In episode two of 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 (0:39 – 4:00)
“Stop Being ‘A’ Leader. Start Being ‘THE’ Leader.” with Ryan Avery
Part 2 (4:01 – 11:26)
“The Ongoing, Unfolding, Unending Story of LEOs” with Larry Thompson and Augie Ponturiero
Part 3 (11:27 – 16:10)
“Survival of the Most Adaptable” with Josh Seidemann, Tom Steinolfson and Mike Riley
Part 4 (16:11 – 25:28)
Update from the Foundation for Rural Service with Pam Becker and Keith Gabbard
Part 5 (25:29 – 30:31)
“Mapping the Future for Rural Broadband” with Brian Ford, Brent Legg and Eric McCrae
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 thanks for tuning in to part two of our special coverage of RTIME, the Annual Meeting and Expo of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. I’m joined again by Laura Withers, Vice President of Strategic Communications for NTCA. So let’s pick up where we left off in our last episode. One of the more popular sessions at RTIME, I believe, was the keynote address from Ryan Avery. His session was entitled “Stop being A Leader, and Start being THE Leader.” Ryan is a world record holder, bestselling author and really a crowd favorite, I think. And he says that people want the product, the service or the leader that they’re engaging with to be not just one of the crowd, but to be the product, service or leader that they want to follow. So he talks about going from “a” to “the.” What response did you hear from attendees from this message?
Laura Withers: Well, everybody loved him, so a very, very positive response. You know, I thought he was very candid about his personal experience with this pandemic. He talked at the beginning about how it really could have ended his entire business. I mean, he is a guy who speaks to audiences about leadership. He does, I think, community organizing and work at a local level. And the pandemic really could have just gutted his business entirely. But instead, he really leaned into it and adjusted like we all did. And I think his honesty and how candid he was about that really proved his point, that people want vulnerability in their leaders.
Stephen Smith: Well, I think that’s a trait you’ve seen in a lot of your members as well, isn’t it?
Laura Withers: Absolutely. You know, the sad part of this pandemic and in addition to the public health crisis that we’ve had is many of our members have had to give consumers some bad news when they aren’t able to serve them easily. Or maybe they have a fiber build out to a location, but it’s not going to be ready for another couple of years. And so I think, you know, talking about leadership in terms of I may not have an immediate solution for you, but I’m working on it, and I want to be your solution provider. And I am going to lead by example and put actions behind my words is something our members have really had to communicate a lot to their customers and communities in the last year.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s listen in to a clip from Ryan Avery. “Stop being A Leader and Start being The Leader.”
Ryan Avery: Any time there is a problem, any time there is an issue, any time someone wants to come to your office to complain, any time we ourselves want to complain or have a problem in front of us, all we have to do is three by three it. And what the three by three rules states as this: first you have to come up with three solutions to fix the problem. OK, and then you have to pick one of those solutions, and then you have to give three reasons why you would choose that one over the other three. That’s a three by three rule. And when you do this, you’re going to be more creative. You’re going to be taking more action, and you’re going to be empowering your team to do the same. OK, so three by three rule.
Stephen Smith: Well next, Laura, we’re going to talk about a session on the topic that has certainly been in the news a lot lately. The session was titled “The Ongoing, Unfolding, Unending Story of LEOs” LEOs, of course, being the low-Earth orbit satellites that of course has been in the news a lot, thanks in large part to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet company winning a huge amount of money in the FCC’s RDOF auction. Larry Thompson with Vantage Point led that session with Augie Ponturiero from TriSept Corp. And so they were giving a lot of information and updates on LEO satellites. Laura, what are some of the reasons that your members are concerned about this topic, and what are some of the things that NTCA has done in terms of taking a strong advocacy position?
Laura Withers: Well, I think Larry hit the nail on the head at the beginning of this session when he said a lot of people have been asking, “is my fiber going to become obsolete by these low-earth orbiting satellites?” And I think the spotlight on this has come about through an FCC proceeding on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, because, as you mentioned, SpaceX has been a focus with receiving almost nine hundred million dollars through that auction from the FCC with a commitment to connect over six hundred thousand locations across the US with these Starlink satellites. And the panelists talked about the importance of speed and delivering speeds that rural communities are going to need for years to come, but also the capacity needs that we’re seeing down the line. And some of the predictions for what kind of capacity the typical Internet user is going to need in the future. And so it was a fascinating discussion. I learned a lot about the technology, and also they talked about future predictions of speed and capacity that are going to just drastically increase over coming years. I think Larry talked about there’s an estimation that by 2025, we’re going to be using up to two terabytes per month in exchanging information on the Web.
Laura Withers: And so there are questions about if these LEOs are going to be able to support that. As far as what NTCA has done, we’ve done a lot of advocacy on the RDOF particularly around the vetting process for the applications that were submitted to that, to the FCC’s auction and that were chosen for funding. And we recently did some work with the Fiber Broadband Association on a technical report and a model for the agency for the FCC to use in assessing and perhaps scrutinizing some of the longer applications that SpaceX and others have submitted. So we are very much focused on making sure that the FCC has the information it needs to thoroughly vet these applications and make sure that what SpaceX and others are claiming to offer in coming years will come to pass. At the end of the day, we really want to make sure that the consumers that need those services now are going to be able to get them and that these are not services that are incapable of providing those speeds and those capacities.
Stephen Smith: Well, there’s certainly a lot to learn in this session. And let’s listen to a clip.
Augie Ponturiero: And that discussion, or at least the threads of that discussion, are happening across an entire prospective customer base for LEO satellite. There’s a lot of people questioning, OK, what’s the utility? Because while it does provide you with the ability to connect people, the reality still is that a GEO satellite might have a couple of thousand mile radius coverage circle; a LEO satellite, especially where, for instance, if we take a Starlink satellite, their coverage circle is about the diameter, it’s about 935 miles. So theoretically, the user and the ground station that that satellite is connected with at the time, have to be within the same footprint of that satellite in order for the connectivity to be successful. So while, yeah, it says you don’t have to pull as much fiber, and you don’t have to do as many things, the reality is you need more ground stations and those ground stations need reliable connectivity so that you can get the throughput and you get the access that you’re looking for.
Larry Thompson: It’s kind of like when you bring your flashlight at the side of your barn, and you’re a foot away, it’s only that big. But as you back up, it gets bigger and bigger. Same kind of thing, the geostationary satellites are a lot farther away, and you get a lot broader area than a low-earth orbiting satellite would.
Larry Thompson: I think about, you know, and we see this with every technology. If it’s when we get to 4G wireless or 5G wireless or now LEOs, we start out in the hype-phase, where you can only believe about half of what you hear and when it actually becomes reality, it’s only really half as good as what they said. And I kind of look at LEOs somewhat that way now, too, is we’re kind of in the hype-phase. And you got to really scrutinize and look at the half truths and stuff. And so lots of headlines lately about the LEOs and their capabilities and things like that. Would you agree with that?
Augie Ponturiero: Oh, yeah, absolutely, there’s I mean, starting way back, right? You and I talked when we were doing our prep sessions about like Globalstar and Iridium and when they were first coming up in like the late 90s and everything there, there was a lot of hype as well. A little bit different architecture, if you will, and a little bit different methodology then there is today for the LEOs, but there was a lot of, oh, it’s going to change this. It’s going to be a game changer. It’s going to do this. Well, they had a place in an overall communications architecture, but they weren’t the game changer, I think, that a lot of people envision them to be. And, you know, from LEO that they’ve struggled on and off. I mean, one web has had some troubles here and there, but now they’re picking back up with some new ownership. LEO sat kind of was unable to continue. So they’ve kind of dropped out of the race here. You’ve got the the Starlink guys and others that are moving forward. Telesat is moving forward. And they actually have a broadband contract from the Canadian government for, you know, at least its seed money. Now, they don’t even have a satellite built yet, but they’ve got seed money and if you will, some backing from their government to move forward. So there’s definitely a lot of things. And I think people are, most satellite users that are looking at LEOs as maybe an option or either as a replacement for their GEO service or as just another piece of their communications architecture that they might be able to leverage, are skeptical of all the hype and what they really want to see is the proof that the systems will work. So I think some of these beta testing things that you see happening now with Starlink, some of the pieces that are coming up in their network so that they can show how well it works, show what the throughputs are actually going to be, may help users decide where they want to be in the near future.
Stephen Smith: One of the more interesting sessions to me, Laura, was entitled “Survival of the Most Adaptable.” Josh Seidemann, VP of Policy of NTCA headed that panel up with Tom Steinolfson, who’s the CEO of Red River Communications, and Mike Riley, who’s VP of Engineering with Mid-State Consultants. They argue that it’s not the survival of the fittest so much, that it’s the survival of the most adaptable in this marketplace. And it’s not so much about technology, but it’s really about meeting market disruptions and challenges with a willingness to adapt. How have you seen your members, Laura, these rural broadband providers, in these very difficult times adapt in the face of so much uncertainty that 2020 brought us?
Laura Withers: Well, the thing that comes to mind to me is how our members responded to the pandemic early on. There was a lot of activity last spring around getting people connected who did not have connectivity at home and doing it very quickly. And also on top of that, there was a lack of personal protective equipment and a lot of fear about what this virus could do to their technicians and their teams. And so I think in terms of adapting, I mean, our members got really creative in finding ways to do remote installations where they helped consumers through installing a new equipment in their homes over the phone and helping them even install things through windows. Trying to keep everybody safe and healthy, but also trying to get people hooked up and get them online. And that was truly remarkable to me at a time when everybody was very fearful about what this virus was going to mean for us.
Stephen Smith: Well, let’s go to a clip of the session entitled “Survival of the Most Adaptable.”
Tom Steinolfson: When you look at how far our consumers nationwide have come during one pandemic, and then think about the education we have given them and how people are creating more and more of that IoT and how society is building the consumption products where you don’t have to leave your home to do that; I’m not sure we can really fathom where we’re going to be in the next five years. Go another 24-36 months down the road, I think even us in this business are having a hard time understanding how far that’s going to move past where we are right now.
Josh Seidemann: I apologize if I’m repeating this because I keep coming back to this. There’s an interior designer who said that if you want to know the best way to arrange your furniture, take a look at how your guests rearranged your furniture after your last party. And I would say what both of you have said over the last 10 months, we have all rearranged the way we go to work, the way we go to school, the way we go to the doctor. And, once we get past this, we’re not putting our furniture back to where it was. We’re not leaving it where it is today, but it’s not going to be where it was a year ago. And I guess we’ve talked an awful lot about in terms of the importance of staff listening to customers and the coordination among billing teams to see where the revenues are going, to the customer service reps, the tech support and executive leadership… I guess, bringing it down, when we’re taking a look at disruption, is there a role for companies to engage in just almost test driving or keeping an eye on what are the new consumer electronics that are coming on the market, keeping in touch with the medical community? What are the IoT medical devices that are coming out? And how does my network support that? And how can I let my customers know that I can help support those medical needs of those telework needs?
Mike Riley: You know, from an engineering point of view, we see some interesting applications where like companies that do fairly sophisticated meter reading and monitoring and then using feedback from those kinds of things are really getting out there into kind of an IoT, deploying the sensors kinds of things. The old SCATS systems have really grown up. And I think we’ll see that come out into the consumer market and maybe that will actually accelerate because people are now more aware of what is a possibility.
Stephen Smith: In one of your general sessions, Laura, we heard a strong update from the Foundation for Rural Service. Let’s listen in as the executive director, Pam Becker, and the foundation board president, Keith Gabbard, who’s the CEO of PRTC in McKee, Kentucky, share some updates with us.
Pam Becker: Hi, I’m Pam Becker, and I’m excited to give you an update on the Foundation for Rural Service, or FRS, and what we accomplished in 2020 and what we have planned for 2021. Joining me today is Keith Gabbard, this year’s chair of the FRS Board of Directors and CEO and General Manager of People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative in McKee, Kentucky.
Keith Gabbard: For those who don’t know, FRS is the philanthropic arm of NTCA through scholarships, grants and a variety of educational programs. FRS focuses on educating rural youth, encouraging community development and introducing policymakers to challenges unique to rural communities. FRS was active, working hard, fulfilling our mission in 2020 despite the pandemic and how that affected all of us. For example, with the help of NTCA member companies and generous donors and FRS awarded more than $87,000 in scholarships to 34 deserving students in 2020.
Pam Becker: Already this year, the application for the 2021 scholarships is open and accepting materials from students in your communities. Applications will close in early March, and then recipients will be announced in May. We plan to award at least $92,000 in scholarships to deserving students. Thank you for spreading the word about these very competitive scholarships to kids in your communities.
Keith Gabbard: FRS is also offering the new James L. Bass Legal Scholarship. $5,000 per student who is entering their first year of law school. This scholarship was established by the NTCA board in honor of James L. Bass, long time NTCA leader and general counsel, a long time friend of mine and a very special person. We give a special thank you to the many NTCA members and individuals who made generous gifts to establish this endowed scholarship.
Pam Becker: Another FRS program that is expanding is community grants. These grants of up to $5,000 go directly to organizations and advance the quality of life and enable economic development in communities served by members of NTCA. In 2020, FRS partnered with NTCA members and awarded 23 grants totaling $104,000. These grants helped to fund a wide variety of projects, including improving educational technology, expanding emergency services and broadening health care options. The application for the next round of grants will open in April, and we plan to give out at least $88,000 for these wonderful community-based projects.
Keith Gabbard: Another similar program, and one that is especially close to my heart is the Virtual Living Room or the VLR. This program partners with NTCA members to create private spaces and public places like a library or an office building, specifically for veterans who need to communicate with the Department of Veteran Affairs for their remote health care or telehealth appointments. Sometimes the nearest VA hospital is just too far away for a person to easily get to or their Internet connection isn’t fast or strong enough to make telemedicine options possible. Since the first pilot of this program several years ago in my own community in McKee, Kentucky, last year, we opened two more VLRs: one in Bristol, Vermont, and a second last October in Spencer, Tennessee. If you have a need for one of these VLR spaces in your community, I highly encourage you to reach out to FRS and find out more information about the funds that are available.
Pam Becker: In addition to scholarships and grants, FRS is also proud to educate and inform the general public and policymakers about issues that are unique to rural communities. For example, we are hoping to be able to do the congressional broadband tour this summer, again if we can do it safely. We also have two white papers coming out very soon that will be available to NTCA members for free. The first is called “Critical Connections,” and we’ll explore how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the broadband industry in terms of consumer use and also technical challenges. The second paper is about greenfield builds, what it would take to expand and build a network in an underserved area as a new entrant and the pros and cons of various technology choices the providers can make when considering what kind of network to deploy and what services to deliver. And finally, we are updating the “Glossary of Rural Telecommunications Terms.” A big project, but one that we hope to be done within the next month or so. This is a great resource for new company directors getting up to speed on the industry terms and acronyms.
Keith Gabbard: All of these programs and activities are made possible by the generosity of NTCA members like you. Thank you so much for your giving. We really appreciate it. If you haven’t already received it in the mail, a form like this is coming your way as a reminder to make your annual gift to FRS.
Pam Becker: Yes, thank you to the hundreds of NTCA members and individuals who make gifts to FRS each year. We truly could not do what we do without your help. Thank you also to those who participate in our various FRS fundraising events, either by attending or by being a sponsor. I hope you were able to join us for our Broadway at Home fundraising event earlier this week and watch out for a return of our very popular virtual 5k, the FRS Rural Run, coming your way in June.
Keith Gabbard: And finally, thank you to our 20 member FRS board. This year, the board is welcoming seven new members: Camille Christiansen, Eric Eaton, Colleen Jamison, Michael Parrish, Jordan Roberts, Bob Silverman and Brian Sullivan. Thank you, especially to David Adams for your leadership as board chair last year. I’m honored to be chair of this terrific group of people this year and look forward to all that we will accomplish for rural communities.
Pam Becker: Thank you, Keith, for your leadership of the FRS Board. My colleagues at FRS, Elise and Brock, join me in sending our thanks to the entire FRS family. And we are really looking forward to all that FRS will accomplish this year. If you have any questions or want to find out more about anything we mentioned today, please don’t hesitate to email or call us. Thank you so much.
Stephen Smith: Laura, why is it important for NTCA members to have this philanthropic arm in FRS through which to do this kind of work in rural America?
Laura Withers: Well, the foundation is perhaps most well known for some of their youth programs that they offer, including the tour of Washington, D.C. for high schoolers from our rural communities, which they have not been able to hold this last year because of the pandemic. But they do offer so many other programs, and it’s quite remarkable that over the last year they have continued to receive support, even though they haven’t been able to have any in-person fundraisers. So Pam talked about a couple of things, but I think the most notable ones are that they have continued to award tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to students, and they’re planning to do even more in 2021. Pam also introduced this new James L. Bass Legal Scholarship that we are offering in honor of Mr. Bass, who was a longtime general counsel for NTCA and sadly passed away last year. And so, you know, it’s quite amazing that even in a pandemic, the foundation has continued to support their programs and offer the support to our members’ communities.
Stephen Smith: So, Laura, tell us about the latest educational project from FRS and how listeners can find that.
Laura Withers: Well, the foundation also produces several educational resources to help us educate the general public about the importance of rural connectivity. And they have a new paper coming out called “Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection.” Now, this is a paper that I know you, Stephen, are very well familiar with as its author, but it provides, as you know, a basic overview of broadband, but also explores how the pandemic has impacted broadband providers and, of course, the consumers that are taking those services through things like remote learning, remote working from home, telemedicine, business, e-commerce and even social connections, staying in touch with each other. So we’re so excited to launch this and help FRS get the word out about it. It’s a wonderful paper that I think takes a look at everything we have been through over the last year, as well as what the future might hold after we get out of this pandemic.
Stephen Smith: And how can people get a copy of that?
Laura Withers: So it is available on the FRS website at frs.org. And if you want to go to the area of their website that says “Take Action,” there are links there for all the educational materials that they’ve provided.
Stephen Smith: Excellent. Now I know this is every broadband provider’s favorite topic: mapping. This session was an update on the FCC’s mapping of where broadband is available across America. And we’re going to hear a clip in a moment from this session, but in summary, why are accurate broadband coverage maps so important? And what does that mean to, you know, today’s rural resident, that person out there waiting on broadband service?
Laura Withers: Well, if I have learned one thing in my time at NTCA from my members, it is the importance of maps and how hard it is to get them right. So I think the panel focuses on the FCC’s current procedures with the Form 477 information and how sometimes that doesn’t quite get granular enough to identify where service is and where it is not. And also how Congress has been asking the FCC to fix this for many years and even recently, putting money behind that to help the FCC come up with a better mechanism to create these maps. So why it is important is because it informs where federal support dollars go. And that has become even more important during the pandemic as they’re trying to fill in the gaps in our country where service is lacking or doesn’t exist at all. So it’s something that has ripple effects for many, many years in the future. Something NTCA and our members certainly, think needs to have attention, and we need to get it right before these dollars start flowing out to these locations. So a really important topic that has continued to be a focus in Congress and at the FCC.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. So let’s listen in to a clip from “Mapping for the Future of Broadband.”
Brian Ford: Now, I’d be curious to know one question that comes up in rural areas for either of you. Occasionally you see broadband installed at a location that’s not a traditional structure. It might be on the same parcel as a home, but it’s an agricultural facility — we sort of run across that issue in reporting on broadband deployment — is does the map account for that area? You might have the same parcel that has a home, but it also has a separate connection to either a separate business and it might be like a hog facility…
Eric McCrae: It could be a well house running an irrigation system for crops. And so, yes, we what we did was we purchased a commercial master address file from a vendor. We took that data, and then we immediately set upon improving that information. We work with our rural electrical company co-ops. We worked with our county governments. We work with anybody who would work with us to get their data to basically integrate into our master address file to improve the locational accuracy of the data. And in doing so, we enhanced it immensely. We also got rid of some noise that we had in there. And so what we now have is about 5.1 million locations in the state of Georgia that we have high confidence in, that their location is correct. We also, to Brent’s point, we created a unique identifier. We call it our Georgia ID or GID, which identifies every location so that we have that. We also know the history of that location, so we know that that is part of the original master file. That is a part of something we got from this Rural Electric Membership Corporation. It came from this well house. We have all that information integrated in that data set that we’re using for our location fabric. And ultimately, that’s something that the federal government’s going to have to basically wrestle with themselves as well.
Brian Ford: Yeah, Brent. Did you have any follow-up on that?
Brent Legg: Yeah, I would just echo that our same concerns there, that it’s very important that the data sets that are used to compile the fabric, have information on ancillary structures located on a given parcel. So a grain silo, for instance, a chicken coop, things like that. And this mainly comes into consideration when we’re talking about large parcels of land, farming operations, et cetera. You know, a huge concern, of course, is that connectivity is necessary for precision agriculture in the future. And so there will need to be serviceable locations related to precision agriculture reflected on the map that aren’t necessarily residential structures or even the business office for a farm. And so that’s why the data sets that are procured by the FCC need to have as many buildings and identified uses of those structures as possible. Those data sets exist in the commercial world. The FCC is going to have to spend some money to license them, but it’s really, really important to make sure that the fabric accounts for those necessary structures beyond residential and traditional business uses.
Stephen Smith: Well, this has been a recap of NTCA’s RTIME Annual Meeting and EXPO with Laura Withers, the VP of Strategic Communications for NTCA. Thank you so much for joining us and walking through some of the top sessions.
Laura Withers: Thanks, Stephen. That was really fun.
Stephen Smith: This concludes part two 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 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.