Finding the ‘perfect partner’ for broadband: EMC wanted to go for it, but didn’t want to go it alone

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Georgia’s Southern Rivers Energy teams up with Conexon Connect to be able to bring broadband to members without losing focus on their electric utility business.

If a community is served with high-speed internet that’s unreliable, unaffordable or both, it’s not really being served at all.

Nobody knows that better than residents in the rural communities of central Georgia served by local EMC, Southern Rivers Energy. It’s a largely residential, agriculture-based part of the state where most residents live a modest life. It can also be a challenging life due to lack of affordable access to the internet service people need for education, remote working, telemedicine, and connecting with family and friends.

A solution is on the way at last.

About four years ago, leaders at Southern Rivers Energy started researching broadband internet and participating in trainings and seminars to learn about the growing movement to bring service to rural Georgia. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps didn’t accurately reflect the areas actually served with reliable internet, so in 2018, the state of Georgia launched a project to develop its own maps. The maps revealed significant gaps.

“The existing providers were running fiber to new subdivisions in our communities, with builders paying for it because they knew they couldn’t sell the lots without it. But they wouldn’t run fiber to homes in  existing neighborhoods next door. It was incredibly frustrating for our members,” said Erin Cook, Director of Marketing/Member Services.

Cook and other Southern Rivers Energy leaders continued to be part of the statewide conversation about the maps, so they were prepared to answer questions from members who were increasingly eager for high-speed internet at home. Within a year, the EMC began considering the possibility of bringing broadband to its members. But it was not a journey the team wanted to take alone.

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"We wanted to be part of the solution, but we didn’t want to be the solution,” Cook said. The Southern Rivers Energy team, with only about 60 employees, needed to stay focused on providing electricity instead of learning how to become an internet provider. EMC team members met with several potential partners, and almost all of them were willing to serve part – but not all – of the EMC’s territory, which spans portions of nine counties and serves more than 20,000 meter locations.

That’s not the approach Southern Rivers Energy wanted to take. The EMC wanted to make service accessible to 100% of its members, so the search continued – with help from a neighboring EMC, Central Georgia EMC. Central Georgia EMC was having discussions with Conexon, and word was spreading about Conexon’s different approach to fiber broadband. So, Central Georgia EMC fiber leaders invited several other co-ops to a meeting to learn more.

“Our CEO asked the tough questions and tried to poke holes in Conexon’s approach, but there was a commonsense answer for everything. And if we said we wanted to do something a little differently, the Conexon team agreed. After that meeting, our CEO said, ‘We might actually be able to get something done with these folks,’” Cook said.

And a partnership was born.

Southern Rivers Energy expects broadband will be a game-changer for their members. The pandemic has caused a significant shift in people working from home, and while most students have returned to classrooms, they still need reliable internet at home to work on projects and turn in homework. Cook noted young adults in the community will benefit from high-speed internet as well, because they can work toward higher education degrees online.

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“We’re going to see a boost in residential and economic growth as a result of this project,” she said.

Southern Rivers Energy will invest an estimated $53 million to build out approximately 2,100 miles of fiber that will serve 100% of its membership upon completion. Construction is underway, with the first customers to be connected before the end of the year. Cook said it was exciting when the Southern Rivers Conexon project manager set up his office and quickly became a familiar face – part of the EMC’s team right away, she added.

“Conexon understands what co-ops are all about. We aren’t here to make a lot of money; our mission is to improve our communities, provide a needed service and take care of our members. Conexon gets that,” Cook said. “This is a perfect partnership that allows us to continue focusing on our expertise as a provider of reliable electric service, while Conexon uses its expertise to provide high-speed internet. Together, we are improving the quality of life for our members.”