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NRECA to Congress: Expand Broadband Access to Rural America

Rural Electric Coop Association Emphasizes Importance of Broadband

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As smart grid technology and other home control technologies are taking off as consumers look for both savings and energy conservation, a leading rural electric association is calling on Congress to do more to bring broadband to rural areas. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a national service organization representing more than 900 rural electric utilities that provide electricity to approximately 42 million consumers in 47 states, called on Congress to focus on broadband access in rural areas.

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According to NRECA CEO Glenn English, “Smart grid investments by electric co-ops can improve efficiency and reliability while helping keep electricity affordable for rural consumers. The unique circumstances of electric cooperatives – the rugged service territory and low density – continue to be an innovation-driver for the industry. The federal government can accelerate grid modernization by facilitating knowledge sharing and agreement on technology standards.”

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Smart Grid technology refers to a class of technology which uses a combination of remote home monitoring and automation. In a letter dated June 2012, the association sent their concerns and recommendations to Congressional leaders, the entire House of Representatives and Senate, and the FCC on behalf of its members.

According to the letter:

“As organizations representing rural America, we seek to improve access to high speed broadband in rural communities. The first decade of the 21st century has come and gone, and in 2012 too many of the communities we serve have inadequate telecommunications service. Without robust broadband, small towns are losing businesses, farmers are missing opportunities to reach new markets, rural school children are lagging behind their urban peers, and America is slowly but surely losing many of the rural places that enrich our national economy and culture.”

What are the benefits of broadband?

Smart Grid technology works by utilizing two-way communication technology and computer processing that has been used successfully in other industries, such as home-monitoring and security applications. They are beginning to be used on electricity networks, from large commercial networks to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. They offer benefits to both utility companies and consumers alike - mostly seen in big improvements in energy efficiency on the electricity grid, as well as individual consumer and commercial use.

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According to NRECA, a 2010 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report, shows that electric cooperatives have the largest penetration of advanced metering infrastructure at 25% penetration, compared with under 9% percent for the country as a whole. In addition more than 50 co-ops and public power districts in 15 states have received $215.6 million in smart grid investment grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The NRECA letter calls on Congress to act on two specific recommendations:

We write today to ask for your help and rededication to the cause of ensuring that high speed broadband reaches everyone as soon as possible. While we understand that comprehensive telecommunications legislation is unlikely to coalesce in the remaining months of the 112th Congress, we have identified two action areas where Congress can be proactive:

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“1. Strongly encourage federal agencies and our military to cooperate with the Federal Communications Commission to catalog spectrum and plan for the most efficient use of available and potentially available spectrum. As long as GPS is protected, this could possibly include strategic swaps of spectrum for the purpose of strengthening broadband build out to rural America.

2. Reauthorize and adequately fund the Rural Utilities Service Broadband Loan Program.”

Traditionally utility companies send workers out to homes and businesses to gather the data needed to provide electricity. These workers read meters, diagnosed equipment failures and measured voltage in homes and businesses. Most of the devices utilities use to deliver electricity have yet to be automated and computerized. In today's environment of innovative applications, expanded broadband access, and increased adoption of broadband, the electricity industry is poised to modernize the grid and help facilitate better energy efficiency.

The “grid” refers to the networks that carry electricity from the plants where it is generated directly to consumers. The grid includes wires, substations, transformers, switches and computer networks.

Smart grid technology is essentially automating the process of directing electricity transmission over the electric utility grid. This includes communications between computers at an electric utility's point of transmission and a computer in a consumer's home or business. This two-way communication can occur between many different types of devices - including large supercomputers and smartphones. Technology enabling this type of communication enables a utility to control and adjust individual devices or large groups of devices simultaneously.

The number of applications that can be used on the smart grid once the data communications technology is deployed is growing as fast as inventive companies can create and produce them. Benefits include enhanced cyber-security, handling sources of electricity like wind and solar power and even integrating electric vehicles onto the grid.

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