Ntec Finds Unexpected Benefit of Rural Broadband: Curing Loneliness

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
April 4, 2019

Nelson Communications Cooperative (Ntec; Durand, Wis.) is on a mission to confront senior citizens’ loneliness in order to improve the longevity and quality of their lives. The telecommunications provider recently received a Smart Rural Community® (SRC) Collaboration Challenge grant to support a pilot program for a telehealth platform in its service territory. Ntec is working with GrandCare, a Wisconsin-based technology company; the Wisconsin Independent Network (WIN); and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association (WSTA) to conduct a beta-test of touchscreen devices that provide in-home monitoring and video-calling capabilities.

For many, our modern age is defined by loneliness, in a way that seems unique and unprecedented. A national survey conducted by the AARP in 2010 found that 40–45% of Americans regularly or frequently feel lonely, compared with 11–20% in the 1980s. The advent of technologies that enable us to conduct so much of our lives remotely—from teleworking to shopping to texting—has changed our social dynamics in a way that sometimes exacerbates this isolation. But technology can also connect us in new and exciting ways, and support applications that allow our aging population to lead independent, fulfilling lives and build communities from the comfort of home.

Ntec has a service territory with a low population density—only two customers per square mile—but is nonetheless 100% fiber-to-the-home. The company is always looking for new opportunities to leverage its existing capabilities to improve quality of life, said General Manager Christy Berger. “Our main focus is on broadband and just making the lives of our members better,” Berger explained. Bill Esbeck, executive director of WSTA, said the process of applying for the SRC grant “started as a discussion about the impact of loneliness on premature mortality, and the fact that loneliness and social isolation are significant predictors in premature death.” Knowing that, he said, “We started thinking about ways we can use broadband to create meaningful social connections for our isolated customers.”

The latest manifestation of this focus on mitigating loneliness in rural Wisconsin’s aging population is beta-testing the GrandCare platform, which can be integrated with a webinar application that will allow multiperson, split-screen, full audio and video conferences. Oftentimes, said Esbeck, elderly people have difficulty traveling and may limit social interaction outside the home, if it happens at all.  Durand is lucky—it has a senior center where people can meet, although Wisconsin’s winter weather might prevent people from getting to the local hub for months at a time, Berger said.

“We started thinking about ways we can use broadband to create meaningful social connections for our isolated customers.”

“The easiest way for me to explain the GrandCare platform and our beta test is in terms of how it might be used further down the road,” Esbeck said. “Our rural broadband providers could partner with their local VFW or American Legion to virtually connect groups of elderly veterans. Let’s say you have a group of five or six veterans who meet for coffee in person every other month, but with our broadband and the user-friendly GrandCare platform they could meet virtually for coffee three or four days a week. In that example, we are helping those veterans maintain social connections in a way that may not be possible otherwise.”

Both Berger and Esbeck emphasized that the user-friendliness of the GrandCare device is one aspect that sets it apart from other video-conferencing applications, and a reason they were interested in using it for Ntec’s pilot program. Senior citizens sometimes fail to take advantage of modern telehealth tools because of technological illiteracy or unfamiliarity, Berger said, but that’s not an obstacle with the GrandCare platform. The application is a simple touchscreen, Berger said, that Ntec hopes to offer as a “turnkey package” to customers after the pilot program ends. In addition to being user-friendly, GrandCare places a high priority on security. All communications take place over a secure network, which prevents phishing attempts and other similar issues.

A pilot program participant tests out the GrandCare platform's video conferencing.

Esbeck said feedback from beta-test participants—including his own father—has been “very positive” so far, and he hopes to deploy the GrandCare platform across the state and even nationally as time goes on. The pilot program is helping Ntec, WSTA members and WIN staff become familiar with the platform, Esbeck said, so they all can confidently market it to senior citizens in their respective service territories. “We are making sure we have a high level of comfort with the integration of the webinar application, so we can promote this to our members with confidence and a seal of approval,” Esbeck explained.

The next step will be to find appropriate community partners—such as senior centers, American Legions and the like—to participate in further pilot projects. “We’re hoping to get traction on a company-by-company basis, if there’s a willing community partner on a local project,” Esbeck said. “If we can create traction in Wisconsin, I believe we can promote this nationally as a way to help our aging population.” Rural broadband providers are a natural fit for a program such as this—not only can their fiber networks support telehealth applications like GrandCare, but they are community-based and have existing relationships with local partners that could assist with a pilot program.

The SRC Collaboration Challenge grants seek to support exactly this kind of common-sense local teamwork, and at least in Durand, the strategy seems to be working as planned. “The support of NTCA and the SRC grant is allowing us to start this process, demonstrate success, and move forward to provide this option as an additional level of service to our customers, and in particular our aging customers,” Esbeck said.