By Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
An enjoyable habit I have formed at NTCA is arranging my travel schedules to accommodate visits to member companies. As might be indicated by the common nomenclature of "fly-over states," most NTCA members operate in areas where the masses do not go, unless there is a specific reason to be there. So, I have accumulated an album's worth of photos of places that might be familiar to readers of this blog, but less familiar to the 80 percent or so of U.S. residents who live in urban areas.
A constant theme that we share with policy makers is that there is no "one size fits all" solution to rural broadband deployment challenges. The variety of characteristics among rural spaces demands policies that can accommodate and allow for a range of needs. One constant, however, is the commitment of small, locally-operated broadband firms to their communities. And, this commitment manifests itself not only in support for community functions, but all in thoughtful support and innovation aimed at promoting local schools and businesses. In fact, just this week, NTCA visited with senior FCC staff to discuss NTCA member efforts in rural telehealth.
Question: How does a town of 600 increase its population by nearly 25,000 percent (yes, twenty-five-thousand percent)?
Answer: Plant 40 acres of tulips and invite people to visit.
I took some time recently to visit Monitor Telecom in Woodburn, Oregon. The town has a population of about 600. There are no schools; the last public school consolidated several years with another district and students, depending on their age, are bused either east or west about 20-30 minutes for instruction in neighboring towns. There is a market; there is a bar; there is a fire department; there is some industry in the form of small businesses. But, the town's claim to fame is the annual Wooden Shoe Tulip Fest, which attracts about 150,000 people annually and supports a temporary cottage industry of other businesses ranging from arts and crafts to hot air balloon rides.
The story of the tulip festival is less about rocket science than it is about taking a resource and promoting it creatively (in this case, very creatively). Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm possesses a variety of bulb that beats Holland to bloom by about two weeks. The farm plants 40 acres of tulips each year on a rotation of plots that border an historic building. In addition to the annual festival, Wooden Shoe also hosts dinners, wine tastings and other events that attract tourists throughout the year.
But, it is the annual festival that swells the local ranks and increases exponentially the demand for broadband. Both the farm and the vendors that it attracts to the festival require connectivity. Visitors (remember, there are about 150,000 of them over the course of the six-week event) are known to take many photos which are then uploaded to various social media and photo-sharing platforms. And, of course, wireless needs wires. So, it is a good thing that Monitor is fully fiber to every home in its service area.
Sometimes, NTCA service areas might be thought of as "best kept secrets." But in the case of Woodburn, it appears that the word is out.