Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative reaches into its storied past to bring forward-looking technology to Oregon’s south coast when no one else will

By Ted Case

The Coos-Curry Board of Directors and staff kicked off Beacon Broadband on December 17. Clockwise from back left are Jim Kolen, John Herzog, Daryl Robison, Pete Radabaugh, Georgia Cockerham, Daniel Loshbaugh, Paul Recanzone and Brent Bischoff. Photo by Kelsey Bozeman

History has a way of repeating itself.

More than 80 years ago, Coos-Cur Electric Cooperative (CCEC) brought electricity to the southern Oregon Coast because no one else would. Now, the co-op—which serves the rural populations east and south of Coos Bay in Coos County, a portion of Douglas County, and nearly all of Curry County—has established a new communications business to bring high- speed internet to the area for the exact same reason: because no one else would.

“Our members need access to broadband, and they don’t have it today,” said Coos-Curry CEO Brent Bischoff.

That is soon to change.

On November 30, 2020, the CCEC Board of Directors voted to accept a federal grant in support of Beacon Broadband. The pivotal decision to accept the grant cleared the way to bring high-speed internet to the south coast of Oregon.

“We have an amazing opportunity to build a fiber broadband network to all of our co-op members who want it,” said John Herzog, CCEC board president.

CCEC made the decision to become involved in the broadband business after more than two years of extensive research, planning, and feasibility studies.

While Beacon Broadband is a forward-looking venture, Bischoff draws parallels with the co-op’s storied past.

“We’re here for the benefit of our members, and this is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “It’s a mirror in history of what happened 80 years ago.”

Just as CCEC met the need to bring rural electrification to areas that were living in darkness, the rugged areas along the south coast have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide. About 20% of households in the CCEC service territory receive inadequate satellite or DSL internet services.

Beacon Broadband will offer fiber-to-the-premises broadband to those looking for increased speeds, along with the same expert customer service CCEC members have come to expect.

The pandemic has shown that expanding the ability to work remotely and learn online will be critical for the Oregon economy in 2021 and beyond.

While broadband connectivity will assist businesses and students in rural Coos and Curry counties, the demographics of the south coast also make broadband a necessity as a significant senior citizen population gain access to telemedicine opportunities.

Beacon Broadband’s project will make high-speed fiber broadband service available to all of CCEC’s 14,600 members who want the service. Where it makes economic sense, Beacon Broadband will also begin serving customers outside of the CCEC service territory.

Using a rolling design-construct process, Beacon Broadband plans to light up the first customers by mid-2021 and have the entire network built by 2025.

“It is our hope that the south coast of Oregon will be one of the most connected places in the nation,” said Coos-Curry’s Paul Recanzone, who has helped spearhead the project.

Recanzone noted a preregistration program demonstrated the significant interest in the community, which will be critical to the project’s success.

“Deploying broadband is a capital-intensive business,” he said.

Federal funding will be integral—just as it was 80 years ago when electrifying places some said would never have electricity.

It is no accident CCEC, which is headquartered in Port Orford, is using the historic Cape Blanco Lighthouse as an icon for its broadband venture. The lighthouse was not only a light for a fixed point of navigation for ships but a warning for those perilously close to the reefs.

Coos-Curry Electric hopes Beacon Broadband will be a source of light for the fragile south coast economy and prevent the economic calamity that has befallen many communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“We are the provider of last resort for our members,” Bishoff said. “History has shown no one else is coming to do it.”