Connected Nation

The customer and the co-op: Hear from both sides about why and how to better connect rural America

June 26, 2023 Jessica Denson Season 4 Episode 18
Connected Nation
The customer and the co-op: Hear from both sides about why and how to better connect rural America
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of Connected Nation, we head into America’s Heartland once more as the “Let’s Get Digital: Oklahoma Broadband Tour” makes its final stops. 

This time we sit down with a resident of Okmulgee, Oklahoma AND the local provider he came to see. Hear from both sides— the customer and the co-op— about what small towns really need when it comes to broadband access and how rural America can finally get better internet  service.
Related link:
Oklahoma Broadband Office website -

Jessica Denson, Host (00:06):

This is Connected Nation, an award-winning podcast focused on all things broadband from closing the digital divide to improving your internet speeds. We talk technology topics that impact all of us, our families, and our neighborhoods.


On today's podcast, we head into America's heartland once more. As the let's get digital, Oklahoma Broadband tour makes its final stops. This time we sit down with the resident of Oggi, Oklahoma and the local provider he came to see and find out what small towns really need when it comes to broadband access and how rural America can finally get better internet service.


I'm Jessica Denson, and this is Connected Nation.


I am standing with Darren Downing, right? Am I saying that correctly? Correct. Who is a resident of Okmulgee County. And we've just wrapped up a stop on the listening tour. I believe it's 18 or 19 on the listening tour that we're doing around the state. Um, Darren, tell me why you came today.

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (01:07):

I came because I'm interested in, in higher speed internet possibilities through fiber and the, um, the, the what the future holds with fiber, and I was interested in that and just a quality, also reliable internet service is what I'm looking for.

Jessica Denson, Host (01:24):

Uh, why is it important for you to have reliable internet service at home?

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (01:28):

Uh, the work that I do, I get to telework still. Um, the, um, the squirrels that chewed up my, uh, internet provider's, uh, wire and having to go through that during the covid time and, and, uh, actually having to get ahold of FCC before the provider would actually come out yes, to even fix the problem. I had a problem for years, it would rain, and they finally figured out it was a, a chew that squirrels were chewing up the wires and, and so this is gonna be buried in the ground. They're not gonna have a chance to, to get to chew on those wires.

Jessica Denson, Host (02:02):

So are you a lifelong resident of Oggi or you just live? I have been, yes. So tell people who've never been here, why's important for you to live here and what, what's great about this area of the state and the country?

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (02:12):

Well, as far as, uh, Okmulgee being a citizen here, um, if you've ever attended Okmulgee High School, you're once a bulldog, always a bulldog. And we have the opportunity to, um, give back. I, I raised my family here and I give back work for local agency here as far as government wise. And, uh, it is a great, it is a great place to live. It has the same issues just like any other community would have. Um, outside of that, there are, uh, a lot of, uh, technology opportunities that happen in sometimes. First, it's because we are so close to Tulsa, and so, um, uh, believe it or not, Tulsa's moving more and more south and so from north to south. So that's, that's why the opportunity is cheaper to live here. That opportunity to be able to, uh, get to Tulsa, south Tulsa 30 minutes or, or so and come back home and, and, and live cheap. Cass is cheap here and all of it. So,

Jessica Denson, Host (03:07):

So, uh, you said you raised your family here. Do you have children? Yep,

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (03:10):

Three girls and, uh, my wife, uh, uh, we met at Oklahoma Baptist University and I got a daughter working at, um, uh, at, uh, battle Creek Church in, uh, uh, broken Arrow. And then I have a junior and a, and a seventh grader or senior and a seventh grader.

Jessica Denson, Host (03:25):

So how critical is it for your kids that are still in school, especially to have access?

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (03:31):

Uh, again, just that time during, uh, the, all the students were home during that, that time away, uh, it, it was imperative. We realized how important it was, and with all the devices that we have going on in the home, from the TVs to the, the tablets, to the, the laptops, to the, you know, the home PCs to whatever we have running, it's just imperative to have those things running smoothly at all times and in all conditions of weather and, and, uh, whether it's rain or sunny or whatever, we need it working.

Jessica Denson, Host (04:03):

And so what would you hope comes from this listening tour, uh, at the end of it in five years that, for this plan, <laugh>,

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (04:11):

My hope is that Oggi will be served with fiber optic and just the technology that it holds. I actually was on the phone with my internet provider today asking the opportunities of what they would be able to provide, uh, as far as higher speeds and stuff like that. They said they are working on it. Who knows? It could have just been a patent little thing that they are, you know, are quoted to say to people like me asking those questions. But getting to speak to the general manager today from Eco Link and that opportunity to, to know that, that what I want is potentially right around the corner. Uh, I, I get excited about it, but I gotta keep waiting. <laugh>,

Jessica Denson, Host (04:45):

Thank you so much. Thank

Darren Downing, Okmulgee resident (04:46):

You. Thank you.

Jessica Denson, Host (04:49):

I am talking with Jeremy Hendrickson, who is executive director of Eco Link, and we just spoke with Darren who said that he had an opportunity to talk with you about what he needed. Is, can you tell, share a little bit about your conversation and is, are the things that he's talking about something you're hearing across the community?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (05:05):

Yeah, I mean, we're really hearing about the need for broadband expansion in the rural communities and, you know, he's, he's very excited about the potential for fiber optic and as that's one of the best technologies to serve these houses. And, you know, getting that symmetric speed to the, to the members and to the customers. That's something that we're really excited to do and hopefully we'll be able to serve him.

Jessica Denson, Host (05:27):

Yeah, I was watching him from afar and he was really bending your ear and, um, I'm, he just told me he appreciated the fact that you just even listened, uh, cuz that he felt a lot of times that he had to get others to help him, um, outside of the circle of a provider, so that he was, he was grateful to hear a provider actually willing to listen to him. So, on that note, share a little bit about what Eco Link is, what you do. You're, there are Verizon and T-Mobile people always hear those names, but the smaller providers are really key and critical to this time period for the US right now, aren't they?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (05:59):

Right. Yeah. So Eco Link is a subsidiary of East Central Oklahoma Electric Cooperative. And, you know, being East Central is a, is a nonprofit that serves our membership, uh, cooperative. And so we really heard from our members that they wanted, wanted internet service, and we are really, uh, doing the same thing we did 85 years ago when we brought electricity to the rural farms. We're bringing internet to the rural farms. So, you know, we have a concern for community and we saw that need and decided we were gonna go out there and serve that need, meet that need, because the other providers just weren't willing to build in these rural communities where it's very hard to make a profit. But when you're a nonprofit, your business model's different and you can make that work.

Jessica Denson, Host (06:41):

So explain that a little bit. You don't have to do a huge deep dive, but just an, uh, a summary maybe. I know I'm asking a lot there, understanding of how a co-op operates differently than a traditional provider.

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (06:53):

Yeah, so, so a cooperative is owned by our membership and any, any profits that we would potentially make, we give back to our membership. Um, and so we're not, there's not a need necessarily for us to make a big profit for investors and that kind of, that kind of thing. So we're really just, you know, we can invest in a project and, and see a long time horizon. It doesn't have to be profitable in two years, three years, four years, that, uh, most investors would wanna look at, you know, we can look at an investment that's gonna take 20 years to pay back, 30 years to pay back, something like that. But over the long run, we're able to serve that member because we have that long time horizon.

Jessica Denson, Host (07:32):

So co-ops really have an important role in servicing all of Oklahoma and other states across the country, don't you think?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (07:38):

Yes, I think so. Yeah. For sure. We're seeing, um, you know, in the rural areas, we're seeing cooperatives really have a big impact on bringing fiber where other providers aren't, aren't willing to.

Jessica Denson, Host (07:47):

So, uh, the, this latest stop in Oak Mogi is on a a 20 plus stop listening tour that the Oklahoma Broadband office is having. Um, why did you find, feel it was important to be here today?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (08:00):

Well, we really think it's important to hear what the community's saying and also hear what the, the state is saying about the, the opportunities that are available for funding. You know, there are several different programs that, that the state is gonna be controlling in terms of broadband funding, and we wanna make sure that we are aware of what's going on, that we're helping to help them make good decisions about how the money's, uh, are spent to, to ensure that our friend is able to be served, uh, at his house. Um, and you know, that we're not just seeing the money invested in places where it's not gonna be used wisely.

Jessica Denson, Host (08:33):

Uh, do you live in the communities that you serve?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (08:36):

Yes, we do. Um, so, you know, we're, we're headquartered in the community. All of our employees live within the surrounding areas. Um, in our communities that we, that we serve in this, you know, we serve seven counties and we have employees that live in all of those counties. And that's money that is spent here or that, you know, the monies that we are given are spent here locally, um, to build the network. And it really just, we see that reinvestment back into the communities.

Jessica Denson, Host (09:03):

So you probably will hear from your neighbor or your grandma Yes. Or your, uh, your, uh, person down at the gas station. Like, why don't I have access? Right,

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (09:12):

<laugh>? Yes, for sure. Um, you know, they, they, uh, they see your, your logo on your shirt and they stop you and ask you questions When, when am I gonna get service at my house?

Jessica Denson, Host (09:21):

And what would you like to see comes from all of this at the end of the day? In your perfect world, um, as a co-op, as a human, as an oklahoman <laugh>, what would you like to see come from this?

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (09:31):

I mean, for our area, I would like to see every member served. Um, everybody within our footprint have access to fiber, fiber and, and really that's, that's the dream for the whole state. You know, with the monies that are coming from the federal government, there is the capability. There's enough money if it's spent right, to give everybody fiber optic, um, service. So, you know that that would be the dream, dream scenario, but there have to be those providers that are willing to do that.

Jessica Denson, Host (09:58):

Awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate

Jeremy Hendrickson, Ecolink (10:00):

It. Yeah, thank you so much.

Jessica Denson, Host (10:02):

Oggi Oklahoma was among the final stops on the Let's get digital Oklahoma Broadband tour, which lasted nearly two months, covering more than 20 rural and urban locations across the state, and included several tribal nation consultations. 

The Oklahoma broadband office collected input and feedback about internet service from residents, business owners, tribal leaders, internet service providers, community organizations, and others. That information will be included in the development of a five-year plan for expanding and improving high speed internet access for the entire state of Oklahoma. 

To learn more, head to I've also put the link in the description of this podcast. 

I'm Jessica Denson. Thanks for listening to Connect to Nation. If you like our show and wanna know more about us, head to connect to or look for the latest episodes on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, Pandora, or Spotify.


Introduction to topics
Darren Downing, Okmulgee Resident
Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog
What Darren hopes happens next
Jeremy Hendrickson with Ecolink
How a coop operates differently than other ISPs
What Ecolink hopes happens next
How the info gathered is being used