In 1935 the idea was simple. With the help of federal dollars, rural America could start receiving the infrastructure needed to provide electricity to farms across the country.
It was an idea rooted in an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, then later enacted by Congress in 1936. The plan was simple: wire rural America so it would have the benefits of electricity that people in urban areas enjoyed. And the Rural Electrification Act would put thousands of people to work at a time when unemployment was rampant in the Great Depression.
It worked. Not only do people in rural America have electricity in their homes, but it has allowed agriculture producers to greatly expand their operations, employing equipment that may have been just a dream some 85 years ago.
Today, rural electric membership corporations are more than cooperatives that supply electricity to farmers. In our communities, they have provided electricity that has allowed development of rural areas, such as our lakes, and industrial parks.
Our REMCs are not much different than their brethren in the investor-owned utility world these days. But they haven’t forgotten or strayed from their original mission, serving a rural America that would otherwise be ignored by corporate utility companies.
This is obvious today with the LaGrange County and Steuben County electric cooperatives. They have seen a need in their communities — providing broadband internet service — and are getting ready to string their corners of rural America with fiber optic cable.
“I think we’re going to expand on a great idea and make it even better,” said Kevin Keiser, CEO of Steuben County REMC. Keiser was speaking after it was announced in October that a deal had been reached with the Steuben County Community Foundation to allow the REMC to take over iMAN, the fiber network owned by an arm of the Foundation.
Shortly before that news dropped, LaGrange County REMC made a similar announcement, that it would invest some $20 million to provide broadband to its membership of about 5,500 customers.
“Internet access today is what electricity was more than 80 years ago,” said LaGrange REMC CEO Mark Leu. “The cooperative was created to provide electricity to rural areas that larger utilities wouldn’t invest in, and we hope to do the same with broadband. Our members have asked for it, and we’re going to do what we can to make it a reality.”
Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This dire health emergency emphasized the need for better broadband service options for rural residents, who found themselves grappling with inadequate internet as they worked from home, attended school virtually and visited with their physicians through videoconference.
The Steuben County decision was two years in the making. The REMC’s Board of Directors authorized the acquisition of iMAN for $2.8 million, effective January 2021, in an effort to provide fiber optic services to its members. The deal was signed on Oct. 12.
The fiber network was the creation of the Steuben County Community Foundation two decades ago that mirrored the REMC concept, delivering a needed utility to rural customers through a member-owned, not-for-profit company. Today the network reaches all four school districts that serve the community, as well as business and industry, government, libraries and Cameron Memorial Hospital.
Over the next 4-5 years, REMC plans to deploy fiber to its home network of customers, the news release said. This will represent a $25 million investment in infrastructure.
“We have a big job ahead of us, but our members have been here before when we collectively worked together to provide rural Steuben County with electricity at a time when no one else would. Today we find ourselves in a similar circumstance and it is again time to cooperatively light our future with broadband services,” Keiser said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a bright light on the black hole that is rural broadband. We applaud the LaGrange and Steuben rural electric cooperatives and their forward-thinking boards of directors for their bold efforts to provide high-speed internet to their members.
We hope more rural electric cooperatives will follow suit in order to eliminate this huge void in rural Indiana.