No one can accuse NineStar Connect of being ordinary. The co-op is the result of a historic 2011 merger between Hancock Rural Telephone Corporation and Central Indiana Power, and is one of only two companies in the nation—the other being in a remote region of Alaska—that provides both electric and telecom services. Now they’re poised to make history again by adding water and sewer services to their offerings.
“From our perspective, we want to be a complete rural utility and that has to include water and sewer,” said Michael R. Burrow, NineStar Connect president and CEO. “We’re not just stopping with electric and communications. We are deeply committed to being there with essential services.”
It’s a step that’s as surprising as it is logical, given their post-merger success. If anything, being a combined electric and telecom utility has allowed NineStar Connect to go above and beyond for the people they serve.
“It’s really been a great thing for our co-op—and for our members and customers. It’s allowed us to offer them not just electric services, but also telephone, television, security services, and more—all with the advantages of a co-op that’s working to keep their costs down,” Burrow said.
As one example of the co-op’s ingenuity, NineStar Connect took advantage of its existing electric infrastructure to introduce fiber optic cable to members. Fiber optics is great for fast Internet and dependable video and security services—but it also allows for smart meter technology that lets members take charge of their electric bills.
“With the smart meters, instead of looking at your usage once a month, we’re taking meter readings about once an hour,” said Burrow. “People can log in to their accounts and examine their usage on an hour-by-hour basis, and adjust how they’re using electricity in their homes.”
This growth and innovation has been supported by Wabash Valley Power’s reliable supply of cost-effective wholesale electricity.
“What Wabash Valley Power does for us is absolutely critical,” said Burrow. “We need a steady power supply at an affordable and stable price. If we had to worry about our power supply, that could be a major problem, but we don’t.”
And reliability has become something of a calling card for NineStar Connect, which serves residents of Hancock County and parts of Hamilton, Madison, and Rush Counties, just east of Indianapolis. In addition to providing power and telecom services to nearly 16,000 members, they also provide telecom services to an additional 4,500 non-member customers.
Because the co-op has proven so resilient, Burrow feels confident about their venture into wet utilities. It’s a reflection of the co-op’s entrepreneurial spirit, and one that could kick off a new wave of economic development in underserved areas.
“We’re looking for areas with limited access to what we believe are essential services,” explained Burrow. “Then we’ll begin making investments to kick-start economic development initiatives. The great part about the co-op business model is that making a profit isn’t our top priority—serving members is—and that gives us a unique perspective on growth.”