Welcome! We’re honored to get an hour with Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association.
The Rural Broadband Association represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America. With more than 30 years of experience representing the country’s smallest independent telecom operators, Shirley seeks to sustain the vitality of rural and remote communities and the benefits broadband networks bring to the national economy.
Shirley has a strong track record of leadership in seeking synergies and aligning strategic partnerships among rural telecom companies, their larger counterparts, other rural utilities and local and federal governments, further expanding business opportunities for small communications providers. Under her leadership, NTCA has made broadband an integral part of policy conversations in Washington, D.C., and has secured billions of dollars in federal funding for rural service providers to expand build out and sustain networks and help close the digital divide.
She is also a strong supporter of national efforts to improve the resilience and reliability of critical electric and telecommunications infrastructure and serves as a board member of NRTC and the Southeast Reliability Corporation (SERC), as well as the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and GlobalWin, an organization of women leaders in the high-tech industry.
In this can’t-miss discussion with Broadband.Money's Jase Wilson, Shirley will share her perspectives on why rural broadband providers are bulling on fiber, how the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is changing the game for rural providers and broadband, and the entrepreneurial energy that providers are bringing to eliminating the digital divide in Rural America.
Shirley's thoughts on the impact that broadband can have in Rural America:
The work that Shirley's group NTCA and the Fiber Broadband Association have been tackling on IIJA and how to help states craft their funding applications:
Jase: Hey everybody. It's awesome to hang out again. Happy Friday. We're super excited to be here with an amazing broadband leader, Shirley Bloomfield. Shirley, welcome. It's really great to get time with you.
Shirley: It's great to be here with you, Jase. Thank you.
Jase: I know you're super busy advocating for rural broadband and helping your members make the most of their opportunities to connect rural Americans. Being from rural America, we're from a small town, a little, what I call a 3F town which is farms and factories and football, it means a lot to me personally that you're working on that, and I know that you've been doing a lot to help your members and that they're rolling up their sleeves to get folks connected to broadband. So folks that are members of NTCA, we really appreciate what you do for rural America. And Shirley, I know you're busy, so really appreciate you making time to connect. 'Cause for example, everybody... Just so you know, we had a check-in call ahead of time to make sure everything works, make sure, Drew will be in the romance section of Barnes and Noble when we do our call. And on this one, Shirley, we spoke a few days ago, you're actually just stepping out of a really interesting place, you said, and I was like, "O or I?" and you said the White House, right? So you were at the White House.
Shirley: It was the White House. And it wasn't even my house that is painted white. It was the White House.
Jase: Okay. This is... Oh, White House. Then there's the White House and you were there and that was... I found that to be pretty awesome.
Shirley: Well, you know what, it is pretty awesome. I gotta be honest with you, no matter the times you get a chance to have an honor like that, it never gets dull. And the opportunity to be around a table and have... Be part of these critical conversations, this one happened to be about workforce for the broadband industry, how we're gonna get this infrastructure act all done and built because we need to find workers to actually do some of this stuff. So to be able to be around that table with Mitch Landrieu who's leading the Infrastructure Initiative was a great opportunity, a great Friday, I would say.
Jase: That's cool. Yeah, Landrieu's a total ace, infrastructures czar, mayor. He is a cool dude as a mayor too, but... That's really amazing, Shirley. So you're definitely having those conversations and... 'Cause you touched on that first, rural America has a lot of really talented people. You're talking about workforce. We heard from Gary Bolton of Fiber Broadband Association who you've teamed up with to do a playbook. Workforce is a big thing on their minds. Training for fibre is a thing that they've been helping with the initiative. Do you think that there's an opportunity for rural Americans to get involved in the broadband space as we go to wire up our nation's largest cyber investment involvement?
Shirley: Yeah, it's really interesting. I'll share a few observations. One of the things that we find is in the communities my member company serve, and there's about 850 of them across the country serving about 35% land mass or so. They do have a lot of homegrown talent, but what we find a lot of times is you get you get these techs in, you get these folks who are trained in kind of this technical arena, and suddenly they're able to be lured away by larger companies and more urban areas, and that's really tough. When you're a small company, you're a community-based provider or you're a co-op, and you're having to compete against a national provider, that becomes a different ball game. But the other thing that I thought was really, really interesting in some of our work in this arena is that we're starting to realise that kids, young kids, K through 12, don't really think of broadband as a career.
Shirley: So I was just on the phone yesterday with a guy, Allen Pratt, who's Head of the National Rural Education Association, and we're gonna see what we can do to come together to put a K through 12 program together to kinda create that awareness like this is a cool career track. Broadband is an ever-evolving, ever-growing field. The different jobs that you can actually have in this space are fascinating, and getting kids to think about the fact that this may be a path to look at. So even before you get to the, "How do we train people through community colleges? How do we actually find people to employ?" How do you start getting the 12-year-olds to be like, "I don't know, that could be pretty cool"? What does it mean to do cyber for a small company? Or what does it mean to actually be splicing fiber, and starting from that direction? So yeah, there's a lot of work to be done in this arena.
Jase: Okay. And do you have any jobs for broadband folks that you can talk about or share? 'Cause we just launched on the community, I don't know if you saw it or not, but there's a really cool post, let's pull this up, yesterday from Nicole, the editor of Broadband World News where she did a round-up of broadband jobs. It's so mind-blowing that we sat around, we're like, "Oh, we should just launch like a broadband jobs board." So there's now a free broadband jobs board. If you got any jobs for broadband, go post in there 'cause that's super important.
Shirley: Yeah. So we do a jobs board for our member companies, and so they're able to kind of post... The other thing that we do is we probably have the most comprehensive compensation and benefits survey of all of the broadband jobs, if any, for our sector of anybody in the country. So we literally are able to crunch data from hundreds of companies to say, "What are splicers getting in the northeast versus the southwest? What are general managers? What are CFOs? What are some of the wireless experts?" So yeah, we actually have a really comprehensive, which is another tool, it's kind of the advantage of a trade association, we're able to aggregate for our member companies, so that they don't have to try to figure out this data on their own. And we also do an executive search. So we place CEOs of broadband providers across the country, which is pretty cool and pretty interesting, but even in that arena, I'm gonna tell you, competition is tighter than it's been.
Shirley: When people deliberate too long, when boards deliberate too long, candidates have got four other offers they're often running. So just a different labour market for everybody, I think regardless of where you live.
Jase: That's awesome, Shirley. You're helping... Your members are helping to get the opportunities that you can do them from other places and that's something that we wanna talk a lot about on today's call, if we can, is your thoughts about smart rural communities. I know you're doing a lot there and we'd love to dig into that and hear about what you're doing for that, what it means. And also, I'm very curious as somebody that's from rural America, small town, Maryville, Missouri, Maryville if you're from there, those two towns. Like if you're not a smart community, that's something that I think that you're very attuned to and that you can help a lot of the state broadband directors that are listening today, a lot of the folks that are working with state broadband directors that are listening today, you said to me something that really struck me Shirley, on our prep call, is like, "Don't forget about rural America," this idea of smart rural communities, if you could talk about that a little bit and set the stage before we dive into the stack of questions that we have for you. But I'm also very curious to hear your thoughts on, be blunt, what's the situation in, say, five years if a rural community isn't smart?
Shirley: Yeah, yeah. So I guess I would start with, how do you define a smart rural community? And I'll just share Jase, that a few years ago when everybody was like, "Oh, smart cities, that's so cool," we were like, "You know, the same thing that makes a city smart are the same things that actually exist in a lot of rural communities." So we really honed in on what our member companies do that make their communities smart, and it's really about the community being smart. Yeah, you know what, you're powered by amazing robust broadband in these communities, but it's then that partnership between the broadband provider and the community itself, whether it's the healthcare provider, the agriculture community, whether it's the public safety folks, to take that broadband and to really power that engine of economic growth and do amazing things like whether it's telemedicine initiatives or whether it's educational initiatives, it's that kind of power behind the engine that makes that community a place where you can live, work and play, raise your kids and do anything that you could do using technology in an urban area, except to have a lot of traffic and a lot of lines when you're trying to go some place. But it's getting...
Jase: You've ever been to Bearcats, a Northwest Missouri State University Bearcats game in the hour or two before it... 'Cause there's rural... There are legit rural traffic jams and situations like...
Shirley: You know what, I can imagine, and you probably don't have the four-lane highway, so that makes it a little bit trickier. But I do think... We do have about 250 communities that have the designation of being smart rural communities, they work with their broadband providers. Our folks, again, are the ones that power and get that designation. But what is really fun, you'll see, I've got a sign behind me, but we literally have highway signs so people can kind of be like, "You are entering a smart rural community," and people will drive in and be like, "What does this mean?" Or when you get the rotary signs and all the other cool signs that are up, putting that notification, they're putting it in the mayor's office, but it's getting the community...
Shirley: 'Cause so many times when we think about adoption and we think about adoption of broadband in some smaller communities where folks may not be as uber-connected as sometimes, unfortunately, folks can be, it's thinking about, "What are those applications? Why do I wanna do these things? Why do I wanna be able to download X-rays? Why do I wanna be able to do diagnostic work with Vanderbilt that's 300 miles away? Or why is precision agriculture actually great for small farms? Because it allows them to kind of achieve scope and scale that up until now without using technology, only really big corporate farms can do." So it's getting everybody excited about the technology. So my guys, it's fibre-fed, you have to have a base of a lot of fibre infrastructure to get this qualification. But like I said, it's a way for rural American to brand themselves 'cause I think people on the coast sometimes, and I'm generalising a little bit, but they like to think there's a big nothing in the middle and they think about being...
Jase: Fly over.
Shirley: It's a... Exactly.
Jase: Fly overseas.
Shirley: But you think about where your cell service actually dies, that's a different issue. You hit these rural communities, my guys have over 75% of their customers have fibre to the prem. That is... I'm not sure you could say that about Northern Virginia here in the Washington, DC area. That's phenomenal.
Jase: I can't get it here in the Bay Area, in Californias.
Shirley: I'm just saying. So that's what makes these communities smart. So when we think about a rural renaissance and we think about people looking forward to that Bearcat traffic jam on a Friday night and want to move to a smaller community, the infrastructure is there. And I think with the help of BEAD and some of these other programs, we're gonna build it. We're gonna get it done.
Jase: I love that. That's so cool. So there's 1600 things to unpack in what you just said, but one that is on my mind right now, being in California, which is slightly terrifying as is, is you just touched on one little topic, it's like you just said it, but it requires rural broadband, but the state folks are listening from the southwest, we're thinking... Maybe you're thinking broadband is a fourth utility that's great, but there's... A utility before that is water and we're running out of it in places, in precision agriculture, Shirley, can you talk a little bit about that? 'Cause I love on your website there's this kickass... It's cool. Your website's pretty cool, but it's... Drew is too busy at Barnes and Noble in romance section. So let me share my screen. But I would share your website, NTCA.org, in the top of it is this really cool shot of a farmer and she's like crop, I think crop dusting with a drone. It's pretty badass. It's pretty cool.
Shirley: Yeah, yeah.
Jase: Well, there's also precision water and the idea of being really, really smart and thoughtful about water, it requires extensive fibre infrastructure, extensive wireless infrastructure. So what you're talking about, you're talking about smart rural communities, you're just talking about the in-town applications, you're talking about the ability to be really smart as a nation about resources, right?
Shirley: Absolutely. No, absolutely. In precision ag, we just did our smart rural SRC live event in Vegas a couple of weeks ago and we had all of these different application partners joining us, and we had a bunch of folks in the smart ag arena, the folks from bovine... I can't even remember the name of the company. But it's things like the water management, it's things like the irrigation control, it's things like identifying... Facial recognition for cows, which is a really important thing. Right?
Jase: That's awesome.
Shirley: It is awesome. And even the thermal work that you can do using broadband to do diagnostic care for, whether it's your cattle, whether it's your horses, but the ability to identify wellness among your livestock before you know you've got issues, there are so many applications. And again, the thing that I think is super cool about this is it allows those small family farms to actually be able to use technology in a very cost-effective way that you would normally need to be like, have a lot of scope and scale to achieve. So the innovation in this area is astounding. Just... You know what, just take a smart kid who sits in the basement and codes, they'll come up with tons of applications in the mix. You just need the infrastructure. Right? Just...
Jase: Chris, if you're watching this, listen to her. Get a computer science degree.
Shirley: Yeah, yeah that's right.
Jase: Go get it.
Shirley: STEM. We're all about it.
Jase: This is cool, Shirley. So there's another aspect to smart rural that you're helping your members to deliver and it's something that I think about a lot is from... It's an idea from Katherine Boyle who's now at Andreessen Horowitz and she wrote an essay a year ago in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic called American Dynamism, and it was like, it's call-to-arms for builders to help solve important civic and governmental and institutional problems wherever they are. And your work reminds me of the thing that I think about a lot when I think about that perspective is like she says we can reboot a lot of things, we can get our asses back in gear on a lot of things, but the decline of American prosperity, if there is any right now, it is not attributable technology. And I agree with just about everything she says that it's going to places that don't have infrastructures, rural America, seeing that they have factories that are mothballed, they could be rebooted to bring creation back on shore, seeing that they have deep roots and being very self-sufficient, but they don't have the 21th century information infrastructure.
Jase: Right. They don't actually... They can't say that. You can't say that in rural America. And that's like many tens of percents of land mass in the United States. So that's something that I appreciate that you all are doing and your members are doing is the smart rural communities and I think that's really awesome.
Shirley: Thanks. Yeah but it doesn't mean that for as much as we're so excited about what my member companies have done, there's still a lot of rural that is left to be served.
Jase: Most definitely.
Shirley: And there's a lot of folks in large cities that are still waiting to be connected. So I think we've got a big job ahead of us. So I think... But to your earlier point, Jase, the idea of what you can fuel, I mean the number two thing that site location folks will ask is, "What does the internet look like?" So as we talk about on-shoring, as we talk about the semi-conductor shortfall, and we talk about bringing American manufacturing back on to our shores, it's gonna take that connectivity, and I think you're gonna see more incentives, you're also gonna see people who are looking to move to these rural communities also being very focused on, "I will move somewhere if I can remote work, and that means I'm gonna need robust internet." And it's one of the reasons we're partnering with this group called Fiberhomes.com, because what they're doing is creating literally a real estate database out in kind of the hinterland that identifies the real estate that has fibre connectivity and working then with the state realtors to be able to profile and say, "You know what, so when you're selling these houses, now you really know the value of what you're selling." And I think connecting all those dots is really important.
Jase: That's fantastic, Shirley. You mentioned fibre again, supply chain. I know this is a very favourite topic of yours and it's Friday and sometimes it can be a downer topic, but it's... We'll get some beers later on and talk more about it. But it's like, what the hell? What's going on?
Jase: Is it any better than it was a few months ago? Is it getting worse? What do you see there?
Shirley: So I see a little bit of a stalemate. So you're kind of referencing the point that if you were to ask my members how long it takes them if they put a fibre optics order in today, they would tell you it takes over 70 weeks to get that order fulfilled. The other thing that's a little bit scary about it is they are also now not getting a price. So they are now having to accept an order... Yeah, this is the new kicker. So you know that you're gonna need 100 miles of fibre, you're putting your order in and they're basically saying, "We'll let you know what the price of that is when it gets delivered," the ability to lock in. So we...
Shirley: Yeah, right? So you think about all of this money coming down the pike and you think, "Well, to manage grants effectively, you're gonna have to know what you need to know."
Shirley: That's gonna be a challenge. The one thing I'm finding is my companies in particular, 'cause they've been under this stress for about a year, they're planning better, they're planning further in advance. Most of them have about a year's worth of inventory. And we're working with a lot of different manufacturers and distributors to talk about like, "Alright, you know what, I totally get it. A large nationwide carrier like AT&T or Verizon comes in and has a huge order, my guys will continue to get butt-checked to the back of the line. What can we do about ensuring that we're really committed as a country to living this commitment that rural America will actually get broadband connectivity?" Some of those suppliers and manufacturers are also gonna have to work with us to make sure that those orders get fulfilled for these smaller markets. It's just... So I think there's some critical discussions going on and I remain optimistic that folks will be ramping up domestic manufacturing as well because the other provision that NTIA recently put out in the NOFO for BEAD is the Buy American. Well, there's only so much. That squeezes even further what you're able to do 'cause American manufacturers can only work so fast.
Jase: That would put a real damper on this like whole $65 million thing, right? You...
Shirley: Could slow it down, not gonna lie.
Jase: The BEAD's $42.5 billion is like, how much is actually covered if we're actually forcing everybody to go through... That's crazy. Okay, so...
Shirley: Well you've got that and then let's say you've got price inflation so you're not... So let's say that 42.5, that is really just for building those networks, that's not gonna go as far if the price of the materials continues to rise. So what we could have said, "Gee, I've got this grant, I'm gonna serve 5000 households." Well, maybe by the end of the day, you're able to serve 3800 households because of what inflation has done to you, so... Or... Yeah it's things we all need to be really aware of as we go forward. I know. I hate to be a bummer.
Jase: No, there's no bummer to it. We're all here to learn and to think about this stuff that there's this sort of... There's an exponential decay to the purchasing power of our nation's largest ever public investment in trying to get this right. And groups like Shirley's roll up their sleeves and get the jobs done and any delay, double costs, there's a direct cost, there's a first order cost of like, there's rural Americans that need this stuff right now, and there's the second order cost which is like, tomorrow it's 2X more expensive, right? So that's why... Probably one of the things we do is aggregate purchase power, like aggregate up deals and go and talk economics deals with vendors, they started saying like, "Yeah, on your own, 100 miles, that of the 750-plus Broadband Money applicants system, you're part of the 100,000-mile order." So that's one hope. But I didn't realise it is that dramatic, and this idea that there's not even a price now, that's terrifying.
Shirley: It is, 'cause people are literally... Because they're building fast and furiously now, and a lot of that has to do with ARPA CARES, money coming down through the states, a lot of them are getting reconnect, but when you take that money, you are making certain commitments. And so it kinda feels like some of the rules are being changed in the middle of the game. And again, at the end of the day, and that's the thing that I always keep in the back of my head, at the end of the day, it's the consumer that potentially suffers and that's the issue. If we can't get this right, then, you know what, at the end of the day, broadband providers will be okay. They're working as fast as they can. But it's those folks at the end of the line, it's those folks that have been prioritized to be connected, who are still waiting, that is I think, as a country, we just can't... We can't do this much longer. Nobody who's not connected is watching this today, so... Right?
Shirley: I'll share a story with you.
Shirley: I found is really powerful. So a new friend of mine, Angie Cooper, runs Heartland Forward Foundation, and she was one...
Jase: Oh yeah I've heard great things about that group.
Shirley: Yeah, they're pretty cool. And Angie is awesome. So she was working with the FCC on the affordability program for broadband, and then she was working with them and she was like, "Alright, so you've got this plan, so how are you gonna distribute it? We wanna help you how you're gonna distribute," and they were like, "Well, we're gonna put it out online." And she was like, "Time out. If people don't have access because they can't afford access... " But that's... But it's hard, right? We're hardwired to be like, "Well, of course, we'll just put it online." So...
Jase: Oh man.
Shirley: Yeah, sorry.
Jase: That brings up another important topic. I think that you know a lot about this from your perspectives that you've gained from your work, like the cost of waiting, it's unacceptable, but you can't necessarily rely on DC hearing from people, especially if they're not connected. It's no longer the Mr. Smith goes to Washington era. It's actually kind of hard to get their traffic, all that crap, cost of flights, jet fuel's crazy. The more likely thing is that they're gonna be connected remotely, but there's a whole group of people that they don't have the foundational roads of the country, so to speak, they get them to their capital. So you've been working with the capital, you've be working out in rural communities, with the folks in your membership, they connect those folks, and it's basically like, how do you think about it when... You've got RDOF. That program was dedicated to rural stuff and it's... I haven't checked the latest. It's still like I think over halfway onboarded, a couple of years into it. What are your thoughts on this idea that, "Let's take our time and stall in DC and the people that we were supposed to help," what's going on there? What are your thoughts on those?
Shirley: Well, I'm not a huge fan of RDOF. I think the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund really, it was a race to the bottom. When you do an auction, you're basically saying, "Who can do it for less? I can do it for less." And then suddenly what happens is exactly what we thought would happen is a lot of the folks who won the bids were like, "Oh, I call uncle. I didn't really mean I could build it for that." And so what happens is those people in those communities who thought they won those bids a year and a half ago, a lot of companies have pulled out. So those folks are all the way to the back of the line again. So I think that is really bad public policy.
Shirley: The thing that I would say is BEAD is gonna take a while to roll out, so I think people need to temper expectations. But I think the thing that I love about what NTIA has done in their NOFO is they have a preference for fibre and future-proof technology and I think that is a win for rural communities because I think so many times we see folks willing to kinda be like, "Oh, I know, we'll just stick up a pole, or we'll do this fix fixed wireless solution, or we'll do this piece over here." And I'm a fan of every tool in the toolkit. It's gonna take everything to get the job done. But if we're really gonna look at $42 billion, we absolutely have an obligation to people to build a future-proof network, do it right the first time.
Shirley: We're paving highways. Let's not just fill in potholes. And I think the fiber technology is gonna be important. But again, all of that is gonna take time. There's mapping, there's going to be contested decisions, and that happens before implementation can start. So I don't really see money going out the door until probably 2024 for that program, maybe the end of 2023, if we get it right and we don't have everybody in litigation with everybody else. But the okay thing is, this gives states some time to ramp up in areas where they've never been asked to take on such huge capital obligations in the broadband arena. So in terms of state offices getting staffing and funding and expertise and the ability to do their mapping and jive with the FCC mapping, and to have those critical community conversations, I think we're gonna have to get people together and I think the state broadband offices are gonna be absolutely key players in terms of getting folks together, getting communities together, getting providers to the table. "Let's all talk. Where's the need? Who's un-served? Who's underserved? Who's gonna partner with who? Let's go with... "
Shirley: Partners. I'm a big partner person.
Jase: I'm a partner person too.
Shirley: We should work together. We should partner on something, what do you say?
Jase: That makes a lot of sense. There is one thing to cover though, and it's one of the coolest profile pictures in the broadband grants community, and it's you on a tractor. There's one thing to know, and I don't want this to be like any bad blood between us, but I'm from Maryville, Missouri, as you probably know, that's John Deere country, the tractor you're sitting on is not a John Deere. Can we put that behind us and look at what unites us instead of the difference of tractor choice?
Shirley: Sorry. But can I also say, who knew that you actually probably need an aerobatic and like a helicopter license to get into the cabs of one of those things, man?
Shirley: That may have been, especially since I think I was wearing heels, probably taking on a lot 'cause... But it was pretty cool. But notice they didn't let me drive the tractor. They only let me sit in the tractor.
Jase: You don't know that in the picture.
Shirley: You never know. I should just...
Jase: I thought you were actually out in the field while you're having a hay day literally. But you... Okay, okay. But heels, that's impressive. So we've got a ton of questions from the community. We had 10-ish at the start of the event, I think we got around double that now. They're continuing to come in, so... But I do have one last thing to ask you in general, because you just touched on it, it's partnerships. What are your thoughts on that? Your members are providers. They've already been providers. They're like the OG information providers in their areas. They brought telephones and stuff like that to their areas, in the days, like proto-internet kind of days. But what do you mean by partnership? And what are your thoughts on that phrase that you said in the beginning of like providers teaming up with the communities? 'Cause that seems like it's a really important thing and we've been seeing some strange thoughts like, "We love community networks, we love everything about ownership models, we love open access, we love all that stuff," it's like... There's some talk of like, "Let's just build and design it and build it and operate it and maintain it ourselves as... "
Jase: It's not roads. These aren't the same as roads. These are high-technology things that are gonna need the pace of innovation of the private sector and cooperatives and groups that have been in this business. So can you talk more about partnerships and how you see that being important?
Shirley: Yeah, so I appreciate that. So again, I totally understand the desire for self-help, but to your point, when you... Broadband networks are complicated. They're complicated. And I will tell you that while everybody's super excited about the money coming in to actually build these networks, you don't walk away from these networks. It's one of the reasons why the Universal Service High Cost program is so critical is because that program for years has been not only allowing these networks to remain affordable because it offsets what would be the actual cost versus the number of people that that cost is spread among, but it also allows the networks to be sustained and maintained.
Shirley: And that is really, really important because you don't just plop infrastructure on the ground and walk away and go, "Job done." And that is where I think the partnerships can be so important because when I look at communities that kind of are like, "We're just gonna do this," and I strongly encourage them to reach out to a provider near them, particularly a community-based provider, because these folks live and work and send their kids to school in these areas. They know what they're doing. They have been doing it for a number of years. They have the expertise. We talked earlier about the fact you can't find workforce anyway, so a community trying to find the workforce...
Shirley: The community-based providers have the workforce, they have the expertise. They know how to do feasibility studies. I think there's so much that can be done if people could check the egos a little bit at the door and say, "You know what I bring to the table, I bring the community, I bring the interest, I bring our digital inclusion plans, I bring our concerns about connecting everybody and doing some great things as a community economic development," and you bring the provider to the table who says, "Alright, what can we do to do this together? I bring the expertise, I bring the staffing, I can get the materials, because I have been getting materials for years. So I have access to resources and distributors that communities don't."
Shirley: I think it's really pairing up everybody's strengths and the effort to get the job done. But it's not easy. But the other thing they will also say, people get really stuck in, "There's one way to do it." Absolutely not. I see partnerships all across the country between my companies and municipalities, my companies and community groups, my companies and electric co-ops, my companies... " Even with water sewer folks. There are so many ways to structure this. The details is who owns it, who operates it, who management, who does the billing, who does the marketing? You can work those out. The key is to come together and say, "Alright, scope and scale. We can probably do this better together because if it's an area that's un-served, it's already not served by one of my member companies, but they are anxious and building constantly to spread into those un and under-served areas that are adjacent to their own service territories."
Jase: Scope, scale and speech Shirley, like the African proverb, like if you wanna go fast, you go alone, but if you wanna go far... I don't remember. It's an awesome proverb.
Shirley: It is.
Jase: And it applies. You can move faster to a partnership where people have those, as you described, those super powers, right? So this is a really important conversation. I'm glad that you're hanging out with us.
Shirley: And I'll just share, Jase, I was very excited because I work a lot with the electric co-ops, NRTC and some CFC who does a lot of funding for rural utilities. And just yesterday, I reached out to the leaders of those other three organisations and I said, "Let's do a webcast on partnerships. Let's actually profile for people to see what's happening in Vermont, what's happening in South Carolina, what's happening... "
Jase: That's cool.
Shirley: "With the fibre network in Indiana where electrics and telcos have come together to create a state-wide fibre network." Those are cool stories, we need to amplify them and we need to share them so people can say, "Okay, it's the art of the possible. How do we do this?"
Jase: Yeah I dig it. Let's get into some questions Shirley...
Jase: Besides mine. First up is a question from Scott Woods. Very thankful I get to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Scott here at Ready and Broadband Money, and before that at the NTIA. He asks, "Shirley, can you discuss the impact of robust broadband, digital equity and smart technology on rural economic development, specifically in farming, livestock agri business sectors for future growth and expansion of those communities?" I think we touched on this a little bit with smart rural communities, but not in those explicit terms. This is an economic development issue for any state directors, college student, economic development groups listening. So yeah, Shirley, what do you think?
Shirley: It is absolutely huge. I will say I could spew data, but that isn't like my forte. But we've got things like our smart paper on Fibre to the Field. So I've got resources for folks...
Shirley: Yeah, it's... So we've got some resources, anybody can ping me afterwards, I am happy to share you the electronic version of these.
Jase: Trade offer here.
Shirley: Yeah, yeah.
Jase: One of those in smart rural communities sign for a $3 trucker hat...
Shirley: I think we can probably manage a trade there. I think we can probably do...
Jase: Sweet. Oh thanks.
Shirley: But to Scott's point, the investment, the economic developer, they will talk about the multipliers, and again, I'm not gonna put on my economist hat here at this point, but there are... Multipliers are many in terms of every dollar that gets invested and planted in the ground, what it does, whether it is... Again, we can talk about the agriculture community, which is important, but let's also talk about the fact that when you're investing in telehealth and distance learning, you're able to recruit people to your town, you're able to retain people to your town. People can't afford to live in a community that are losing their hospitals. And the folks who run the National Rural Hospital Association will tell you they are losing by the percentage on a monthly basis, the hospitals that are shutting down particular... Now the COVID support funding has dried up. So you start looking at some of that, that just drives... You don't have the hospital, people aren't coming, people are leaving, you don't have that workforce. The other thing that we find that it really fuels, which is amazing, is the innovators, the business incubators, the folks who do Etsy.
Shirley: And we can laugh about that, but you know what, Etsy's big business and your ability to do that in Northeast Missouri from your home base and sell across the world, those are huge economic implications and they're all fueled by broadband. You live in a community where you don't have that access, you can't run your small business. So it is...
Jase: There it is.
Shirley: It's an essential...
Jase: So communities that don't figure this out and don't get their share, they don't team up with their nearest existing provider out in rural and they say they turn their back to this, that's the future of a lot of the economy, right? That's already bigger than the physical in-person economy in the United States and it's looking like it could be a swing towards order of magnitude, more volume of economic activity, transacted virtually than in person. You are nailing something here that's very important. Those communities, they might not have the opportunity to keep those special creators. They go on Etsy and places like Etsy and sell whatever they make that's special, that they have that the world wants.
Shirley: Especially creators, they're not gonna keep their young people right? You know what, some of my member companies will tell me that their senior citizens get online because having robust broadband is the only way their grandkids will come to visit.
Jase: Yeah. Oh man.
Shirley: They wanna stream, they wanna Instagram, they wanna connect with their friends while they're at grandma and grandpa's. That is a huge driver for senior citizens. So now think about, you don't have that connectivity, you're not keeping your high school graduates. You're not keeping... Your college graduates aren't gonna come back. So you're losing some of that vital brain power. So again, I know better folks have been able to quantify it, but I think we cannot underestimate, and if you're a broadband state director and you are looking, you know better than anybody, the pockets in your state. So the other thing I would offer up is I will be the queen of matchmaking. We tried a few years ago to do this broadbandmatch.com and I'm not kidding, it was kind of like my version of online dating for communities and broadband providers to come together. I thought it was super clever. Clearly, I thought I was more clever than...
Jase: You were just ahead of your time.
Shirley: Thank you.
Jase: Let's team up on that. Let's get that into the community toolkit, because that's a perfect win-win-win. And that's great that you're doing that years ahead of when that was... That's gonna be a big thing in BEAD. So cool deal.
Shirley: Yeah, yeah.
Jase: Another question Shirley, from Riley Haight at Broadband Breakfast, she asks, "Will you tell us a little bit of history about NTCA? How did it start? How and when did it become Rural Broadband Association? 'Cause I think it's important for folks that are listening that maybe aren't as familiar with your group and the members. What would they do?"
Shirley: So I love that question, thank you for asking it, Riley. So we actually were born about 65 years ago. We actually grew out of the Rural Electric Cooperative Movement. So we started off as the National Telephone Cooperative Association. We rolled out of the electric utility world about the time of the RE Act added a telephone portion because farmers realised that, "Not only do I need electricity, but telephone service would be really nice as well." So we evolved and my folks, again, because of the fact that they're community-based, they moved very quickly from telephone service to telecommunication service to broadband. And...
Jase: Well, you remember back in the day, what do we do? Dial up. That's the proto-internet network.
Shirley: I remember those days. Doesn't feel that long ago. But the other thing companies do is because nobody... And what they did is they provided service in the parts of the country where the large national providers chose not to go. Made perfect sense. You know what, if you're a large national provider, you're AT&T, you're devoting your resources into those parts of the market where you're gonna have a return. You're not going to be looking into these low-density areas. So by definition, my company sprang up 175 years ago to fill in those pockets of the country where nobody else is bringing the service, and that is why they're community-based, that's why they live there and they work there. And then they evolved. And again, like I said, they evolved probably faster into being broadband providers because of the need of their communities. Their communities... The handicap of distance is so great that they knew that they were the video providers. A lot of them were in wireless. A lot of them do data services. A lot of them do IT work because they are the folks that their community turns to as the experts in these areas. So they do become this one-stop shop.
Shirley: So they evolved into broadband very, very quickly. And we... About eight years ago or so, there was another trade association called Pasco that we actually unified with and said, "You know what, one voice is more powerful than two voices saying kind of different stuff." So we were able to put everybody for the most part, under one umbrella, to speak to this independent sector, and again, the folks who really kind of came in and provided telephone service when it was lacking and are just doing the same for every evolving technology that comes along the way. So we're really proud of our folks. They serve literally... Our average density is five to seven customers per mile, which is kind of crazy. I'm here in Washington, DC area. I'm pretty sure my area has about 400 people per square, maybe more, when I look at those apartment buildings outside my office, but they're doing it and they're getting the job done.
Jase: I love that. Shirley, there's five to seven human customers per mile, but in rural, there's often more cows and other animals and...
Jase: Entities that can benefit from a strong infrastructure. Well, I wanna dive into a quick technical question...
Jase: From community member Dave Sutt, and he says, "What can we do about latencies?" I think you told him, "Embrace wholeheartedly fibre," right? Like you said...
Shirley: Get fibre. I'm telling you, fiber is the way to go. And I know I can proselytise a little bit on this, and again, I caveat it with, they're just parts of the country where we may just need to use different tools, but when I think about the capacity, let's say satellite, we've seen some studies and done some studies that show that the capacity for satellite will be tapped out in 2028, and you wanna talk about latency, it's great if you're the only one using that beam at that time, it's another thing when you've got 500 on it. And I think we have learned. And if there's a silver lining in terms of learning about technology during the pandemic, it is that we don't have time for latency anymore. We need to be synchronous. We need to have...
Jase: That's funny. [laughter] Subtle.
Shirley: Yeah. So I just... I think that... I just think that we've learned a lot about how we use the technology and how quickly we are outpacing... If you're using 100 megs, that basically can power three devices doing HD and other streaming things. If you've got a gig, that's 20 devices at one time. How many households had like somebody doing a homework at the kitchen counter, somebody streaming a movie from the basement, somebody doing a VPN at their desk? We learned capacity is really important. So yeah, it's all about fibre. You wanna get rid of latency, it's all about fiber. Now we get... Now we just deal with that supply chain. We've got this covered.
Jase: Alright, I dig that. I got a... Shit Shirley says, "File going now, the first century is we don't have time for latency." That's a good one. That brings up another question when we talk about fibre. You teamed up with the Fibre Broadband association. You all made a playbook right? So community member and leader, Sarah asks, "Can you talk about the specific recommendations from that playbook? Can you give us a high-level overview? What is this playbook and what's going on there?"
Shirley: So we knew that these state offices were gonna have just a ton of stuff thrown at them. Suddenly it's like, "Bam, here you go, here's this money, now figure out what you're gonna do with it." And yeah, they'll get a little bit of support to actually do plans and to staff up. But what we did is we work with the Fibre Broadband Association to say, "Okay, if we were a state broadband office, we have to start from scratch. What are the best practices? We've been in the field forever. So what are best practices?" So it's things like, for a state broadband office, what are the best practices for organising and running a state broadband office that would be set to administer BEAD? We've worked with state broadband offices prior to a lot of states having a... Minnesota border to border, Wisconsin had a very robust program.
Shirley: A lot of states had programs. Taking the best of what are those and putting a place where people could access that. How to apply for BEAD funding, a little bit of how that application process with NTIA will look like. What does a grant program design actually look like? So trying to give state broadband offices some tips about how do you design a good grant program? What has worked well? What have we seen? 'Cause we've seen a lot in this space. And then how do you administer those programs? So I will also say, Jase, that what we did is because the NOFO came out from NTIA, we've been working with Fiber Broadband Association to update this, and we think we should have something at the printer maybe in about a week or so.
Jase: Go ahead. Can we talk first?
Shirley: Yeah, okay.
Jase: That's good to know. Awesome. Truly, this playbook is a super critical resource. There are a lot of states here like "What the F?" which is like, "What's the fibre?" And your playbook is gonna help them to answer that, another related F questions. Another question from... So this is from Tera Whipple, also of Broadband Breakfast, "Do you see a role for technologies besides fibre? At Fibre Connect, you spoke about how important fiber is, and does that mean in the role of technology, do you see it having an important role in rural America? Is there room for other technologies? On your website, there's a drone ostensibly somewhere it's talking to something wireless."
Jase: So can you talk about that?
Shirley: 'Cause you know what, wireless needs wires and that is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. Yeah, that's another Shirley-ism but actually I didn't coin it.
Jase: You can't spell wireless that way.
Shirley: But it's true. And there have been many a time that I have shared with a member of Congress where I held up my phone and said, "So this does not go from my phone to your phone. Let me explain to you via a diagram where the signal is going, how it is running to a tower, how it is then like the tower is carrying it through a fibre connection to another tower, taking that signal." So I think... So, yes, I will say, first of all, I think there's... Wireless applications are huge. Wi-Fi is huge. But they're fibre-fed products. 5G is a fiber-fed product. So it is thinking about the integration of all those technologies. Now, I would say if you live in a place, a remote island where satellite may be your only option for now, I get it, being connected is better than not being connected. A long-term solution, I am not a fan. So all I know is that if I were having... Like somebody was doing heart surgery on me and they were doing through a remote application, do not do it on a satellite connection ever, please. I really want fibre right to the doctor.
Shirley: So again, yeah, and I think our country is diverse. What it is like to serve a village in Alaska is really different than what it's like to serve a community in Pennsylvania. So thinking through those demographics is important.
Jase: Okay. I dig that. Let's take the gloves off for a second Shirley. We got a question from postgres Flynn of Ready. Hi, postgres. postgres asks, "Does NTCA have a strategy to ensure your members get the lion share of the upcoming grant funding, or are you all gonna... What's the plan? How are you gonna... "
Shirley: I think... In the areas where my companies think they can make a difference and where they go in to apply for the funding, yeah, I think there's ways that we can talk about the work that they've done. I think they can talk about the work that they've done. I think the proof is in the efforts that they've already made. But I do think we do encourage them all to meet with their state broadband offices because people kinda like to chase the shiny toy. They might hear a big company and they may be like, "Oh, that's a big cable company, that's cool." You know what, if you haven't interfaced with a community-based provider, I really encourage you to do it because these are...
Jase: I love that.
Shirley: Who live, wake up every day thinking about the fact that "If I provide crappy service, people are catching me at church, at the grocery store and at my mailbox." So you know what, there is no other providers who are so focused...
Jase: Bring it on.
Shirley: Yeah. But it's a fact, right? I live here, I'm mad about my service, who am I gonna call? These folks... And their communities where they live depend on that connectivity.
Jase: Have you seen that Saturday Night Live skit with the... Trying to cancel Charter?
Shirley: Yes I have.
Jase: Oh my God. Can you imagine pulling that kind of crap if you're a local provider? Like you pick up the kids at school and that guy is like, "Hey, you can't do that."
Shirley: No, literally, or that customer is your kid's teacher or it is... And again, your community's living and dying by it. And you know what, they're at the end of the day, whether they're co-op or they are family-owned or they're a community-owned company, customer service is what they hang their hat on and technology innovation.
Jase: Good deal, Shirley. So next question is from Drew Clark who, if our math is correct, is probably somewhere in the middle of Christina Lauren book, Something Wilder. I'm Googling the top summer romance novels of 2022, that's probably where he's spending his time. Before we got into that he asks, "How do you... "
Shirley: I was a little worried that you might actually know what is...
Jase: Yeah I had to Google it but... How do you view the Universal Service today? Has it been important? Will it be important? How does this recurring revenue fund differ from the infusion of money from ISER?
Shirley: Okay, so I'll give you the two-minute version as opposed to the five-hour version. So Universal Service is really important. It's been around for a long time. And what people don't understand is that is what has made broadband and telephone service affordable in rural America 'cause what it basically does, it says, "Alright, it would cost 200 to provide the service." Universal Service is a support program that actually makes up that cost differential. So a consumer in rural America might only pay $65 or $70 for that service. It is an affordability program. It is the ability to maintain and sustain that network. It is absolutely vital. And then the other services that are involved in it, like schools and library, rural healthcare, the low income program, all really, really important programs, 'cause it is gonna take all of that affordability and the network to actually get folks online. So right now the FCC is doing a proceeding on the future of Universal Service, critically important. A lot of... This goes sideways, it's gonna make broadband a lot more expensive and difficult to sustain in rural America. So we are working 24/7 to make sure that we have a seat at the table on this discussion.
Jase: Okay, good to know.
Shirley: That's about all anybody really wanted to know about that. But if you wanna know more, I'm happy to answer.
Jase: It was less than two minutes too.
Shirley: Thank you.
Jase: But let's see, another question from Drew, and you touched on it a little bit, but I didn't know that NTCA, your members were born out of REA. I didn't know that linkage. That's fascinating. Drew asks, "Do you... " I love that he asked. He's probably onto American Royalty by Tracy Livesay at this point.
Shirley: He's a fast reader.
Jase: Yeah. He's skimming. Tell us about the relationship, romance novels, that rural telecom co-ops have with rural electric co-ops? Are they friendly?
Jase: Statistical diagnostic. You said you're teaming up with them. Like you called Mathis and you're like, "Hey, let's team up and actually figure out how to... "
Shirley: Yeah you know... So I would say in the field, it's like everything, right? You and I might partner well together, but you might not partner well with Joe Blow. So I find that in the areas of the country where folks have been able to come together because they're both kind of the big utilities in town, either they find a lot of ways to kinda collaborate or sometimes they don't work together well at all and I think that's a shame. So one of the things that is one of my missions, like starting with this webcast and some other things, is trying to figure out how we get together at the table, right? 'Cause you don't work with people until you trust them and you don't trust them until you know them. So how do you start having some of these conversations saying, "Look, I'm an electric co-op. I've got a really big footprint. You're my local telephone company or telephone co-op and you're a smaller part of my footprint. Your part is fine. It's all fiber. But how do I get the rest of this area that you don't serve to be fiber-connected?"
Shirley: And I think having those conversations, having that trust, having that mutual interest because it is your joint community is really important. But sometimes Jase, it's as basic as getting people to sit around the table and meet each other and trust each other and figure out something that is a greater good than themselves. So I'm a really big fan of trying to find those opportunities. So Jim and I talk regularly. He and I usually try to grab lunch every two or three months just to compare notes, "How are things going? What is it looking like? How's your demographic?" and always with the end of, "Alright, where can we partner together?" Because I do think that that scope and scale is good for the rural communities we jointly serve.
Jase: Okay, dig that. Lightning round time Shirley. We only have a few minutes left. This next one is from Scott Woods. He said, "I love your energy, excitement and enthusiasm. How can we keep that excitement in the industry and among all stakeholders that you're talking about if it's gonna take several years to get this right? How do we do it?"
Shirley: Yeah, so it's keeping that momentum, which can be kind of exhausting. So I think it's continuing to remind everybody what that goal is. I think at some point in this process, we're gonna feel like we're plotting. We're gonna be like, "Oh my God, the FCC mapping, oh this state," and I think what we have to do, it's one of the reasons, again, while we continue to pull different players to the table, it's getting excited about what the guys in the Rural Health Association think. It's about what the folks at Bovine think about smart ag, it's about working with the education people to say, "Alright, where do we go with this? Will learning always be hybrid?" So I always... What excites me is continuing to think about the consumer, continuing to think about the end game, continuing to think about the digital inclusion piece, and know that if we build those networks, we're gonna be able to get great stuff done.
Shirley: So I think we have to keep those stories out there and I think we have to share the stories. Because that's what keeps us all going is the like, "Oh, that is so cool, that there's... That the folks in Indiana are now having the state fibre network owned by all these different utilities that is going to be able to decrease the cost of carrying traffic for all the enterprise across the state using a fibre network. That's cool." And just, again, sharing, keeping that platform, making this a living, breathing conversation, I think is gonna be really important.
Jase: Dig that. Next is from Sarah. "Do you have any words of wisdom for local communities and providers that feel their state broadband office has got the broadband coverage statistics wrong? It has overestimated existing coverage. What can they do to change this?"
Shirley: Yeah, so you know what, that's gonna be tough and this is what I would just say. We often meet... We often share statistics, share data, share maps. I think, again, that also, and I hate to say trust is another one of those themes, but you know what, carriers, this is... Their coverage is their intellectual property. Create that environment of trust where the carriers want to share that information, where they are motivated to share that information to show you where their speeds are, to show you where their customers are. I think community leaders and providers cannot spend enough time together. I think whether third parties have to create that opportunity where they create it themselves, where governors create it, where state broadband offices create it. I think they can be the hub of this wheel. There's so many hubs that I think about, but I do think state broadband offices have a real opportunity to be the convener. And that is where I think we're gonna get the real stuff. People will put their stuff on the table when they're motivated to do it and I think that the funding will actually help motivate that.
Jase: Shirley, we could do a day-long AMA and not even tap a portion of your impressive knowledge base and creativity, but we're out of time. It was awesome to hang out. Let's keep in touch. Folks that weren't able to follow along with some of the pieces like this will be up on the internet if you have a connection. This really has been amazing. Thank you again so much. We know you're very busy for taking an hour out of your day and hanging out with the Broadband grants community, we really appreciate that.
Shirley: What you guys are doing, important to be part of the conversation, I appreciate it and enjoyed it greatly, Jase. So thank you so much.
Jase: Awesome. Well we'll get this trade thing going to... We'll be in touch with the details of this, with a big sign, a town-sized sign.
Shirley: Big sign, okay.