80 years is a long time. Our world is a vastly different place than it was in 1938. Yet, for all that has changed, one thing remains the same. We all seek an equal opportunity to achieve security, comfort and convenience.
Anyone alive in 1938 will tell you that it was a tough decade, but especially so for rural America. Just as we were just starting to pick up the pieces from the Great Depression, the country went into another recession. Unemployment rose to 19% in June 1938, up 5 percentage points from May 1937.
But rural America was at even greater disadvantage because less than 10% had access to an essential service: electricity.This lack of access lead to poor sanitation, sparse medical care and infant mortality rates that were astonishingly high. The livelihood of farmers and ranchers was limited to the daylight hours.
Just a few years earlier, President Roosevelt had signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Although he had seen the need first hand from his cottage at Warm Springs, GA, the executive order was more about creating jobs than it was about providing an essential service to rural Americans. Electrifying five million US farms seemed an enormous task given that the private companies said couldn’t be sustainably done.
But it succeeded on both fronts because the REA created a successful and lasting idea: co-ops owned by the members they serve. It empowered the local community members that had the largest stake in the game. By the mid-1950’s over 90% of rural America was electrified. Today, there are over 900 electric co-ops providing service to over 42 million Americans with lines covering 56% of our nation’s land mass.
Common wisdom holds that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. I think there is another side to this wisdom. In our case, history repeats itself because the cooperative concept- people pulling together to acquire collectively crucial services they could not achieve on their own- works.
At last year’s Annual Meeting, we unveiled our collective mission to provide state-of-the-art fiber internet service, an essential service that is largely absent in rural communities we serve today. We know we will be successful for two reasons: first, we’ve done it before with electricity. Two, we have an existing infrastructure that we can use to deploy this essential service to rural community members.
We’ve made tremendous progress in just a few months. After connecting our first fiber customer in November of last year, we took the monumental step of acquiring Wintek Corporation, this area’s premier technology and fiber solutions provider. Together, we’ve built 320 miles of fiber and connected over 250 customers to our state-of-the-art fiber network.
Our Annual Meeting is a time of celebration each year, but this year has extra significance. Many businesses never have the opportunity to embark on a transformative endeavor such as our fiber internet initiative. We’re extremely proud of the work we’ve done this far and we look forward to listening to your feedback and answering your questions on July 27 at McCutcheon High School.