In 2017, PGEC embarked on a mission to build a fiber optic network across its electric distribution system. Branded as RURALBAND, the cooperative’s wholly-owned fiber subsidiary broadband initiative offers a variety of high-speed internet options to best serve the needs and budgets of residents. Its guiding mission is to “provide a reliable and best-in-class fiber internet option for its members to improve the overall quality of life for its members”.
“Reliable service for all has been PGEC’s mission since the 1930’s beginning with electricity and now internet,” said cooperative President and CEO, Sarat Yellepeddi. “We’re translating the same established principles of collaboration, planning, and execution to bring members the same reliable service they have come to expect from us in providing electricity. Every member should have an equal opportunity in experiencing reliable connectivity to enhance and improve the quality of life for current and future generations.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic elevated broadband access to a necessity, interest in broadband predated the pandemic in Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex, Isle of Wight, and Surry Counties – leaving many to rely on my-fis and cellular phone data plans for their internet connection that was not meeting the requirements of membership.
“As an electric cooperative, we are always thinking about how we can better serve the needs of members to enhance their quality of life,” Yellepeddi explains. That desire coupled with PGEC’s infrastructure footprint of 1,300 miles of power lines in six counties is what birthed RURALBAND’s pilot deployment.
Keeping the mission of improving the quality of life for its members in mind, RURALBAND deployment started small with a gracious initial contribution from Prince George County in 2017. With the dedication of its employees and partners, RURALBAND successfully connected its first internet customers in 2017. In its pilot phase, 75 members were connected to broadband access via RURLBAND. Following the pilot phase, 50 members signed up for service.
RURALBAND’s expansion continued into neighboring Surry County in 2019. At that time, Surry County had 1 percent coverage for broadband. In fact, the only building with broadband access was the county’s administration building; no businesses or residents had access. Working in collaboration with Surry County, RURALBAND applied for and received a $2.25 million grant from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) to continue their work in 2020 for universal coverage.
In October of 2021, PGEC finished their infrastructure build in Surry County. Several partners including Dominion Energy, Surry County Administration, VATI collaborated to accomplish the goal of universal coverage. This was one of the first rural counties in Virginia to have universal broadband coverage for the entire community, serving over 4,300 homes and businesses.
While connecting homes to broadband internet solves the access problem, PGEC recognizes that it does no good if residents do not take the step to sign up for service. According to Yellepeddi, ensuring that members see the value that the internet can bring to their daily lives is key.
Understanding that this is where their members might be coming from, PGEC created an innovative space for members to interact with a connected living space called a “Cooperative Living Room” as part of their digital literacy initiative. The furnished living room space included a smart television, Amazon Alexa, gaming console, laptop computer, and several tablets. During that time, PGEC staff were available to explain to visitors that broadband connects households to resources beyond email, such as telehealth, education, and job search.
The Cooperative Living Room concept has its origins in the Cooperative Kitchens of the 1950s. At that time, many electric appliances – such as air conditioners, toasters, heaters, etc. – became available, but weren’t being taken up by rural households accustomed to using non-electric alternatives. Cooperative Kitchens were able to demonstrate the value of electric appliances and gave rural households an opportunity to see first-hand how electric appliances could improve the efficiency of their homes.
Since its inception, RURALBAND’s fiberoptic broadband service has connected thousands of homes across several underserved Virginia counties (Prince George, Surry, Dinwiddie, Isle of Wight, and Sussex).
RURALBAND remains committed to its mission and continues to invest in the infrastructure built for not only its members but also to the neighboring communities where this service is equally required. The subsidiary’s management and board of directors are committed to providing this essential service just as the previous generations of co-op members did when power was not available.
RURALBAND is the wholly owned fiber subsidiary of Prince George Electric Cooperative, created to manage and operate the fiber-to-the-home network and service for cooperative members.