Power Cooperative Provides New Internet Opportunities for Members
Micah Touchet (second from right), gets broadband hardware installed at his studio in Liddieville. Also pictured are Gary Carver (manager of operations, Volt Broadband) and Veneeth Iyengar (executive director, ConnectLA).
By Elise Saloom
In 2022, Jeff Churchwell made history. As the general manager of Winnsboro-based Northeast Louisiana Power Cooperative, Churchwell led the initiative to become the first Louisiana electric cooperative to provide broadband for its members.
NELPCO serves seven parishes in northeast Louisiana: Franklin, Madison, Richland, Tensas, East Carroll, West Carroll and Morehouse.
While Churchwell had a growing desire to assist his members with broadband services, Louisiana’s 2020 legislative session provided the opportunity to set his plan in motion. Despite electric cooperatives being a major provider of broadband throughout the nation, language was inserted in a bill that would have prohibited electric cooperatives from providing broadband services in Louisiana. Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed the legislation.
“We as the co-op contingent lobbied the governor to veto that bill as it stood,” Churchwell said. “I am the person that if I ask you to change your mind, then I need to follow through with my end of it.”
While Churchwell was initially unsure about taking on a project of this size, he refused to let his efforts be futile.
With the process underway, NELPCO became a full member of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and began looking into the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. While Churchwell and his team were ready to move forward, NELPCO’s board and Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell remained unconvinced.
At the request of Campbell, Churchwell and the team surveyed their members to gauge opinions for the internet service. The result was overwhelming support. Eighty-seven percent of members said they would subscribe to internet service through NELPCO if offered.
After a positive reaction from the initial survey, the team conducted another survey to measure interest after fully disclosing the cost of the project. The survey received 2,900 responses, and 94% of respondents supported NELPCO borrowing $54 million to provide internet.
While there were still detractors, a majority of the board was convinced after the surveys.
“Those board members that wanted to go forward with this absolutely believed,” Churchwell said. “They believed in us, they believed in them, and they believed that the need was so great that we had to do something.”
With Campbell on board, construction for Volt Broadband began by June. As of April 2023, Volt Broadband has 930 active customers and installs eight to 10 new customers every day.
One of its most recent installations was, Micah Touchet, Volt Broadband's own marketing and advertising director.
Touchet has worked in graphic design, website development and audio post production in Franklin Parish since 2001. He lives in Liddieville, an unincorporated Franklin Parish community seven miles west of Winnsboro with a population of about 200.
In addition to his work with Volt Broadband, Touchet works as a producer for Guideposts magazine’s app, Abide. With Guideposts headquartered in Connecticut and Abide in Los Angeles, Touchet does most of his work from home.
Before receiving fiber, Touchet’s internet came from an unreliable T1 line, which he supplemented with a mobile hotspot. Due to slow speeds, Touchet’s 2-to-3 gigabyte audio files would often take an entire day and night to upload.
“When I heard that NELPCO was going to form a broadband company about two and a half years ago, everybody in the community was ecstatic,” Touchet said.
On March 24, an installer from Volt Broadband set up the fiber optic cables at Touchet’s house. In just 30 minutes, the installation was complete, and Touchet was reaching lightning-fast speeds of 1GB per second.
“It’s just surreal that in an area traditionally known as one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States there's the potential for work, and all the barriers have been removed for us,” he said. “We can now stream movies and video chat with our loved ones without any buffering or dropped connections. And when it comes to working from home, we can easily join in virtual meetings or send and access important files without lag or delays.”
In the near future, Churchwell hopes to get NELPCO’s membership fully connected with Volt Broadband.
“The goal is to get everyone connected by 2025,” Churchwell said. “Construction should be through in July or August of next year, and it will take us another six to eight months to get it to everyone who wants to have it. Then, we figure out who we have and how to get the others.”