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Closing the digital divide in rural America

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E12 | June 15, 2023




Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, representing more than 850 independent telecommunications companies leading innovation in rural and small-town America.

From Alaska to the mid-west, rural America means many different things to many different people. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA (The Rural Broadband Association) discusses the digital divide across America, what it means, and how to close it. 

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: Shirley Bloomfield is as comfortable in a cornfield as she is testifying on Capitol Hill. The CEO of the NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association representing 850 small and family-run providers, is helping to close the digital divide. She works to develop public-private partnerships that ensure farmers participate in the 4th industrial revolution and rural school children have all the high-tech benefits bestowed upon their urban counterparts. Her passion for the topic grew out of the rich soil of the mid-west.

Shelley Bloomfield: Well, it's a long-tortured journey since I studied urban studies in college, which may sound like it's contradictory, but at the end of the day, it's all about studying where communities develop, how they develop, and looking at the incentives and support mechanisms for people who live there. That was part of my background before working on Capitol Hill, but honestly, it was somewhat serendipitous. And once I dipped my toe into working with the rural community, the passion these people have for where they serve, who they serve and the fact that the work they do every day makes a difference made it very easy to grasp becoming a rural advocate. With my Wisconsin roots, it wasn't really very difficult to do.

MH: Then what would you describe as the current state of the digital divide in rural America?

SB: I think there are two different sectors to look at when people talk about the digital divide. There is a rural America that is served by NTCA members, where I know I can be a little bit partial. But when I see the statistics from our latest broadband survey that show that 80% of their customers have access to fiber to the home technology, that is supremely robust and developed. Then I think we should look at the portions of rural America where they have traditionally been served by larger carriers, who have a very legitimate financial incentive to provide more of their newer investments in those markets, where they get a greater return. So, I think you really see a real rural divide essentially.

I think it's one thing to say that all rural areas are not the same, and the service they receive is not the same. I think we have to be very honest about that. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is now producing and working with the maps the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has come up with, showing that we've got a lot of Americans who are not connected and who don't have services that are adequate for our economy today. So, I think there's still a lot of work to be done. People will throw out different numbers. I'm not going to get into that game. We do know many parts of this country are unserved and underserved, and that is one of the reasons why I think policymakers have been so willing to make a huge investment.

MH: What does the digital divide mean to you? What's the definition in your book?

SB: So, the digital divide to me means a couple of things. I think people tend to focus immediately on who's served and who's not served. Who has broadband? Who doesn't have broadband? Who's watching a spinning wheel and who isn't? But I think it also means which communities are connected. Which groups of populations are we leaving behind? And there are different populations that I think will have different needs in terms of finding that connectivity. So, I think I would say that's one thing.

The other becomes an affordability issue. Are we ensuring that people can actually afford the service even if we can provide the service? And the last part I would say about that is education. When I think about digital equity and inclusion, we may have a robust broadband network out into this community, overcoming all of these different geographical challenges or cost challenges, but at the end of the day, we've got to take the time and the resources to educate people on how to get online, to have them realize that it is more than fast email. I think we learned a lot of those lessons during COVID. So, to me, the digital divide is not only the network, but it is also ensuring that we make sure that all people can find a way and that all Americans have access to this technology and how to use it.

MH: Tell me about that, all people component to it. Because as you point out, the digital divide isn't just geographical. It's not just financial. How is the NTCA encouraging more women to get involved with digital skills? It's that education component, I suppose.

SB: Education is so important, and I think it's a classic case. If you can see it, you can be it. And I think when we think about the high-tech fields and we think about, quite frankly, the fact that there are some serious workforce challenges, particularly in a rural community. Because unless you've got good jobs, that career hook, that long-term path, some of your best and brightest will leave. They'll go off to college and not return.

We think about what it's going to take all those different talents and all those different voices around the table, and we all know that the more diverse the voices around the table, the better the performance of an organization. At NTCA, we've really been focused on women in telecom. We have a very formal initiative where we bring women from all parts of their companies, whether they are the CEO, a new customer service representative, or a fiber splicer. We even have some women who are line women out there, doing some of the more dangerous outdoor plant kind of work.

But getting them together to share ideas about how women can support one another in this industry, how we can continue to grow that sector, giving mentorships and offering different leadership development. Again, that idea that if rural broadband companies can tap half of the gender talent that is out there, I think we see an even more robust future.

MH: I guess that's part of the goal of the annual Smart Rural Community Live Conference you host.

SB: Part of the Smart Rural Community Live Conference that we host is really focused on how we build the biggest tent possible. How do we build a tent that not only addresses workforce needs of the future, but, probably a little bit more interesting in my book, is really about how we gather everybody interested in the future of rural America and in creating these smart communities? A community with a great deal of fiber connectivity that has more than half its population actually has broadband services. And how they are engaged at the community level, whether they're working with public officials, their economic developers, their local leadership, to think about job creation, to be thinking about public safety initiatives, to be thinking about smart agriculture, healthcare, education, all of these services that will help drive a robust rural America.

It's trying to get everybody to think beyond the network and think about what you do with that network. And how do you get your community engaged with the network? The fun thing that I think about is that it's not just about broadband providers. We have community leaders who are coming. They get to come for free when they come with their own participating folks. Then we have application developers, people who are saying, "Here are some cool things that we can do with this technology." And we are most appreciative of Nokia being such a key player and helping to sponsor this discussion, being a part of the discussion, and sharing some of your insights about what technology can bring to ensure economic vitality.

MH: Tell me about the evolution of that conference. How has it grown over the course of the last few years into something that's new? I can imagine the very first one bears very little resemblance to the most recent.

SB: Well, we all have to keep evolving, Michael, that is really important. The fun thing about this year is last year, we were really just trying... People were kind of thinking, it felt like an elephant and the blind men, like everybody touching it kind of saw what they wanted to see out of it. This year, what we've really homed in on is making sure that there is real engagement. So, when we have local mayors and local economic developers, and folks from the White House, who will be joining us. They'll all be talking about their vision for the future of rural America, NTIA, the individual who actually liaisons between states and local governments.

We're putting folks around tables, and one of the things we are doing this year that I think will be very exciting is we're going to focus on discussion and engagement. I think of it as more of a summit or workshop. What are the takeaways? Okay, what are the economic developers saying they need to see from broadband providers? What do the app developers need to see? How do we take smart agriculture from a couple of cool case studies to creating platforms for communities to take back?

I think what we have seen is an evolution, towards understanding what the key takeaways are. A little bit more focused. Okay, so, the room discussion is very cool, we're all very excited, but this year we want to take things back home. We really want folks to carry back out to all of the states they're coming from to say, "Here are some things we can ALL do." Collaboration is really important, and we focus a lot on sharing ideas and thoughts.

MH: As a highly regulated industry, what are the main roadblocks to closing this digital divide?

SB: One of the things that people forget about when we think about broadband deployment is there's a lot of excitement right now about building networks. There's a lot of federal funding coming out. There is state funding. There are a lot of different initiatives, whether we're talking about Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program money, or US Treasury money, or USDA ReConnect Loan and Grand Program money. But there's not as much focus on how we sustain these networks. It's one thing to build them, and that is important, that's job number one.

But if we look back as a country in five years and say we didn't do enough to ensure that these networks are sustainable and affordable in a rural setting. Your infrastructure costs the same as it does in a Washington DC area, you just have fewer people that you're spreading the cost among. Thinking beyond building the network, one of the things we think a lot about is how we sustain that network and how we educate policymakers. That is an important part of the equation because nobody wants to look back and say, "Yeah, for five years, we had some great networks out there, and now we're unable to sustain those."

MH: So, then if investments in bridging the digital divide need to be made with the future in mind, how do you future-proof a deployment?

SB: Oh, we are extraordinarily bullish about ensuring that fiber technology is prioritized. And I know sometimes people will say, "Well, your guys have the longest hauls, and your areas are the toughest to serve. It's the stretches between... You may have three consumers per mile of facility." But we think it is the smartest investment. It is that adage that you've only got one chance to do it right the first time. We look at the appetite that American consumers have for bandwidth. It is growing exponentially, and I think that as well as anybody. So, how do we ensure we're not trying to catch up in a few years? We really think fiber is the way to go. We think, obviously, it's going to take every tool in the toolkit.

But the other thing about fiber that sometimes folks forget is that if you are in rural America, a big portion of your cost becomes the operating expense (OpEx). Capital expense (CapEx) is one thing. OpEx, the ability to maintain those networks is pretty pricey. Fiber has a much lower OpEx. It means a lot fewer truck rolls that you are running through. And when I say truck rolls, it's not 20 minutes down the road. In a lot of cases, it's a four- or five-hour drive to get out to where that consumer premise might be having an issue.

We continue to think it's important. We're delighted that policymakers have actually made it a priority. Different situations will have different needs, but if my folks in Montana and North Dakota can have robust broadband service with fiber technology, I think you can do it almost anywhere.

MH: The NTCA has testified that each community is unique and that the successful deployment of broadband in rural America is not a singular model of identical blocks. So, what are some examples of the unique needs of different communities?

SB: Let's start with Alaska. I mean, we can start with the extreme. We have a number of companies in Alaska, very, very different. Obviously, not only the topography, but what you find in Alaska is you've got very dense villages. Their consumers per mile of facility is actually far greater than a lot of rural areas. But then carrying that traffic across the tundra is a really different source for building a network. You also have to have a lot of underwater fiber connectivity to bring your traffic onto the mainland. So, thinking about some of those middle mile pieces is really different.

And everything from how do you cover a state like Colorado? What kind of technologies can be used? And I would even say a lot of it is around building seasons. You're in North Dakota and South Dakota, your ability to put plant in the ground or plant anywhere is really limited to a nice, healthy five or six months, seven if you're lucky. So, being tied to those rhythms of nature is also important to consider.

Again, so much of it is density; so much of it is what that community's needs are. You may have a big agricultural community. Well, they're going to have a certain kind of need. You may have another that has the ability to recruit a lot of new factory deployments, but that's going to be another kind of need. So, thinking about each of those needs, there is no one size fits all. Here at NTCA, with our 850 community-based providers, we probably know better than anybody that you don't put anybody in a box and think that you'll get one solution.

MH: So, how do we balance the role of government and enterprise in bringing broadband to rural areas?

SB: Well, I think the government has a really important role to play. I think my carriers, as you mentioned earlier, are a highly regulated industry. My companies traditionally started off as telephone companies. They had carrier of last resort obligations. They knew what it meant that they had to serve everybody down the line, regardless. They weren't cherry-picking. They weren't saying, "I just want to take this cluster because it's a high density and I'm going to get a high return." They don't have that mentality.

But part of that comes from the fact that they were regulated industries and had obligations. With those obligations, they also had access to things like the Universal Service Fund, the ability to borrow from RUS, one of their largest bankers, to build their networks. So, the government has actually always been a very key player. Now, you layer in the Infrastructure Act and investments that are coming out, the Treasury money that is coming out, the additional ReConnect money that is coming out, the fact that the government has the ability to fund a lot of this is important, but what comes with that funding becomes obligations.

Nobody should ever expect that the government is going to put $100 billion into infrastructure and say, "All right, you're all on your own. You figure it out. I hope you do a good job." There's going to be oversight, as there should. There's going to be obligations and the need to prove that you have actually used those resources to do what you said you were going to do. And I think when we talk about affordability, the government actually managing the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which is the affordability program, is also going to be very important, because in rural communities, ensuring that those low-income consumers are able to connect in an affordable way is also going to be a key  component.

MH: So, then, what does an effective public-private partnership look like that closes that digital divide?

SB: There are a lot of conversations. That is where I think watching BEAD being implemented is going to be fascinating, because, in an unprecedented way, this money is flowing down. We are having 50 states come up with 50 different plans that will distribute their allocations, which will be released shortly, in 50 different ways.

So, those conversations between providers, local community leaders, state leaders - are all going to be very critical. I think you're going to have state governments who have never really had a role to play in broadband deployment and must come up to speed very, very quickly. Now, many of them have created state broadband offices, so that has given them a good start. But even those state broadband offices are traditionally housed under economic development or under the governor's office. Again, these are not people who have a long, rich history of building broadband networks.

Again, those conversations about what the community needs? Where is the service needed to be deployed? What is the state's role in doing it? It is going to be very important. They're holding stakeholder discussions all across their states. And all I can say is whether you are a broadband provider, a vendor in this community, a concerned citizen, go to the tables and look to find out when those discussions are taking place. I think they're going to take place for months to come. All those voices are going to be really critical to ensure that that public-private partnership is really effective.

MH: In those conversations, do the state and federal governments understand that today's farmers are very high tech and that they need digital broadband for more than just Netflix and video games?
SB: When I think about what broadband can really fuel in rural America, smart ag, precision ag is at the top of that list. When we think about things like the amount of money, the amount of productivity that needs to be increased. That's a long way to say, "No, I don't actually think policymakers have the best understanding of this." I think there's a lot of work that the industry has to do, that the agriculture industry has to do, to make sure we connect more dots.

For example, we've had folks sitting on the working group over at the FCC's Precision Ag Task Force for a while. I feel like it's an intellectual exercise. I think there are some great discussions around the table. I'm not sure I see those discussions filtered down to state and local policymakers. But sometimes the best way to show this, and we've done this with FCC commissioners, get them in the field, show them, put them on a tractor, have them actually see how automated this arena is today, and why it is so critically important, and how much more productivity we can create. Smart cattle devices - let them see what it means for bovine health when you actually have some of the ability to do the 24/7 sensor monitoring.

So, I think there are exciting developments. This is one area where I would say hands on, let them see it, let them feel it, let them touch it and let them understand that, yeah, farmers need more than just fast email.

MH: Get them in the field, literally.

SB: Get them in the field. We actually have a saying when we talk about fiber to the home. My folks in Iowa basically re-coined it; we call it FTTH, they call it Fiber-To-The-Hog.

MH: Ah, very nice. What though of healthcare and education in rural communities, they often underpin a thriving workforce, and they drive an economy.

SB: Absolutely, because if you don't have healthcare, you're not attracting people to move to your community. That's one of the first things people look at. I've got kids. Do I want to move back there? Is there sufficient education? Are they going to have access to resources? And can I get healthcare? You also tend to have an aging population in rural America. So, the need for and access to healthcare is significant.

I think we made some really interesting great strides during COVID. We, for example, run our own Group Health Trust. We have tens of thousands of lives covered by it, and we have a Teladoc program. Watching the numbers spike, people are actually utilizing a telehealth initiative, and kind of getting over the whole thing like, "Yes, this can work." It was gratifying to see. Particularly because in rural areas, we're seeing rural hospitals closing in exponential numbers and rural health clinics are consolidating. The incentives to attract new, young doctors to these communities are a lot more limited than they used to be.

Again, we think it's really important for people to see what they can do. But again, you almost need to touch it and to see it. Show people and do demonstrations about what health monitoring means. How can you treat diabetes in a rural community without somebody having to drive long distances? I will say, particularly during COVID and in a rural community, we've seen a real uptick in telemedicine and different healthcare initiatives utilizing broadband in the mental health arena. And in part because of small communities, a lot of folks don't want their truck being seen outside of the local mental health clinic. The ability to get that care that you need utilizing your iPad from the living room of your home, utilizing your broadband connection, is huge. And I think that we're only going to see that further utilized as we move forward.

MH: What's an important but under-discussed hurdle that your 850 independent telecommunications companies experience when it comes to bridging that digital divide?

SB: How do you find workers? We've got this money flowing in, we've got the support of policymakers, and we are going to have an unprecedented amount of network deployment, but if you can't find the workforce to build these networks, then you really can't move the ball. As I mentioned earlier, we also tend to have short build seasons in certain parts of the country. So, how do you find that workforce willing to be trained? We think about this a lot, actually. We were part of the White House Talent Pipeline Challenge. We continue to work with them on terms of different initiatives. We have partnered with Northwood Technical College in Wisconsin to create a partnership on a vibrant training program that can also be done online and with some virtual reality training.

Very excited about doing a badging, which is apprenticeship-like, because people just don't have the time to put people through a full apprenticeship program. How do we get fiber splicers out there? How do we get installers ready to hit the ground? I would say workforce and workforce in a rural community, there are a lot of things that we're thinking about. We're also thinking about how you keep your homegrown talent. How do you keep your young people?

So, we are making a huge push thanks to the leadership of a number of our member companies in the eSports arena, sponsoring these eSport teams. These companies take these kids who are smart and they're technology oriented to begin with and bring them in as interns, and then bring them in as their future IT staff. Watching them continue to grow has been very, very exciting. So, that is something we're going to put a lot of emphasis on, and when we continue to host these Smart Rural Community Live discussions, eSports, e-gaming, recruiting and growing your own workplace workforce, will be a big part of the discussion.

MH: So, Shirley, if there was one key takeaway for the listener of our conversation today, what would you like it to be?

SB: I think people have a preconceived notion of rural America, and I think they have a preconceived notion of broadband and the state of broadband in rural America. I think the future is bright. I think that the role that my companies, the NTCA, and rural broadband providers play is not just to make rural America survive. It is to give rural America the tools to thrive. I think that is what broadband drives, and that is why we are very excited about the days to come.

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