According to the FCC’s latest report, 14.5 million Americans lack high-speed broadband internet, and a BroadbandNow study estimates that as many as 42 million Americans do not have the ability to purchase broadband internet. George Secor, the president and CEO of Sunrise Cooperative in Fremont, Ohio, is someone who believes this problem is worse than many people understand — and COVID-19 proves it.
“I used to say to the team, ‘we’re not computer experts, be careful about the advice you give,’” says Secor. “But when our customer-owners suddenly needed to have meetings online and conduct business from home, we realized we needed to hook them up with better solutions.”
Land O’Lakes, Inc., along with many of its member owners such as Sunrise Co-op, has ramped up actions to help close the digital divide through the American Connection Project, including working with Microsoft and its Airband Initiative to bring more permanent solutions to local communities.
On behalf of Sunrise Cooperative, Secor signed up to participate in a pilot program to work with Microsoft’s Airband Initiative to provide access to broadband. The Airband Initiative works with partners to extend their networks quickly and efficiently using a wide variety of technologies. In this case, using radio signals instead of cables to connect properties to the internet. A transmitter sends signals through the air to receivers, and then receivers cable internet into a property and plug into a router, which enables Wi-Fi at the property.
In the pilot program, Sunrise, Land O’Lakes, Microsoft and Watch Communications partnered on this Airband initiative. Watch contracted with Sunrise to build a transmitter on a Sunrise grain silo in Uniopolis, Ohio, and install receivers at Sunrise customer-owners’ properties. As long as there is open air and a clear line of sight, the transmitter can send a high-speed signal to receivers at least six miles away and up to eight miles away.
For Secor, the program signals an evolution in how Sunrise adds value for its customer-owners. It is monumental to bring offerings like Airband to provide a long-term solution for internet access, and he plans to expand efforts to more Sunrise locations throughout the state and supporting customer-owners by answering the question: “Now what?”
Secor and his team are working with Land O’Lakes to create reference documents for customer-owners so they can make the most out of their new internet service.
“Understand, you’re in your 50’s or 60’s, having managed without decent internet for all this time, and now there is a whole world to learn about using the internet to help you better connect to services — things we take for granted — for telehealth, for your business and for connections with your family,” says Secor. “This is step one. We have a long way to go.”
Q&A with George Secor, President and CEO, Sunrise Cooperative
How have you personally noticed the impact of the rural broadband gap?
I don’t even think of Sunrise as being very rural — I live in between two smaller towns, but until just recently, I didn’t have internet fast enough to download anything for work at home. And my board chairman had no internet at all.
In some ways, people have learned to deal with this from a business perspective. I’m not sure they’re connecting to a family perspective. For grandma and grandpa, it’s how they’re connecting to their kids and grandkids. Knowing these are the challenges, when I heard about Land O’Lakes’ work to prioritize rural broadband, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved.
What’s the impact of broadband in the community?
I notice an impact on the older generation. Sure, the internet helps them to connect to work, it helps them work with us to get all of their crop and fertilizer recommendations, but it’s also a communication tool they use with their kids and grandkids. For grandkids the question can be, who wants to go to grandma and grandpa’s house if there’s no internet? Think about yourself in that situation: It makes you feel like you’re outside of the circle and can’t participate with modern life.
When it comes to the younger generations, they’re facing problems because of COVID-19 that negatively affect their social and emotional lives. We’ve got to help. We’ve got to show them there are excellent opportunities — and a future — in the rural communities where they live.
As a cooperative leader, how do you ensure your business adds value for your members’ community?
Adding value as a retail co-op doesn’t always mean selling something to our customer-owners. Sometimes it means linking them with something that will provide value. As a co-op, that’s our job.
We have always been big on supporting the community at large, through giving to programs that go a long way back, like 4H, and in new ways. For example, we started a program in the past couple years where we work with FFA to select a non-college-bound high school graduate for a four year-long internship program; as a Sunrise commitment we offer them a pickup truck as a signing bonus. We still offer $50K in college scholarships to stockholder and employee families. We’ve also been a sponsor for Riders Unlimited, a program that helps children with disabilities through horse riding therapy. These examples seem to have little to do with ag, but they have everything to do with helping others.
What was the community response like to the Airband initiative?
We’re still getting the word out. We initially put out postcards, and the calls came rolling in. People were in disbelief. I think many were apprehensive, thinking “is this true?” and “how is this going to work?” I encourage disbelievers to just let Watch Communications come out and let them show you what the signal strength could be like.
What has your experience been like working with the Land O’Lakes member team and Microsoft?
We’re still in communication, and I’m looking forward to working across Ohio. Now, people are getting hooked up, and some of them are turning to us at Sunrise to help them install their computers. It’s especially important to support folks now, because if we give them internet and we don’t help them use it, what are we doing?
This project is part of ongoing efforts by Land O’Lakes and Microsoft to close the rural broadband gap across the United States. Sunrise is part of the Land O’Lakes member network, and Watch Communications is a Microsoft Airband Initiative partner. You can learn more by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
The American Connection Project fosters long-term digital inclusion in support of vibrant and thriving rural communities. Efforts include raising awareness about the critical nature of connectivity; advocating for meaningful policy reform and broadband investment; and, taking decisive action to provide connectivity options where they’re needed most. Land O’Lakes is convening organizations and leaders from across the country in this critical time to build strong rural communities positioned for competitiveness and connection now and in the future.