Co-op Aims to ‘Bring the World’ to Northeast Louisiana with Fiber Broadband
Northeast Louisiana Power Cooperative recognizes need to improve connectivity in its seven-parish territory and 11,000 members for agricultural advances and quality of rural life
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
This was the question Jeff Churchwell, General Manager of Northeast Louisiana Power Cooperative (NELPCO), knew needed to be answered to better serve its members with high-speed internet. And soon, it became apparent that NELPCO was that answer.
“Our lives are driven by connectivity,” Churchwell said. “You can’t do anything if you don’t have connectivity and if we’re not going to do it, then who is? NELPCO was founded in 1938 by those who took a risk in an endeavor to provide underserved areas with electricity, and we’re taking that same zeal to bring fiber to those who need it. One of our taglines is ‘we’re bringing the world to you’ and we literally are. With the connectivity we’re bringing our members, they can look at the Eiffel Tower on Google Earth and see France from rural northeast Louisiana. They can have the world.”
The seven Louisiana parishes (counties) NELPCO serves are primarily farm lands, with agriculture being the main industry. As time has progressed, so have farming methods— and technology is needed now, more than ever. “We have seen the evolution of agriculture from hard work, sweat on the brow, to technology,” Churchwell said. “The mechanics now require connectivity to work on a tractor and calibrate a planter. What used to be very manual has now become largely technology driven. We will bring high-speed internet to farms and farm headquarters and homes that to this point have not had the (technological) capability.”
Knowing the needs of its members, NELPCO began exploring how it would bring fiber to its members in communities across northeast Louisiana. The board knew it would be costly, but wanted to see how the members felt about the co-op offering broadband, so a ballot was sent to all 11,500 members of the co-op. “A total of 2,900 ballots were returned and 96 percent were in favor,” Churchwell said. “We were over the moon!”
The cooperative’s fiber journey didn’t have an easy start, however. The biggest challenge NELPCO faced early on was a bill in the state legislature that would prohibit rural co-ops from bringing broadband to their members. The initial bill was vetoed by the governor, reworked to include the co-ops as providers, and eventually passed.
“Once that bill passed, we were off and running,” Churchwell said.
NELPCO then began talks with fellow cooperatives in various stages of fiber-to-the-home projects and even set up tours to see the projects firsthand. After forming an exploratory committee and starting feasibility studies, Churchwell and his team knew they needed a partner to help make the fiber dream a reality. They found that partner in Conexon.
“We knew we couldn’t do this without the knowledge and expertise that partners bring,” Churchwell said. “I trust Conexon. For any co-op entering this arena, you’ve got to have someone you know that will help you through this battle. With Conexon, I know we have a partner fighting for us and right alongside us, and they’re sometimes fighting battles we don’t even know we’re in.”
Service options from competitors in the area are constrained by data caps, lower speeds and unreliability. By contrast, NELPCO will offer world-class 100% fiber-to-the-home deployment available to every single cooperative member through its newly formed internet service provider arm, Volt Broadband.
So far, Volt has had over 3,500 members pre-register for the new fiber service and connected their first customer to the worldwide web on September 7, 2022. “We can’t get to our members fast enough,” Churchwell said. “But, thanks to our partnership with Conexon, we’ll get there in two years.”
Churchwell couldn’t be more excited for members’ reactions. “Over 80 years ago, we brought electricity to the rural areas of northeast Louisiana, and the quality of life for our members improved dramatically. This is the same approach we’re bringing with fiber and Volt Broadband.”