San Antonio Business Journal - Nov 5, 2018
Suburbanization of Texas Hill Country fuels this electric cooperative
By Kristen Mosbrucker – Reporter, San Antonio Business Journal
For years, the top executive of a rural electric cooperative attempted to cajole major telecommunications companies to invest in fiber internet to connect residents between Austin and San Antonio — to no avail.
Since then, Bandera Electric Cooperative launched its own fiber internet business, BEC Fiber, and is ahead of projections to hook up 2,000 Texas Hill Country residents and companies northwest of San Antonio by the end of the year.
BEC Fiber took a loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. after more than 5,000 individuals signed up for fiber service. There were about 2,500 applications in the cooperative's main service territory, with the biggest cluster so far being in the city of Boerne.
"For rural Texas to be successful, they have to have high-speed internet access. It's for survival," Bandera Electric CEO Bill Hetherington told the Business Journal in an exclusive interview. "We have 26,000 customers, but around the Texas Hill Country, you can barely get a cell signal. Something is wrong here."
Boerne's population has grown from roughly 10,000 residents in 2010 to more than 16,000 in 2017. And Bandera County's population as a whole increased from roughly 20,500 in 2010 to 22,300 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census.
Across the 17-county Texas Hill Country, which includes Bexar County, the population is projected to grow to more than 4.3 million people by 2030.
Often, parents are concerned about not having access to the internet for students looking to attend college, while some of the properties seeking such access are vacation homes.
Even as major telecommunications companies are building 5G networks, there are some limitations to that, Hetherington said.
"If AT&T decides tomorrow we're going to take 5G and blanket the Hill Country, I'd be all for it," he said. "But it's my understanding that [5G] bandwidth high frequency shortens that wavelength, which means it's going to get highly attenuated through buildings and stuff."
For BEC, investing in fiber optic cables attached to existing electric poles above ground enables it to have a smart and more reliable electric grid and to better control renewable energy resources. Meanwhile, among customers, it's not just residential properties looking for a strong internet connection, as more internet of things devices are being used on ranches and farms.
"We're seeing demand swell, and we're going as fast as we can," Hetherington said. “I think part of what surprised us was the high amount of businesses that we have, at the level of services that we provide to businesses."
While more than 130 businesses have been connected to fiber internet, the service's customer base is still about 95 percent residential.
"We hadn't really figured on commercial," Hetherington said. "Almost all of the businesses that we sign up go for the gig [1,000-megabit-per-second service] because it's pretty much unlimited bandwidth."
Alpha Technologies Ltd. is one of the subcontractors BEC Fiber hired to install fiber internet. BEC also made a deal for its infrastructure with Calix Inc., a telecommunications equipment company that sells mesh satellites and cloud services for smart homes.
Too often, companies will make capital investments with a "build it and they will come" mentality, said Shane Schmidt, manager of BEC Fiber. But that sometimes is met with low adoption rates.
"Instead of building to density that's demanding it, they are building it everywhere," he said. "We're getting a very high take rate. We're allowing consumers to drive this."
BY THE NUMBERS
Bandera Electric Cooperative
35,000 — Electric meters
26,000 — Members
4,800 — Miles of electric lines
2,300 — Fiber connections
Photo Credit: Gabe Hernandez - SABJ
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