What is an Internet Cooperative?: The Oberlin Cable Co-op and Member-Owned Internet

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer



[originally published June 2021]


 

If you’ve walked down E College Street, you’ve almost certainly passed the front window of the Oberlin Cable Co-op, billed as “Your Cable Company.” The Cable Co-op, founded in 1986, serves the Oberlin area as well as most of New Russia Township, much of which lies north of the Oberlin corporation limit. They provide internet and cable services, including community-oriented and school channels, to homes and local businesses, as well as the College’s Village Housing. Their mode of operation is right in their name: Co-op. But what does it really mean for an internet service provider to be a cooperative?


The Oberlin Cable Co-op is a member-owned non-profit, meaning that everyone who receives internet and/or cable services through the Co-op is a partial owner of the non-profit. “The basic idea is that people who would use the goods or services become members rather than customers,” says Jay Shrewsbury, the Operations Manager of Oberlin Cable Co-op. “The company that’s supplying the goods or services is actually a non-profit, and they’re ran by an elected board that, again, is elected by the members.” The Co-op is the only member-owned non-profit internet provider in the state of Ohio. Members may vote for the Board of Trustees, which is in turn staffed entirely by members. The Board of Trustees has oversight over the staff of the Cable Co-op and the services it provides.


Cooperative internet isn’t the only form of locally-owned internet with subscriber input. There’s also municipal broadband, a form of internet that is publicly owned and operated. However, there is an important distinction to be made between municipal internet and member-owned internet. Municipal broadband is partially or wholly controlled and administered by local governments using public funding. Member-owned, or cooperative, internet is a self-contained entity in which all subscribers hold an equal share in the cooperative. Despite this difference, both allow for greater community engagement and subscriber control than national internet service provider corporations, which are becoming increasingly monopolistic as broadband connection becomes increasingly indispensable.


The Cable Co-op has been involved with numerous public entities in Oberlin, such as Oberlin City Schools and the Oberlin Public Library, which are two of their longest-running engagements. In 1989, the Co-op provided a link to Oberlin City Schools and helped launch the Oberlin School Channel as a part of their cable package. According to Shrewsbury, the channel is still operative today, broadcasting sports events, performances, and other school-related programming. In 2003, the link to the school district was upgraded to a fiber optic link at no cost.


The Oberlin Public Library was another beneficiary of the no-cost 2003 fiber optic upgrade. The Cable Co-op also helped to launch The Bridge, the OPL’s community technology center. According to their website, The Bridge “provides free internet and computer access and educational classes to help bridge the digital divide within our community.” The Cable Co-op has supplied internet to The Bridge at no charge since its inception in 2000. “Cable Co-op has been an essential part of The Bridge, Oberlin’s Community Technology Center since our beginning in 2000,” wrote Stephanie Jones, the Director of The Bridge, in an email on July 6th. “They have helped in bridging the digital divide in the community by donating free internet service to The Bridge. This has assisted in offering the Oberlin community a place to have free technology services.”

A recent engagement between the Co-op and Oberlin’s public entities came in 2020 with the Phoenix Initiative, which later transitioned into the Helping With Homework program. When Oberlin City Schools first switched to online learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Co-op provided free and later discounted internet to households without prior broadband service to facilitate distance learning. At its inception, the costs of the program were covered by the local government, which is no longer the case. “When the pandemic hit, we reached out to all internet service providers (ISPs) serving our student population and the Cable Co-op was the only provider willing to work with us and develop a plan of action,” wrote Steve Nielsen, Oberlin City Schools’ IT Coordinator, in an email on July 2nd. “The Co-op significantly reduced pricing and was quick to provide internet access to every student in need within their service area. Without the Cable Co-op, we would not have been able to start the year fully remote or have any level of success with our hybrid program.”


You may be familiar with another initiative of the Cable Co-op’s: the Environmental Dashboard. The Cable Co-op helped launch the Dashboard, which is now visible in many campus buildings. “Originally, many years ago, when that [the Environmental Dashboard] very first started, it was me and a gentleman from the college called Art Ripley, who was the head networking guy, and I helped him actually set those up at all the different locations,” Shrewsbury says. “It’s evolved a lot since then, but that was the beginning of it.”


Despite the high level of community engagement exhibited by the Cable Co-op, member ownership still comes with its difficulties. One of the largest difficulties is member participation. Though members have equal ownership of the Co-op and the opportunity to vote in its Board of Trustees elections, voter turnout in these elections is consistently low. There is a Board election coming up in September, and Shrewsbury predicts low turnout: “We’ll be lucky--lucky--if we get even ten percent of the membership to even cast a vote,” he says. The Co-op also has difficulty getting members to run for the Board. “Obviously, as a member you can also run for an elected position, and it’s something that I wish more people knew about and more people took advantage of.” The Board of Trustees has twelve members, though it has occasionally operated with fewer due to lack of candidates. Board members attend hour-long bimonthly meetings with the possibility of additional subcommittee meetings. Elections are every two years, and Board members can serve in unlimited four-year increments with mandatory breaks in between.


Though the Co-op generally doesn’t receive public funding, they may be eligible for specific state government grants. On Thursday, July 1st, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed into law a new state budget that expands a grant program for rural broadband providers. The grant program, called the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program, was awarded an additional $250 million to distribute to internet service providers for the purpose of broadband expansion into unserved areas. Though the text of House Bill 2, the law that initially established the program last May, specifies that “governmental and quasi-governmental entities” are not eligible for funding, the Cable Co-op may still be eligible. This also means that municipal broadband is not eligible, despite its status as an internet provider—one of the many destructive provisions in the new budget. Shrewsbury, speaking before the new budget was approved by DeWine, told me that the Co-op would look into the grant program once it was officially expanded: “We’re not sure yet, we haven’t dove into that...it’s gonna be something we’ll be exploring and seeing if it’s something we think will help the community, and if it is, we’ll take it on.”


Cooperative internet has clear benefits when it comes to community engagement and subscriber control. However, this model of internet service depends upon members engaging with leadership and providing input on big decisions, which can be a challenge at times. “The most important thing about a membership-owned entity is that the members are active,” Shrewsbury says. “That doesn’t mean they’re actively paying their bill, but they’re active in trying to help point the entity in the direction that’s best for the community.”