Letter from Langdon: The Co-Op Model

Missouri already has the perfect vehicle for delivering high-speed Internet to hard-to-serve rural locations: rural electric co-ops. In one example around the Lake of the Ozarks, a power cooperative is providing blistering speeds to homes and business.

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Once upon a time, telegraphs and kerosene lamps were state of the art.

Telephones and 110-volt wall outlets were the next big thing.

Now we have the Internet.

Costs of hard-wired improvements are just too high for profit-driven development in rural America, but Missouri has been a hotbed for rural electric co-operatives. Our abundant underground supply of coal made us a natural for coal-fired electricity generation. Power plants were built conveniently on top of coal beds.

Those co-op jobs were good for rural Missourians, a lot of whom were farmers who gained electricity in the bargain. 

The whole thing was turned on its head when someone figured out our high-sulfur coal was bad for the planet. Now we generate about 83% of our electricity needs from coal hauled in by rail from Wyoming.

But co-ops are still at the seat of power in Missouri because they hire local people to keep up electrical grids across the state. They have a reputation for service as they preserve cooperative principles and leave the door open for the next big thing in rural America.

I'm talking about fiber – not dietary fiber from farm-raised fruit and vegetables, but fiber optics capable of moving rural Internet connections at the speed of light.

That's what's happening at one Missouri electrical co-op where they've turned part of central Missouri into its own hotspot.

CO-MO Connect, a holding company of CO-MO REC headquartered in Tipton, Missouri, provides Internet and cable TV service to 42 Zip codes and over 38,000 people in central Missouri – towns like Tipton, Versailles, Sunrise Beach, Gravois Mills, and Warsaw.

That's not an easy task in any rural community, but Central Missouri has an advantage over other rural areas; they're also recreational hotspot.

Thanks to the man-made Lake of the Ozarks, there's a raft of second-home part-timers around the lake who pay taxes and buy their power from CO-MO. Because of that, there are also a huge number of entrepreneurial businesses who offer goods and services to vacationers, boaters, fishermen, and property owners in the area. Super-fast Internet connections help businesses connect with consumers in a brisk retail environment that peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Prior to CO-MO Connect, Internet service was spotty at best. Thanks to the busy lake atmosphere, mobile phone providers had already delivered 3G and 4G service, but on busy summer days when lake traffic was highest, cellular towers were bogged down by smart phones and unceasing demand.  (That highlights the problems wireless Internet service faces as ever more powerful handhelds make greater and greater demands on mobile networks. Those same mobile networks are saying they need access to a broader spectrum of radio waves just to keep up.)

Fiber delivery directly to homes and businesses didn't do much to ease pressures on mobile networks on busy summer days, but it did offer reliable year-round service that's not slowed by heavy lake traffic.

Because modern America is beginning to see Internet access as another utility, having service like that available in rural Missouri bolsters property values and helps attract new investment.  That’s something that has been missing since the home mortgage crisis and recession hit property values around the lake about 10 years ago. Now values have begun to rise as investment returns. Having the fastest Internet speed in Missouri hasn't hurt the Ozarks

Ironically, when Bagnell Dam was built to create Lake of the Ozarks, it was at another economic low-point, the Great Depression. Thousands of jobs on the dam benefitted the area when it needed it most.

But private investment will only go so far, especially in the low population areas Missouri is known for. It makes perfect sense for Missouri electrical co-ops to involve themselves in Internet service because they already maintain offices and manpower in areas they tend, plus they have an excellent reputation for service.

And rural electric co-ops s offer some of the best rural, small-town jobs to be found.

The Obama Administration and USDA have offered grants to help build more Internet service, but not without some resistance.  For whatever reason, one Missouri senator sought to block development in nearby Columbia when the city began to treat Internet access as they would a utility during this year’s session of the Missouri General Assembly.

That attempt was rebuffed when his bill was never taken up.

Internet service still lags across most of rural Missouri. There are success stories like CO-MO. And here in my part of Missouri where Rock Port Telephone, a once tiny local telephone co-op, has created Midwest Data Systems connecting several communities in southwest Iowa and northwest Missouri with a catch-all of copper, wireless, and fiber.

But even with Internet service, declining rural populations make it difficult to provide the types of service that Google has in Kansas City and other large metropolitan areas. That's why co-ops were created in the first place, to bring all of America up to date.

They are no less important today.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fift- generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.



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