By Curtis Lanning
First it brought power to rural Arkansas and Oklahoma when no one else would, and now Ozarks Electric Cooperative is doing the same with fiber internet, officials say.
In 2018, internet access has become essential for everything from finding a job to shopping to running your own business. But expanding high-speed internet to rural areas is costly, and not all companies are willing to invest in the networking to serve markets outside of metro areas.
Enter OzarksGo. A subsidiary of Ozarks Electric Coop, OzarksGo is working to expand fiber internet in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. The subsidiary was formed in April 2016, started deploying fiber in October 2016 and had its first customers online by December 31, 2016, according to Randy Klindt, general manager of OzarksGo.
Fiber internet offers some of the fastest data speeds available (one gigabit or 1,000 mbps). Unlike cable or DSL, this internet is delivered through fiber optic cables, according to AT&T (which has also started offering fiber service in Northwest Arkansas).
Klindt said OzarksGo has six phases in their plan to roll out fiber internet (and television services) to every member Ozarks Electric Coop reaches with electricity (thousands of customers).
Phase one (already completed) got the fiber service started on the west side of Fayetteville and part of Springdale, Klindt said. Phase two (approximately half completed) will see that service expanded to east Fayetteville and into Oklahoma. For a complete service map, check out their website at ozarksgo.net.
The eventual goal is for all six phases to be completed in six years with nearly 6,000 miles of fiber service.
Mitchell Johnson, CEO of Ozarks Electric Coop, said the coop started looking at an internal communication network for more efficiency managing its smart grids and decided to sell excess broadband capabilities to members, in part, to monetize the fiber cable rollout.
Ozarks Electric Coop evaluated what its members needed and learned just half of them had broadband internet access, according to Johnson.
So, the electric coop is laying the fiber cables, constructing the network and leasing it to OzarksGo to sell internet and television services to members, Johnson said.
“We keep everything separately,” the CEO said.
Johnson explained coops are different from normal companies because the members they serve are also owners of the coop. And the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas are not-for-profit. Any profits made are credited back to members.
With OzarksGo, Klindt said it’s focussed entirely on members.
“We’re motivated on keeping everything affordable and reliable,” he said.
The process of building a fiber network means burying cable in some instances or running it in the air. Either way, OzarksGo said the fiber design is based on the current electric grid, where poles are, etc.
Two of the larger internet service providers in Northwest Arkansas are Cox and AT&T. Klindt said OzarksGo has had an impact on the market since day one when it was announced.
Klindt said both local pricing and availability of fiber internet have been impacted by the rollout of OzarksGo.
“They’re trying to react to that,” Klindt said, speaking on competition.
Johnson said the group did studies on market prices, what they’d need in terms of covering costs and what rates were competitive.
While speed remains a key advantage to fiber internet, another is capacity. Older network technology gets clogged easier with heavy usage from customers, but fiber has a much higher threshold, according to Klindt.
Speaking on that threshold, Johnson said, “The capacity of fiber is so great, it’s future proof.”
And thanks to that high threshold, OzarksGo said it doesn’t have any data caps like some other internet service providers. There’s no limit to how much users can download.
So far, OzarksGo has received high praise for its fiber service, according to Ashley Harris, vice president of marketing and communications for Ozarks Electric Coop and OzarksGo.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” she said.
Klindt said, “It’s been widely accepted.”
Not only does the service make a difference for members, but Johnson said realtors have told him customers factor in whether OzarksGo is available before purchasing a home.
Johnson said studies have shown access to fiber internet have increased some home values by up to $5,000.
OzarksGo still has four more phases to work through, but eventually, the subsidiary said it will offer fiber services to every Ozarks Electric Coop member across Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.
This means rural communities like West Fork, Greenland, Goshen, Elkins, Westville, Oklahoma and more will soon have access to a high-speed internet service some larger cities across the country don’t entirely have yet.
Imagine living in Stilwell, Oklahoma and having access to faster internet than some customers in bigger cities like Detroit or Houston.
Klindt said other rural coops in Arkansas and across the country are heading in this same direction.
“[There’s] already a movement nationwide to do this,” he said.
Johnson likened the fiber rollout to the first rollout of electricity in rural Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma when local coops first formed in the 1940s.
When no one else wanted to lay the groundwork and bring electricity to rural communities, the people in those areas formed coops and brought in power themselves.
Johnson said, “We can do something others would not.”