Blackfoot Broadband Fosters Innovation and Problem-Solving in Rural America

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

August 29, 2018

The more you visit and partner with small towns throughout rural America, the more you realize that these communities are brain trusts rife with innovation—much of it facilitated by robust broadband connections. This is certainly the case in Missoula, Mont., a town of around 70,000 people with its roots in farming and ranching culture, where NTCA member Blackfoot has its home. In the words of Blackfoot’s vice president for human resources and community relations, Laura Marshall,

“People underestimate rural America. Not everyone wants to solve our problems, so we’re solving them ourselves.”

Blackfoot recently launched C2M beta, an “open innovation lab” that seeks to help early-stage businesses achieve success. Marshall described the lab as the “entrepreneurial partnership arm” of Blackfoot. C2M beta provides entrepreneurs in Montana with access to Blackfoot’s network infrastructure (including broadband, cloud, voice and data) and a community of leaders, experts and fellow customers. The lab hosts six-month “accelerator programs” for local businesses that provides them with dedicated mentors and technical, marketing and project support, depending on each business’ specific needs. In June 2018, the new program caught the attention of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who visited Blackfoot headquarters to hear more about C2M beta, as well as to tour the company’s fiber construction. 

FCC Chairman Pai learns about Blackfoot's fiber infrastructure project. PHOTO COURTESY BLACKFOOT.

For Blackfoot, however, supporting innovation and economic prosperity in Montana goes beyond simply providing robust broadband connections or fostering startups. In the fall, the company will begin an apprenticeship program in partnership with Missoula College. Blackfoot will soon begin recruiting for apprentice students in information technology and accounting—Marshall said at the end of a two-year program, students should “leave with a degree, great experience, and [will] potentially stay with us for longer than that. We’re hopeful that we can hold on to our apprentices.”

Per the new program’s structure, the students will attend classes full-time in the fall. In January 2019, they will split their time between school and work with Blackfoot—as valuable, hands-on paid employees. Apprentice students will continue as full-time employees at Blackfoot during the summer months.

Marshall praised the program as an effective way to “connect with high school students” and contribute to a more diverse and robust economy in the state. “We’re working with a workforce that’s evolving,” Marshall said. “Not everyone needs or wants to go to a four-year school, and we wanted to help those students.”

Marshall, who works in human resources for Blackfoot, said it’s “getting harder to recruit” technically-skilled candidates, so “all of us have to think outside of the box about how we can attract candidates.” The apprenticeship program could do that—the ultimate hope is that interns and apprentices will “get their foot in the door” over a summer or semester and then “maybe we’ll cross paths again down the line,” Marshall said. An acute concern in small towns throughout rural America is “brain drain”—the idea that young people will move away in favor of urban areas after high school or junior college, taking their education and institutional knowledge of the community with them.

But according to Marshall, Missoula is a town worth staying in—it’s halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks and “kind of a fun place.” There is an active tourism scene in Missoula, Marshall said, but locals also enjoy support from each other and nearby communities. The smaller hamlets surrounding Missoula have events throughout the year that Blackfoot executives often attend—Marshall cited Flint Creek Valley Days in Phillipsburg, Mont. and Railroad Days in Albertson as two examples.

“It’s crazy how these small towns seem a little sleepy,” Marshall said, “and then these great celebrations come up and they’re vibrant.”

Blackfoot is seeking candidates for its new apprenticeship program. Marshall anticipates that the program will facilitate “great partnerships” between students and Blackfoot employees. “It’s helping a student help us,” she said, “it’s such a win-win.”