Otsego County Electric Cooperative chief testifies on broadband

Tim Johnson, CEO of the Otsego County Electric Cooperative and OEConnect, testifies before the House Agriculture Committee in this screenshot from a YouTube broadcast of the proceedings.

 The CEO of the Otsego County Electric Cooperative testified last week before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture.

Tim Johnson, CEO of Otsego County Electric Cooperative and OEConnect testified Tuesday, April 20, at the invitation of Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, who is chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit.

Johnson appeared before the committee remotely, via the internet.

According to a media release from Delgado’s office, Johnson testified during the committee’s hearing titled “Rural Broadband — Examining Internet Connectivity Needs and Opportunities in Rural America.”

Delgado is a member of the House Task Force on Rural Broadband. Earlier this month, he introduced the bipartisan Community Broadband Mapping Act to “address flawed federal broadband mapping practices and empower local communities,” the media release said.

In his introduction of Johnosn, Delgado said, “Tim and I have had many conversations, both in-person and virtually, about the critically important work Otsego Electric Cooperative does. He is a true leader in our community and has extensive knowledge about rural broadband access and affordability.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made even more clear that having reliable internet connection is a necessity, and Otsego Electric Cooperative has worked tirelessly to expand broadband access, making sure health care workers had service, helping students attend remote learning, and ensuring small businesses can enter the e-commerce marketplace,” Delgado said.

“We serve some of the poorest, most rural parts of our state in what was formerly a thriving dairy farming area with an average of only about six meters per mile,” Johnson told the committee. “History repeated itself in a sense when it became apparent over the past decade or so that adequate broadband service was not being made available to our members so, in early 2017, OEC announced plans to begin offering high-speed, affordable broadband service.”

He said the project now allows members “to fully participate in the 21st century economy and to continue to work and go to school during the worst pandemic in 100 years.”

He said OEC now has service available to all cooperative members, with fiber optic service to homes at speeds up to one gigabit per second download and upload with no data caps “at a very fair price.” He said OEC has fiber available to more than 5,000 locations over a 700-mile fiber network and has activated almost 3,000 broadband and voice services for subscribers who “have been ecstatic that we took the initiative to build this project when we did.”

Johnson called for continued public investment in rural broadband. “OEC would not have entered the broadband business without grant funding, and this is true for most electric cooperatives,” he said.

“We have been inundated with requests for service beyond our territory since the start of the pandemic, so we know there is a huge unmet demand,” he said.

Johnson said rural broadband is an important tool in stopping population loss in rural areas and said the Federal Communications Commission must be held accountable in its awarding of public funds, to make sure the money is provided to bidders capable of providing service in targeted areas at promised speeds.

Johnson also said the technologies that are funded should be “future-proof,” so they will not become obsolete and “leave rural areas behind again.”

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