-Carroll Energy’s 20,000 members is important for improving quality of life and enhancing community and economic development.”

In fact, one of the co-op’s members, Chestnut Mountain Resort uses bandwidth in a unique way. Mike Murphy, General Manager of the ski resort says, “One of the problems we have is convincing people we have snow when you don’t have it in your own back yard. So, we scattered cameras throughout the skiing terrain. That way we can have people visit our website and click the ‘Live Cameras’ link to see the snow and even watch people ski.”

“We’ve also had numerous TV stations use our cameras for their weather feeds, and, in the offseason for the fall colors. Part of the reason we use Jo-Carroll Energy’s Sand Prairie Wireless service is that our former provider couldn’t get enough bandwidth, so to get what we needed, we entered into an agreement with the co-op,” says Murphy.

You can check out the cameras for yourself by visiting and clicking the link on the left pane for Live Cameras.

Norris Electric Cooperative in Newton took a different approach to broadband services. Rather than building out a wireless network, the co-op offers satellite Internet services. Tim Bohnhoff, Member Services Coordinator for the co-op says, “Norris Electric got involved in WildBlue (now Exede) as a service to our members who could not get any other type of broadband Internet service.”

Norris Electric quickly found that its members were just as eager for a solution as the other cooperatives’ members.

“An unexpected challenge after we started offering WildBlue was the amount of members interested in it,” says Bohnhoff. “At the peak, we had nearly 900 members utilizing the service, and we had only budgeted for 200 in the original business plan. Broadband services just weren’t available to our rural members, so it was great to offer them something they could not obtain.”

Denise Pless, Internet Coordinator for Norris Electric says, “A new satellite was launched last fall, and in January of 2012 we were able to start offering services on it. Shortly after the launch, we were able to do our first install. The new satellite is much faster in speed. The highest speed on the old satellite was 1.5 MBS. The new system gets up to 12 MBS. I’ve noticed people’s usage has gone way up because they’re actually able to use it more now. They can download a movie or do gaming. Before it was just too slow. We can even handle Skype now so grandparents can see their grandchildren from afar.”

As the technological demands for a smarter grid continue to drive energy efficiency, service reliability and cost-savings measures, other co-ops are beginning to enter the broadband arena. One of the most recent entrants is Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative in Mattoon.

Chris Christman, President/CEO says, “Coles-Moultrie Electric decided to leverage the backhaul and other infrastructure of a new digital voice radio system in order to provide a wireless broadband service to our members, especially those who only had the options of dial-up or cellular service. Further, we had never installed an automated meter infrastructure system and felt the time was ideal to layer a digital AMI system, a wireless broadband system and voice radio system all on a shared infrastructure.”

If you’ve been a member of a cooperative for any length of time, you might remember reading your own meter or meter readers visiting your home to take the reading. With an AMI-smart meter system, manual reading is no longer necessary. And with an AMI system, the communication can now go two ways.

“We are initiating a beta test group for the wireless broadband system with a goal of having the system ready to roll out on or about March 1, 2013,” says Christman.

Many in the community are eager to see the service begin. Christman says, “Our local community college has expressed great optimism for the project. Apparently, a significant number of their students live in rural areas where Internet service is insufficient for downloading assignments or instructional materials. Those students have to drive to a location where they can get a suitable connection. We hope to help correct that situation by reaching those underserved areas.”

Using AMI systems like the one currently being deployed by Coles-Moultrie Electric, co-op members can expect to eventually have tools which will allow them to better manage their energy consumption—tools that will translate into a lower electric bill. AMI-smart meter systems can also provide end of line voltage monitoring, faster outage information and restoration, and power quality information. This simply means improvements to service reliability and quality and more affordable electric bills.

The problem is communications infrastructure is essential to the expanded use of AMI and other smart grid technologies. Co-ops need broadband communications and so do their members. Because these networks enable two-way communication, adding the wireless broadband capability can be an added bonus that allows co-ops to build on their primary business—improving the quality of life in rural areas.