When she was very young, Shirley Bloomfield used to tell her parents that she was going to be the first Jewish woman president of the United States.
The CEO of NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association may not have achieved that very specific goal (yet.) However, she’s risen to the top of another hard-to-achieve leadership position: The head of America’s premier rural telecommunications association as its first female CEO.
The Midwesterner left briefly for three years to work for Qwest and Verizon, but before that she had worked at NTCA for 21 years, rising up the ranks to become a vice president of government affairs. The NTCA Board hired her back as CEO in 2010.
And Bloomfield has become an influential policy leader in that role. 2021 was a proud moment for the rural broadband advocate. President Joe Biden finally signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, $65 billion of which is dedicated to making access to broadband equitable across the United States.
Bloomfield was one of the key advocates for the legislation. As an acknowledgement, she was invited to the White House signing ceremony last November, which she wrote about on her blog, where she dryly observed that her “mother would have been appalled that I was on a stage with the President of the United States wearing black jeans.” At the same time, she noted her own enthusiasm for having been part of such an important moment in history as a representative of companies that are helping rural America participate in the global economy.
Rural telecom pioneer
Here are the adjectives and nouns that one could use to describe Bloomfield: advocate; unflappable; someone who has a lot of chutzpah; patient; tenacious; kind; ubiquitous – and most definitely a pioneer.
That’s the impression one receives after chatting with Bloomfield for an hour on the phone and combing through various forms of testimonies and columns that she’s written over the years.
Another longtime Beltway insider, who’s been in the industry probably as long as Bloomfield (if not longer,) describes their professional interactions as “buttoned down and serious,” which in some ways is interesting because of the witticisms she can come up with at a moment’s notice, such as the comment she made in December 2021 at a Fierce Telecom conference, where she said that her 850 member rural telecommunication companies were “hoarding fiber like toilet paper.”
It’s a funny and memorable quip, yet delivers a serious point: Despite all the federal grant funding that’s pouring into this space, anyone hoping to build a fiber network in the next few years faces severe nosebleeds in terms of costs because supply chain issues are pushing up the prices of fiber optic cables. Some of her members are facing as much as 30 percent cost increases between the time they made the orders for fiber optic cables and the time of receipt.
Ask Bloomfield Anything
Broadband Money is hosting Bloomfield for an “Ask Me Anything” event on Friday at 11.30 am PST.
As someone with such longevity in the industry, she’s an encyclopedia on rural broadband funding in all of its incarnations at the Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and at the United States Department of Agriculture.
She’s also worked at the House Budget Committee and was an economics and urban studies major at Northwestern University. And currently, she also serves on the board of The SERC Reliability Corporation (SERC,) an organization responsible for ensuring a reliable and secure electric grid across 16 southeastern and central states.
The Broadband Infrastructure Playbook
Community members have a huge choice of options on what to ask Bloomfield. The NTCA, along with the Fiber Broadband Association, has released a Broadband Infrastructure Playbook to help state governments plan and coordinate their broadband grant programs in order to get ready for the NTIA’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.
It’s a focused and handy document that explains the role of the broadband office. It provides state case studies, checklists, deadlines, and various templates to help state officials through various stages of the BEAD application process. It also provides various other bits of collated wisdom, such as:
- How to think about establishing objectives, identifying capacity, and gaps in capacity.
- Communicating and coordinating across government departments and agencies
- Re-examining assumptions and identifying any conflicts between state and federal grant program rules
- Designing grant programs and scoring criteria
- Adopting best practices in challenge processes
- Being mindful of key deadlines
- Adoptng best practices for reporting and monitoring of grants after awarding them
- Creating checklists for project reporting requirements
NTCA's Women in Telecom
Bloomfield is passionate about helping other women in the field of telecom. When in conversation about what her members are doing, she’ll often say: “My guys are doing …”
The world of telecom — especially rural telecom — needs more women, Bloomfield says. She’s conscious of the fact that women who serve in leadership positions are role models for younger generations.
“When I attend meetings — if I’m at the White House, or at a top level meeting at an agency, I still catch myself looking around the room” and counting the women in the room, she said in an interview.
“I’m a huge fan of [Secretary of State] Madeline Albright’s quote that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” she said.
That’s why she created NTCA’s Women in Telecom program. The program offers mentorship, book recommendations and virtual discussions on leadership, a listserv where members share everything from kudos to board openings, and more. The organization also organizes fly-ins for women telecom executives to meet female Beltway leaders and to participate in fundraisers.
What are the issues that face women in telecom? There are several of the regular challenges that come with leadership.
But in years past when Bloomfield first started the group 20 years ago, women leaders often found themselves wondering what the best course of action was in social settings.
“What my women CEOs would say to me, as they would go to local, state and national meetings is: ‘Do I stand at the bar with my male peers, or do I sit at the table with their spouses comparing recipes? Either way, I lose. If I stand at the bar with my peers, the spouses think I’m too good for them, but if I hang out with the women, my male peers won’t take me seriously, and they won’t invite me to the golf game where business gets done.’”
What was Bloomfield’s advice?
Join our AMA session to find out, and to soak up years of accumulated wisdom from someone working in an industry "that is more like family."