Intelligent Fiber Network, the statewide Indiana fiber network that until now was owned by 20 Indiana telcos, has raised $13 million for network expansion and gained another owner. Wabash Valley Power (WVPA), an Indiana-based not-for-profit generation and transmission cooperative, and seven of IFN’s owner companies contributed to the new funding.
According to IFN President and CEO Jim Turner, WVPA’s investment yielded it a 5% share in IFN. Turner told us in an interview that he expects to see telco, utility broadband partnerships resulting from WVPA’s investment.
WVPA sells electricity on a wholesale basis to 23 rural electric cooperatives in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, and Turner said he has seen strong interest on the part of some of those cooperatives in deploying fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) to customers in their area that don’t already have high-speed broadband available to them.
Most of IFN’s telco owners already have deployed FTTH and may rely on IFN to provide middle-mile connectivity into individual communities. Moving forward, Turner sees an opportunity for IFN to provide the same type of connectivity to some of the electric cooperatives.
“We are in the enablement business,” said Turner. “We have the ability to bring middle mile [connectivity] to the doorsteps of the distribution cooperatives to the extent they decide to get into” the broadband business.
Telco, Utility Broadband Partnerships
Some of the individual telcos that have invested in IFN already have partnerships with electric cooperatives and others have had discussions about that possibility, Turner said. Now that WVPA has invested in IFN, he said, “I would expect this arrangement will significantly accelerate those conversations.”
Telco, utility broadband partnerships can take a variety of forms, Turner said. Although the utilities typically pay for the network construction, they may hire a local telco to provide technical expertise with the construction process and, in some cases, to provide ongoing operational expertise. And while the utility is likely to take on the service provider role, handling functions such as marketing and billing, there could be exceptions to that approach.
Turner sees WVPA’s investment in IFN being an asset as WVPA pursues economic development opportunities. Local power companies are “really good at” working with data center operators looking for sites to locate facilities. The data center operators “need a lot of power and big connectivity,” he said. And now that WVPA can tell the data center operators that it is a “member/owner of an intelligent fiber network, that gives it a nice selling point,” he added.
Turner didn’t have details about how many homes in areas served by the 23 electric cooperatives are unserved on the broadband side, but he estimates that the number is substantial.
When the electric cooperatives have meetings with their members, he said, “the number one issue is access to high-speed connectivity or lack thereof.”
WVPA isn’t guaranteed a seat on the IFN board but will be able to put forth a candidate, if it chooses to do so, and will be able to vote in board member elections. In addition, representatives from all companies that have invested in IFN are allowed to attend board meetings.
“There is great transparency in how we make decisions,” Turner said.
Intelligent Fiber Network was known as Indiana Fiber Network until last year, when it adopted the new name to position itself for future growth, which may include expanding outside its home state.