In this interview, the last in a special four-part series sponsored by Corning, Josh Seidemann (VP of policy at NTCA) discusses the exceptional work of the broadband providers who received the 2020 Smart Rural Community Showcase Award: Hill Country Telephone Cooperative, Jefferson Telecom, LightStream and Mountain Telephone. These providers were recognized at the 2021 NTCA RTIME Online event.
To learn more about the 2020 Smart Rural Community Showcase Award Winners, please visit NTCA’s website at https://www.ntca.org/ruraliscool/newsroom/press-releases/2021/24/ntca-announces-2020-smart-rural-community-showcase.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
(Note: This interview discusses the 2020 Smart Rural Community Showcase Award Winners that were announced in 2021. During the interview, these winners are incorrectly identified as the 2021 winners a few times.)
Intro: This special coverage of NTCA’s RTIME event is sponsored by Corning — the leading innovator with expertize in glass science, ceramic science and optical physics. Providing fiber optic cable and network equipment, Corning is helping connect rural America with reliable broadband. Learn more at www.corning.com/ftth.
Stephen Smith: And thank you for tuning in to this special edition of Rural Broadband Today as we bring you coverage of RTIME, the annual meeting and expo of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. In this installment of our series, we talk to Josh Seidemann, NTCA’s Vice President of Policy. Josh, thanks for joining us.
Josh Seidemann: Thank you.
Stephen Smith: Now, in addition to your focus on federal regulatory issues and the like, you also support research initiatives and programing for the Smart Rural Community program. Let’s start out by sharing with our listeners, giving us a background about the program. What challenges did Smart Rural Community set out to solve, and how has that program evolved to meet that challenge?
Josh Seidemann: So that’s a great question, Stephen. I don’t know that the Smart Rural Community program actually set out to solve a problem, per se. I think it emerged to meet an opportunity. We had been having a lot of discussions internally and with other partners and people from the technology industry about all the work that was being done in smart cities. And we began to develop this impression that a lot of people thought that when you leave the city, you’re just going to get out into a small town with dirt roads and no technology. But we knew what our members had been doing. NTCA members serve about 37% of the landmass of the U.S., but only about 5% of the population. So you’re talking service areas where the population density is about maybe 5-10 people per square mile. And despite that, you know, just kind of like updating to the latest survey information that we have from October 2020, we’ve got more than 97% of our members who have fiber deployed in their networks. And nearly 70% — and I say that it’s actually 69.9% — of our members’ locations have fiber right to them. And 60% of those customers can get speeds of 100 megabits or higher. So this notion that it’s only smart cities begins to evaporate. So we started talking about Smart Rural Communities and really taking a look at how we could highlight and elevate all that was going on in rural America in these communities.
Josh Seidemann: And the more we studied, the more we started to dig into this program, we found that it wasn’t just about the network, but in all of these communities where our companies, our members are, they’re not just service providers. They’re solution providers. They had been working with their educational institutions, their health care institutions, public safety and economic development to identify and deploy broadband-enabled solutions to improve all those services. And this is years before the imperative of doing these things to meet the Covid challenge had emerged. I mean, Covid is 12 months old, but this is something that we started working on eight years ago, and we saw that these pieces were in place.
Stephen Smith: Well, the recent RTIME event recognized four providers as Smart Rural Community Showcase winners. What does it take to be a showcase winner, Josh?
Josh Seidemann: So the showcase winners are those companies that really exemplify the hallmarks of what we consider to be the elemental aspects of the Smart Rural Community program. And it really rests on collaboration. It’s a sometimes terribly overused word these days, but I think it really gets to the heart of what Smart Rural Community is all about. It is the local rural broadband provider working with other local leadership to use that resource, that technology, that broadband to improve conditions in the rural community. And we know that we have companies doing this, and we get applications in and we have the stories and the accounts of what they’re doing. That showcase award really means that company is the MVP — most valuable player — in the field that’s really demonstrating the paradigm examples of what this collaboration can develop and bring to the table.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s jump right in and take a look at each of this year’s winners. And you had four of those. And I think the first one is a great example of that collaboration that you’re talking about. Hill Country Telephone Cooperative is located in Junction, Texas. They played an important role in turning around an underperforming school district in their service area. Tell us about that story.
Josh Seidemann: This is not a unique situation. We see this in many, many places. We’ve actually, Smart Rural Community, in addition to the awards that we mentioned at the Showcase Awards and the other programing, we’ve published over the years, a series of academic papers. And one of the papers that we did over the last couple of years addressed the need to upgrade and update our curricula in rural areas to meet the next generation of American jobs. It’s not an unusual situation in many communities where financial opportunity and wealth development can be constrained by those very factors.
Josh Seidemann: And what that means is that I have a student who lacks the financial resources to pursue post-secondary education that will give that individual the tools necessary to seek and to hold a job that demands a higher level of education. So what we have is this cycle where I can’t afford the educational opportunity, and then I’m kind of locked out of getting that higher paying job. And that cycle gets perpetuated. Now I say that and it’s qualified by the recognition that we’re really blessed in this nation to have a robust system of state-land grant universities and in so many areas really an exemplary commitment to the community colleges. But affordability and that opportunity may still be out of reach for some. So that’s what Hill Country saw. Advanced education opportunities were just beyond the reach of some of their graduating seniors, and they told us in their application they had heartbreaking stories of watching top students trade an opportunity for continuing education, and they just felt that they were being directed and due to a lack of resources and opportunities, into lower paying, lower skilled jobs in the community. And it just perpetuates that financial hardship.
Josh Seidemann: So what they did is they teamed up with the Texas Education Agency, and they agreed upon a program which was actually an expansion of an existing dual credit system that was in place that enabled high school students to earn college credits. The difference is that those courses have historically been reserved for accelerated or highly motivated students. But what they did now was called P-TECH — Pathways in Technology for Early College High School. And this was designed for regular students. You didn’t have to be the super genius to take advantage. But you had regular students of regular abilities, typical abilities, who could earn associate degrees credits or industry certification, or to complete work-based work training and stackable credits while they were earning their high school diploma. And it contemplates four different academic tracks: animal science, AG tech, engineering, cybersecurity and also health science. And what this all does is it reflects these trends toward an increasing number of what we call middle skilled jobs and STEM jobs, advanced manufacturing. And that really begins to turn the tide and adjusts the curriculum to really get students ready to get the best foot forward to meet the next generation of jobs that are on the horizon.
Stephen Smith: That is a great program there. Hill Country was recognized for their efforts also during the pandemic, which, of course, ties in very closely with education. And the work they did during the pandemic, they received special recognition from the FCC. Tell our listeners about that recognition.
Josh Seidemann: So it was, I guess, three or four months into the national emergency, the FCC announced that they were going to award what they called a DOER Award to companies that really exhibited how much broadband could do and change for their communities and companies that had taken great steps forward. 11 broadband providers were recognized, and 5 of them were actually rural broadband companies, members of NTCA. And of those 5 rural companies, 4 of them were members and enrolled in the Smart Rural Community program. And what Hill Country did is they really focused again on education. So they identified students and teachers that weren’t connected at home, and they got them connected. In many instances they comped the broadband service through the end of the school year to make sure that everyone could stay online. And recognizing the fact that now you’ve got students learning at home and parents working from home, they increased again at no charge for the duration of the school year. They increased the broadband capacity and service going into those homes.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s move across a few states to the east to West Liberty, Kentucky, where Mountain Rural Telephone Cooperative is located. They were another showcase winner. What makes Mountain Rural Telephone a Smart Rural Community?
Josh Seidemann: Mountain Rural Telephone is in rural Kentucky. It’s in Appalachia. This is a region of natural beauty. It is also a region that is marked by perseverance of its citizens and grit. And to some challenging extent, changing economic conditions that have really exacerbated some long-standing economic challenges.
Josh Seidemann: Despite this, Mountain Telephone — which really serves a small community of just several thousand people — has deployed a gigabit fiber broadband service. In one of their service areas, they’ve got a community that has but 686 people. Really, its population is under 700 people. And their service supports a manufacturer that employs more than 10% of that community. That manufacturer depends upon the broadband of that Mountain Telephone deployed in very challenging terrain. Sometimes you could have soft earth, and you can just bore a tunnel underneath to get that fiber through a conduit. Sometimes you’ve got some nice flat prairie land that you can put up a few poles and get that aerial facility deployed. But in mountainous, difficult, rocky terrain, it’s much more challenging. And yet they did that. They got that network out there. And it wasn’t just getting them that network out there and supporting an industry, it was also, like we said again, it’s this notion of collaboration. How do you work with your businesses and become a solutions provider?
Josh Seidemann: There is a tourist attraction in Mountain Telephone’s service area that is located in an old limestone quarry. And those mining tunnels have been flooded. And what the operator does is it will take tourists on guided boat tours through this network of caves, really quarries. But that requires a very sophisticated security system, number one, to monitor conditions in those tunnels for the safety of both the invited guests and also, you know, to make sure that the prospect of uninvited guests can also be protected against. That spoke to us in terms of, you know, innovative thinking and development of solutions based on the broadband. And those efforts really elevated Mountain’s application.
Stephen Smith: Well, community-based broadband providers, of course, are known for their support of local schools. And Mountain Telephone had a project that was bringing connectivity and also safety to the schools in the area. Tell our listeners about that.
Josh Seidemann: We talk about broadband supporting education and certainly we saw that with Hill Country in Texas in terms of the curriculum, but safety is also very important in schools. And what Mountain did is it worked with four different school districts and deployed a 10 gigabit wide area network system that connects those schools to the public safety center. And, you know, God forbid, there should be an emergency, the dispatch center would be connected immediately with all the pertinent information. Now in a big city with everyone congregating close together, you can get the police and first responders over to a school pretty quickly. But when you’re in a more dispersed area, that connectivity to get to the public safety answering point, the PSAP, with all the relevant information and get that information to the first responders is critically important.
Josh Seidemann: And I know we hear about school emergencies, and we think about sometimes people think of, you know, terrible situations. But this is just — this can be important on an athletic field. If you have a student athlete who gets injured… and then really and what is just an ordinary occurrence, you know, in so many places. So but you’ve got the medical and emergency responders connected instantly, and everything can move as expeditiously as possible to maintain the health and safety of the students.
Stephen Smith: Well, Josh, another Smart Rural Community Showcase winner was LightStream located in Buffalo, Indiana. What are some of this rural company’s accomplishments?
Josh Seidemann: Their telehealth work was really just, no pun intended, off the charts. We have been talking about telehealth with Smart Rural Community for a while. I think was about three, four years ago, we did a deep dive into telehealth and published a paper that demonstrated the economic returns of deploying rural telehealth. And we all know it makes sense to get people connected to their doctors. And oh boy, I don’t have to drive an hour to the hospital. And I can see my doctor from my living room, and I don’t have to take a day off from work.
Josh Seidemann: And what we did in that paper, that’s available online, is we quantified well, how much do those facilities save per year in terms of lost wages that someone didn’t have to take that day off from work. So we had the numbers to go with it, and we knew what the health care outcomes were. And certainly over the last 12 months, we’ve seen an explosion in telehealth. In April 2018, only 18% of U.S. doctors were using telehealth. And two years later, in April 2020, that number had rocketed to 50% of physicians using telehealth. We see similar achievements arising out of data that was provided by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. In 2020, 47.5% of all primary Medicare visits were made using telehealth. And if you go back a couple of years, less than 1% of those visits were made using telehealth. And this really speaks to a recognition that the federal government and how important telehealth is. At the beginning of this year, when Covid hit the Health and Human Services Department added one 135 services to their list of telehealth eligible services. So when we take a look at Smart Rural Community and companies like LightStream, we really see that they were ahead of the curve. What LightStream has been doing for several years building out a network is they have enabled their regional hospitals to do things, administrative things. Moving secure medical electronic health records to the cloud, which means that no matter where I am in the system, my medical records are available. But they’ve also supported the deployment of local clinics within their communities. And what that means is that if my major health care hospital is an hour away, I need only travel maybe 20 minutes downtown to go to a clinic. I can be seen at that clinic by a nurse or maybe a PA. My records are accessible through that cloud-based technology and through a robust fiber broadband platform, I can engage in a smooth video interaction with a physician. Again, sometimes the problem can be solved right there and the prescription can be made. And it’s possible that the doctor might say, you know something, we need to see you come on down to the hospital. But this really opens up an opportunity where more people will take advantage of preventative and monitoring of chronic conditions because health care suddenly now is far more accessible than it was in the past.
Stephen Smith: Well, in addition to the great work that they were doing in health care supporting that, LightStream has also connected it’s town park with Wi-Fi. There are some interesting benefits that that has brought to the community. Share some of those.
Josh Seidemann: Yeah, it’s funny. We’re I think over the last 12 months, we’ve all become quite accustomed to hunkering down at home. And I think we’re all you know, we’re going to start getting away from that as far as the vaccines kick in and certainly as the weather warms up. But what LightStream did is, it started, I think, with their public library. And we know that libraries in communities can be such a focal point of activity. They can draw young children for reading hours and high school students who study or at least tell us that they’re going to the library to study. Activities and events and programming for older adults in the community. So LightStream connected the interior of the library with all the broadband they need to power all the educational and library-related activities. But they also configured the system that it provides free Wi-Fi outside the library and in the community park. And that’s a way to encourage people to spend time in the park together. It is a way to provide a backbone for events, concerts and fairs and such that might take place in those community parks.
Josh Seidemann: And I think what we will also see, you know, we’ve learned so much about telework over the last 12 months. And imagine the opportunities as the weather warms up. I know we’re looking out the window right now, and it’s winter outside, but imagine the opportunities now as people begin to telework and there’s Wi-Fi available in a public park. And there are vendors, restaurants, coffee stands and food trucks where a person can say, you know something? I’m going to do my telework at the park today. And I’ll take that opportunity to take advantage of the Wi-Fi. And I’m outside at the park. And now there’s an opportunity for a local food vendor to enjoy a little bit more business because people can now work outside at the park and stop off and pick up a drink or a sandwich for lunch. So it’s a way of connecting these dots of community interaction and economic development and really and rebuilding what we call this proverbial town square of activity all through broadband.
Stephen Smith: And that sounds like a wonderful option to sitting in an office or a home office all day behind the computer.
Josh Seidemann: Yes.
Stephen Smith: So, Josh, the final Smart Rural Community Showcase winner for us to talk about of 2020 is Jefferson Telecom of Fort Madison, Iowa. How did their fiber network and redundancy support a project that helped bring a new high school and a regional career academy to the area?
Josh Seidemann: Well, we talked a little bit earlier in our conversation about middle skilled jobs and the increasing role of technology in manufacturing. And even if we just break it down to its most basic elemental perspective, the consumer goods that we’re using are becoming more and more complicated, which means that the manufacturer and the maintenance and the repair of those goods becomes more complicated as well. And what this begins to roll into is something that we call advanced manufacturing.
Josh Seidemann: And what Jefferson did, it helped support working with the schools. It created a new program, a new high school and a regional academy that offers community college level courses in advanced manufacturing, agricultural technology and health care. And what this does is it enables students enrolled within these systems to obtain a two year degree. Really, what we call an associate’s degree or to earn what we call stackable credits that can be transferred to a four year institution. It opens up so many opportunities for the students. And again, by connecting these institutions with broadband, by enabling the students to take advantage of course work and materials and professors and instructors that they might not have had access to before in a small community because of the economies of scale just aren’t there to support it. But when you can aggregate all that information, all that teaching experience, all those resources through broadband to bring these students together, you’ve suddenly opened up really a wealth of opportunities for the student body.
Stephen Smith: Well, Jefferson Telecom’s fiber really brought Silicon Valley leaders to Iowa for an impressive program that they called R3. What did that R3 program involve?
Josh Seidemann: So R3 stands for “Revive, Rebuild and Restore.” And like you said, it brought Silicon Valley leadership into the community for this conference for this program. We always speak about telecom and broadband as breaking the barriers of distance. We’ve certainly seen that over the last 12 months. As you know, we’ve learned a new definition of distance and social distance. There’s no doubt that students belong in school. For all of the social reasons and social interactions and athletics and extracurriculars, it’s so important for the students to be in school. There’s no doubt that we gain so much by working with our colleagues in the office on a regular basis. I’m not telling anyone to go back to work five days a week. Telework a couple of days a week. But we have to see our colleagues. We have to interact. We have to be working together in those office environments. And that’s what sparks development and new ideas. But there’s also no doubt that we’ve really seen — over the years in our Smart Rural Communities and certainly in the last 12 months, I think there’s been a more visceral recognition of the gloss, the supplemental benefits, you know, the frosting, the icing on the cake that broadband can bring to increase opportunities for education, increase opportunities for telework, and in collaboration with via Zoom and virtual work. And I think what we’re not going to — I think the pendulum on telehealth, by the way, is going to be really far away from where… I think we’re going to see a lot of increased usage of telemedicine. So what this R3 approach did of “revive, rebuild and restore” it brought all this wisdom in from Silicon Valley, and it took a look at everything that’s going on in central Iowa. And it asks, well, why not Jefferson? Why can’t this occur here? And I think what spoke to us so much about this R3 initiative, that rhetorical question of why not Jefferson? That’s precisely the question that we asked at the beginning of the Smart Rural Community program. We heard so much about smart cities. Why not Smart Rural Community? And that’s what it is. It’s telling us that you can be 50 or 100 miles out of the city center. You can be in an area where the population is not thousands of people per city square block of apartment buildings and houses stacked every 50 feet. You can be in an area where there’s only five or ten people per square mile. And yet you can avail yourself of educational opportunities and economic opportunities and health care via broadband in a way that enables that you really have a comparable opportunity and experience to being in the more densely populated urban area.
Stephen Smith: So to recap, our 2020 Smart Rural Community Showcase winners were Hill Country Telephone Cooperative, Mountain Rural Telephone Cooperative, LightStream and Jefferson Telecom, all doing a great job of building those networks out there and also building a network of collaboration inside their communities. So, Josh, as we look to the future, tell us what’s next for the Smart Rural Community program.
Josh Seidemann: Well, you’ve got a couple of things we’re going to focus on this year. We’re going to take a deep dive into ag tech. We’ve done some studies on job markets, education and training, telehealth and broadband adoption over the last few years. And we’re going to take a deep dive into ag tech this year. We’re also going to take a look at what broadband means specifically in tribal regions of our nation. We do a lot of work at NTCA. We’ve got a number of companies that are either tribal owned or serve tribal lands. And we’re going to take a look at within this lens of Smart Rural Community, how can we bring these philosophies and work to develop what we’re going to call a Smart Tribal Community. And make sure that we’ve got in all these rural and insular areas throughout the United States, how we can elevate and bring forward the best practices that are exemplified by our Smart Rural Community providers.
Stephen Smith: Oh, that’s exciting, I’m looking forward to seeing that unfold. Well, Josh, thank you so much for joining us today and talking about the Smart Rural Community program.
Josh Seidemann: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to meet with you again.
Stephen Smith: And our special guest today on Rural Broadband Today has been Josh Seidemann, the VP of Policy for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. And this wraps up our four-part series covering NTCA’s Annual Meeting and Expo, RTIME. This special RTIME coverage is sponsored by Corning. Helping connect rural America with reliable broadband. Visit www.corning.com/ftth. To hear more episodes in the series, visit RuralBroadbandToday.com. This is a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.
Laura Withers: Access to the on-demand library for RTIME Online is now available at the NTCA website at NTCA.org/rtime. Members can register for access to the on-demand content for $599 and nonmembers for $799. And with that you’ll receive access to the on-demand library, discussion boards in networking central, information from exhibitors in the Solutions eXchange, and the attendee-to-attendee text and video chat through the end of May.