Members' Lives Have Changed
With Access to High-Speed Service
Katie Keith is an earnest, hard-working ranch manager in Stephenville who also attends online classes for Tarleton State University to complete a master’s degree in business administration.
And while working full-time and completing a full load of online coursework requirements would be formidable even in perfect circumstances, having inadequate internet service made her life ambitions even more daunting and harder to fulfill.
Not so long ago, Keith’s vehicle was nearly a daily fixture in the McDonald’s parking lot, and it wasn’t because she loved Big Macs. She had to, she said, because the internet service at her home was so poor. Living on the western fringe of United’s service territory, her best and only option was to log into the fast-food restaurant’s free WiFi to complete her coursework in the parking lot.
That changed when Keith became one of the cooperative’s first members in Erath County to receive United’s high-speed internet. Now, she can complete her assignments on time without having to make the seven-mile trek to a parking lot every day.
“It’s been really tough on me, but the good internet has made it a lot better,” she said. “It’s for sure the best internet I’ve ever had or experienced in Stephenville.”
For many people, 2020 brought a unique set of challenges, just as it did for Keith. The global outbreak of COVID-19 heightened awareness for the immense need in rural America for adequate high-speed internet service, as well as the monumental disparity between those who had internet access and those who suffered with inadequate or no internet access. The need for better internet access was highly magnified as people attempted to follow mandates for working from home or having their school-age children attend school online rather than in person.
Even though United’s five-year high-speed fiber internet project began a bit too late to reach a large swath of United members in 2020, the project’s expansion has since been methodical and constant, even during pandemic shutdowns. Members who had the good fortune to be located near the cooperative’s two headend terminals in Burleson and Stephenville (purposely separated locations where United receives internet service connections from the top four world providers and from which United’s fiber distribution backbone stems) were some of the first to test and receive internet service that is continually being built out to provide world-class quality and superlative user experiences.
The Schmidts in Burleson were one of the first families to receive service in the eastern portion of United’s service territory, and Karen Schmidt didn’t mind sharing her sentiments on the challenges COVID-19 has had on her family.
“We have college students at home, and my husband had to work from home for awhile,” she said. “For us, the timing was right for you guys to bring service out here, because it wouldn’t have worked well at all with our old service.”
Though new member subscribers say United’s high-speed internet service and support serves a desperate need, such a big venture can’t be implemented overnight, said Marcellus Nixon, vice president of internet services. It must grow outward, steps at a time, while being balanced responsibly within a capital expenditure plan that is tied to incoming service revenue and to a multi-year construction period.
United now has more than 1,500 active service members and about 8,500 people who have pre-registered for the new internet service. Many of United’s 182 employees are also United members, and they, too, share the burden of patience with more than 90 percent of the membership who voted in 2019 to have the cooperative incorporate high-speed internet into its range of services, and who wish to receive the service as quickly as possible. By the end of 2021, project planners hope to have lit up 10,000 member homes with high-speed fiber-to-the-home or fixed wireless connections—a goal that centers those new connections within seven targeted zones across the cooperative’s service territory. This includes Johnson County, Granbury, Lingleville, Possum Kingdom Lake, Morgan Mill, Bluff Dale and Cranfills Gap. Distribution will then spread out from those zones and overlap other service rings each year in the network’s projected five-year buildout.
A learning curve was expected in the first phases of the network rollout, and adjustments have been made to ensure member expectations are not only being met across the developing system, but that demonstrate United’s binding commitment to provide unparalleled service.
For example, Sheryl Ledbetter of Burleson said that the difference between United and her previous provider was in the quality of customer service. United’s member-centric service exceeded her expectations.
“When y’all have experienced a service issue, we have gotten an email about it right away,” she said. “That has been wonderful. Nobody expects perfect service, but it is nice to be kept informed, and that’s what I feel like you guys do.”
No stone has been left unturned in the network’s development. Beyond connecting to the top four internet providers in the world to bolster its system, United has set four separate and distinct fiber paths to those providers to ensure that if one fiber path is cut, three other paths pick up and serve the lost path in milliseconds. United’s network will also boast nine redundant rings. The concept here being the same. If there is a fiber cut on one ring, United can back-feed it from another direction to ensure no interruptions to its membership. United has already completed its first redundant ring of the backbone network in the most eastern part of its territory and has plans to complete the remaining rings in 2021.
That’s working at warp-speed, Nixon said, especially considering that it took United 82 years to build the electric infrastructure that is in place today.
The five-year buildout of the cooperative’s new fiber network is no less challenging, but construction logistics, while similar, can be more aggressive since most of the fiber network will be attached to United electric infrastructure already in place. More than 3,600 miles of backbone fiber will be hung and constructed over the span of this project. However, in coordination with a multitude of contracting crews, United continues to make significant headway. To date, more than 1,000 miles of fiber backbone has been built, with the remaining construction to be concluded in 2021.
United’s members in the west have been a priority from the beginning, due to the severe lack of adequate internet in the area. United’s network was designed to provide fiber-to-the home (FTTH) access to 80 percent of the membership overall, and fixed wireless access to the remaining 20 percent where FTTH construction is not economically feasible. For that reason, United’s western service territory has been designed to include a fiber/fixed-wireless hybrid technology. United has begun the process of constructing this hybrid system, and to date has installed two monopoles in the Stephenville area. Eventually United expects to overlap coverage areas with many more monopoles that will broadcast a line-of-sight wireless signal to homes within a three-mile radius. Each monopole also will be connected to United’s fiber-optic network. In instances where member residences fall within 1,500 feet of the fiber backbone, United plans to provide, where possible, fiber-to-the-home service instead of fixed-wireless technology.
Parts of United’s hilly, western territory pose a challenging landscape for obtaining proper line of sight, and thus fixed wireless technology. Some members, such as Keith, live in areas with a clear line of sight and can enjoy the benefits of United’s high-speed fixed wireless service. United continually tests this technology and takes appropriate measures to provide its members the highest level of service quality possible.
United also has begun beta testing for businesses and larger facilities. One such beta member has been Cana Baptist Church in Burleson. The church suspended in-person services back in March.
While not ideal, staff was committed to providing weekly worship to those who wished to participate by livestreaming the service. Cana Church began testing United’s services back in late August, and according to Kathryn Edgerton, the church’s financial assistant, the live streaming was awful before they received United’s internet service. Now, with United’s service, they can share their worship message with viewers without worry of shaky internet.
“When we went down, we would be down for well, however long it took to make the phone call and go through all the automated self-help customer service walk-through steps,” she said.
When Edgerton called United with a service issue, she said she was on the phone with the cooperative’s technical support for about 15 minutes, while a real person walked her through several trouble shooting steps that solved the issue.
While the cooperative cannot build its network overnight and start providing service to every member now, members who are interested in receiving United’s world class internet are encouraged to visit United’s High-Speed Internet Page.
From there, type in the member service address at the top to pre-register for service. When United is in a member’s area, they will be notified to complete their order.
United continually monitors interest levels in the areas it serves. Areas where the most interest has been indicated are given the highest priority for internet connection when system construction is completed in those areas.