Northwest Oklahoma Alliance (NwOA) quarterly networking luncheon was Tuesday at the Woodward Conference Center. The highlight of the event was the Broadband Panel consisting of industry experts discussing broadband in Northwest Oklahoma.
The panel included Oklahoma State University Economics Professor Dr. Brian Whitacre, Panhandle Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (PTCI) Chief Operations Officer Jana Wallace, and Pioneer Telephone Division Manager Blake Callaham.
Whitacre shared federal Communications Commission (FCC) and census data with attendees regarding broadband service in Northwest Oklahoma and what he called the “connectivity situation.”
According to Whitacre, Woodward stands out as not having great connectivity as more than 75 percent of the city population does not have access to 25 megabytes per second, which is the official threshold for broadband. Between 2011 and 2017, Woodward has not seen much progress in connectivity.
“It actually is interesting to me see that the City of Woodward is actually not really well connected at all,” Whitacre said. “Woodward today, and a couple surrounding counties where literally three-quarters of the population can’t get a broadband plan. So that's pretty striking to me.”
Broadband helps economic development in communities through growth of income, civic engagement, job creation and other factors, according to Whitacre.
One possible solution Whitacre offered is a new Rural Library Hotspot Lending Program which began in parts of the state in June of 2018.
“What we’re really trying to do with this is get people who don't have a connection at their house,” Whitacre explained. “People use it for education. They use it for job search. Just the whole family uses it. It is a very popular program and a great way to help people who don't have connection.”
Wallace introduced PTCI with a quick history from it’s inception as Rural Telephone Cooperative in 1954, rebranding in 1983, and acquiring of General Telephone & Electronics Corporation’s (GTE) Panhandle assets in 1994. She also went through the cooperative values.
Covering all of the Oklahoma Panhandle, parts of Harper County, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas, PTCI's overall service is statistically better than Woodward, according to the statistic maps presented.
“We’ve been doing fiber since 2009. A few years ago we really ramped up our program,” Wallace said, adding that they are installing from east to west through the panhandle. “By the end of this year, every customer that we have in Harper County will have fiber to their home.”
They have put in about 70 miles of fiber optic cable since March 2019, according to Wallace.
Wallace attributed a big portion of PTCI’s success to available funding through grants and government loans.
“We operate under a little thing called Universal Service the principle that all Americans should have access to communication services,” Wallace said. “Our cooperative, we are a rate of return company. Our footprint is just what we can handle. Woodward is not eligible for that."
However Wallace said, “We are regulated every way but Sunday,” listing some of the federal and state regulatory agencies the coop is accountable to.
As a success story, Wallace shared No Man’s Land Beef Jerky out of Boise City. A third of their local sales are online, which broadband access helps make possible for their business success.
Callaham said Pioneer’s revenue has swung toward broadband services. He shared some of Pioneer’s plans for improvement in the Woodward area, including taking fiber to unserved areas and implementing Mimosa technology.
“We did recognize that Woodward is underserved and we was trying to figure out how we’re going to approach that,” Callaham said. “The least intrusive product we could get into Woodward relatively quickly was the Mimosa product.”
The limitation of Mimosa technology is its working through line-of-site towers. The answer to this, according to Callaham is mini antennas throughout smaller neighborhoods that have limited access. He reported there are already two towers up, one near CF Industries west of town and the other near Merriman’s Furniture store south of town.
After the panel, Brian Lamoreaux from Chisholm Broadband, a new company coming into the area, spoke up during question and answer time.
“My question is, why do you wait on government money to do it? We’re using all of our own money to do it. It's very profitable. My question is, why wait?” Lamoreaux said. “We’re in Oklahoma, I’m assuming we like to have our own decisions and not have regulations to go through.”
Wallace answered that there is probably money to be made in the Woodward area. Whitacre said there are some small communities taking things into their own hands and building their own towers, but it’s a little bit different with a wider footprint. Callaham alluded to the constraints of a cooperative company.
There was much discussion after the meeting was adjourned and some seeming interest in the proposed new company.