Telecom cooperatives have a long rich history in the U.S. Over 250 exist today, serving primarily rural communities. Generally speaking, cooperatives were formed to provide service to communities where commercial telecom providers were either unwilling or unable to provide service. These communities took matters into their own hands and formed these cooperatives to provide service. The telecom cooperative movement was preceded by a similar, yet larger movement to bring electricity to rural communities.
As the core service of local telecom carriers transitions away from dial tone to broadband, a new telecom cooperative movement is taking hold, with both similarities to the telecom cooperative legacy, and distinct differences. New cooperatives are forming with the goal of bringing broadband (better broadband in some cases) to communities who feel like they are being left behind in the transition to broadband. The Community Broadband Networks website highlights some of these new cooperative movements.
Similarities to the legacy cooperative movement include bringing service to communities who lack services, broadband access in this case, altogether. Everyone can agree that broadband is a necessary and critical piece of infrastructure for communities to thrive in the 21st century. It’s a view that was held for both electricity and dial tone in the early to mid 20th century, when most legacy electric and telecom cooperatives were formed.
Distinct differences in this modern cooperative movement include geography and perception. This new cooperative movement is taking place in both rural and urban communities, where in some cases broadband is already present. The legacy cooperative movement was dominated by rural communities where no service was available (in most cases). Urban communities, including parts of Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minn. are forming cooperatives to bring better broadband to their markets because they perceive the current broadband roadmap is inadequate. Other new cooperatives are demanding that FTTH is the right broadband path for their community, and if the incumbent provider is not willing to provide it, they will attempt to do so themselves.
You can draw parallels to this new cooperative movement with the active municipal telecom movement, which has been going on for years, where municipalities are building telecom networks. Increasingly, the lines between municipals and cooperatives are blurring as some municipalities are studying whether to form cooperatives to offer broadband services.
This new cooperative movement creates interesting competitive dynamics, because in many cases, incumbent telecom providers already exist in these communities. It illustrates the power of broadband and the lengths communities and their respective citizens will go to ensure they have what they perceive is the proper access to it.