What’s on the Horizon for E-Connectivity in Rural America
The E-Connectivity Listening Session Sept. 20 in Denver, CO, was an opportunity for broadband providers and the people who use—or would like to be able to use—broadband to provide input on how to improve services in rural America. If you missed the session, you can watch the webcast here.
This session is part of What’s on the Horizon for E-Connectivity in Rural America, a project organized by Farm Foundation, in collaboration with CoBank, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The four listening sessions in this projected focused on identifying the challenges rural communities now face in providing quality broadband services, as well as the innovative options being used to address those challenges,” explains Farm Foundation President Constance Cullman.
Two panel of regional leaders discussed e-connectivity needs and the partnerships and solutions now being used to enhance broadband services in rural communities. Panelists were: Randy Wheelock, Commissioner in Clear Creek County, Colorado; Brian Shepherd, COO of Colorado Broadband Office; Brian Tagaban, Director of Governmental Policy with Sacred Wind Communications Inc.; Jon Saunders, COO of SECOM, a division of Southeast Colorado Power Association; and David Shipley, General Manager of Rye and South Park Telephone Company.
Comments and discussions from all the sessions will be the basis for a report to be provided to federal and state public and private leaders to better inform their decisions regarding improvements to, and expansion of, broadband services in rural America.
More than 225 people–including 175 viewing the live webcast–participated in the Aug. 16 listening session in Birmingham, Ala. This session was at the Alabama Center for Advanced Technology and Training on the campus of Lawson State Community College, Birmingham, Ala. View the entire session at THIS LINK.
The Alabama session began with comments from Anshu Vaish, CEO of Robin Health, Macon, Ga., and Alabama farmer Will Gilmer of Gilmer Dairy Farms. A second panel discussed specific challenges and opportunities for improving e-connectivity in the region. Panelists were: Fred Johnson, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative, Rainsville, Ala.; Jake Cowen, Chief Financial Officer of Troy Cable in Troy, Ala.; and Steve Foshee, President/CEO of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, Hamilton, Ala. Open mix sessions were provided after each panel. The listening session concluded with an update from Washington, D.C., by Jannine Miller, Senior Advisor for Rural Infrastructure at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The second session was June 19 in Faribault, Minn. Video of that session is available. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai joined executives from the five partner organizations April 18 in Washington, D.C., to kick off the listening sessions. Perdue and Pai both highlighted the importance of e-connectivity to all sectors of rural America.
At the Upper Midwest Listening Session June 19 in Faribault, MN, about 50 people provided perspectives on the availability of service and options for delivery. Bill Esbeck, Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, joined Steve Fenske, Attorney and Government Relations Manager with the Minnesota Association of Townships, to discuss e-connectivity needs in the Upper Midwest.
“Access to broadband is critically important for the economic viability and sustainability of rural communities. This listening session was a great opportunity to share the accomplishments of small, rural broadband providers across Wisconsin. The rural providers I represent are continuously reinvesting in their broadband networks and closing the digital divide,” said Esbeck. “Conversations like these among diverse stakeholders allow us to develop a greater understanding of the issues, explore solutions and showcase what has worked so these efforts may be replicated to the benefit of rural communities across the nation.”
Innovative solutions now being used to deliver broadband were discussed by three Minnesota officials: Kristi Westbrock, CEO/General Manager of Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) of Brainerd, MN; Danna MacKenzie, Executive Director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development; and Brian Zelenak, CEO of the Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, Aitkin, MN.
CTC partners with and provides fiber optic services to a number of surrounding communities. “At CTC we see firsthand how much value broadband holds for the rural communities we serve,” says Westbrock. “Partnerships can play a vital role in achieving creative solutions to the challenges of building quality broadband across our nation. Engaging in this discussion is an important step, not only to bring awareness, but also to build on the foundation for achieving robust, sustainable broadband throughout rural Minnesota.”
“Enhancing the quality of life throughout our communities is our priority,” said Zelenak. “Broadband spurs economic growth in rural communities and opens the door to modern education, healthcare and telework options. We’re proud to help modernize our local economy by making broadband internet a possibility for our members.”
“With these experts and the other rural stakeholders attending, we want to identify the challenges rural communities now face in providing quality broadband services, as well as the innovative options being used to address those challenges,” says Cullman. “We will hear from regional experts, but most importantly, a majority of the session will be dedicated to hearing from the people who live and work with limited broad band access today.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai joined executives from the five partner organizations April 18 in Washington, D.C., to kick off the listening sessions. Perdue and Pai both highlighted the importance of e-connectivity to all sectors of rural America.
“Broadband is vital to the rural economy in what is now a highly interconnected global marketplace,” said Tom Halverson, President and CEO of CoBank. “We need leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington to work together to facilitate broadband investment and ensure that rural America remains competitive and strong.”
Achieving e-connectivity across rural America is not a simple task. “Actions needed to improve e-connectivity vary widely by community and region,” notes Cullman. “These listening sessions will serve to highlight common issues, success stories to build strong broadband systems, and challenges that are yet to be met.”
Executives from regional telecommunications companies participated in the April 18 session, to provide perspectives on the broadband service issues. Thie panel included Levoy Knowles of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, Mel Coleman of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, and Ken Johnson, Administrator of Rural Development’s Rural Utilities Service.
“We are excited for the prospects of enhanced cooperation and coordination between USDA, the FCC, and private operators like those in NTCA’s membership–all of whom recognize the value of and critical need for sustainable broadband in rural America.” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “NTCA’s nearly 850 members connect many of America’s rural communities to the world with robust broadband, and we are pleased to participate in this collaborative effort to promote better access to rural broadband.”
Rural electric cooperatives are well aware of the needs of e-connectivity in their communities, and more than 100 electric cooperatives already are providing broadband service to their members. “The widening digital divide is a national crisis deserving of a national response,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of NRECA. “For decades, electric cooperatives have enhanced the quality of life throughout rural America. Now, many of those same electric co-ops are helping reinvigorate rural economies by bringing broadband to rural homes, businesses and farms. High costs to serve areas with low population density remain the biggest obstacle to expanded rural broadband access. An expanded combination of federal grant and loan funding through USDA is a critical step to connecting rural America.”
At the April 18 event, stakeholders emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance broadband services in rural America. “Leveraging additional investment in rural broadband infrastructure will require a team effort,” said Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC. “Local partnerships can be a wonderful way to leverage resources, expertise and efficiencies to ensure that rural communities can fully participate in today’s 21st century economy.”