“There’s this concept of universal service, where everyone should have access to phone service. There has been a shift in the industry, everyone should have access to broadband. Affordable broadband.”
— Eric Cramer, president and CEO, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks
In 1951, representatives of the North Carolina and Federal Rural Electrification Administration got together to discuss an important project that would change the face of Wilkes County. Twenty-three people were in the room, all there to begin the process of establishing the Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation, to bring telephone service to the Western North Carolina county.
Their quest started two years earlier, when a group of residents petitioned Central Telephone Company to expand service into the outer areas of Wilkes County. When they came before the REA—an organization that came out of the New Deal tasked with providing federal loans to rural areas seeking electric and phone service—they set into motion a culture of community ownership that still exists today, long after the Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation evolved.
“The same factors that created our telephone cooperative are the same factors that are out there now for us to expand our mission,” says Eric Cramer, the president and CEO of what is today known as Wilkes Communications. “We’re right back to where we started in 1951. There are places that are being left behind because the large organizations will not upgrade their network to provide sufficient access to the internet.”
The REA has since morphed into the Rural Utilities Service, an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture. Wilkes Communications has evolved, too. Cramer says the co-op’s mission—to serve the unserved areas of Wilkes County—is the same, although the service offered is now broadband internet.
“In our county, as in most, there’s a doughnut around the county seat where most of the people reside. And the rural areas were left behind,” he says of the internet service offered by the large corporations. “These places that got left behind, I call them the spaces in between, is how we got started.”
Wilkes Communications grew its fiber network intentionally, remaining focused on serving the county’s rural residents who needed access to high-speed internet for business, education, and quality of life. “Everyone in our co-op, everyone in Wilkes County, has access to a Gig,” Cramer says. “And in the doughnut hole, we’ve gone in there and built to all the schools, the county government, all the anchor institutions. Every cell tower in Wilkes is connected to our fiber. Without our fiber, wireless doesn’t work.”
“We are technically the most connected county in the state.”
“We look at broadband like roads, bridges, water, electricity: It’s a staple. It’s something people need.”
But unlike major broadband providers, who focus on large urban areas, and other rural providers, who often confine their work to one or two counties, Wilkes Communications wants to build high-speed internet infrastructure in additional unserved communities. “We look at broadband like roads, bridges, water, electricity: It’s a staple. It’s something people need,” Cramer says. “We’re now a broadband cooperative. Let’s go out and expand that network where it makes sense.”
So far, the company has decided it makes sense to have a presence in Alexander, Beaufort, Buncombe, Columbus, Hyde, Montgomery, Polk, Richmond, Scotland, and Washington counties, through its subsidiary, RiverStreet Networks. Broadband projects in those communities are in various stages of implementation, but the mission for all is the same: to go where people don’t have broadband. “The economic impact goes without saying,” Cramer explains. “Education, healthcare, business. It’s limitless.”
Expanding broadband offerings to other communities outside of Wilkes County has been a benefit to the company, too. When Cramer joined the organization as chief financial officer in 2005, Wilkes Communications had approximately 8,000 customers and roughly 45 employees. When its current projects, including an expansion into counties just across the border into Virginia, are complete, the company will have 25,000 customers and 130 employees. “We feel like we have a proven formula that works,” Cramer says.
“These networks are not cheap, they take a long time to build.”
But the RiverStreet Networks projects across North Carolina don’t happen on their own, he says. They require cooperation between the public and private sectors. “We want to try to partner with stakeholders whoever they may be—counties, municipalities, other cooperatives, any kind of infrastructure partner.”
One central challenge is how to pay for the infrastructure costs of expanding vital broadband networks into unserved rural communities. “What we need to figure out as a state is how to get control of infrastructure dollars that are out there either through federal programs or state programs,” Cramer says. “These networks are not cheap, they take a long time to build.”
“If you look where there’s fiber in North Carolina, it’s where the telephone cooperatives have ventured out.”
Cramer says large telecommunications providers don’t have an incentive to invest in rural areas of North Carolina. “They’re for-profit companies, they have shareholders, they’re beholden to Wall Street, and they can’t really justify their investment of doing fiber to the home like we have,” he says. “If you look where there’s fiber in North Carolina, it’s where the telephone cooperatives have ventured out.”
Because of the significant time and capital required, Wilkes Communications hopes to scale its customer base to make its operating costs self-sufficient, Cramer explains. “Take the money and the cash flow from that rural network that’s in North Carolina and reinvest it back in North Carolina. Hire North Carolina people to build and operate North Carolina fiber-optic networks to places where people don’t have broadband.”
In many ways—despite the vast changes in technology over the past six-plus decades—Cramer thinks often about the links between the Wilkes Communications and RiverStreet Networks of today, and the 23 people who sat around a table in 1951 to form the Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation.
“We feel like we’re the only company out there that’s even looking at investing in rural areas and taking the risk to do it and actively looking for partners to try to solve this problem,” Cramer says. “It’s why we were created. It’s in our DNA. It’s who we are.”