Maybe Coops are the Answer

I’ve been talking with a lot of rural counties lately and also with rural service providers. For the vast majority of rural broadband projects the biggest roadblock to getting started is almost always funding. Building fiber-to-the-home or even fiber backbones to extend fiber deeper into rural communities is expensive and there are not a lot of funding sources ready to support fiber projects. But there is one business structure that can sometimes make financing a little easier and perhaps it is time for more communities to consider forming a cooperative as a way to get a broadband solution.

Cooperatives are governed under federal law by the Capper Volstead Act. There are also state laws governing coops that differ a bit from state to state, but are mostly the same everywhere. A cooperative is a legal entity owned and controlled by its members and members generally are also the consumers of its products or services. Cooperatives are typically based on the cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, community concern, and caring for others. Cooperatives generally aim to provide their goods or services at close to cost and any excess earnings are generally required by law to be reinvested in the enterprise or returned to individual patrons based on patronage of the cooperative.

There are several advantages of coops that make them worth considering:

  • Coops are corporations and not municipal entities. Coops ought to be exempt from all of the many state laws that prohibit or discourage municipal ownership of broadband networks. If you’re in a place that makes it hard to create a municipal broadband solution then a cooperative might be a great alternative.
  • Cooperatives don’t have the same profit-motive as privately-owned entities. From a financing perspective this makes them look more like a municipal venture in that a coop is happy with cash flows that cover costs rather than having to also make a profit.
  • Cooperatives often have some tax advantages over other kinds of corporations. For example, ‘profits’ from serving their customers is often income-tax free. This can vary by state, but for the most part cooperatives pay little income taxes as long as they focus only on serving their own members.
  • The typical financing sources for broadband are used to working with cooperatives. The RUS, part of the Department of Agriculture has a long history of lending to cooperatives. CoBank, a bank that is part of the US Farm Credit System was established specifically to loan to agricultural, electric and telecom cooperatives. While the RUS was tasked a number of years ago to include municipalities under their umbrella, the nuances of that program make it nearly impossible for a municipality to borrow from them.
  • Cooperatives have a unique funding source that is not available to anybody else. Coops are allowed to loan excess cash to each other and I’ve seen new coops get low, or even zero interest loans from other cooperatives to help them get started. Many older electric and agriculture coops sit on big cash reserves that they might consider lending – particularly when the new telecom cooperative covers the same member territory.

But as you might expect, there are other issues that present challenges for new cooperatives:

  • Any lender to a new fiber venture is going to want to see some equity put into a new venture so that it is not 100% financed. It can be more of a challenge for a cooperative to raise equity compared to a commercial company because there is no way to guarantee that such equity will earn a good return or that it can be returned in any reasonable time frame. So this basically means that an equity drive means asking prospective members in the community for money. I’ve seen a few cooperatives get started and it can be done – but it’s not easy.
  • Cooperatives are governed by Boards elected from the membership base. Existing coops hire employees to operate the business and these employees provide the technical expertise that makes lenders trust lending to the business. But until a new cooperative is funded and can hire those employees there is a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma in that a lender can’t be positive that the cooperative knows how to operate their business.
  • The local acceptance of the cooperative idea varies by region. In some places in the Midwest a majority of local businesses are cooperatives, but there are other places where there are few if any cooperatives.

There are many situations where a cooperative might be the only reasonable operating structure for a rural area to get the broadband they want. If a community is not finding any solutions from a commercial provider and is unable to provide municipal funding, then a cooperative is well worth considering.

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