MEC LAUNCHES FIBER EXPANSION PROJECT
Cassopolis-based Midwest Energy & Communications (MEC) is expanding its fiber telecommunications infrastructure, bringing the gold standard internet service to more than 30,000 homes and businesses across portions of southern Michigan.
MEC was awarded $37 million through the 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, an FCC initiative designed to inject billions of dollars into the construction and operation of rural broadband networks. Phase 1 of the $20.4 billion reverse auction commenced in October 2020, targeting over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps.
Throughout the five-year construction plan, which runs 2022-2026, MEC will build 3,223 miles of fiber in 267 census blocks, making service available to 33,177 locations (as defined by the FCC) in southern Michigan. Once complete, customers will have access to high-speed internet and voice services.
MEC is a customer-owned rural electric cooperative founded in 1937, and provides electric distribution, propane, and telecommunications services to more than 40,000 homes and businesses across southwest and southeast Michigan, and northern Indiana and Ohio. The cooperative began adding fiber infrastructure to its electric distribution grid for utility purposes in 2014.
“This was a win-win proposition,” says Bob Hance, MEC President/CEO. “We needed to invest in our system to build an advanced communications network capable of deploying smart-grid technologies, and successfully leveraged that to provide a much-needed service to customers across our rural geography.”
MEC launched a five-year plan to fully deploy fiber across its southwest Michigan service area in 2015, and in 2020 began construction in its southeast territory. Since 2015 the cooperative has constructed more than 2,500 miles of fiber and now serves more than 16,000 subscribers.
Rural America has been largely unserved and underserved with reliable broadband options, and the RDOF program is one solution to help bridge the digital divide.
“For many years, our electric customers looked to us for a reliable and affordable broadband solution. Most were relegated to dial-up, satellite, or DSL options, none of which can provide the speed and reliability required in today’s digital age,” Hance explains. “The broadband needs of the rural space largely have been ignored. We want to make sure that geography doesn’t define a person’s scope of opportunity and that individuals choosing to work and live in the rural space have the same amenities as their counterparts in more urban areas.”
The rural broadband movement is much like the electrification of rural America in the 1930s. “Incumbent electric providers wouldn’t build into the rural space because it didn’t pencil financially, and that led to the advent of the rural electric cooperative movement,” Hance says. “Today we’re again stepping up and essentially re-lighting rural spaces, but this time with fiber internet.
“Our mission at MEC is to provide first-in-class innovations and solutions, where others won’t,” Hance continues. “Internet providers across the country have taken federal monies for years with a promise to build broadband in the rural spaces, and yet those spaces remain gravely unserved and underserved. The last 15 months of living in the pandemic just reinforced the reality that high-speed internet is absolutely essential in today’s digital age, so we’ve taken the bold step to provide this service where others won’t.”