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Tipmont REMC Broadband Initiative Update

The following text is from a presentation by Tipmont Communication Director Rob Ford given at the 2021 Annual Meeting on September 18, 2021.

I’m going to spend a few minutes updating you on our broadband internet progress. It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three years since we connected our first customer near our office in Linden. I’m pleased to share that we connected our 3,000th customer earlier this summer, well ahead of our original schedule.

Any new venture is always scary. Especially one that has a high amount of initial capital costs, in this case, a state-of-the-art fiber internet service.

But we took this initiative on for one simple reason. You told us to. In surveys, by email, by phone and in person. The message was loud and clear. Our need for better internet is immediate and dire.

At our 2017 Annual Meeting when we announced our broadband initiative, we told you that we planned to have broadband available to every Tipmont member by 2028. Your response was, again, quite clear: “that’s not good enough, we need it now.” We heard you.

So we took two innovative actions to accelerate the timeline.

First, we acquired Wintek Corporation in early 2019. Wintek’s combination of knowledge and talent along with their existing infrastructure allowed us to skip several years of learning and testing.

Second, we applied for state and federal grant funding to help us hire more crews. Our first grant arrived in Spring 2019, about $450,000 for our Klondike build area from Indiana’s Next Level Connections program. Tipmont was the only grant recipient to complete the build and connect customers prior to the next round of funding. It seems we impressed state officials because our next grant award in Fall 2020 was $16 million, more than any other applicant.

The real benefit of these grant dollars was to help us get service faster to the rural areas with the most need.  It accelerated our timeline and helped stabilize our new fiber venture.

In fact, if you read our 2020 Annual Report we handed out today, you’ll note that year two of our original business plan called for about $900,000 in broadband revenue. The actual 2020 revenue amount was $8 million.

Part of this number was another benefit of the Wintek acquisition. Prior to being acquired by Tipmont, Wintek had established a very reliable brand in Lafayette, serving a number of the area’s largest businesses. That revenue stream is part of what makes the impossible possible – providing state-of-the-art broadband to our rural members.

Those two innovative actions – the Wintek acquisition and the grant funding – has almost cut our build timeline in half. We now expect every Tipmont member to have access to broadband by the end of 2024.

This is wonderful news, but it’s not our most important success metric. What is most important to us is your satisfaction with the service. We measure it relentlessly because as a not-for-profit co-op, that’s our key indicator of success. We don’t measure success in profit, only in your satisfaction.

If you’ve heard me speak on this topic previously, you probably remember me talking about the ACSI or American Customer Satisfaction Index. It’s a benchmark for customer satisfaction across all sectors of the American economy. This last quarter, we achieved the highest score in Tipmont’s history.

Co-ops tend to have high customer satisfaction scores in general, but Tipmont is a full 10 points ahead of the co-op average. But we like to think bigger. And there’s always been one company that we couldn’t quite catch. So you can imagine our jubilation when for the very first time last quarter, we finally scored higher than Chick-Fil-A.

Now, not everything has gone perfectly. We’ve had construction delays from permitting issues and weather. We struggle with delays locating underground utilities. We also had a contractor that did not meet our high standards and we had to part ways with, causing a several-month delay in our southern Fountain County build earlier this year. Most of you have been very patient and understanding and we’re very grateful for that.

And for all the benefits that the grant funding brought, it also meant we had to prioritize some areas over others because the grant-funded areas have to be completed within two year’s time to receive the reimbursement.

We submitted applications for nearly every grant funding area in our electric service territory that met eligibility requirements. However, not every area was eligible for or received, grant funding. We’ve received a lot of questions. Why didn’t my area get grant funding?

There were two eligibility factors that prevented us from receiving more grant funding:

  1. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) coverage data is used to determine whether broadband is available within an area. That data is problematic because it relies on surveys of internet service providers that overstate their coverage. For example, if one customer (often, a business) in a census block has broadband service, then the FCC data reports the entire census block as being “served” and, therefore, ineligible for grant funding.
  2. Broadband service is defined as 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed. By that definition, about 90% of Indiana has access to “broadband.” This allowed several other DLS and fixed wireless providers to challenge our grant applications. However, some good news: we worked with state officials using survey data that many of you shared with us and the State is raising that standard to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps per second upload for future funding rounds.

Rest assured, whether we get grant funding or not, we will build until the entire Tipmont electric service area has access to broadband.

So that raises the obvious question, will you receive any more grant funding and get to my home faster. The answer is, we hope so. The state is preparing another funding round this fall. We originally thought it was going to open in August, but the state has pushed it back to October. We’ll keep you up to date as we learn more.

But, I’ll close with how meaningful it’s been to hear some of the success stories. I’ve spoken with teachers who, over the last year, were driving flash drives with homework assignments to their students’ homes.

Other teachers have been using our free WiFi hotspots to grade assignments. We’ve heard from members who are now able to work from home. Who can connect with friends and family over video chat. Others who are saving thousands of dollars by taking advantage of smart home tools and streaming television options.

For many of you, there is a learning curve to this new internet connection. Our responsibility goes beyond providing you a service. We also have an obligation to help you maximize its potential. We have photos in our archive from the 1950s of Tipmont employees showing our members how to use electric ovens, dryers, refrigerators. So, later this year, we plan to launch a series of seminars to cover everything from streaming television and movies, to using smart home devices.

But for every connected member, there are many more who are still waiting. And we’re fighting for you. Please stay engaged with us. Call us, email us, stop by our office. Thank you to all of you for continuing to support our cooperative and we look forward to continue serving you.

Picture of Rob Ford

Rob Ford

Rob Ford is Tipmont and Wintek's communication director, a role he's held since 2015. Rob has a bachelor's and a master's in Communication from Purdue University. He lives in West Lafayette with his wife and three children and has a life-sized Yoda statue in his office. Away from the office, you’ll find Rob working on his golf swing, jump shot, or hope for a Purdue basketball national title – all futile endeavors.

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