This article original appeared in our quarterly email newsletter. Not receiving our newsletter? Click here to sign up!
Kevin Maes: Who is Midwest Energy & Communications and how did you get in the internet business?
Terry Rubenthaler: Midwest Energy & Communications (MEC) started out as an electric cooperative in the 1930s to serve rural customers in southern Michigan, northern Indiana and northern Ohio electric service because none of the other electric utilities would build out into the rural areas. These rural customers created us as a Cooperative and to this day the people who receive service from MEC are the owners of the company.
Because we were owned by our customer’s we would regularly take surveys to see how we were doing and what we could do better. The results of these surveys were somewhat surprising that our electric service was good, but they could not live in our rural space any longer because they needed high speed reliable internet service. For many years, we tried different technologies to provide this need and prevent our customers from moving away including wireless, satellite, and broadband over powerline (BPL), but none of them could meet the ever increasing need of the customers.
We learned that some other Coops in our similar situation were building fiber to the premise and making a business case that it could make profit and provide world class service. In 2014, we started in the business to once again build a service that none of the existing providers would. Now we have over 2500 miles and over 16,000 active internet customers.
KM: You’ve been in utilities for over 25 years. How did you get in the business, what’s different about the industry these days, and what surprises you about the new internet business?
TR: I started out at MEC in 1995 as a system engineer working only on the electric system. I was promoted to Engineering Manager, then VP of Engineering and Operations. When we embarked on the fiber to the home business, I was asked to take on the role of CTO which oversees all engineering and IT for both lines of business and also fiber operations.
Obviously, diving into a new line of business is a huge change, but also customer expectations have changed greatly. Customers demand quick communications and are forgiving of mistakes or outages, but only if you get it out quickly through text, emails and social media. We used to call in help first when we had outages, now we call our communications department first. The biggest surprise is how quickly the bandwidth needs have grown. Customers are using 3-4 times the bandwidth and data than just 5 years ago, if that trend continues, which we are assuming it will, fiber will soon be the only technology that can provide what the customers want.
KM: In your experience, do you think that moving to a more GIS, data centric approach is the right move for companies/cooperatives today and if so, who do you think benefits the most from the investment?
TR: Not only do I believe it is the right move, but it is the only way to efficiently operate anymore. For all operations in our business, the GIS mapping data is the hub of the wheel. All data flows through the GIS mapping data and virtually nothing can be completed any longer without accurate GIS data. In the end, the customers benefit from these investments. The customer gets better more reliable service because of these investments. That is how MEC looks at all investments, that it will benefit the customers or we don’t do it.
KM: With all of the federal, regional and local broadband funding out there, as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, what do you think the industry will look like in 5 years?
TR: MEC has bid in and expects to receive funding from the FCC to expand our fiber service outside of our electric footprint to other rural homes and businesses that are in the same situation as our electric customer were a few years ago. We believe that fiber is the only long term, almost future proof, option available that can serve future needs that we can only imagine at this point. In 5 years, I expect to have 35,000 internet customers and will be serving them 10 gigabit residential service.
Terry is the Chief Technology Officer at Midwest Energy Cooperative in Cassopolis, MI. With over 25 years of industry experience, Terry is skilled in Energy, Power Systems, Renewable Energy, Demand Response, and Broadband/Smart Grid. Connect with Terry on LinkedIn.