Last month, while attending a rural broadband conference, I heard one of the presenters there use the term “digital dignity”. That term had an immediate impact on me, and I began to think about how the concept of “dignity” could apply to rural broadband.
This past July, America celebrated its 246th birthday. Historians who have recorded that lengthy history could cite multitudes of milestones that have impacted our nation’s progress along the way. One such milestone was (and is) the rural-electrification movement.
A dark, isolated existence
Beginning in 1935, about 1,000 member-owned electric cooperatives nationwide were established. Consequently, people living in rural areas, who had previously endured a dark, isolated existence of unending drudgery could now enjoy the same conveniences that had long been available in the cities. The co-ops were, in essence, creating “dignity” and “electrical equality” for their members.
A similar proud story is now being enacted within today’s utility landscape. The efforts of hundreds of electric cooperatives are presently concentrated on the task of taking broadband service to areas where it had been unavailable.
The digital divide: a big problem
It took the COVID pandemic to demonstrate what a big problem the digital divide had actually become. Life had to go on despite the quarantines and other actions taken to combat the virus. However, many students who might take classes remotely at home and adults who might want to work from home simply didn’t have that option. In some locations, the lack of high-speed internet was having negative impacts on real estate values and proposed economic-development projects. Moreover, broadband had assumed an importance that many viewed as critical as electricity or other utility services.
Acting with dignity means doing the right thing, even when it is the difficult thing. Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative has taken on the difficult task of deploying broadband in some of the most rural, unserved areas in South Carolina. While others have waited for funding to build into these critical areas of need, Blue Ridge continues to do the right thing by constructing fiber into these areas as rapidly as possible with very little outside funding.
Here at Blue Ridge, we’ve had crews in the field since February of 2021, installing fiber-optic cable in communities across our service territory. In two years, we’ve connected more than 9,000 customers to our broadband network. That’s truly a great start, and we’re going to press on until everyone within our five-county region who wants broadband will have it, thus, giving them “digital dignity” and “digital equality”.
As that process continues to unfold, we also expect our electric members to realize further benefits from our involvement in the internet business. With planned runs of fiber cable connected to our substations and other distribution equipment, we’ll be in a position to have access to “real-time” data and offer even more-dependable service to all those on our power grid.
The cooperative is poised to be the engine that keeps bringing “digital dignity” to so many who, up until now, have had to do without. That would seem to fit perfectly with what we see as our historic calling.