Episode 22

Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection

May 19, 2021

Episode Summary

Pam Becker, executive director of FRS, joined the show to discuss the recently published white paper “Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection,” which focuses on the impact of the pandemic on the state of broadband in rural America. Download the free white paper at frs.org.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Stephen Smith: And thanks for tuning into the latest episode of Rural Broadband Today, where we’re taking a look at the people and issues shaping the rural broadband story. And I’m excited to have as my guest today, Pam Becker, who is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Rural Service, or as we know it, as FRS. Pam, thanks for joining the podcast today.

Pam Becker: Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much for having me. It’s quite an honor.

Stephen Smith: Well, I’m very excited to have you on the show today to talk about the latest white paper from FRS. It’s called “Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection.” And before we dive into the contents and tell people where to find that and all the value that they’ll find in there, let’s give our listeners a little overview of the Foundation for Rural Service, your affiliation and what you do in the industry.

Pam Becker: Sure. So the Foundation for Rural Service (FRS) is the philanthropic arm of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which means that we are affiliated with NTCA, but we are still separate. We have a separate board. We have separate budgets. We have separate reasons for existing, but we do lots of things that are related and connected. Our vision is really about giving back to rural communities. We do that through various fundraising that then makes our programs possible. Most people know about FRS because of the things that we do with young people, specifically our scholarship, and then also the Youth Tour, which brings high school rising seniors to Washington, D.C. for a couple of days in the summer. We’ve been doing those programs for as long as we’ve existed — 25 years. Most people really know about FRS through their local broadband company and those scholarships that are available. But we also do a lot more that many folks might not be aware of. For example, we have a very strong community development program through our community grants. These are grants of up to $5,000 that are available to nonprofit organizations in rural communities. And it could be for a whole range of activities. It might be, for example, Chromebooks or smart boards or technology equipment for schools. It might be services and equipment for senior citizen centers. Or we also have been able to provide equipment for first responders like fire departments and EMTs. We’ve even done, for example, a weather station for a very small rural airport. Whatever it is that just needs that little bit of that funding to make it possible and to bring those services into their community. It’s a program that I really love. It’s one of the very best things that we do. Scholarships are wonderful, but sometimes that’s helping one person or one person’s family. These community grants help as many people as possible. That’s one of the criteria, in fact, is how many people are going to be benefiting from this grant that comes to your community.

Pam Becker: Then the third thing that we do at FRS is just awareness about the issues that are unique to rural communities. And one of the ways that we do that are through white papers. So these white papers are nonpartisan; it’s just the facts ma’am. But it’s on specific topics that are important to FRS and to NTCA members. And so this particular paper seemed very appropriate for the timing. We’re all still, in fact, mostly working from home, and what is the impact that this last year and 2020 and the COVID pandemic, how did that impact the broadband industry — both for the consumers, how do people use broadband, but then also for the NTCA member companies, and how are they able to provide those services and how has that changed? It’s been, I think, a project that we all thought was going to be “yeah, no problem. We got that. That’s pretty simple.” And then it turned out to be quite encompassing. And there is a lot of things that go into it, but it was also very interesting. We learned a lot of helpful information that can then go, for example, to policymakers or folks who want to understand the broadband industry better.

Stephen Smith: Yeah, it’s a very, very deep subject for sure, because as we’ve all known, broadband is such an important part of our daily lives. We sort of knew that in the background, seems like. And the pandemic certainly brought that to the forefront for a lot of people when we realized, “oh, we really can’t do X, Y and Z. And now all these different things are, you know, becoming such a critical part of our lives.”

Pam Becker: Well, I think one of the things that this paper really highlighted was things that we thought were happening and that we guessed were happening, and now where we were able to look at some data from a whole variety of sources and validate that, yes, that really is happening. And yes, this really is quite critical for a whole array of things that happen to a person, into a community and to the companies in them. You know, how we live, how we work, how we go to school, how we get our education, how we get our health care. All of that has been impacted. So it’s been nice to have it all in one place and to be able to — it’s a really helpful resource. Because not only is the information there, but all of the footnotes and links. It’s like a one-stop shop. It really is a great place to start.

Stephen Smith: Well, I think it’s aptly titled “Rural America’s Critical Connection” — and we certainly found out just how critical that was during the pandemic. But also the subtitle, I think speaks a lot, and I believe that was developed as the material was coming together, “Adapting to a World Where Connectivity is Key.” And I think that certainly we’re learning that connectivity is key, but adapting to that is something that we are continually doing not only as a society in general, but as a an industry of broadband providers.

Pam Becker: Exactly. I think, you know, when I was sitting at home in those first weeks in March and thinking, “oh, the sky is falling, and how are we going to do this? And everything is just falling to pieces.” And then realizing that pretty quickly, in fact, very quickly, the broadband industry kind of rose to the occasion and not only did they rise to the occasion, but then zoomed passed it. And we’re able to adapt on the fly to concerns that were very literal — things about how are we going to keep our people safe and how are we going to get people into the connection that they need? To then thinking long term — okay, now how are we going to maintain this, and sustain this and keep going? I think one of the things we have all discovered is, we’re not going to put that genie back in the bottle. Nobody’s going to want to go back to, you know, slower speeds or dial up or whatever. You know, it’s like here we are. We’ve got to keep going. And that’s great. I think everybody agrees that that’s okay, and that the acceleration of the progress is the surprise to me. Not that it happened, but just how quickly it happened.

Stephen Smith: Right, right, I think we quote in there a professor who stated that the pandemic wasn’t really an agent of change so much as it was an accelerator. And I think we’ve certainly seen that in the broadband industry.

Pam Becker: The other thing that I have heard from so many folks in the industry is just that, “you know, we were thinking of doing this or that, but we are thinking of doing it in three years or five years. And all of a sudden we had to figure out how to do it in three weeks or three months.” But they did it, and they figured it out. And aren’t we lucky? Thank goodness, they were able to do that.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. OK, well, at the beginning — and certainly we’ll say this a few times —  but we certainly want everyone to visit FRS.org and look for the link to download this white paper themselves. There is no charge for this. This is a service to the industry of FRS. But on the second page of this 32-page report, it sort of breaks down some of the key takeaways of the report, and we’ll just kind of walk through these for our listeners before we kind of dive into the table of contents. But it highlights to 2020 as the start of a new era. And like we’ve already said here, there’s nothing new that wasn’t being done to some level. It just accelerated things, you know, by some estimations of people say, you know, we’re where we thought we would be 10 years from now. We had to get there, you know, in six months or whatever. But the pandemic has really changed the way we live, work and interact. And we have five key takeaways here — and I’ll get you to expound on each of those — the first one being “dependence on broadband.”

Pam Becker: So I think this is one that everybody has experienced firsthand, where two years ago, broadband was important sometimes for some things that you did. But really during the pandemic and when people were at home or had changed their situations, all of a sudden, broadband absolutely became critical for going to school, for going to work, for getting your health care, for shopping, for updating your driver’s license, or whatever that is. We could not do it without broadband. And for the folks who didn’t have a connection like that, they really were hampered. And that became very apparent, very quickly. And I think that’s what I was talking about, that we’re not going to put that genie back in the bottle. So it’s now getting all those services through our computer, through our phone, it’s great. And we couldn’t have survived the last year without broadband.

Stephen Smith: Ok, and the second point on this summary page is “greater data usage.”

Pam Becker: So I think this is just a continuation or diving a little bit deeper. We’re using it more. We’re also using it for more things, and we’re needing it to be faster and more robust. Maybe in the past, I used broadband, and I went on to search web pages. But now I am on web pages. I’m doing emails. My husband is doing his work. We’re streaming things. My daughter is doing her homework. So all of a sudden that more people are doing more things on broadband, and the broadband had to respond to that. And now this report was able to put some numbers to that. We were all aware of it. But again, here are some real some data to back that up.

Stephen Smith: And a key number on that page is between the fourth quarter of 2019 at the end of 2020, the average broadband network soared by 40%. That is a significant number.

Pam Becker: And I have heard some folks say even as high as 200%, so it’s it’s really remarkable.

Stephen Smith: So the third point on there is “performance.” And this is something as someone who’s worked in the rural broadband industry for 25 years, I’m so proud of what these providers have done. So tell us what that third point “performance” is talking about.

Pam Becker: Well, I think that is, if we’re using broadband, and we’re using it more often every meeting, and it’s become more critical, we also get a little bit pickier. And it’s not okay to just have dial-up or to have a spotty Wi-Fi. And so those providers that were able to, for example, provide fiber straight to somebody’s home or a consumer who had that possibility but hadn’t decided to implement that, all of a sudden that became a priority, and we needed to do that. And so, again, the broadband industry was able to respond in many, many cases and give people the very highest possible speeds that they could. And thank goodness.

Stephen Smith: They performed so admirably during this critical time. The fourth point there in our overview is something that continues to become, I think, more present in news articles and conversations and webinars and things of that nature. And that’s headlined here as “full focus,” speaking to the really three-pronged approach that people are starting to really discuss about when it comes to broadband.

Pam Becker: Well, and those three-prongs are access, affordability and adoption. I think all of a sudden you see people talking about broadband in the news. It’s everywhere. My office is in the Washington, D.C. area, and it’s “broadband and how are we going to keep people connected?” is all over a lot of the recent policy conversations that are happening about infrastructure. And that’s important to that, and broadband is a huge component of that conversation. All of a sudden broadband is sexy. And it’s interesting for me, people say, “oh, that’s what you are working.” And I’m like, “yep.” And that’s why it’s so interesting. I think that this industry is really unique, and it’s truly a public service. And now that everybody understands that, and that it’s not we’re just doing something nice here. Broadband providers are doing something that I think we sometimes maybe took for granted, and now cannot afford to do that anymore.

Stephen Smith: That’s a great point. It’s a great point. It’s like, “oh, now we understand. You make oxygen, and we need that every day.”

Pam Becker: Yes, exactly. “Oh, okay. I get it.” You know, you hear these stories about, you know, kids having to be in the Taco Bell parking lot to do their homework. And nobody wants that to have to happen. And so how are we — and this is what the fifth pillar is about — okay, what happens next? What is the future of broadband? How are we going to make that sustainable? What partnerships are going to have to be there? What is that? What are those policies and that legislation going to look like? And how important that really is, because the future of broadband plays such a critical role in everything that we do. I mean, it sounds a little bit like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. It’s everywhere. Thank goodness. I mean, it truly is that backbone that is keeping us all going. It’s keeping me able to talk to my 99 year old grandfather, who I haven’t seen now in 18 months. It’s enabling me to work from home. It’s enabling us all to stay connected. And I’m just very proud to be part of this industry now.

Stephen Smith: I’m going to walk through very quickly the table of contents, the different sections. And again, I encourage all of our listeners to go — while you’re listening to this or immediately thereafter — to FRS.org and download your free copy of this white paper. But the first section is “Broadband: The Common Thread.” And then “The Case for Broadband” spells out kind of an overview of what it’s like in rural America. And in addition to that, giving some real life case studies, some good broadband 101 and broadband terms, which I know is helpful when you’re dealing possibly with congressional staffers and folks that may not be as familiar. They don’t eat, drink and sleep and believe this topic like a lot of us do every day. So, I mean, we’ll get into how you’re using that more in just a moment. Section three is ” The COVID Effect” where we look at the impact of the pandemic on these various sectors that you have been talking about: remote learning, work from home, telehealth, business and consumer, social connections and networks and how they have performed. And in the fourth section is “Rural Broadband Moving Forward” with a good forward looking approach there at not only the technologies, but also state-level activities, funding and policy reform, and we really dive into some adoption there as well, which is, as you mentioned, a big, important issue.

Stephen Smith: I want to highlight a couple of things that we find in the report, in particular, in the setup here where we mentioned earlier on talking about it being an accelerant. Broadband has been important for several years, but now the need is more critical than ever. And really the response of the industry as a whole to what is a very different kind of disaster. You know, when working with infrastructure, primarily utilities: electric, telecommunications, and in those critical services that support our work and their lives every day — when those are impacted by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane… You know, 2020, we had a very active hurricane season in the Gulf States, and we had lots of flooding and strong winds and things of that nature that, you know, pushed destruction, death and injury many miles inland. When you have a crisis like that, there’s response. There’s mutual aid from different utilities and everyone comes together to put these connections together quickly or as quickly as possible. Because that’s when a community regains a sense of normalcy, when they can have their electricity on, when they can make phone calls, when they can get back on the Internet and everything begins to feel normal again. In disaster relief, you know, it works that way. There’s a response. There’s a rebuilding. There’s a recovery, and then it’s over. With this pandemic, there is no over. And there’s no one location, like even you can have two or three states where the hurricane impacted. But we’re talking about, you know, the entire United States, of course. But, you know, our livelihoods and the way we live were also impacted by the pandemic’s effect on other countries as it rippled through supply chain issues and things of that nature.

Pam Becker: Yeah, not knowing when it was going to end and that it’s still going now and sort of that uncertainty just adds an extra layer of anxiety, but also, it makes it difficult to plan. You can’t even plan barely for tomorrow. And so to be able to run a company and provide a service is such a challenge. And I think, meanwhile, the consumers are — I don’t want to say demanding, but in a way, because we have to have that broadband. We need it to survive. So I think it really was something new. Just like you said, it was a different kind of disaster. And who knows? You can’t just clap your hands and say, “Okay, done. We fixed it. I’ll go back to normal” because now it’s just different. And we just keep going on in this new, different world. So I think that being able to adapt will continue to be so important for all of us.

Stephen Smith: I like how you put it. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. We have hit a point that our trajectory as a society has changed, and we’re all having to adapt, and broadband is a critical part of that. Pam, do you want to talk just a minute about how this project came about? You’re a very small staff at FRS, and this is a major undertaking, a project of this nature.

Pam Becker: So, yes, lots of help, thank goodness. So we at FRS had some funds available thanks to a very generous donation from RTFC (Rural Telephone Finance Cooperative) to create a white paper. And so we partnered with you and the good folks at WordSouth to do the heavy lifting. And you did a remarkable job; thank you very much. Collecting the information, collecting the data, and it was from all — I think usually sometimes white papers are from one direction, but this is looking at it from all directions, and up and down and sideways, and some producers and consumers. And it was a little bit like — I don’t know if you agree — but it was a little bit like peeling an onion. You get one thing, and then you start to dive into it, and you go down this whole other path and you figure out, “oh, wait, we need to talk about this, too.” And I think we both agree that we probably could have, this paper could keep going forever and ever and ever. But at some point, we just had to say, “Okay, stop enough. Let’s make it what we know right here, right now.” One of the things that I would love is to maybe look at this six months or a year down the road and say, “Okay, how is it going? And you know were our predictions accurate? And have things still stayed what we thought they were, or did it go in a completely different direction yet again?” Because I think that this is clearly a very a fluid topic. And the key is the flexibility, and the ability to adapt. Now, it’s hard to write a paper about it, but you did a great job, and I’m grateful for that.

Stephen Smith: Well, thank you for saying that.

Pam Becker: We are very proud to have the FRS name on it and to put it out there for folks to take a look at it.

Stephen Smith: Well, thank you. It was certainly one of the most exciting and fulfilling projects that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of. And so we were delighted to partner with FRS to bring this project to life. Let’s talk about how you have used this white paper out in the real world.

Pam Becker: The real world, and I think that’s actually an important distinction. This certainly is for an audience of broadband providers, but really it’s for folks who might not be so familiar with the industry or the technical aspects. We wanted to have some of that in there to give it that the credibility and the background that’s so important. But really, the audience might be, for example, staff who work on Capitol Hill. I mentioned that so much of what’s happening right now in discussions right now are about infrastructure, and it seems like every other word is broadband. And what is that? So here is a resource, a nonpartisan resource, full of just what we hope is helpful information. I know, for example, that the CEO of NTCA, Shirley Bloomfield, shared the white paper with the National Governors Association because now this is also very heavily a state issue, state infrastructure and funding for that. So it’s meant to be a resource. It’s meant to be helpful. It’s meant to just sort of give us more than just a menu, but also some options in some places. If you want to go find some more information, here’s some more information. So, you know, it’s a challenge to appeal to an audience of all different education levels about broadband and what that means. But I, and I’m completely biased, but I think that this white paper does that. So I hope that folks do go to the Web page, FRS.org. Download it. It’s free. It’s a PDF and use it if it’s helpful. Go to those links, print it out, pass it out to people who might need to understand better what their challenges are in talking about broadband or in planning about broadband.

Stephen Smith: What has been the reception to the white paper in the industry, Pam?

Pam Becker: I think people love it. Because it’s nice to have that validation. You know, if you are a telco and you are experiencing many of these things, you can talk about it and talk about it. But then when you have a white paper that says everybody is experiencing most of these things or some of these things — and there’s an example of here’s how a company helped hook up students in their in their community so that they could continue their education, and you are doing the same thing. Look, it’s nice to know that you’re part of this larger community and to have somebody else to toot your horn for you. So here’s a good way to do that.

Stephen Smith: Yes, absolutely. Well, we have said it a few times, but let’s say it again, where can people get this white paper?

Pam Becker: FRS — for Foundation for Rural Service — .org. If you go down to the bottom of that first page, you can find it. It’s this beautiful sort of mustard yellow color. You can look for that color, and you can just click on that “Rural America’s Critical Connection.” Or if you go under, “Take Action.” There’s a tab for take action, and it’s one of the educational materials that’s available on our web page. And you just click on it, and you just download it straight from there. And if you have any trouble, email me. If you’re having any questions or you want to hold onto copies or or whatever, you can always find me. My information is also on the webpage, but I’m pbecker@frs.org.

Stephen Smith: Great. Now we were talking before we started recording about how to structure this interview. And the biggest thing is we just want people to go and download the white paper because we have just scratched the surface here, and the thing that we didn’t want to do is to record a three-hour audio version of the white paper

Pam Becker: Yeah, I can read it, but I don’t think you’d be interested in that. So it’s packed, packed, packed, packed full of information and great graphics and charts. And yeah, it’s a really, really nice document. And again, I’m biased, but it’s very well done. I’m very proud of it.

Stephen Smith: Well, I’m a little biased, too, but I agree.

Pam Becker: I would love if somebody does download it, and they find it especially helpful for a conversation that they had somewhere or something. I would love to hear how your listeners are using it. So I’m hoping that, you know, feel free to email me back about how it was helpful for you.

Stephen Smith: Oh, it’s a great idea. Absolutely. So you heard it, folks, go download that white paper at frs.org, and send Pam an email at pbecker@frs.org and let her know how helpful that’s been to you. With work that FRS has put into the so many programs that they do, and then the educational arm is just so helpful. This white paper is one in several that you have published through the years that really help policymakers and help people understand the the importance of connecting everyone in rural America: the impact that it has, the challenges they face, and certainly with this publication, how the pandemic impacted that entire industry. So the name of the paper, again, is “Rural America’s Critical Connection” subtitle “Adapting to a World Where Connectivity is Key.” And my guest today has been FRS Executive Director, Pam Becker. Pam, thanks so much for being on the show.

Pam Becker: Thank you. And thank you for your help in talking about this white paper and helping it get into people’s hands. I hope that it’s helpful and useful.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company, an affiliation with Pioneer Utility Resources. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thank you for listening.

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