Arkansas’ electric cooperatives are delivering broadband access to rural and remote corners of the state just as they delivered electricity to the rugged backwoods in the 20th century. (See Have Fiber, Will Connect, Co-ops Say.)
It’s a powerful parallel, but historically and psychologically “the two things aren’t the same, really,” says Buddy Hasten, CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. of Little Rock and one of the movers behind a $1.66 billion broadband expansion effort, Diamond State Networks.
“Mel Coleman, the CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and an AECI board member, has some great perspectives on electrification and bringing fiber to rural America, because he’s been in the game a long time,” Hasten said.
Arkansas’ electric cooperatives do what Hasten calls a “mission trip” every two years to Guatemala, putting up poles and distribution lines to help local utilities deliver power for the first time deep into the Central American jungles and high into the mountains. There, Coleman and Hasten have seen the emotional power of flipping a switch.
“We go down there and bring light to villages that have no electricity, and Mel has been a big part of that,” Hasten said. “He said that when we bring fiber to somebody’s home in Arkansas, the kids are cheering ‘Netflix forever!’ and ‘we can play Xbox now,’ but it is not the same as bringing electricity, not at all. When we turn on that single lightbulb in a home that had never had light at night before, everybody starts crying. They’re weeping because now they have electricity.”
That’s the reason NAEC’s fiber subsidiary is called NEXT, Hasten said. “Because broadband is the next best thing to electricity.”