Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Two Internet service providers are merging to cover a larger area of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but an expert in community broadband networks cautions that consolidation can often hurt customer service.

The two former companies – 360 Communications of Durant, Oklahoma, and 903 Broadband of Leonard, Texas – were roughly the same size, which means the combination is a doubling in size for both. Upon the merger in August that became 360 Broadband, the new company had nearly 16,000 subscribers and 88 employees across 10,000 square miles and 30 counties: 20 in Oklahoma, six in Texas, and four in Arkansas. The company’s services are provided via a hybrid network containing both fiber elements and almost 250 wireless towers.

Drew Beverage, chief strategy officer for 360 Broadband, said it seemed smart to combine the two companies for funding opportunities.

“At the federal level, at the state level, it makes sense for the two companies to come together to combine resources to be able to play in that arena,” he told the Daily Yonder. “And not only provide better customer service, give us better options to be able to go after some of that federal money to build out more resources to build out more rural space. And we’re talking about the most rural of towns.”

Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in general, he is concerned about consolidation and the impact it has.

“We worry that local customer service will be harmed, and get worse,” he told the Daily Yonder. He added, however, that he knows there is a high cost of building and operating compared to many other businesses.

“And so, if you don’t have 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, it can be hard to be able to grow the network in ways that you would like. And so it’s kind of expected, I feel like for some ISPs to grow through mergers,” he said. “As they get bigger and bigger, we really worry about their ability to meet all of the local needs.”

Beverage served on the Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council for one year. He said making sure people know about the Affordable Connectivity Program is important. The program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. 360 Broadband will now cover Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, Beverage added.

“If nobody has ever been around someone that builds broadband, they might not know that that is offered to them,” he said. “But I think it will have a huge impact for the small communities, the more we build, to be able to get reasonable, reliable broadband service.”

Mitchell said that it’s important for a new company from a merger to try to remain rooted in the communities they are serving.

“We find that when an ISP is rooted in the community, with its technicians, and its ownership – all being within a community – that they tend to make more investments in higher quality services, and they provide better customer service,” he said. “As they spend less time in the community – as they become a larger, more regional ISP – they may not put as much attention into the community that they previously had.”

Beverage said they hired locally from the communities they serve,

“I think it’s a lot of buy-in from our staff, knowing that we’re bringing Internet to their family members, loved ones, the community that they grew up in,” Beverage said. “And so I think there’s a big difference there: the money is not in rural Internet, the money is where there’s a population that can give you a better ROI. But we have a passion to serve rural communities.”

Mitchell said it’s also important to keep in mind who is operating and running a combined company.

“If it’s still a company that is owned by a few people who are deeply committed to providing high-quality internet access, that may still be able to provide a high quality service,” he said. “If it’s owned by private equity, which is focused on a long-term, maximization of profits or even a short-term maximization of profits, then the experience is less likely to go well for the customers.

The post Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

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Building Publicly Owned Broadband Starts with a Low-Tech Approach: Community Buy-in

This story is part of a series.

On a Tuesday afternoon, standing in front of the Islesboro Sewing Circle on an island off Maine’s MidCoast, Jane Wherren holds up items recently completed by members for the annual fundraiser. The president of one of the nation’s oldest sewing circles, called simply “circle” by locals, Wherren begins every meeting with show and tell. As sewing machines hum and knitting needles click, a dozen women glance up from their work to watch. “Look at these potholders with blueberry pie.” A woman calls out, “Who knitted those cute mother and baby socks?”

Standing in a 120-year-old building with one of the oldest sewing groups in the nation, you’d almost think you had stepped back in time. Then a voice calls out, “Those are gorgeous, can you zoom in?” 

Sewing Circle president, Jane Wherren, displays completed items for annual sale to Zoom attendees. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

The voice isn’t coming from the women in the room; it’s coming from a computer held by the circle’s secretary. To zoom in the woman walks closer to Wherren, turning the screen to capture the purses. Later in the meeting, when women sing happy birthday to one of its members, women both online and in person sing along. 

“We’ve been having hybrid meetings since the pandemic,” Wherren said. “We still do. We want to include everyone from our community, whether they’re homebound, in another state, or just unable to attend. Soon we’ll be teaching online sewing classes.”

Ten years ago, long before today’s unprecedented amounts of federal funding in rural Internet infrastructure, Roger Heinen watched Islesboro’s population drop precipitously. “We were facing an existential crisis,” he said. “There’s nothing like young people moving away to threaten the survival of an island community.”

In 2014, Heinen formed a small volunteer coalition to come up with a solution for the island of under 600 year-round residents. 

“Our coalition spent two years talking to lobstermen, selectmen, the hunting club, the school, and power brokers like the sewing circle,” he said. 

In 2016, voters approved a $3.8 million bond to fund the construction of a fiber-to-the-premises infrastructure capable of speeds of 1 gigabit per second. By 2018, Islesboro Municipal Broadband construction was complete and service was installed for all home and business subscribers.

“Getting the network off the ground was the hardest work I ever did,” Heinen said. “We (the town) knew that at the end of the day when the last ferry left, there was no government to save us. We were on our own.”

It’s been nearly five years since Islesboro’s Municipal Broadband connected those first subscribers. Today, as unprecedented federal and state funding is funneled into high-speed broadband access, increasing numbers of coalitions are attempting to build publicly owned networks. In the last two years, numerous attempts in rural Maine have failed. Lack of financial resources is often cited as a factor. Some say campaigns by large telecommunications companies to undermine broadband utilities are another reason.

Heinen says another issue is the most important barrier to getting municipal broadband off the ground. 

“When I talk to towns, I tell them money is not the primary issue,” he said. “What’s most critical is the ability to create strong social capital. There is money out there. There are technical and financial consultants out there. Social capital building, though, that must come from the inside.”

Peggy Schaffer, Maine’s first director for broadband funding, now a strategic consultant and board member on the American Association for Public Broadband, echoed Heinen’s advice. 

“Though there is no clear path to success, strong community engagement is at the heart of most successful publicly owned utilities,” Schaffer said.

In June, one of Maine’s newest town-owned fiber optic networks, Leeds Broadband, will start marketing their service after nearly four years of navigating the murky challenges of garnering support and overcoming incumbent provider opposition. Joe McLean, the organizer of the network, building community understanding and support was important at every stage of the process.

PowerPoint presentation at Eastport City Council meeting. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

“It’s been a long haul of hard work,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of coalition building as we’ve worked alongside our selectmen. Each stage has another level of community buy-in, from basic education to the benefits of high-speed internet, to why we can offer it cheaper and better.”

Both Heinen and McLean said the political disagreement between local elected officials and publicly owned broadband committees can be another impediment to implementation. “I’ve watched broadband committees who are on a completely different page with their selectmen and other people in town, arguing about the two different ideas rather than just getting to one good idea and trying to push it,” McLean said.

Having worked with dozens of coalitions promoting publicly owned broadband, Schaffer said one of the biggest mistakes coalitions make is presenting fiber-optic broadband as very technical.

“In reality, it’s a very human infrastructure,” she said. “When asking for money for publicly owned networks, committees need to realize that just because they’ve picked the right technology for their community, that doesn’t mean the community is going to buy into it.”

There’s no substitute for spending time to build local support, she said. 

“There’s so much work to do, committees often forget the importance of public outreach. If committees don’t (get buy-in), when the cable companies and the Spectrums come with their flyers, mailers, newspaper ads, and online attacks, run by people who make their living running these reaching people on a seemingly personal level, it’s too late to start to build support.”

Relieved to have weathered some of these incumbent campaigns, McLean’s team is excited to begin marketing. “We’ll be putting up displays in the town office, at the farmers’ market, and other events around town,” he said. “We want everyone to understand that with this nonprofit model, the more people sign up the cheaper it can be. We are going to focus on being a local provider for our local community. We want people to know that in comparison to the incumbent provider, we can provide far better service for far less.”

Schaffer said the benefits of building strong social capital as part of municipal broadband projects are worth the effort. “We see it across the country,” she said. “Community-owned networks … put revenues back into the community. They increase speed and service while reducing prices. For communities who can bring these networks to fruition, the profits always exceed the costs. The challenge is getting the community on board.”

To do that, Heinen has some practical advice. 

“Make sure to include your sewing circle.”

The post Building Publicly Owned Broadband Starts with a Low-Tech Approach: Community Buy-in appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

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