Mid-Rivers recently completed our 2017 audit process, the conclusion of which is a presentation of the findings to the Board of Trustees and management. (The audit report is available for review by the Cooperative’s membership in the Circle headquarters office, and a financial report will be presented at the Annual Meeting on May 31 in Roundup. All members will also be mailed an Annual Report in May.)
The report was overwhelmingly positive, and focused on an overall theme of network investment. Mid-Rivers has invested $85 Million directly in our network in the last five years, which is “at the top of the scale” for companies like ours. This is investment both in fiber to the small towns and rural areas, and in the continued advancement of broadband speeds and services in Sidney, Glendive, Miles City and Lewistown.
Thanks to regulatory developments that have made additional Federal dollars available for building broadband in the rural areas, we have been able to make this level of investment without any additional borrowing. About 80% of Mid-Rivers’ total assets are now invested in telecommunications plant, compared to 60-70% of the assets of similarly-situated companies. We are here to provide essential communications services and invest in the networks you need, and this number proves how hard we are working to carry out that mission.
While we know there is a lot of work left to do (don’t miss next month’s edition where I will talk more about 2018 fiber project details), and there are on-going uncertainties surrounding external revenue sources, our cash flows are strong, your Member Equity is up, and we saw a decrease in overall expenses from 2016 to 2017 thanks to redoubled efforts to find internal efficiencies. Keeping our expenses in check is another critical aspect of the same regulatory reform that allows us to access more funding for broadband investment. We are provided with a set amount of funding over 10 years to get broadband to a required number of customer locations, so the more we can save in other areas, the more we can invest directly in your broadband network, and the more rural customers we can reach with fiber.
Investing in our communities is one of our core values at Mid-Rivers. While the network investments we make have the largest direct impact, we are always investing in our communities in many other ways too. This year’s $46,000 in available scholarship dollars (funded by your Unclaimed Capital Credits, and DUE APRIL 16, so tell your kiddos to stop procrastinating!) has a new twist for applicants. Students applying in all categories are asked to tell us about challenges they recognize in their hometowns, and ideas and plans they have for helping address them. Priority for scholarship funding will be given to students who demonstrate specific plans and an authentic desire to return to their Eastern or Central Montana communities after graduation.
The fiber investment is only half the battle. Investing in our youth, so that the next generation has the skills, drive and desire to put that fiber to work, is just as critical. We hope to see our next generation use this valuable investment to revitalize and diversify our communities and economy. The digital generation – kids virtually born knowing how to use technology – has the potential to tear down the economic barriers of the urban/rural divide, if we give them the right tools to do it. I don’t know about you, but I am excited to see what these rural kids, who not only know technology but are also being raised to know the value of a strong work ethic and an independent, entrepreneurial spirit, can do with a good fiber network. I can’t wait to see the results.