Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op expands role as trusted community partner in northeast Michigan with construction of a 3,220-mile high-speed fiber broadband network
As a former mayor of his hometown and a member of several community economic development boards, Tom Sobeck, CEO of Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op, never had any doubt that bridging the digital divide with the introduction of high-speed fiber broadband is what was his service territory in northeast Michigan needs to attract new businesses and residents to the beautiful but remote region.
“I view access to high-speed internet as the last, best highway that we can build into our region that promotes economic growth and sustains the economies that we have,” Sobeck said. “The simple fact is the infrastructure in northeast Michigan isn’t designed to bring large manufacturers or large employers. We are off the beaten path – a disadvantage when you’re trying to attract businesses and new residents. Broadband will remedy that.”
Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op, known as PIE&G to the utility cooperative’s 31,000 members, is building a 3,220-mile fiber-to-the-home network that will drive economic growth and development in the nine counties the cooperative serves. The $125 million project is anticipated to be completed within 4 years, with the first customers expected to be connected in 4Q 2021.
“In 1937, we brought electricity to rural northeast Michigan using the cooperative business structure. In 1994, we did it again with natural gas,” Sobeck said. “To do it now with fiber is simply the next step in our development as a trusted energy and community partner. We’re excited to do that.”
PIE&G’s unique service territory has over 36,000 electric meters as well as over 13,000 natural gas meters, one of the few co-ops to offer dual services. Because of the abundance of natural resources and recreation opportunities in the area, the tourism sector is vast and approximately 40% of cooperative members are seasonal. Combined with an average density of 7.4, the challenges of building a profitable fiber network were real but not insurmountable.
Sobeck and his leadership team took a measured approach to their research, speaking with other cooperatives, surveying the membership and community organizations, and tapping into local economic development groups for insights. All the feedback was the same: The need for high-speed internet was there, and the potential to transform the community was significant. After a thorough and deliberate decision making process, the co-op’s Board of Directors agreed.
“We’re excited to be bringing this vital service to our membership. We know it’s been a need for a long time and we’re committed to doing it in a way that’s going to be here for a long, long time,” Sobeck said. "We believe we are holding true to our mission to provide services that are going to enhance the quality of life in our region for our members and we’re using the cooperative business structure to do it.”
Sobeck first met Conexon Partner Jonathan Chambers five years ago at a symposium on the availability of funding for fiber buildouts in rural America. “Back then, Jon was already advocating that if anyone was to achieve success, it would be electric cooperatives. We’ve already done it with the electric grid, so we know how to do it, we understand rural America, and Jon understands that co-ops understand that,” Sobeck said.
PIE&G started working with Conexon on an initial feasibility study and then selected Conexon to guide the cooperative through the Federal Communications Commission’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction process. PIE&G was awarded $11.2 million in RDOF funding as a member of the Conexon-led Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium.
PIE&G has since engaged Conexon for end-to-end broadband services for their build, including project management, network design, engineering, operations, and marketing support. Phase 1 make-ready engineering will begin in some zones in the territory in March, and the team at PIE&G is excited to get started.
“At the beginning, we didn’t have any experience with fiber or telecommunications. To presume we could just walk out the door and expect to be successful – it’s not going to work,” Sobeck said. “Conexon understands the broadband industry and their familiarity with the cooperative industry is crucial to being successful in this project. They ‘get’ co-ops. That’s a simple phrase but not exactly a simple concept. Conexon’s experience provides a level of comfort that’s huge.”