Exploring E-Connectivity Across Rural America

October 10, 2018

By Michael Daniels, Director of Government Affairs, NTCA 

Challenges to rural broadband deployment vary across our diverse country, so I recently embarked on a regional tour focused on both the needs and accomplishments of several communities as they work to connect their friends and neighbors. Last month, I returned from the fourth and final of these e-connectivity listening sessions, held in Denver, Colo.

David Shipley and Brian Tagaban, both NTCA members, took part in a panel at the listening session in Colorado.

For the last six months, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association has worked with several key partners—including The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm Foundation, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, CoBank, and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC)—to conduct a roadshow focused on the importance of deploying broadband in rural America.

The tour kicked off in April with an event at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Featured speakers included U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and NTCA’s Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield. This coalition of policy and industry professionals emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance broadband services in rural America.

Sessions fanned out across the country following the kickoff event. The visits included stops in Faribault, Minn. (just outside the Twin Cities), Birmingham, Ala., and Denver, Colo. The tour covered a variety of topics essential to rural communities, including health care and education. Each event also included testimony from subject matter experts who drove the conversation and engaged with audience members from nearby communities. NTCA members were featured prominently at all the events: Bill Esbeck (Wisconsin State Telecom Association), Kristi Westbrock (CTC), Fred Johnson (Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative), Brian Tagaban (Sacred Wind Communications) and David Shipley (Rye and South Park Telephone Cos.) all served as panelists. Many more NTCA members also attended to provide meaningful perspectives during the open mic portion of the programs. 

NTCA Board Member Fred Johnson, Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, spoke at the listening session in Alabama.

Jannine Miller, Senior Advisor to Sec. Perdue at USDA, was a key contributor at each meeting as well. She emphasized the value of the stakeholder feedback and updated the audience on everything USDA is doing to advance rural broadband efforts. Miller also highlighted elements of the new e-Connectivity Pilot Program that is currently being initiated at the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) at USDA —and explained that much of the program’s design intends to benefit the very folks who attended these sessions. Significantly, during the tour stop in Faribault, she reiterated Sec. Perdue’s commitment to not overbuild through that program:

“It’s something that the Secretary has articulated and vocalized how important it is to him not to overbuild. We understand that the private sector has put their own money at risk. We do not want to have government dollars in there competing for that.”

Importantly, the sessions focused on issues crucial to each local economy—and, beyond that, to economies across the region facing similar challenges. For instance, in Denver, we focused on some of the unique hurdles that confront the sparser populations, uneven topography and wide swaths of federal lands of the Western U.S. And similarly, we highlighted issues related to the agricultural economies in the Upper Midwest while in Minnesota.

Bill Esbeck, WSTA, joined the conversation in Faribault, Minnesota.

It was through these efforts—and with the very strong support of our NTCA members—that we were able to address the many issues confronting our rural neighbors, but also brag about the terrific work and positive impact being made in so many rural communities around the country.

Now that the sessions are complete, the next step will be to compile the input from each of the meetings into a comprehensive report. This report will be delivered to a variety of decisionmakers at the federal, state and local levels. It’s exactly this type of feedback and community interaction that goes so far in influencing vital policy decisions.

Many thanks to NTCA members for engaging in this effort and for providing such meaningful input at each session. Please stay tuned for more collaborative efforts with this group in the future.

Michael Daniels is director of government affairs at NTCA. Contact him at mdaniels@ntca.org.