Mohave Electric Co-op – The Power of Broadband Partnerships
Episode ID S1B04
October 19, 2021
Mohave Electric Cooperative listened to its members, and recently added broadband internet services through an innovative partnership with TWN Communications. In this bonus track of Power Plays, CoBank’s Tamra Reynolds speaks with Tyler Carlson, CEO of Mohave Electric, and Ami Rodriguez, VP of sales, marketing and business development at TWN Communications, to learn about why this strategic partnership approach provides the best result for Mohave co-op members.
Teri Viswanath: Welcome to Power Plays extended play series, a short podcast series of interviews with influential electric co-op managers that are innovating. I'm Teri Viswanath, the lead economist for power, energy, and water at CoBank. Our extended play content is actually a five-part series, recorded to celebrate national Co-op Month in October. It's a time to celebrate the cooperative model, the seven cooperative principles, and talk about the ways co-ops are making a difference in the communities they serve. This year, we'll be focusing on dynamic stories at five different electric co-ops.
Mojave Electric has a really unique story to share about the broadband partnership with TWN. Like many rural communities, Mojave Electric's community was faced with sparse, limited, or non-existent internet service. The COVID pandemic has really increased attention on the crucial role that high-speed internet access plays in American life. At a time of social distancing, people need broadband to work from home, access healthcare services, apply for public assistance, order groceries or prescriptions, and connect with classrooms. The CEO and board wanted to accelerate service development in their community. They wanted to offer the same high quality technology and services that was on par with their electricity offering. This is really an inspiring story of how important collaboration can be for achieving those goals.
In this fourth of our five part series, Tamra Reynolds sits down with Tyler Carlson, he's a CEO of Mojave Electric co-op, and Ami Rodriguez. She's the VP of sales and marketing, and business development for TWN. Here's that conversation
Tamra Reynolds: I'm speaking with Tyler Carlson, CEO of Mojave Electric Co-op and Ami Rodriguez, VP of sales, marketing and business development from TWN Communications. Hi guys?
Ami Rodriguez: Hi, Tamra.
Tyler Carlson: Hi.
Tamra: Tyler, Mojave Electric recently announced a partnership with TWN Communications to provide broadband service to their members. Give us a brief background of your project and talk about why this project was important for your membership.
Tyler: We have been bombarded over the last few years from our members, as well as our elected officials, to provide an alternative to the services that they've been receiving. It wasn't just members meaning our residential members. It was business people. It was large companies, it was folks that basically need and require robust internet to be able to get their jobs done or be able to expand. I thought, private business, they'll handle this. It'll eventually, the complaining will get to someone, and somebody in private business will actually do the job.
Our members demanded that we do something, just like our members required and demanded, and asked for reliable electric service 75 years ago. That same membership is asking us to get into this particular business.
Ami: Co-ops are here for a reason, and that was to bring electricity to members. We have aligned our values with that of cooperatives in that we want to be the ones to help them now bring broadband to their membership.
Tamra: The electric co-op broadband partnerships are really just less common in this industry. Can you talk about why that was important for you and Mojave to partner with TWN on broadband, and why was that strategy really optimal for you guys rather than going it alone?
Tyler: We've had a partnership with TWN since about 2011. They're providing fixed wireless services to a lot of our members that didn't have service at all. There's a lot of facets of this, not just the construction, and the staging, and the relationships for being able to buy fiber but the technology, the electronics, the knowledge of the electronics on both ends. Then you have the customer care standpoint. Now, we either have the choice of trying to develop that all on our own, and you think about it from that standpoint. That's not the business that we're in.
We do know about customer care, member care, but it's specific. It's specific to the electric industry. If we were about to do this, we'd actually add a couple of years on the front for us to develop our own in-house ability, our own in-house training. It was logical for us to partner with somebody we're already doing business with. We already have a relationship, and they're already in this industry and doing it.
It's vital for us to partner with somebody who's already there, cutting edge, already developing or utilizing this type of technology at a superior level, because we are not interested in providing our members an inferior product, or a product that's about the same or almost as good. No, we want to make sure that we provide a product that is as good as it could be.
Tamra: Ami, why does TWN work with electric co-ops to deploy broadband networks rather than just doing it yourself?
Ami: For almost 30 years now, TWN has partnered strictly with rural electric cooperatives. The primary reason for that is that affinity and that reputation they have with their communities. When we go into an area to build or deploy broadband, having that existing relationship with the members is crucial to our success. That's part of the beauty of this public-private partnership that we keep talking about, bringing needed services to an area that doesn't have it, or it doesn't have it in the way that they should have it. Doesn't have it with the same service levels that they are used to getting from the electric cooperative.
Tyler: If you look at customer care, if you look at customer response from existing carriers, and then you compare that to the model that TWS has, TWN models their customer care, their responsiveness, and everything to the co-ops’ model, which is fast response, instantaneous response, same day service. I think that alignment with their business processes is almost as important as the experience, because we don't have then two dissimilar business processes.
Ami: There is a reason that this 3P, public-private partnership message is quite the buzzword these days. That's because it works. If entities were going to do this and serve rural areas with good broadband, they would've done it a long time ago. These are expensive projects, they're risky projects. To try to go it alone is really risky. I believe in this model, when you have two good partners together, two or more good partners together that are working with the same values, same goals and are just in lockstep together. I guess the thing I'd like to leave listeners with is that it does work. Find a trusted partner, and this can be a very, very successful initiative.
Tamra: When we considered the reasons for celebration of the cooperative model, we really thought about the innovations, the ingenuity, the member engagement that electric co-ops demonstrate on a daily basis. You just talked about that a lot, and so we thought this is a perfect example of what it means to carry out what it means to be a co-op. Tyler, how do you keep on top of the needs of your membership?
Tyler: You have your foot in the technology on the business, and then you have to be in the community enough. There isn't a time that I'm in Safeway or in the gym, or board members at church that they're not getting somebody that's asking them, “Why aren't we--?” or, “Why can't we--?” You got to listen to the “why aren't we” and “why can't we’s”, and in this particular case, it was a unison of song from our members, and not just from our members. When you have your local elected officials who are bothering you on a continuous basis because from their perspective, they're getting bothered by their own constituents constantly, and they're not in a position to make a change.
I guess the good news is that we represented to these elected officials that we were somebody that's worth playing with. Somebody worth supporting, a utility that's worth putting your trust into. For them to come and say, “Hey, you all do a good job. We need you to do this job as well,” it's rewarding and it's gratifying, but it's one beast of a task in front of us. We're working to get this done.
Tamra: Ami anything you want to add to that and how you guys look at how you serve electric co-ops?
Ami: Sure. Just go back a step, why don't we do it ourselves? If we walk into a community as yet another internet service provider, a big, huge conglomerate-- I hate my Internet provider at home, and that seems to be the sentiment across the board. When we say, “We're doing this in partnership with an electric cooperative,” that automatically tells a customer, “My service levels are going to be different than what I'm experiencing now.” We have to carry that message across our employees, other co-ops, everyone we work with.
Tyler: Each co-op is a little bit different. The folks that you serve are different, geography is different. The areas that we serve are different. The makeup of your members is different. One of the things that we've done, and we're doing this jointly, and we're spending effort and time from a hobby standpoint, is actually training them to know what our members are like. I think it's really, really important, because you can get organizations that have a cookie cutter, “Here's how we market and this is what we do,” and that's it. That may not resonate with your membership.
Ami: One of the greatest things Mohave has done for this project-- and I can't say it enough-- is that they hired somebody dedicated as a liaison between membership and this project, and that she is the one that's going to be doing this training that Tyler's mentioning about competition in the area and what makes Mojave members a little bit different than maybe some other co-op members.
Tamra: Anything else that either one of you would like to share?
Tyler: The only thing I will say is that there's been a lot of talk about providing a robust, reliable internet broadband. As the industry is requiring more and more data, more and more, faster and faster decision-making, we have to get that data faster and faster. We have to have more data, more robust data to operate the electric system. From our standpoint, selfishly, this also provides us an avenue to be able to at some point, as the market changes and as the industry changes-- to be able to have a reliable and a really incredibly resilient and robust communication between ourselves and our members, both directions. Vitally important.
Tamra: That's a great point. I applaud you guys both for taking on this project, from what we've seen and what we've been exposed to on the CoBank side. We're thrilled to be a part of it, thrilled to help finance that and look forward to a very successful deployment across the board. Thank you guys both very much.
Teri: Thank you, Tamra.
Tyler: Thank you.