LAS VEGAS – TelcoVision 2013 – Some key trends affecting rural telcos emerged at last week's event. Here are three:
Telemedicine is happening – will rural carriers get a cut?
The technology to deliver telemedicine is all in place, and the demand and cost-justification is as well. The question for rural carriers is whether this traffic is going to ride their broadband networks for free or become an essential part of the new revenues they seek to replace federal support.
When Walmart is rolling out kiosks in rural stores that allow shoppers to step inside and consult a tele-doc, it's obvious this market will take off, says Michael Puestow, CEO of Atlas Health System. Speaking at TelcoVision in late October, he outlined a whole series of initiatives where telemedicine is being used to do everything from diagnose prisoners in Texas facilities to prevent unnecessary transport, to using remote neurological consultations to address stroke patients in rural North Dakota, to using telemedicine in school nurses' offices in Georgia to address kids who often don't get any other healthcare.
Rural telcos are involved in some of those efforts, although they are not the primary service provider in all of them, Puestow said.
There are states where telehealth networks are well established, including Georgia and Indiana. The Hoosier state used grant money from the rural health initiative of the Bush administration to put a pilot project in place and fund fiber-to-the-home in some rural areas. The combination of the Indiana Telecommunications Association, the Indiana Rural Health Association, and some state agencies was able to get a $16 million grant to fund the fiber to hospitals, says John Koppen, president of the ITA. National providers could bid on the projects, but 90 percent were won by local telcos. Those telcos can then spend their funds to extend that fiber to businesses and even residences, with the telemedicine business as an anchor tenant.
Connected education the next big thing?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is already asking for one-gig service to every anchor institution (schools, libraries, government facilities), but the Obama administration is expected to focus on "connected education" next, with a specific push to get 1 Gig connections to schools. Rural telcos already connect many of their schools with fiber, but rarely are they delivering 1 Gig connections, mostly because the schools don't want it or don't know what to do with it or both.
One of NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association 's goals is to make sure the Obama administration and the FCC are aware of what is already out there to the schools and that those connections are part of the push, says Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA CEO. But, she adds, it is going to be important for the FCC or someone to give schools a template on how to use all this bandwidth, or it may go unused, as technology that is thrown at schools often does. What educators need is specifics on what they can be doing: It is not that they fear or avoid technology, just that so much else is going on in the classroom and in requirements for teachers that just giving schools bandwidth is hardly going to be a bandaid for what ails them.
City mouse, country mouse
One of the unintended consequences of Washington ethics laws has been that efforts of rural telcos or their associations to pay to bring FCC or congressional leaders or staff to rural areas have been thwarted in recent years. That has left a knowledge gap -- some call it an empathy gap -- among regulatory and congressional staff who have no personal ties to rural areas.
Bloomfield reports there has been easing of those regulations, at least to the extent that the NTCA recently hosted four Congressional staff members on a trip to Montana, where some of them were exposed, for the first time, to what "rural" really means. She says it was obvious the exposure opened their eyes to the realities of serving customers and facilities, such as military bases, when they are scattered around wide-open spaces.
The hope is to increase the understanding and the empathy in Washington for what rural America is facing in terms of economic development challenges and what rural telcos are facing in terms of network deployment costs. Or, as more than one rural telco exec said to me at TelcoVision, "We need to show them their food doesn't come from the grocery store."
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading