I recently sat down with the Cherryland Electric Cooperative Board of Directors. Together, we reviewed an extensive fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) feasibility study for our region.

If Cherryland were to run a fiber line past each home and business we serve, the total cost would exceed $80 million dollars.

The study determined that out of 35,000 members, there are only 2,783 that are not served with some form of high speed internet. Going one step further, the study revealed that there are 3,834 members who have access to internet but fall into a category labeled “underserved.” I read that to mean that they have service but it is poor at best.

Thus, 19% of Cherryland members are either unserved or underserved. A common rebuttal we hear is that members will leave their present provider and switch to Cherryland due to our reputation for reliability and great service. Neither the board nor I are ready to make an $80 million dollar bet on this statement.

Our plan is to start slowly with a multi-pronged fiber strategy. The first step is to begin exploring a partnership with Traverse City Light and Power in the Traverse City area. Can we reduce our risk, learn valuable lessons and then expand into the more rural areas? We will begin this process very soon.

In parallel with that effort in 2017, we are in the early stages of working with a vendor that has proven capability of providing wireless internet at high speeds in rural areas. Obviously, wireless cannot be as fast or as reliable as fiber.

However, the financial risk of such a partnership is minimal and the investment is small. It will also create a real-life survey as to how many people in rural areas are willing to sign up for faster service. We will start this project in the Bates area east of Traverse City as well as the very rural areas of our service territory around Thompsonville, Brethren and Copemish to our southwest.

For 2018, we are working on a partnership with Wolverine Power Cooperative to share the cost of putting 30 miles of fiber between a majority of our substations between Bates to the east, Grawn to our south and Lake Leelanau to our north and west. The intent of this fiber string will be to improve our substation communications and system reliability.

In 2019 or at the completion of the fiber connection between substations, we will seek a vendor or multiple vendors willing to “light up” the fiber and seek to serve homes and businesses of Cherryland members. Cherryland revenues will come only from leasing/renting excess fiber space. At this time, Cherryland has no intention of becoming an internet, phone or television provider.

Also, as we move forward with housing projects and subdivision work, Cherryland will install empty pipe on all underground projects of any size. So, whenever fiber reaches a given area, we will be ready to slide the magic wire down a plastic pipe to homes and businesses.

In closing, we will never turn our back on fiber cable. Several areas of our service territory have a strong offering of internet service today. We will all have to be creative, strategic and patient in order to give every member access to faster internet service. Cherryland will do its part while sticking to our core mission of providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity.

The statewide feasibility study can be viewed here.

Tony Anderson