Tri-County becomes the first electric co-op in Florida to tackle FTTH

Florida-based Tri-County Electric Cooperative teamed with Conexon Connect to deploy a 2,400-mile fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network, aiming to deliver high-speed broadband to all of its members within the next few years. The $65 million project is the first FTTH initiative undertake by an electric co-op in the state.

Conexon Partner Jonathan Chambers told Fierce the company will be responsible for design, construction and operation of the network, though Tri-County will own the actual infrastructure. It plans to use XGS-PON fiber and will offer 100 Mbps, 1-gig and 2-gig service plans. The company’s typical build pace is around 1,000 miles per year for a project like this, which means the Tri-County deployment will take around two to three years to complete, he said.

Once finished, the network will serve as many as 15,000 locations across the co-op’s territory in Jefferson, Madison, Taylor and Dixie counties. Chambers noted some of the areas it plans to build are subsidized with funding it won in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction, but said it’s committed to reaching all of the co-op’s members regardless of whether money is available for every location.

Conexon was one of the top bidders in the RDOF auction and previously inked deals to help electric co-ops in Georgia, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Hampshire build fiber broadband. Chambers said it tends to build what is known as a smart grid network, which is integrated with a co-op’s existing electric infrastructure. He said Conexon recently decided to use XGS-PON for its projects after determining the technology has enough reach to allow it to be installed at substations and extended into rural areas along the electric grid.

According to Chambers, the number of electric co-ops interested in deploying fiber broadband has increased exponentially over the past decade. And he said that’s a good thing given they’re in a unique position to help close the digital divide, particularly in some of poorest and most rural parts of the country.

He noted there are between 5 million and 5.5 million miles of electric distribution line across the U.S. and co-ops own about 2.4 million to 2.5 million of that. “To truly close the digital divide and not just wave at it, you’ve gotta get to the places no one else will build. Without co-ops I don’t think it would every happen. With co-ops it’s got a fighting chance,” Chambers argued.

It is precisely their sheer geographic breadth and presence in the rural and poor communities where it might not be economical for other companies to venture that put co-ops in this pivotal position. “While they’re not going to cover the whole country with electricity as they did in the ‘30s and ‘40s, they may be half of the solution [to closing the broadband gap] in the entire country,” Chambers concluded. “That’s the trend I see, the pace of construction by electric co-ops is that much faster than anyone else.”