What You’ll Learn

John Twiest, CEO of Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, discussed a decade old partnership Arrowhead has with CTC to provide broadband in rural Minnesota.

Guest Speaker

John Twiest

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Intro: Broadband, we need it for work and for school, for our health and our economy. What’s being done to bring broadband internet access within reach of every American? Let’s talk about it now on Rural Broadband Today.

Andy Johns: Hello, and thank you for joining us for this episode of Rural Broadband Today. My name is Andy Johns. I’m the host of this episode, and I’m joined today by John Twiest who is general manager at Arrowhead Cooperative in Minnesota. John, thank you for joining me.

John Twiest: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Andy Johns: Now, John, before we dive into your partnership between Arrowhead and CTC, tell us what folks need to know about broadband in Minnesota. How are things going up there? And you’ve got some history being kind of a pioneer there. But what do folks need to know about broadband in Minnesota?

John Twiest: You know, overall broadband in Minnesota has actually been doing very well. Minnesota has also been one of the frontrunners, one of the leaders, in developing broadband commissions, in developing state funded projects and working on things to try to get broadband as they call it border-to-border in Minnesota. And this has been going on through numerous foundations, numerous, like I said, committees, and different things in order to try to do that. And so can I say we’re ahead of the game? Maybe just a tiny bit. I think more so, it’s just we’re trying to lead and try to ensure that every Minnesotan has access to high speed internet.

Andy Johns: So you may notice the sound in the background. We’re here at the rural broadband epicenter of the universe at RTIME, NTCA’s RTIME event here in Dallas, Texas, and John was nice enough to step aside here at the expo time to talk with me about the partnership that they’ve had running with CTC in Minnesota for what you said about ten or eleven years now.

John Twiest: Yeah, it’s got to be at least 11 years that we’ve gotten everything developed and been working with them.

Andy Johns: So and we talk, if you’re a long time listener, you may remember that we had done an episode very early on with with Kevin Larson back when he was at CTC about this partnership. And so I thought it’d be a good opportunity to check in now with John and see how things are going. But what do you think has been the key to being good partners for you guys to work with the telco, for the telco, to work with you guys? What’s been the key to that partnership?

John Twiest: I think this goes back to when everything was first established and they started talking, and that’s the fact that we’re both cooperatives. And so our values are very, very, very similar, obviously. Our concern for community is first and foremost, and they have the same values that we do. And so when we started looking at this and looking at that partnership as a possibility, that’s what really stuck out and that’s how it’s been ever since we started and how it continues today.

Andy Johns: So I know that every partnership’s a little bit different, but how do you think the members or the folks there in the community, do they think they’re getting their internet from Arrowhead? Do they think they’re getting it from CTC? How do you all represent that to the end user?

John Twiest: You know, that’s a great question, and I hadn’t really thought about that a lot until what you just said. But honestly, they don’t know a lot about CTC other than the fact that we have a partner and that partner allows us that gateway to the internet. They hold the switch, so to speak. But they’re also our phone switch down there. So everything that goes out of our territory obviously goes down there and then comes back. And while we’re not trying to hide anything at all, our service subscribers, they look at us as being the internet service provider. That’s who we are. And so CTC is that valuable partner, and CTC comes into play at the next level troubleshooting. So we tried to do as much as we can in-house and then handle that first level of troubleshooting. And then that’s when our subscribers get to know that we have another layer, which is CTC that helps us with level two and level three troubleshooting to where they get to know those guys and those customer service reps down at CTC.

Andy Johns: So going all the way back to the beginning, what did each group bring to the table and has it worked out the way that you expected it would? Or have you had to make some changes and adjust along the way?

John Twiest: Honestly, it’s worked out very, very, very well. And so what we originally anticipated and that was trying to figure out if we built this, how are we going to get access somewhere? And that’s where this first question started out, because as an electric cooperative, the last thing we know anything about is broadband or what it’s going to take in order to provide that. CTC provided that expertize and that background and then worked with us and worked with a number of other entities to get that backhaul from where we are, all the way down to Brainerd and to get it to the Twin Cities where it goes out to the worldwide. So that was crucial for us, and it still exists today, and nothing can happen where we’re at without them. We’re extremely dependent on them and in everything they do for us helps us on a day to day basis.

Andy Johns: Outstanding. Well, so you guys live in a beautiful part of the country. For those who are not familiar with Minnesota’s geography, the Arrowhead is kind of that triangular looking piece that goes above Lake Superior there on the far east side of Minnesota, beautiful country. We went to the Split Rock Lighthouse a little while ago, just gorgeous, but not a place when you look at it that you’re like, I bet they have great internet. What has it meant to the people who live there to be able to have this kind of world class connectivity over the last few years?

John Twiest: It’s been a total game changer. And when you start to think about what it looked like back in 2011 and 12, when we first started building out and started working with all of this, what we heard from a great majority of our potential subscribers — and just to categorize that we’re 45% seasonal. So obviously it’s a lot of vacation homes, a lot of temporary homes, you know, that kind of thing. And a lot of them are were excited about the possibility of working from home. There wasn’t a real concept back then, but it was a thought that, hey, if with high speed internet, if I could spend a couple of months up in my cabin and do it that way. Well, now post-COVID, obviously this is a thing. And so the working from home, we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of seasonals that are spending the majority of their time in our area. We can tell by the electric sales, obviously. We can tell by the use of our data, which continues to exceed and beat records from previous years. It’s just crazy how much it’s grown. But then you think about COVID and what it did for us. If we hadn’t done this fiber project back in 2009 through 15, we still wouldn’t have anything available. Centurylink is the only other incumbent in the area, and they’ve done nothing in our area for broadband or for fiber support. So for us with telehealth, with distance learning, with everything that came about in COVID, we were perfectly set up to be able to handle all of it, provide all of that access for all of our members and subscribers in our community and keep us up to date and in the know with what was going on. Something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Andy Johns: And that’s where I was headed next. It’s a hot topic of this conversation at this conference right now. It’s a hot topic really in national politics right now. Rural broadband is, you know, there’s so much funding coming in, but you guys were well ahead of the curve. What? You know, let’s rewind the clock to where that’s not like, you know, Shirley Bloomfield said today. Then they were trying to get broadband to be part of the conversation. Now it is the conversation. Take us back to then. What made you willing to jump into something like this before, you know, before all the funding and opportunities and conversation available today?

John Twiest: Well, clearly we didn’t know anything. So just jumping in, we were just going to in with both feet. Even though there was honestly with the cooperative board, obviously we’re a cooperative governed by a board of directors, and when we made the decision to go broadband, it wasn’t an unanimous decision. There were some people that were hesitant and they were like, I don’t know if this is a good idea. We circle back to that and think about that time frame and knowing what we know now, obviously, it was the smartest decision we’ve made. Back then, it was like, Well, you know, there’s still this hesitation about, is this what we really need? But seeing what we’ve seen over the last 11 years, there’s no question that it’s absolutely the right move. It’s what is unfortunate is that there’s still areas in rural America that are where we were 11 years ago, and we were the worst for broadband availability in the state of Minnesota at that time. The best we could do at my house was 21kps. I know that was…

Andy Johns: Whoa…

John Twiest: It was a K. That was dial-up.

Andy Johns: Flashbacks to 1998.

John Twiest: Yeah, flashbacks to 2010. No joke. So this has been huge. Absolutely huge. And you know, given the opportunity, we wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Andy Johns: Well, and let’s talk through that because, you know, it’s a temptation. Or maybe, you know, everybody has a different answer, a different approach, a different solution. Some folks are going it alone. Some folks have found a partner like yourself, you know when you’re looking back on that decision and you’ve talked about it a little bit already, but why was that decision to partner the right answer for you guys? You know, obviously acknowledging that it may not be the right answer for everybody.

John Twiest: You know, you’re absolutely correct. And there’s there are so many different business cases out there and ways to do this. But for us and where we are, we’re extremely small. We have very few employees and the talent pool that we have to draw from is extremely limited. So when you start to talk about network support, when you start to talk about all the electronics and everything that we need, it only makes sense to find somebody that has the know how and everything that’s been going on, especially if they’re willing to work with you. And that’s the biggest thing that happened with CTC. We reached out early on to try to find a telco that was willing to partner with us. CTC was the only one that got back to us, and it’s been an absolute godsend for us to date. There is no question and will continue to be so. Because we’re still in the same situation, even though we have an absolutely incredible part of the country to live in. The talent pool is small. We’re a long ways from anywhere. I mean, all the long ways from anywhere, and it’s hard to draw people in. So it makes a big difference for us to have that expertize down in Brainerd, it’s something that we can pay for and have that level of support because we can’t do it in-house. And that’s just where we’re at, and our community is used to that. So we look for partnerships in lots of different areas.

Andy Johns: One of the last questions I had for you, most partnerships, you see, the geography overlaps more. Has that been a challenge? Because I know that you guys, you know, CTC being based in Brainerd, you guys are out there. It’s not terribly far away, but it’s not an overlap. So has that been a challenge, or was there anything to overcome there? And if so, how did you do it in terms of the geographic challenges?

John Twiest: There was. Early on, there was obviously a challenge. We had to figure out a way to get that fiber backhaul from where we are are over 200 miles down to Brainerd. So how is that going to work? And back in 2009, 10, 11, 12, there wasn’t as much fiber available as there is now, obviously. So thinking about how to get a backhaul in there, how to work with that and find a route, was extremely important. Northeast Service Cooperative in the Iron Range area also got a middle mile grant, and they were required to build broadband to all of the state funded areas in our county. We worked with them, and obviously CTC, in order to get fiber access, so we provided fiber for them. They provided fiber for that middle mile. We developed contracts and set everything up. And so we have multiple directions or multiple rings in order to be able to ensure reliability and resiliency, which was an issue at first. And now it’s come full circle to where we have a very, very robust system and things work out very, very well. So early on, absolutely it was a challenge. Now, it’s a model. And it was stated earlier today in Shirley’s addressed that when she was interviewing that, you know, CTC and Arrowhead Cooperative are still like the model for a partnership that you don’t have to be in overlapping territory to make this work. You can literally be hundreds of miles. You could be thousands of miles apart and still make it work as long as you can figure out how you’re going to get that broadband access.

Andy Johns: I think it’s a great example, and that leads nicely to the next question. The last question I had for you. If there’s somebody out there, maybe they’re looking for a partnership, maybe they’re an electric co-op looking to get into broadband, what’s some advice that you may have for them, whether it is a partnership or going it alone? What are some of the advice tips, anything like that you’ve learned along the way that you would share with them if they’re in the spot that you were back in 2009 or 2011?

John Twiest: The biggest thing is there isn’t one model that fits all. There are numerous business cases and numerous business models out there. And I would say absolutely, if you’re an electric co-op that wants to get into this or you’re a telco that wants to expand, look locally for a potential partnership. You know, we’ve seen plenty of things happen over the last 10 years where things didn’t go well, and you know where partnerships probably could have been garnered and been very productive. They didn’t reach out, and they didn’t try to develop a partnership and then a project failed. And that’s unfortunate. Now there’s multiple ways and multiple electric cooperatives throughout the nation that have developed partnerships in multiple ways. Some are building a facility and then having the telco come in and operate the network, so they hold all the fiber. They own it, but the local telco is the one that provides the ISP. You know, there’s others that are partnering in the way that they work with that. There’s more cases like what we’ve done with CTC to where they’ve partnered with those telcos. They run and operate, but the telco holds the gateway, you know, and so there’s just numerous ways to do it. And there’s other co-ops in Minnesota that have just gone completely on their own and developed absolutely everything. So there’s not a one size fits all. I think you have to be completely open to look at all possibilities to what’s going to fit you and your cooperative, and the neighboring community is the best. And then try to figure it out from there. There’s a lot of money available right now, you know, and in those partnerships and the way that we’re going to do things are going to be what’s key to getting it to that last customer and subscriber out there that aren’t currently subscribing. And that’s that’s obviously the goal for every one of us.

Andy Johns: I think that’s well said, and that’s a good spot to end it. So I appreciate you taking the time to join me.

John Twiest: Well, it’s been a pleasure, and I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

Andy Johns: He is John Twiest. He is the general manager of Arrowhead Cooperative up in Minnesota. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And until we talk again, keep telling your story!

Intro: Rural Broadband Today is a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.