Co-op network hopes to bring broadband to more rural areas

JACKSONVILLE — A rural-electric transmission company is working toward a fiberoptic network that would reach schools, hospitals, businesses and homes in central Illinois with the kind of broadband speeds already available in more populated areas.

Jay Bartlett, president and CEO of Prairie Power Inc. in Jacksonville, said a group of rural-electric co-ops and telecommunications companies is working on establishment of a consortium to oversee the network.

Prairie Power represents 10 member co-ops, including Menard Electric Cooperative at Petersburg. The member territories cover 17,500 square miles from Quincy to Danville.

“We’re working on the legal process. We do have a core group of companies that have an agreement in principle,” said Bartlett, who was assistant general manager and chief utilities engineer of City Water, Light and Power in Springfield before joining Prairie Power in 2009.

Bartlett said the group hopes to establish the formal, legal structure within four to five months.

Keeping youth at home

Bartlett said the idea is to pool resources of the 10-member co-ops to create a network of fiberoptic or wireless upgrades that would be linked to 80 substations and co-op headquarters.  Each co-op then would extend service from the local hubs.

While most rural homeowners and businesses have high-speed access through cable, phone company, satellite or wireless services, Bartlett said the coalition would focus on the kind of high-speed data used by large commercial and institutional customers.

“There are certain businesses where broadband is just as important as electricity,” said Bartlett. “It also would make a huge difference to rural hospitals, where there is not a radiologist or cardiologist available in the middle of the night.

“It would be very valuable for them to put them in touch with a trauma unit in a larger community.”

Bartlett said, in addition to the economic incentive, higher broadband speeds also could help reverse population loss in rural areas.

“Young people are leaving areas because high-speed data has become such a large part of their life,” said Bartlett.

Menard expansion

Menard co-op general manager Lynn Frasco said a recent survey found about 70 percent of 10,500 members are satisfied with the availability of high-speed Internet connections, up from 30 percent four or five years ago.

“It’s a combination of cable, wireless and satellite,” said Frasco, a former general manger for CWLP. The co-op covers all or part of eight counties from Beardstown to Decatur.

Supporters of the fiberoptic option point out that broadband upgrades face the same cost-benefit challenge as rural electric and phone services in the early days of co-ops. It is difficult to entice private investors for the relatively small number of potential customers.

Bartlett said the consortium would help spread out the costs, including possibly through joint applications for state and federal grants.

“The goal is for us to leverage smart investments in new technology,” said Bartlett.

Source: State Journal Register

Tags: electric co-op, Jay Bartlett, Prairie Power Inc., Rural health, rural Illinois, State Journal Register, Tim Landis

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