Officials with EMPOWER Broadband and Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative (BIT) are pleased to announce that BIT’s Membership has overwhelmingly approved the acquisition and merger of BIT with Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s (MEC) subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband. The acquisition became official at a special meeting of the Buggs Island Telephone Cooperative (BIT) membership held on Nov. 14 at the Lake Gaston Volunteer Fire Department. The meeting was called to order by BIT Board Chair Linsey Carroll and turned over to the Counsel of Record for the meeting, Mr. Mike Hern.
The purpose of the meeting was to tabulate votes received through the month-long campaign, announce the final count, and memorialize the decision of the BIT membership in the meeting minutes. Ballots had been previously sent to members via postal mail and email and the vast majority of votes were cast prior to the meeting. An official verification and tabulation of votes revealed that since October 7, a total of 2,179 members voted in favor of the acquisition. As stipulated by BIT’s By-laws, two-thirds approval by the membership was required, and the votes received exceeded the requirements with a 76.5 percent approval.
To ensure both transparency and accuracy, EMPOWER and BIT secured the services of Survey & Ballot Systems (SBS), an independent third-party firm that administered, verified, and managed the entire voting process. SBS has assisted cooperatives in planning and managing their elections and voting matters for nearly 30 years. SBS partners with 140 cooperatives across the nation providing the services, resources, and security needed to conduct highly secure and successful elections. SBS’ services allow cooperatives to offer paper, electronic, on-site, or hybrid balloting methods and they are known for their expertise in precise ballot tabulation and data protection along with voting security services that provide confidence and trust in the results.
David Jones, chair of the MEC and EMPOWER Broadband Board of Directors stated, “On behalf of EMPOWER Broadband, we’d like to extend our thanks and congratulations to all those associated with EMPOWER and BIT, who have worked so diligently to reach this beneficial milestone. The merger of our two systems’ resources and talents will quickly deliver educational and economic development opportunities across Southside Virginia. One thing is certain…this is all about meeting the needs of our members, and the overwhelming approval by the BIT membership speaks volumes to the trust our members place in our team to get this job done.”
The newly combined EMPOWER/BIT team can now formally deliberate plans to bring the two systems together, prioritize facilities requiring immediate repairs, and identify solutions to improve existing offerings. Additionally, the team will begin system assessment and review of density to identify areas for upgrade that optimize all existing fiber facilities. This merger of resources will advance the deployment of high-speed fiber broadband internet and telephone services across Southside Virginia. Deployment of fiber into new areas will be dependent on the assessment of the number of customers committed to subscribing to digital phone service and high-speed broadband.
MEC and EMPOWER President and CEO John C. Lee, Jr., stated, “MEC and BIT have worked alongside each other as sister cooperatives for decades to meet the electric and telephone service commitments made by our respective organizations to our common membership. We will continue, as one, to meet both those responsibilities and new ones that come with bridging the digital divide that has left our communities at a distinct disadvantage, and there is no doubt that joining forces puts us in a stronger position to deliver a third critical service to our members . . . world-class internet access.”
Lee continued, “Deploying fiber is costly, and rural Southside Virginia lacks the population density required to interest large investor-owned companies in meeting this need. EMPOWER Broadband is offering the most reliable and the world’s fastest internet service to our members because it is time that Southside Virginia stopped settling for less. As I have communicated to our members, this acquisition will combine the collective strengths of EMPOWER and BIT to more aggressively deploy fiber, maximizing efficiencies and minimizing duplication of service.”
Michele Taylor, BIT’s general manager, remarked, “Our EMPOWER/BIT team is humbled by the strong participation and the clear message sent by our membership. We’re thankful to our staff who worked to communicate the advantages of this union, and we’re especially thankful to our members for allowing us this opportunity to work together. We are determined to ensure our communities benefit from this agreement today, and for years to come, and that BIT’s legacy of serving its members will live on through EMPOWER Broadband.”
In addition to the benefit of accelerated deployment of high-speed internet and telephone services, BIT members will be receiving a check in the mail representing a lump-sum settlement of their remaining capital credits. EMPOWER’s next steps include acquiring final merger approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. These endorsements are expected to be complete by March 31, 2020, at which time capital credits will be settled, and checks will be mailed to BIT members. Additional information regarding the merger will be communicated to the members in the near future.
At the conclusion of the meeting, BIT Chair Linsey Carroll commented to those present, “You have spoken overwhelmingly through your supportive vote…and on behalf of your BIT board of directors, we appreciate your strong support of our recommendation, and we congratulate all of you for what we believe will be a historically significant union that will benefit all of you, and improve the quality of life for all who live in our community.”