By: Catharine Rice

Knowing that high-quality broadband is essential to keeping its operations competitive and to improving its members quality of life, the Roanoke Electric Membership Cooperative (REMC) established Roanoke Connect in 2017 to power the region’s digital future. After years of study and testing, REMC has now deployed fiber to its electrical substations, and is using fixed wireless broadband equipment to extend internet service from those twelve sites to member-owner homes and businesses throughout its 1,500 square mile service area in North Carolina’s coastal plain.

This is no small feat. REMC’s service area not only covers a large land area but of the seven counties for which it provides electric service, four are some of the poorest in the state. Recognizing the critical importance of internet access to this farming region, and the lack of widespread internet service, the cooperative sought to redefine its role in community development through strategic investments, customer empowerment, new technology like smart home devices, and, one day, telemedicine.

“We are located east of I-95, where there are beautiful farm lands, but this is a very poor area, not alot of industry like it used to be. We are trying to revitalize the community we live in and help our member-owners,” explained Susan Tann, Vice President of Member Services and Marketing for REMC.  “If we can get them internet, we can get them jobs and stimulate business development. In many parts of this service area, [the existing telecommunications providers] will not serve these residents,” she added.

Getting into the broadband business meant a big change for the electric provider, so the utility took its time. They sent postcards to 14,500 member-owners asking for input about desired services. Broadband topped the list.

“Start with broadband internet,” said Tann, “because that was the critical first step to offering many of the other services requested.”

REMC then created two groups of 25 homes each to pilot wireless technologies, providing free service for a full year. Wireless providers Ubiquity and Mimosa joined them in this pilot. Despite heavy rains and ice storms over the winter, the system worked well. “We had no connectivity issues, despite anticipating issues,” said Tann.

REMC followed the testing phase with project enhancements focused on digital equity in education. (Consultants ECC Technologies and Georgia-based Cambium Networks provided support.) “In this area, a lot of our school systems have converted to e-books, but students don’t have connectivity at home, so [they] have to go to the library or McDonalds to download their homework. When we told Cambium about this problem, and the efforts we were making to solve this, they gave us a lot of support and made sure we had everything we needed to make the project successful,” said Tann.

Roanoke Connect began offering broadband service in April 2018, gradually deploying service based on pre-orders and the location of REMC’s twelve fiber-connected substations. Wireless, line-of-sight devices are being installed.  Residents who pre-ordered were served first; the cooperative is currently offering a “triple discount” incentive including smart thermostats, water heater controls and discounted internet service starting at $39.99 to attract subscribers. After August 18, regular internet service will start at $44.99.

Although the incentive program has had broad appeal, REMC is not focused on trying to compete with the existing providers. “We plan on delivering high customer service to our member owners, no data caps, and enough throughput to utilize their computer and stream videos,” explained Tann, who also emphasized the service benefits for home-based businesses. According to Tann, so far, customers are more than satisfied.

From Smarter Homes and Lower Costs for Farmers…

An electric cooperative is in the power business, traditionally.  But for REMC, the need to expand their service offerings went further than just offering a new service. Tann noted that the cooperative wanted its members to have control over their energy usage – and enjoy lower energy costs made possible by a more data-driven system.  “If it was just the internet alone, they would not have access to these other cost savings and personal control features,” she said.

The upside of a data-driven system is that it allows the utility and the customers to more directly perceive the benefits associated with reducing demand. “Smart thermostats allow you to regulate your home thermostat through your cell phone, including when you are not at home. And water [and heating] thermostats can be controlled at home while you’re at the office.  All this empowers members to participate in their own energy usage and actively participate in helping REMC lower everyone’s peak usage,” explained Tann.


…to Better Healthcare Delivery 

From REMC’s point of view, giving people more control over their lives also means giving them more control over their healthcare, which is why the cooperative has future plans to support telemedicine service through a partnership with a local clinic. Currently, if a resident needs to see a doctor, including just for prescriptions, the closest major hospital to the co-op’s service area is in Greenville, a considerable drive away. “If we can utilize the broadband service, where doctors will be able to see [residents] and talk to them, they would not have to make that trip,” Tann noted with enthusiasm. Telemedicine could change the quality of life for many people in this aging community. “This is just the beginning,” she said.