ORLANDO -- A day after Dodge put rural America front and center in its Ram Trucks Super Bowl commercial featuring Paul Harvey's "So God Made A Farmer," a large group of rural Americans is met here to ponder their future through a less romanticized lens.
These rural Americans happen to also be telco executives, and they are being told it's time to make rural relevant again -- but the way to do that is through better broadband networks, not fancier trucks.
It's not a new message, but it is one with new urgency and a new focus on trying to bring scale to rural problems and issues, both political and technological.
The urgency is obvious: In 2013, 160 rural telcos hit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s cap on Universal Service Fund (USF), a ceiling imposed through a set of computations so complex as to be unpredictable. Hundreds of other rural companies are so intimidated by changes in the USF and intercarrier compensation rules that they are trimming network investment or even looking for an exit strategy.
The move to create scale is also obvious on one front: The two groups jointly meeting here as the Rural Telecom Industry Meeting & Expo are expecting to permanently unify into one larger, louder voice for the rural telco. They are the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) and the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (Opastco).
Already, persistent pressure by rural telcos on their Congressional representatives and at the FCC level has brought about some changes, said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield and new FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who each delivered a keynote.
Rosenworcel, who visited rural areas early in her tenure, said that while USF reform is important, the implementation rules are "byzantine in their complexity." The FCC has now adopted her recommendations that combine the capex and opex benchmarks into one, and will keep those benchmarks in place for more than a year. That will "simplify regression analysis and provide more flexibility," Rosenworcel said, in hopes of "giving more confidence over the long haul to invest."
Bloomfield and Rosenworcel also urged the rural telcos assembled to focus on what the transition to all-IP networks means for their businesses and to keep up the pressure on the FCC, directly and through Congress, to make sure USF reforms don't hit rural broadband.
"The FCC should not just track the status of reforms, they need to track how reforms actually help or hurt rural consumers," Bloomfield said. "We are working to take that message to the most influential folks we can -- in the White House in the USDA and in the Congress."
But Bloomfield also urged the telcos to look for their own economies of scale through more partnerships with each other and with other entities, to avoid investing in company-specific infrastructure and systems, when those can be shared. For expensive resources such as headends, regional and middle-mile fiber networks and back-office systems for billing, partnerships become the best means of being more efficient.
That's an important message for the rural folks because it's clear that Washington thinks that having so many small telcos doing their own thing in rural America is inefficient.
What is also clear here in Orlando is that rural telcos are still determined to convince Washington that what rural communities most need to succeed is broadband service and that they are best positioned to provide that service.
— Carol Wilson, Group Content Director, Business Technology Events, UBM Tech