After nearly eight decades, Hood River Electric Cooperative changed its name to reflect a new mission.

By Britni Davidson

Crews from Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op hang fiber along Highway 35 in Pine Grove. Photo by Libby Calnon

It is safe to say the founders of Hood River Electric & Internet Cooperative— also known as HR Co-op—did not see the advent of broadband when they established the cooperative in 1945 to provide electricity to the small towns of Pine Grove, Odell, and Parkdale.

Nestled between fruit orchards and the majestic beauty of Mount Hood, the cooperative soon became an economic driver of the agricultural community, providing electricity to approximately 2,900 members in the scenic Hood River Valley.

While the original founders may not have foreseen the internet, the electric cooperative’s original mission of providing “affordable, reliable services to members using sound business practices and following the cooperative principles” became a blueprint for a new broadband mission. In the early 2000s, the co-op was contacted by the school district and Hood River County when the district recognized a need for broadband in the upper valley.

“The co-op soon began receiving inquiries from real estate agents and people looking to purchase property who were dependent on broadband,” said John Gerstenberger, Hood River’s general manager from 1997 to 2018. “The lack of connectivity was a barrier to people purchasing property in the area.”

The co-op began exploring the possibility of providing broadband service. When the Bonneville Power Administration began running fiber through rural areas, the co-op had extra capacity to take on the project. But this was an ambitious project for a small cooperative.

Before deciding to build a broadband network, the co-op held a special meeting to survey the membership. Pat Moore, a 24-year HR Co-op board member and grandson of one of the co-op founders, witnessed the overwhelming support for the cooperative moving forward.

“The goal was to have fiber to every house,” Moore said. “It started slow, but quickly took off.”

Looking back, Moore admits with a laugh, the cooperative may have “bit off more than we could chew,” he says. But the cooperative forged ahead. In 2003, HR Co-op formed a sister organization, the Communications Access Cooperative Holding Enterprise (CACHE), which built a fiber backbone system connecting the BPA fiber network in Parkdale to the city of Hood River.

At first, CACHE offered local internet service to the county, school district and a local hospital. Then, the co-op began offering residential internet service to its members.

“It was challenging to deploy fast enough to meet the needs of our members,” Gerstenberger said. “Over time, the demand for internet changed when Netflix was introduced.”

The popularity of streaming services required a different use of infrastructure and network upgrades to ensure members could get the service they needed.

In 2020, the pandemic showed the importance of broadband went far beyond streaming services. When schools offered remote learning, the local school district contacted the co-op, seeking help providing internet access to low-income student households that didn’t have internet access at home.

General Manager Libby Calnon thought the request offered HR Co-op a unique opportunity to support the community. The co-op’s tech team quickly wired approximately 45 homes for internet service, connecting students who would otherwise not have access.

“Serving those who would otherwise not be served is why cooperatives exist,” Calnon said. “It was a rewarding project to be a part of.”

That same year, Hood River Electric Cooperative and CACHE officially merged into one organization. In August 2021, the organization began using the name Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op.

While it’s common for co-ops to launch subsidiaries using a for-profit business model, HR Co-op has taken a different approach.

“Our board believed that electricity and internet were both essential services that we should provide to our members using the cooperative business model,” Calnon said.

Today, the co-op provides fiber, fixed wireless, and Ethernet services to more than 2,800 members—a 75% take rate— and recently launched a Voice over IP digital phone service.

The co-op’s goal is to cover the investment costs and allow the co-op to keep up with technology while providing the community with high-quality, affordable broadband connectivity.

“Adding ‘internet’ to our name symbolizes that our actions today are an extension of what our founders believed and worked for 77 years ago,” Calnon said. “We’re still serving our members and benefitting our community by delivering the services that people want and need.”