Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for broadband infrastructure across Rural America.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: Hello, I’m Stephen Smith. Welcome to our first episode of our new podcast. Now, some of our listeners may be familiar with the StoryConnect podcast. That’s another show produced by WordSouth that focuses on the communications marketing issues. But there are often issues that we’d like to explore that go beyond marketing communications. And this new podcast really gives us a platform to explore those broader topics. And I can think of no better way to launch this new show than with our guest today, Mrs. Shirley Bloomfield. Shirley, welcome to our show.
Shirley Bloomfield: Thank you, Stephen. I am honored to be your first guest for this podcast that you’re just launching.
Stephen Smith: Well, thank you for making time for us today. Shirley is the CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association. Now, that is the premier association that represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies. Shirley has more than 30 years experience representing the small, independent telecom operators, and I’d like to start by jumping into that. Shirley, in the time that you’ve been serving this industry, have you ever seen such a time of challenge for these rural broadband providers?
Shirley Bloomfield: That is a loaded question, Stephen. Absolutely not. What I have found over the course of the history of this industry is that change has been more evolutionary. This felt like the rug got pulled out from everybody very quickly. But I will add, I’ve also been so impressed at how quickly everybody pivoted to new ways of operating, new ways to deal with customers, and new ways to deal with installs. It’s been inspirational.
Stephen Smith: So what are some of the efforts that you have seen from these providers that have really shown some innovative ways to deal with this pandemic?
Shirley Bloomfield: So one of the things that has been the most interesting to me was the concern that these companies had for their technicians. And yet at the same time realizing they had school children suddenly doing online learning who needed connectivity. You had adults working from home for the first time. That created a really interesting demand point. But watching these companies figure out new ways — I had one general manager who actually referred to his tech teams as “MacGyvering”, as they did installs. You know, thinking through how do you do things differently? How do you not have your techs come into the office every day, but do installs out of whatever they have in their truck? Or watching people create these picture images of photos to send to the customers as they stood outside windows and said “connect the red wire to the round opening.” You know, it’s that spirit of innovation when they think about, you know, how you’re going to handle some of those cases.
Shirley Bloomfield: The other thing that I just have been blown away by is how people have thought about their school children in their communities and the way some companies have literally redirected their fiber plant that was going directly to the schools and getting that fiber infrastructure closer to the students’ homes who needed it. People who were thinking about, “well, you know, I may have the connectivity I’m going to provide, but my schoolchildren in my community may not have access to a laptop” and providing some of those needs. So I just think that whole sense of, you know, what do my customers need? What does my community need? And then just doing it and watching the employees of these companies rally around that cause. It’s very inspirational.
Stephen Smith: Well, this is certainly a story that you have been telling for many, many years, but now that we are in this crisis, it’s really highlighted just how critical broadband service is. And likewise how detrimental it is not having broadband service in the unserved population.
Shirley Bloomfield: That has been a real eye-opener, I think, for a lot of policymakers, who are now suddenly, it feels like, having this light bulb go off of “oh, my gosh. There are parts of this country that don’t have connectivity, and they don’t have access. And what can we do to solve it?” And there is a small part of me that does think, you know what, we’ve been telling you this for decades, how important it is to make sure that no matter where people live, that they have access to this infrastructure. So instead of getting petty, we have pivoted very quickly to try to direct their attention, their enthusiasm, and hopefully, federal support, to actually creating these networks.
Shirley Bloomfield: The other thing I think it highlights a little bit, Stephen, is that in my mind there really are two rural Americans. So when policymakers like to pivot to rural America is really suffering; there’s no Internet connectivity. I do find myself having to remind people that there is a rural—rural divide. There is a rural America that is served by community-based providers who live and work and play and raise their children in their communities. They are future-focused. They have built amazing infrastructure, and we have seen that infrastructure rise to the occasion. They’ve been able to handle the increased bandwidth usage demands. They have been able to handle new customers coming on, increasing speeds, and manage that beautifully, frankly. And then there’s a rural America that is served by larger carriers where historically they have not put their money in investing in the network. They have put their money into their more competitive markets, which, from a business perspective, makes sense. But what it’s done is it’s really created two different kinds of rural service standards, and that is a bridge that policymakers really need to be focusing on.
Stephen Smith: Well, that’s a great point. WordSouth serves several clients who have distressed counties in their service areas and even some of the poorest counties in their particular states. And yet they have a 100 percent fiber-to-the-home network there that is helping make a real difference in those communities.
Shirley Bloomfield: Absolutely. When you think about how the American economy is going to rebound, I think those communities are perfectly situated to capture whatever economic rebound we’re able to do, as well as potentially attract new businesses and attract new workers, who suddenly find that their work can be a lot more mobile and remote than we imagined a year ago.
Stephen Smith: And what kind of sense do you have, Shirley, of how permanent some of this shift that we’ve seen is going to be in terms of remote working, distance learning, and that sort of thing?
Shirley Bloomfield: You know, it’s a really interesting question, and I really wish I had a magic ball to take a look at it, because there is a part of me that says, “will this be like 9/11?” Where we, as a country, kind of got turned topsy turvy, our pattern shifted. But then, quite frankly, a year later, it was like we had kind of short-term amnesia, and we’re kind of right back to doing things the way we had done them previously. I think there’s obviously a lot of really key indicators along the way. Will there be a vaccine? When will that come? Will there be effective ways to treat COVID-19, if people are impacted? Will we have enough PPE and medical support? All of those things that I think are really top of mind. But I do think it has changed the way people look at things. For example, half of my team takes the metro to work. Mass transport, will people really be willing to get back on trains in the numbers that they used to? Will people be willing to get on airplanes? I’m very anxious to have NTCA members come back to conferences. But how do we socially distance when you’ve got a thousand people in a ballroom? There are so many things we still have to learn.
Stephen Smith: That’s very true. Now, you recently testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, and I’d like to get you to talk a little bit about your testimony there. But first, kind of paint us a picture of what that was like. It was not quite like any visit to the Hill you’ve had before, right?
Shirley Bloomfield: It was almost surreal, Stephen. You know, I spend a lot of time going up to Capitol Hill. I worked on Capitol Hill for years, years ago. But to drive up that morning… First of all, I found it a little bit ironic that we were doing a hearing on broadband connectivity, and the day before they had health officials testify via broadband. But we, the broadband executives, actually had to come in in-person, while half of the committee members were beaming in from their homes or their offices. But, you know, driving up to Capitol Hill, I was the only car in the road. It took me 12 minutes; usually, I plan on at least half an hour to 40 minutes. You know, parking in Union Station, walking through a completely empty major train station to walk over to the building. You know, I had my mask. I had my gloves. I had to be escorted into the one door that was open. Going through a couple of police officers into this cavernous hearing room, because they had to only do hearings in the largest room they had available so that everybody could be socially distanced. And you walk in, and the witness table had the three chairs that were six feet apart. We all had our own jug of hand sanitizer and sanitary waste in front of us. And the members of the committee were probably, oh, probably 20 yards away. So it was surreal. It was interesting to kind of see members of Congress with masks on, who wore masks and who didn’t wear masks. But I will also share, Stephen, it was the first hearing I have testified at where, I believe, every single member of Congress participated on that committee. Every member of that committee participated. Half of them beamed in, but there was nobody who wanted to miss an opportunity to talk about broadband. Where do we go, and how important it is. So it was almost a three-hour hearing, which felt like a marathon.
Stephen Smith: So you sensed a heightened reality among the committee members that this is…
Shirley Bloomfield: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think their interest was twofold. One, how are the networks holding up with all of this new pressure? And two, what do we do going forward? How do we make sure that we not only connect Americans, but keep people connected?
Stephen Smith: So share your vision, if you will, of a forever connected America, like you mentioned in your recent letter to the members. What are the keys to getting us to the point [of solving] that rural-rural divide that you mentioned? [There are] those who are doing such a good job — so many of your members are doing a wonderful job of connecting and they’re, in some cases, in very rural service areas — [how do we] replicate that over to the rest of rural America? What is it going to take to solve this challenge?
Shirley Bloomfield: That is literally the multi-billion dollar question, isn’t it, Stephen? You know, I think there is a part of some policymakers who are looking for the magic bullet. And I think I probably pop the balloon when I literally remind them it’s going to take money. It’s going to take resources. It’s going to take coordination. We’ve got the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund coming up through the FCC. They’re going to vote on the rules on that shortly, and they’re going to roll that auction out in the fall. That is going to be the first step towards really pulling back some of these areas served by large carriers to say, “you know what? Reality check. You’re never going to serve this community. So let it go, and let’s let somebody else come in to bid to serve it.” So I have great hope for that program. I’ve been pleased with what USDA is doing on the ReConnect front. I think that is a game-changer for some communities that have been previously underserved. But I do think that policymakers need to realize that this isn’t something you just throw money at and walk away. You’ve also got to be committed to sustaining the investment that you’ve already made. And that is just as important as that initial seed money to build these networks.
Shirley Bloomfield: The other thing that I think they need to keep in mind is they need to be focused on doing it right the first time. Let’s build a future-proof network. Let’s not look for some Band-Aid solutions that, frankly, right now may make sense. You know, throw up a Wi-Fi spot. Throw up some Mi-Fi. Do some fixed wireless connectivity to actually get those last few houses while they really need that connection. But then, let’s make sure that when we really put money into this, we put it into fiber. And we do it in a way where we’re thinking about, not looking at a two-lane road, but rather an eight-lane highway. Let’s build it right the first time.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s hope that the collective will is now present for us to really make some progress on this. And then one day, we will not be talking about the rural broadband challenge. We’ll be talking about the tremendous growth and opportunities that have been made possible by a rural America that is connected and forever connected.
Shirley Bloomfield: Absolutely, and that is the future of this country. That is the future of our economy and certainly the education of our school children and public safety and all of the Internet of Things technology that we have coming down the road.
Stephen Smith: This hasn’t really been talked about much, but I’ve been thinking that when you look at the maps of the hotspots of the COVID-19 crisis, those are major cities to a great extent. And you have to think that at some point, there’s going to be an outward migration from some of those urban centers, especially considering that there are rural options out there where the connectivity is good and where a company is providing work from home opportunities. Rural America sounds like a pretty good option, doesn’t it?
Shirley Bloomfield: I think rural America is a fabulous option. And I think we’ve got a really interesting window right now, Stephen, to be talking about Smart Rural Communities. What is powering these communities? It is their broadband connectivity. So as you look at people in urban America who say, “you know what? I was shut down for three months in New York City and like, holy cow, I am out of here.” I think, how do we take this time, how do you find the opportunity that could exist in a moment of crisis when people are looking for quality of life? They are looking for a less dense lifestyle. They don’t want to have to take public transportation. But what they need is connectivity. That is going to be the key. And that is something that I think under the Smart Rural Community umbrella, we have the opportunity to really promote for community-based providers a way to brand themselves. A way to work with site selection committees. A way to tell the story of life in rural America that I think can be extremely appealing right now. But again, once we have people so fixed into the “rural America doesn’t have Internet” [idea], I think the Smart Rural Community brand is what will help us drive the fact that not only is there connectivity in rural America, but frankly, there is better connectivity in most of these communities than you’re going to find even in an urban area.
Stephen Smith: And your Smart Rural Communities program is an excellent program, not just branding. But beyond that, it really is a window into the stories out there in rural America. And going to your website, https://www.ntca.org/smart-rural-communities, you see a lot of stories there of just remarkable efforts at the local levels to go above and beyond, to say the least. And you have some members out there doing some innovative things to connect their communities.
Shirley Bloomfield: They are doing amazing work connecting their communities. And I think they are thinking creatively about how do you reach that last farm? How do you make sure that that last enclave gets service? How do you connect some of your public community centers, your anchor institutions? I think that is the beauty. And actually — because I do have some experience working for large companies — the one thing I think large companies in some ways are a little bit envious of with NTCA members is how quickly they can move, how quickly they can pivot, and how creative they can be. And they don’t have to go through 14 different corporate layers to say, “you know what, let’s try the solution. What if we do this? What would that look like?” You know, and I see it with the ReConnect grants that have been coming out from USDA. I’ve been seeing it as people are looking at working with their state broadband programs to use some of the state support to infuse or extend some of their existing deployment plans. So that’s all very exciting.
Stephen Smith: Well, there’s certainly a lot to be excited about and also a lot of work yet to do. And we know, Shirley, that you and your team are there advocating in Washington and really all across America for the job that these rural providers are doing. Thank you for taking the time to join us today, Shirley, again on our very first episode of Rural Broadband Today, a new podcast produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. And again, I’m Stephen Smith, your host for the show. And Shirley, thank you so much for being with us today.
Shirley Bloomfield: It was a treat to be with you, Stephen, and we love all of the work that WordSouth is doing. But thank you for all of what you are doing to tell the story of rural America.
Stephen Smith: Thank you. Stay well. Stay healthy, and we’ll talk with you soon,
Shirley Bloomfield: Stephen. I enjoyed it thoroughly. You take care of yourself.
Stephen Smith: Thanks. Bye-Bye.