North Arkansas Electric Cooperative was formed in 1939 to deliver life-changing electricity to people in unserved rural areas. With access to electricity came running water, refrigeration, electric-powered farming equipment and more. From the health of their families to the earnings of their farms, electricity improved every aspect of those early members’ lives.
Almost eight decades later, the co-op is delivering a new necessity to those we serve: high-speed fiber optic internet. We founded our subsidiary NEXT, Powered by NAEC to offer industry-leading service with the fastest broadband available at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.
Many of our co-op members only have access to internet of less than 10 megabits per second with spotty reliability at their homes and businesses. In some areas of NAEC’s service territory, residents cannot connect to internet through the existing provider as it has exceeded its systems’ capabilities and is no longer adding customers. They must turn to cellular hotspots or satellite internet, which have their own drawbacks. These challenges led NAEC and dozens of other electric cooperatives across the country to launch telecommunications subsidiaries to meet their members’ internet needs.
NAEC wants our co-op members to experience the improved quality of life that gigabit internet has delivered to their urban counterparts for years. True broadband access helps our students, businesses and communities thrive in today’s competitive world.
Educational opportunities for students improve with broadband access. Middle-schoolers can research at home for a science project. High-schoolers can access online courses and subjects not offered at their schools. Nontraditional college students can enroll in online classes without worrying about where they will find adequate internet service to complete their assignments or exams.
Economic opportunities for existing and potential businesses also improve as few can flourish without broadband internet. They need to accept electronic payments, hold video conferences and upload information to the web without worrying about data caps or slow connections.
A small business owner in the NEXT pilot cried after realizing she would have access to a faster, more reliable internet connection at an affordable price. The savings and improved quality allow her to better serve her customers and to increase her profits. In a rural setting with a small customer base, that can mean the difference between prospering and closing the doors. In another example, a commercial business that sells products online reported earning thousands more dollars since subscribing to NEXT because they no longer lose sales due to frequent service interruptions.
The availability of broadband internet also encourages entrepreneurship. People can launch businesses from home that require internet access, such as tutoring students remotely or selling handcrafted items on online marketplaces.
In addition, properties with access to broadband internet are valued higher than comparable ones that do not. Many real estate agents can testify that questions on a property’s internet quality are near the top of the list for prospective buyers – both commercial and residential.
Internet access also can improve health care access in rural areas that often experience shortages of medical professionals and that necessitate extended travel to specialists. With telemedicine, medical professionals can assist a patient through video conversations. This can be an efficient, economical option for many patients, but it requires a reliable, fast internet connection.
Few can dispute that these benefits of broadband internet access improve people’s lives.
Members contact NAEC daily wanting to know when construction of NEXT’s fiber network will reach their homes and businesses. We have more than 800 subscribers so far and plan to be able to serve our approximately 30,000 members over the next five years. The construction of our fiber network is a mammoth undertaking, but we know our members and the communities we serve desire and need this service.
Electricity was considered the next greatest thing for our area eight decades ago. Fiber internet can claim that same title today.
Editor’s note: Mel Coleman is the CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative. The opinions expressed are those of the author.