For many residents of rural America, the idea seems like a pipe dream: High-speed internet that brings with it not only the creature comforts of fast downloads and reliable streaming connections, but also the power to improve their quality of life. Even for some urbanites and suburbanites in Missouri, it’s a dream not yet realized. For the members of Sac Osage Electric Cooperative, the dream is already taking shape.
In May 2021, the electric co-op announced a partnership with Kansas City-based Conexon Connect to lead a fiber-to-the-home project — dubbed Connect powered by Sac Osage Electric Cooperative — destined to connect all 8,700 of the co-op’s member-owners. Conexon Connect is the internet service provider arm of rural fiber broadband design and construction management leader Conexon. The company, which also is working with Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, Butler, has assisted 60 electric cooperatives to deploy fiber networks to connect more than 500,000 rural Americans. Soon those in Sac Osage’s nine-county service area will join that number and have access not just to fast internet but all the advantages which come with it: online learning, telehealth and remote employment opportunities to name but a few.
“In the 1940s, co-ops were formed to help electrify rural America,” says Sac Osage Electric Manager Jim Davis. “Now, some 80 years later, we’re being called on to close the digital divide as many of our members are either underserved or not served at all with broadband.”
The $52 million project will deploy more than 2,300 miles of fiber optic cable. With an estimated timeline of three to four years until completion, the network also will provide phone service and enable smart grid capabilities to Sac Osage’s infrastructure. The latter’s benefits to the co-op include improved power outage response time, better load balancing and more efficient electricity delivery.
“The lesson rural America learned in the 1930s doesn’t need to be re-taught,” says Conexon Partner Jonathan Chambers. “If you wait for a large company like Google or AT&T to build a network to your farm or your home, you’re going to wait a long time. So, you may as well get to work building your own network. Like the electric cooperative networks, our fiber networks are owned by the communities we serve.”
The network’s first customers, Sac Osage Electric members Jan and Reed Prewitt who live in El Dorado Springs, say the difference in speed from their pre-existing service to broadband was immediately apparent. Jan says the 100 Mbps connection for both uploads and downloads allows the Prewitts to pay bills online or video chat with family members located around the country with ease.
“We were only getting about 10 (Mbps), and that was the best they could do out here,” Jan says of her previous service provider. “This is 10 times faster. I think it’s the greatest thing Sac Osage could have done, to team up and get fiber in here.”
The service also proved important for area businesses. Before broadband, Backyard Portable Buildings owner Lester Byler had to set up multiple Wi-Fi hotspots so his office could send large attachments of building specs via email. While Conexon performed his installation in June, Lester anticipated the time and money he would save.
“The upload speed is going to make a big difference,” Lester says. “Even the lowest speed they offer is 12 times faster than our download, and almost 80 times faster on the upload. It’s night and day. You can’t even compare the difference.”
The Sac Osage member, who also has a 100 Mbps connection at home, adds now that his company’s database is entirely cloud-based, he needs not only high speed but also reliability.
“In the short time I’ve had it, the service difference is huge,” Lester says, “I haven’t experienced any outages, and whenever I call, they answer the phone. You aren’t on hold for four hours. It’s the best thing in our county.”
For more information on high-speed internet availability in Sac Osage Electric Cooperative’s area, visit www.sacosage.com or www.conexonconnect.com.