NORMAN, Okla. — Lake Region Electric Cooperative has cancelled its annual meeting, which was scheduled for April 25, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But crews are continuing to work on installing fiber optic lines in the Tahlequah area.
“Provision of internet is vital to the health of our economy and education,” said Lake Region Electric CEO Hamid Vahdatipour. “The Federal Communications Commission has encouraged the service providers to connect new services. People need this service to be able to stay at home and work from home in order to reduce the potential to spread this virus. We are doing our best to connect new services as fast as we can, for as many customers as we can.”
Vahdatipour said a survey conducted about five years ago found nine of 10 members believed broadband internet is either "absolutely necessary" or "very important" to their quality of life. The survey also reported three out of four respondents supported LREC's providing broadband internet.
LREC then launched the Pilot Project, which included 200 miles of fiber optic lines, and indicated it would be beneficial to provide service. The Phase 1 Project, completed in February 2020, included over 800 miles of lines. LREC is currently serving an estimated 5,000 members.
“We can easily state that today, there are 5,000 residents of Cherokee and Muskogee counties that can work from home or participate in distance learning, that could have not done so five years ago,” Vahdatipour said.
Vahdatipour stressed that LREC has been able to achieve this service without any loans or grants from Rural Development.
"The capital expenditures are funded through loans from LRTC’s private lenders," he said.
Phase 2 of the Fiber-To-The-Home Project is currently underway. It includes approximately 1,000 miles of lines and is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2021. Phase 3 of the fiber project will follow and will cover the final 1,000 miles.
“We have noticed an uptick in new service requests in the past three weeks,” Vahdatipour said. “We are connecting eight to 10 new customers per day. Our employees and contractors are tirelessly working to expand this service, despite the challenging conditions due to this epidemic.”
Lake Region continues to operate with caution. The lobbies are closed to the public at all three offices in Tahlequah, Hulbert and Wagoner. The drive-thru is open at the Hulbert office. The offices have been sprayed with disinfectants to sanitize.
“We will reopen the office as soon as we can safely do so and on the advice of public health officials,” Vahdatipour said. “We know this temporary change may create additional difficulties for consumer-members, and we appreciate their patience as we navigate this difficult situation.”
All disconnects for non-pay electric, water and telecom for members who are directly affected have been suspended. Employees who can work from home and have access to the internet are working from home. Crews will continue to respond to outage calls to ensure electric service remains available to members.
Social distancing is emphasized.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we will address the challenges as they occur. But know that, in the face of any difficulty, we are here to keep the lights on,” Vahdatipour said.