In this special four-part series sponsored by Corning, Laura Withers (VP of strategic communications at NTCA) recaps some of the motivating and informative sessions at the 2021 NTCA RTIME Online event.
Part 1 (0:00 – 07:41)
RTIME Virtual Overview with Laura Withers
Part 2 (07:42 – 14:08)
“It Is About More than Deployment” with Mike Romano, Kathryn de Wit, Dr. Christopher Ali
Part 3 (14:09 – 16:29)
“Not by the Sword and Shield, But by the Head and Heart” with Nadja West
Part 4 (16:30 – 20:18)
“Because We Care” Audio from NTCA Video
Part 5 (20:19 – 28:23)
“Team Leadership in the 20s” with Molly McPherson
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: This special coverage of NTCA’s RTIME event is sponsored by Corning — the leading innovator with expertise 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. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and we’re bringing you highlights of NTCA’s RTIME. The leading event for the rural telecommunications industry, RTIME was held in late February, early March, and normally it’s a large, in-person gathering that attracts thousands of industry leaders, broadband providers and vendors. This year’s RTIME was held in a virtual format, which we’ll learn more about in a moment. So to kick off this special series, I interview Laura Withers. She’s the VP of Strategic Communications for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. And it’s great to have her on the program today. Thanks for joining us, Laura.
Laura Withers: Thanks for having me, Stephen.
Stephen Smith: And as we record this, you are just off the final day of RTIME, and I’m sure that you’ve barely had time to reflect. But let’s think back to a year ago when the pandemic was really starting to change everything. Did you imagine that a year later that you’d be hosting NTCA’s biggest industry event of 2021 in a virtual setting?
Laura Withers: Oh, there’s no way I could have imagined that, and I don’t think any of us could. Certainly I prefer to see people in-person and have fond memories of seeing you and many other NTCA members in Phoenix in early 2020, right before everybody had to scatter and start working and staying home. But, you know, if we are going to do something, we are going to do it right. And I will say that RTIME Online was the best virtual conference I have ever seen. And I think a lot of other members felt the same. And so, hey, after a year of doing things virtually, we had figured out how to get this one done in a way that was truly impressive.
Stephen Smith: Well, I would agree. And like you and everyone else out there listening, I have attended quite a few online conferences and online industry events. And this one, hands down, was the smoothest, the most intuitive interface. It was just a really good conference if you can’t be with people in-person. So what kind of feedback did you get from attendees, and how would you rate the success overall?
Laura Withers: Well, we got a lot of positive feedback. Everybody really liked the platform that we used, and that’s kind of a new thing in virtual conferences now is, what platform are you using? How does it work? What’s the interface like? What’s the experience like? And so we’ve had a chance now to try out a couple of different platforms in the virtual conferences we’ve been doing. And I think our members really enjoyed this one the most out of everything we’ve done over the last year. It really took that virtual networking to a new level as well. And that’s the hardest part of these virtual conferences, is making space for people to connect with each other because it’s just harder to do over Zoom or virtual chat. So we really took that into mind. And our great meetings and education team thought through, for example, how do we have discussions after each breakout sessions so that you’re not only hearing somebody talk about something, but you have an opportunity to discuss that with your peers right after you hear it? And so we took advantage of hosting small Zoom chats after each breakout session to keep that conversation going and to try to emulate as much as possible of standing outside of a conference room, chatting in the hallway over a cup of coffee.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, those hallways were great. In addition to the discussions that followed each session, I think that gave attendees an opportunity to — it certainly doesn’t replace that one-on-one contact being with people in-person — but it really was a casual, real approachable environment that you created there, virtually. And I know I enjoyed it. And I heard a lot of other people say the same thing. Now, for those who registered — well, let me say that there’s a ton of good content. And when you think about the balance of the program, you think, well, I’m going to go to this conference and when I go in-person, it’s all day and so, am I going to be sitting in front of a computer, you know, for six hours or seven hours during the day? And it wasn’t like that, but still, it was just a ton of good content there. And for all those who registered, you’ve gone a step, I think, above and beyond in making that available in an on-demand library. Tell us about that on-demand library and where people can find that, those who registered for the conference.
Laura Withers: Right. Well, this platform that we’ve chosen is essentially a big movie theater, big virtual movie theater. So everything’s on-demand as if it was Netflix. And you can go in and select the sessions that you want to check out. And when you go into the agenda now as an attendee and click on any of the sessions that you are interested in, it will take you into a video viewer and show you that session on-demand, whatever you want to watch it. And then also there’s a whole on-demand library of all the sessions so you can go in and, you know, if you wanted to sit for a few hours and just watch something and then continue watching other sessions back-to-back, you can do that as well. And I was doing it earlier today in preparation for this interview. And I will say, like, I just got sucked in it. It’s as good as sitting and watching something on TV honestly. So I really encourage everybody to go back and re-watch stuff that maybe you liked or even check out stuff that you missed because there was so much that I didn’t get to everything when it was shown during the conference.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, that’s another good point. There were several concurrent sessions, and so there’s really no way you could have seen everything as it unfolded on the agenda that day. So I think that’s another good point about the on demand library. Go back and catch those things that you missed.
Laura Withers: Absolutely. And for me, it’s also something where you can kind of relive the best moments. I don’t know if anybody else does this, but maybe I just can’t get enough of it. But sometimes I go back and rewatch the things that I really enjoyed about the conference just to kind of relive it and look forward to the next opportunity to see our members and talk with folks and get another hit of industry updates.
Stephen Smith: Well, reliving it — that is exactly what we want to do with this special edition of the Rural Broadband Today podcast. We want to provide some news coverage of RTIME and take a look at some of the, I guess, some of the more popular sessions and speak a little bit about them. And we’re going to share some clips from some of those for the listeners.
Stephen Smith: And so we’re going to get started with one session that I thought particularly resonated with the current issues facing the rural broadband industry. And that session was titled “It’s About More than Deployment.” And that session was led by NTCA’s own Mike Romano, who’s the VP of Industry Affairs there, as well as Kathryn de Wit with The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Dr. Christopher Ali, who is with the University of Virginia. So as the title says, deployment is really only part of the challenge in solving the digital divide. In this session, your speakers looked at the other factors that really may not seem so obvious to the casual observer. Talk to us about what some of those challenges are beyond actually just getting the fiber out there for people to access broadband.
Laura Withers: Yeah, I think the best part of this session is it really talks about the difference between access from a technical and infrastructure perspective and access from a actually having devices and connectivity on an ongoing basis to do what we need to do online. And so we often focus on deployment because there are still vast parts of rural America that don’t have the infrastructure and the deployment that we need. But I think this session did a really good job of talking about how in a post-pandemic world, access can also mean affordability. It can also mean digital literacy and sort of the equity issues around broadband access. So the panelists did a fabulous job of talking about what that means for different communities, including rural communities. And they talked about the opportunity that our members have to support that in an ongoing way, whether through making sure that their services can remain affordable going forward or by even engaging in outreach to different communities and different people in their communities who may need help getting online and learning how to use these broadband technologies that are available to them or may need help getting access to different devices. So I continue to think our members have a huge opportunity there to support their communities in that way. I think it was Mike Romano who said, “you know, sometimes our members don’t think about this as, you know, a broadband equity issue or a broadband literacy issue. They just think about it as something that’s good for them to do for their community.” And I continue to think our members are going to focus on that in the future.
Stephen Smith: Well said. Well, let’s listen in to a clip from that session.
Mike Romano: So let’s talk about the adoption side, because that’s sort of the focus of this discussion. Breaking that down further, what are some of the reasons that you all see in your research, your experience, that consumers don’t adopt and given the audience we’re in front of — and Chris obviously your focus on this, too — what barriers maybe relatively high or unique or more pertinent in rural areas in particular?
Dr. Christopher Ali: Absolutely. Well, I mean, the two, as you said, might go absolutely hand in hand, right? I mean, one of the things we know about rural communities is that you can’t adopt if it’s not there. So, you know, deployment is, of course, a major barrier to adoption. And just on that, something that worries me a lot when I talk to counties is the consideration of pausing broadband plans because 5G and LEO are just around the corner, right. I worry that this is a bit of like a “Waiting for Godot” moment when you just wait for nothing to happen. And we need to be thinking and planning now for deployment and adoption and not just keeping our fingers crossed that these new technologies are going to come and serve rural communities. But the other major thing I wanted to talk about was this idea of cost, right, because it’s a central factor in adoption, particularly in rural communities. I have a statistic. Rural Americans pay upwards of 37% more for broadband than an equivalent service in rural America. And of course, we have to remember that broadband in this country is already really high, right. I think at $68/month if you consider discounts. $84/month on average, if you don’t consider discounts, and then if you’re asking rural Americans to pay 37% more on top of that, I mean, that’s ridiculous. Specifically when we think about the types of services they can get for that type of money. And so cost is for me, the major reason in my research and talking to folks across the country about why we see a substantial gap in adoption in rural America.
Mike Romano: Kathryn, obviously, she looks at a lot of these issues. I mean, I’ve been in your sessions you’ve done over the time, where you all are just immersed in data and finding things out at the state level or what have you. Your thoughts on challenges, adoption challenges, what the different permutations of adoption challenges are and maybe again, a rural flavor of that, potentially, if you discerned any.
Kathryn de Wit: I would emphatically concur with what Chris was just talking about, where first we have this issue of the availability of a connection. We really look at these things as the two barriers to universal access are (1) availability — the absence of infrastructure and then (2) affordability. Because if it’s not there, then you can’t get online. And if it’s too expensive, then you also can’t get online. I think one thing that we don’t talk enough about, and this came up a lot in our state research, are the quality of those connections that are available. So it’s not just enough anymore to say, like, OK, you know, like we’re going to pay whatever X cost is, just to have an Internet connection. Because you see customers drop off. You see folks who are saying, you know, I’m not willing to spend monthly finances on, especially when we’re in an economic crisis, on a connection that isn’t reliable, that doesn’t allow my kids to do what they need to do online. So when we talk about those connections, it’s not just the presence of that connection. We have to start talking about what is the quality of that connection. Does it offer the speeds? Does it offer the reliability? Is it something that hard working Americans will actually want to spend their money on?
Stephen Smith: One of your keynote sessions was entitled “Not by the Sword and Shield, But by the Head and Heart.” And that was brought to us by Nadja West, who is the first African-American Army Surgeon General and a Former Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. And she spoke about the typical weapons, as we think of swords and shields being weapons that can go against a known foe, but that the indiscernible enemy, like we faced with the pandemic, that we really need other tactics. What did you take away, Laura, from her keynote in reflecting on, you know what, you have seen your members really going above and beyond in leadership from the rural broadband providers that are members of NTCA during this pandemic?
Laura Withers: Well, I think that West talked about the chaos that we’ve all been living through. Not just the chaos of the pandemic, but the chaos of the political strife we’ve seen, the global health crisis. The attack on the US Capitol earlier this year was incredibly disruptive and disturbing for many of us. As leaders we had to address that, but also not let it stop us in our tracks and not let it stop progress and stop us from continuing our work. So I really like that she talked about influencing our team through not just words, but also actions and leading by example. And I know I’ve tried to do that this year when I have felt overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world. Really just taking a breath and then figuring out how to take the next step and then the next step and the next step and not letting the chaos of what was going on in the world overwhelm me to the point where I was frozen and unable to move forward. So I think several of our speakers, but mostly Nadja West, talked about the importance of leadership by example when the world around you is going through chaos.
Stephen Smith: Well, I think this spirit of leadership was captured in the video that NTCA presented on the final day of RTIME. And that video is titled “Because We Care.” And we’re going to play the audio from that video in just a moment. So set that up for our listeners. How did that video come about?
Laura Withers: This video came about because one year from the beginning of this pandemic, we really wanted to pay tribute to all of the work our members have done to support their communities, to keep them connected and to connect so many more people, to share information about what was happening with the pandemic, to support their local governments. It just goes on and on. Earlier this year or earlier last year, we created an NTCA Cares social media campaign. And we wanted to continue that with a video that really paid tribute to our members’ efforts. So this video was voiced by Cassidy Hjjelmstad, who is Chief Marketing Officer of SRT Communications in North Dakota and also Chairwoman of the NTCA Marketing Committee. Cassidy was very gracious to offer her voice as our spokesperson on this message. And much of the footage was sourced from NTCA member companies who have done videos throughout the year explaining and supporting their pandemic response. So I was really excited about this, and I think it turned out great.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s give that a listen right now.
Video Audio: 2020 was a year we’ll not soon forget. It began with the promise of a new decade and quickly shook us to our roots. The crisis appeared suddenly, but its waves will be felt much longer.
Video Audio: 2020 also made us pause to consider and recognize the things we value most: our connections with family and friends, our health and safety, a reliable job and technologies that make it all possible. We learned how to care for each other in new ways, and together we worked to make sure everyday life could just keep going on.
Video Audio: Because we care, rural America stayed connected to the rest of the world and the work of our governments continued to get done. “NTCA’s community-based providers were well prepared to keep Americans connected during a crisis. The pandemic has highlighted more than ever that robust and reliable broadband is essential for everyday life. And even in this time of crisis, the stories of selflessness and creative acts by NTCA members serve to me as a constant reminder that when the going gets tough, the tough get innovating,” (quote from Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association).
Video Audio: Because we care, businesses were able to move online, parents were able to keep food on the table, and students were able to learn from home. Broadband connectivity has become our communities’ lifeline to the world. We delivered that lifeline regardless of circumstance, obstacle or threat. When our communities needed help, we answered the call. Keeping our neighbors connected and connecting many more. Sharing information about how to stay safe. Learning to work from home and how to keep going no matter what.
Video Audio: Because we care, shutting down is not an option. “This virus may have hindered us, but it will not destroy us,” (quote from graduate). And because we care, our family, friends and neighbors, our colleagues and community members are finding a new normal.
Video Audio: Our efforts will not be forgotten, and we will continue because we care.
Stephen Smith: You know, Laura, the start of the new decade is usually met with excitement and great hope, and I think that we all felt some of that as we entered 2020, having no idea, of course, what lay ahead. Molly McPherson, who is a PR Problem Solver, presented on the topic “Team Leadership in the 20s.” Her presentation really focused on what we’ve learned about our teams and leadership during the past year or so. So what through McPherson’s presentation did you see reflected in the work of NTCA’s member companies throughout the year?
Laura Withers: Well, I’m a big fan of Molly. She has a great podcast. I have listened to it many times this year. I go for a walk, stick my earbuds in, and I listen to her podcast. So I love just about anything she has to say. But, you know, I think the message that she gave us is that 2020 and even 2021 have been filled with lots of disruptions. The pandemic, the health crisis, of course, she talked about racial tension. She talks about how our work life balance was thrown into a completely different scenario, and how 2021 has been filled with, you know, just trying to find a better work life balance as we’re all continuing to work from home or many of us are. And the favorite thing that I heard from her was that she talked about don’t forget the concept of team. And even as we are all isolated in many ways, not seeing each other in-person, finding a way to not lose track of that team concept and keeping ourselves connected in that way. And to me, I kind of felt like our members in many ways this last year have been a team in trying to keep our country connected. And certainly I know in their own ways, they have struggled with their own teams being connected and staying coordinated, as many of them are working from home and from different locations. So I think it’s been a challenge for everybody who works in a work setting where you are remote from your colleagues. But as everything Molly does, she looks at it from an external PR perspective and points out that if you are not working well as a team, even if you are remote and you have employees feeling like they are going at it alone, there is a problem, and that could become sort of an external reputational crisis if your company and your employees are not working together as a team. So I took from that that it has become a lot harder for us as an industry to stay coordinated and connected and even as a company for our employees to stay coordinated and connected. But we’ve done a really good job of it, even as we have not been able to be in the same physical space.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s listen to a clip from Molly McPherson’s presentation at RTIME.
Molly McPherson: Don’t forget your local community. Don’t forget how the public feels about you there because your public can interact with you, your local public, on a very international platform, a global platform. So remember local, and it will impact you globally. People are looking to find fault with everyone. Patience is thin, not just with your customers, not just with your members, but your fellow employees, your leaders, your bosses. Everyone is stressed, and everyone’s pushed out. What can you do to make changes, to make positive changes? So the idea now, especially when it comes to co-working and working together and working together with your staff and your leadership and your board, all of you working together is this: create a new framework for the 20s. Be okay with this concept that we’re going to have a new “now.” We’re always looking for these changes and shifts. And it’s not necessarily something to be afraid of. It’s an opportunity. OK, how can we make changes that are going to make positive changes for when we want to move for success?
Molly McPherson: So I’m going to offer you now a blueprint for team success. This is a plan that you can use to help your team sail through 2021. So I’m going to start here. The first place is adopting a shift mindset. Think everything is going to change. Think about what you do in-person right now, and what you’re doing virtually right now and in the future, what can change? Where can we eliminate the in-person for better and introduce the virtual? Where can we take the virtual that we can’t wait to get rid of and make it the in-person? Think about the hybrid.
Molly McPherson: I think personally, every business now should be in that hybrid management style. How are we going to manage operations virtually and in-person. Knowing when to act on change when it’s foisted in front of you. Knowing precisely what you need to do and how you need to act on it. Sometimes you need to do it rapidly because something happens, and you have to make that split decision. That’s when you want to rely on a team and get as much feedback as you can. So identify where change has happened already and just identify where you need to shift. Every disruption is not a crisis; it’s just an opportunity to shift something to make it better. One area that so many organizations are overlooking, and it’s not a fault that they are intentionally doing, but it’s the culture of a place. So many people are working — they did studies now — so many people are working overtime. Even though it’s just a nine to five or an eight to four, everybody’s working extra hours. Everybody can be reached on their phone. It’s like the work life has increased. The lines are blurred. People are tired. People are short with each other. Don’t forget your culture. Especially if you’re in a leadership position right now, what can you do to stop where the stressors are, and what changes can you make to make things better? A really important part about having a successful team, a successful operation, building office climate is team wellbeing.
Molly McPherson: If your employees are happy, if your coworkers are happy, if people going out on the road going face-to-face with your customers, if they’re happy, it’s going to bleed into the culture. So well-being. To care for the company is to care for your team. Look out for everyone. Everyone should be checking on everyone. Leadership should be checking on everyone. And it’s not just stress relief, it’s economic. How many people are struggling now? Maybe you have a coworker whose spouse lost their job. Maybe they’re feeling more pressure there. Maybe someone has to pay for different schooling. Maybe, you know, we have to get more technology. We’ve had to buy more computers. So it could be material. It could be the physical, could be social, psychological, cultural. Of course, everything that happened with the racial tension now is, as we’re all heading into February, how many people are going to do Black History Month? That’s a question that I’m getting a lot. Well, should we be doing social media post for a company about Black History Month? Like, you’re darn right, you should be doing that, especially after 2020. It’s like that’s a part of the shift. And also spiritual. People are more connected. They’re more thinking intuitively and spiritually like ever before. People are digging deep to stay as healthy, and if they can feel that way from their work, even better.
Stephen Smith: This concludes part one in our 2021 RTIME series. 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 www.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 exhibers in the Solutions eXchange, and the attendee-to-attendee text and video chat through the end of May.