Tipmont REMC was formed in 1939. It was one of a growing number of consumer-owned corporations — cooperatives — created by residents, farmers and businesses in rural areas tired of waiting on existing power companies to bring them the modern conveniences and quality-of-life necessities provided by electricity.
Rural areas were unable to keep pace and were falling even further behind America’s growing urban areas without central-station power that cities and small towns had been enjoying already for decades.
Rural electric membership corporations changed all that. Rural people joined together to create their own electric distribution utilities. With the help of low-interest loans and assistance from the newly-created federal Rural Electrification Administration, electric cooperatives began providing the affordable and reliable electric service across the vast American countryside the existing for-profit power utilities said couldn’t be done — or at least in a way that would provide a return on investment. The rural electrification of America became the most successful public-private partnership in U.S. history.
Fast-forward 80 years: high-speed internet service has become the rural electrification equivalent of the new century. Access to high-speed internet is an undeniable necessity for all Americans.
The COVID-19 pandemic that hit the U.S. in early 2020 accelerated that essential need into overdrive with the new normals of closed school campuses and offices, virtual learning and telehealth, and Zoom and WebEx meetings.
Deep DiscussionsMultiple deep discussions into the role and mission of the cooperative were held. Directors determined the REMC’s mission was to be a provider of “essential services” necessary for economic stability and growth and quality of life when the provision of those services to Tipmont’s consumers was being unmet by private providers.
Defining an Essential ServiceLeadership resolved that affordable and reliable high-speed internet service — fiber to homes, farms, schools, businesses, etc. — was an “essential service,” akin to electricity in the 1930s. Further, this service was not being met by existing providers in Tipmont REMC’s service territory, and this unmet need was detrimental to the economic welfare of the service area and the quality of life of Tipmont REMC members.
A New MissionRevised the electric cooperative’s mission statement to better reflect its purpose as a provider of “essential services.”
The Purdue StudyCommissioned a Purdue University study on the economic benefits and costs of fiber service, conducted multiple surveys of consumers to measure interest and potential take rates for service, and held multiple in-person consumer focus groups to determine it was a service Tipmont should offer to its consumers.
AnnouncementAfter years of studying cost analysis, scenarios and due diligence, Tipmont REMC introduced a new essential service: to provide fiber in its electrical service footprint.
Wintek AcquisitionPartially into this venture, the cooperative met with the owners of Wintek, a Lafayette-based fiber and technology firm it worked closely with over the years to bring fiber into schools and to its own substations. Tipmont REMC acquired Wintek as the most effective and efficient way to provide high-speed fiber within all of the REMC’s footprint. Through the acquisition by Tipmont, Wintek would have the additional resources necessary to expand its customer base in its original existing service areas and more quickly extend services into new service territories.
Wintek powered by Tipmont, the name of the new entity, has put Tipmont REMC several years ahead of its original schedule working on its own to provide consumers high-speed internet access.
The 300 planned connections in the first year wound up as 1,200.
Thanks to grant funding from state and federal sources, the fiber build plan was reduced from eight years to five years, now scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.
Win-Win-Win for Tipmont REMC, Wintek and Tipmont’s members and the community at large.
Most importantly, achieved high customer satisfaction scores, consistently averaging far above other internet service providers.
Out of the Dark
Tipmont REMC energized its first build of electric line in October 1939. At the end of December 1940, the cooperative had 1,918 consumers and 741 miles of energized line. Today, the cooperative is approaching 25,000 members and maintains over 2,750 miles of line.
From 1935 to 1940, all around Indiana and the country, rural residents formed their own utilities and were taking advantage of the low-interest loans from the REA available to any utilities willing to serve the vast unserved areas of rural America.
Only 10% of rural Americans had electricity in the mid-1930s. Existing investor-owned utilities insisted that running miles of lines across the land with so few meters would not be a prudent return on their investment. But without the convenience of electricity:
Rural economies, still mired in the Great Depression, had no hope of growth. Farms couldn’t take advantage of modernization — mechanization — to improve crop yields and livestock.
Rural lives remained tied to 19th-century drudgery and dangers. Chopping wood and pumping water had to be done by hand. Wood and coal were burned in stoves in the kitchen for cooking and in pot-bellied stoves, a furnace or boiler for heat. Highly flammable coal-oil and kerosene lanterns were used throughout the house and barn so folks could see before sunrise and after dark. Household chores, like washing clothes, were day-long, back-breaking burdens of hauling and heating water.
Rural education lagged behind because poor lighting after dark made it difficult to study.
Rural diets suffered from the lack of the diversity refrigeration allowed. The health of rural people was affected by the poor diets, hard labor and the constant smoky living and working conditions. Rural people were not living as long as their urban cousins.
A Bold "New Deal"
As part of a bold platform, President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” called for new federal programs to get the depressed economy moving and to ensure fairness. One of those emergency programs created first by executive order was the REA in May 1935. A year later, through bipartisan support in Congress, the Rural Electrification Act made the REA a permanent lending agency.
Electric cooperatives quickly seized on meeting their consumers’ needs as they arose. When rural consumers needed education on using the manifold benefits of this amazing “wired hand” they were receiving, cooperatives hired “member services” personnel who would visit with consumers to help educate and inform. The REA, itself, created a traveling “circus” — officially the “Demonstration Farm Equipment Tour” — that rolled through small towns across the Midwest to demonstrate new appliances and farm equipment and the benefits of electricity to large crowds at each stop. Cooperatives also began teaching electrical safety.
In the 1970s, when electric supply began to tighten and environmentalism came to the forefront of political and cultural thought, cooperatives turned to educating consumers even more about energy efficiency — how to use electricity more wisely. It seemed to be the antithesis of what electric utilities were all about, but it set cooperatives apart. They encouraged and helped consumers to use less of the product they were selling because the foundation of the cooperatives is to help their members live better lives. Not wasting energy — and money — fell into that category.
The job of bringing electricity to all who wanted it in rural America was a success. But there were needs still being unmet in rural areas. Using the same argument of the 1930s, meager return kept many competitors out of the rural market, or those it entered would charge unaffordable prices for services.