Cooperation Innovation

We teach our children to share, encouraging them to work together while playing, at school, and even at home. We ask them to cooperate in order to make their worlds more peaceful, better places to live. Yet all too often as adults, we find ourselves struggling to hold on to those same values. So, when a story embodying the cooperative spirit comes to light, it’s easy to get excited.

Well, if you’re a citizen of rural Illinois, you should feel excited about this one.

Cooperation Among Cooperatives

Three telephone cooperatives, Mid Century Telephone of Fairview (MCTC), Adams Telephone of Golden (ATC) and McDonough Telephone (MDTC) of Colchester have joined forces with Jacksonville-based Prairie Power, Inc. (PPI) and Cass Communications of Virginia in order to share resources with the goal of building fiber optics deeper into rural Illinois, with a primary goal of increasing reliability of electric service to members.

Jay Bartlett, CEO of PPI says, “Several participants, including PPI, have decided to work together to utilize each others’ communications assets to their fullest. By doing so, we have driven costs lower while simultaneously increasing our coverage area. The goal of the system is to increase reliability and lower cost of electric service, and to provide high bandwidth connections to potential local providers.”

The other parties all echo that sentiment.

“The basis of what we’re trying to do is not duplicate the network where we don’t have to,” says Bill Buchanan, CEO of MDTC. “Especially when it comes to cooperatives who share members. The common network seems to make a lot of sense for all of us.”

Jim Broemmer, CEO of both ATC and MCTC agrees, “For Adams and Mid Century, the exciting part of this project is being able to work with people who are trying to improve the services to our rural communities and do it the right way. We’re partnering with neighboring cooperatives and leveraging resources we’ve built. We’ll continue to evolve and provide the latest in services and technology utilizing the capability in each other’s networks. That’s the crux of the whole thing. We’re not duplicating investment.”

This sharing of resources with a common goal is exceptional, and comes at a time when many in parts of rural Illinois struggle to find solutions to the ever-growing need for access to high speed Internet connectivity. High-speed broadband service is critical for education, health care, business and everyone’s quality of life.

Tom Allen, Vice President and COO of Cass Communications says, “I remember a conversation I recently had with the principal of a local school. He was distressed because he had discovered that far more students have no Internet connection than he imagined. This partnership will allow us to serve more students and allow them to take advantage of online programs schools are investing so much time and money into.”

You should keep in mind though, it may take some time to get this network fully deployed, and the first goal is to increase the reliability of electric service. PPI provides wholesale power to 10 electric distribution cooperatives serving 79,000 members in 44 counties across central Illinois. This area is nearly one-third of the state, but very rural and sparsely populated with only 3.8 meters per mile of line.

Eventually the fiber optic network will reach each of the generation and transmission co-op’s 68 substations.

Robert Reynolds, PPI’s Vice President of Member Cooperative Services says, “Beyond reaching each of our member cooperative headquarters, we will build out in phases with a three- to five-year long-term goal for completion.”

Some of the benefits to electric service will be seen quickly though.

“The first innovation PPI will see is high-speed communications to the components of the electric system,” says Bartlett. “We believe it’s an essential element in reducing cost and increasing reliability. From there, it’s our hope that by driving fiber optics deeper into rural areas it will allow for new opportunities to improve medical care, education and economic development.”

“The immediate need is the power piece: a smarter grid,” agrees Broemmer. “For the telecommunications companies, however, it’s also an opportunity to reach out to communities to provide services they don’t have today.”

“The electric cooperatives have been very progressive in their early adoption of AMR and/or AMI technology, what most refer to as smart grid technology. It makes the co-ops very innovative within their industry segment. Likewise, telephone cooperatives in rural areas have also been aggressive with service offerings to our members. When I look at the two entities working together in our region, I think it’s easy to see a good collaboration of networks best used to serve the members needs today and in the future,” says Buchanan.

The technology Buchanan refers to is the basis of modern electrical grid communications. AMR (Automatic Meter Reading) is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to automatically collect a reading from a meter. Most of those readings are done remotely, so having a better, more reliable connection obviously improves on the accuracy of the reading.

AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure), on the other hand, can be utilized for even greater things. The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) defines AMI as “a metering system that records customer consumption hourly or more frequently and that provides for daily or more frequent transmittal of measurements over a communication network to a central collection point.”

Why is that important?

If an electric service provider, like a cooperative, has the ability to collect data remotely, then that means they are made aware much faster when an outage takes place, when a peak load hits, or when voltage drops too low. It means the cooperative can act faster to help get members’ power back on, or to prevent outages in the first place. And, with the kind of network discussed here, there is even the possibility for real-time reporting of data. That means cooperative personnel will be aware almost instantaneously of problems on the grid.

“Power cooperative management of the grid is already excellent,” says Buchanan. “By applying our extended network capabilities in a long-term relationship, things can only get better.”

Concern for Community

Although it’s not a cooperative, Cass Communications has played a significant role in getting the ball rolling. A family-owned business, Cass was formed in 1898 as Virginia and Little Indian Telephone Company.

“Cass isn’t the typical for-profit telephone company,” Broemmer says. “The key thing to remember is that they’re homegrown too. Their investments and what they’ve done with their telephone and cable company operation is making investments in rural communities.”

“As independent telephone companies, we share many of the same issues and concerns whether a cooperative or family owned,” explains Buchanan. “The common thread is that we live and work among our members and customers. Cass, like the cooperatives, has made investments in the communities they serve to the benefit of their customers. By working with them, we are able to realize a shared cost reduction to both their customers and our members. In the big picture of what we’re doing, their network looks just as cooperative as ours does.”

Allen sums it up saying, “We are very involved in our community. Our employees serve on school boards, are active in their churches and participate in other community-based organizations. When I become aware of their activities in the community, I let them know how much it’s appreciated because I think it’s important. It’s not just a telecommunications company. We live here too.”

So, what does the future hold for this project?

Bartlett hopes a better future lies at the core of PPI’s motivation in pursuing this project, “PPI adheres closely to the cooperative principles. One of those is that cooperative’s cooperate with one another. Another is a commitment to the communities that make up our memberships. It’s PPI’s mission to improve the quality of life of rural Illinois residents. In order to accomplish that task, we need to provide our young people with good jobs and level the playing field with urban residents. That need is especially great with respect to the emerging needs in fields like education and healthcare. By actively engaging alongside other cooperatives, we have found an opportunity to both improve electric service and reduce costs to our members.”

Cass Communications sees this project as a way to not only extend their services, but also to improve reliability through redundancy.

Think of redundancy like this: If you have a wire going from point A to point B, and someone cuts a point in that wire, then service can’t continue along that path. Within a redundant network point A and point B are instead points on a circle, so both sides of the circle would have to be cut in order to cause an interruption.

That’s the kind of network we’re talking about here. Only, the circle holds many points and stretches nearly from the eastern to the western border of the state.

“This project will enable us to expand our service offerings. By being able to share the fiber, it will definitely take us into areas we’ve looked at that were not economically feasible to build out. We’ll be able to tie in with the other contributors to reach areas that are very much underserved,” says Allen. “But in the end, the reliability provided by the redundancy of the network holds a great appeal for us. Getting redundancy is huge. To the customer, redundancy translates directly into reliability. It makes the network rock solid.”

MDTC plans to utilize the network to extend its service offerings.

Buchanan says, “For me, one of the benefits I see is the value of the network that PPI brings to the table. Many communities outside of our area are either underserved, or completely unserved. But, if you did a survey of the community, there’s not enough people there to cost justify the build-out of a broadband network. It might take miles of fiber to get there, which makes a business model unworkable. But, now with these new relationships, we will have a new ability to use each other’s networks to reach communities that no one can reach today.”

“We all recognize there are still areas throughout the state where there is a need for upgraded or improved communications services,” says Broemmer. “Utilizing each other’s networks allows traditional communications providers to help put together potential solutions for those communities. But keep in mind, for now this will be a middle-mile infrastructure that allows organizations like telephone cooperatives to truly make the opportunity for future broadband expansion possible in other communities.”

One of the keys to all of this cooperation and innovation is that many telephone cooperative members are also electric cooperative members. In a sense, it’s a shared sandbox.

And, like our children, cooperatives are doing what they do best, cooperating, in order to make rural Illinois a better, more technologically advanced place to live.