[I’m a rural telco cooperative customer, and I know so are many of you. That’s why I’m publishing this guest post on broadband from Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association. –Becky]
By Shirley Bloomfield
|Broadband discussion table
at the Midwest Rural Assembly
It’s been called today’s “essential service,” with the transformative power of electricity and the telephone. High speed broadband Internet access (“broadband”) has already altered the way Americans live, work and play-and new applications for our daily lives emerge constantly. Broadband’s benefit to businesses, particularly small businesses, is clear, and while broadband can improve the lives of all consumers, access is especially important for those living and working in rural America.
Broadband access is critical for rural communities because it levels the playing field with urban areas. It helps rural-based businesses compete locally, nationally and globally, which aids economic development in small towns. Consider the farmer who monitors weather patterns online, or the rancher that can buy and sell livestock in markets far beyond his traditional geographic boundaries. Small business owners with limited human and financial resources can easily expand their customer reach through online advertising and transactions. As connected businesses expand their market presence, they can grow and create more jobs.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the speed of online services increases, applications will continue to improve and be used more extensively by businesses and consumers. Innovation encourages more innovation, and small businesses are among those best equipped to capitalize on the potential of online commerce.
Put simply, faster Internet speeds save businesses time and money. Broadband connections enable the processing of high volumes of online transactions-at rates that are considerably more efficient and cost effective than with slower speeds such as provided by dial-up access. Broadband makes online training and telecommuting possible, which can attract potential employees and keep shareholders informed. In some cases, communities with broadband access can develop a pool of online workers which could attract information technology-based businesses like software development firms. All of these things contribute to the competitive edge of rural and small town communities, giving them a competitive edge in attracting and retaining business, which is absolutely essential to their continued viability.
Community-based telecommunications companies provide this critical broadband connection to rural consumers, businesses, governments, and anchor institutions like hospitals, schools and libraries. Small businesses themselves-originally established to bring communications service to areas deemed unprofitable by the larger telecom providers, local telcos have a vested interest in the economic development of their communities. They partner with other local businesses and civic entities to enhance the lives of local residents, or undertake such projects themselves.
Take Spring Grove Communications in Minnesota, for example. The telco recently built a stadium-style, 200-seat 3-D capable cinema that includes a stage for theatre presentations, public meetings, and other forums. The facility also has 900 square feet of office space. In addition to the movie offerings, the cinema has been the site of training seminars, a regional economic development authority meeting and online gaming contests. Located on the town’s main street, the cinema has become a hub for activity and attracted interest to the area. In addition, the telco in 2004 purchased a blighted property next to its existing office and built a new headquarters building. But the facility houses much more than the telco offices, it is also home to the Spring Grove Public Library, a 24-hour fitness center (owned and operated by the telco) two community meeting rooms and three offices for local businesses.
Local telcos are also actively engaged in their communities’ public safety, telemedicine, and education initiatives. Grand River Mutual Telephone in Missouri teamed up with a local police department to combat crime by installing a system that allows law enforcement officers to monitor strategically-placed security cameras virtually anywhere in the telco’s service area-all made possible via a broadband connection, which Grand River provides free to member communities with a full-time city office. The company has been approached by several local business owners and farmers interested in placing cameras outside their own establishments to monitor the premises.
In the health care arena, Madison Telephone in Illinois recently initiated a community partnership with Community Memorial Hospital, which was experiencing extreme latency issues in data transmission due to an Internet connection it shared with other public facilities. Madison worked with the hospital to install a fiber optic network that provides an unlimited potential for bandwidth-rich applications like those needed to expedite the analysis and transfer of medial diagnostic information to larger hospitals and clinics in the region. Timely readings and diagnoses increase the effectiveness of the hospital’s treatment and ultimately improve the quality of life of patients.
The telco also collaborated with a local school district to provide a fiber connection which delivered enhanced data services enabling the school to pursue online education opportunities for students residing throughout its challenging rural environment. The design was even promoted by the Illinois Telephone Association as an example of how its members can create effective public-private partnerships to address community needs. SkyLine Membership Corporation in North Carolina also demonstrated a commitment to education in its community with the awarding of $55,000 in grants funding SMART Board Interactive white board systems which help teachers bring more interactivity and collaboration into the classroom. The telco has been praised by its community’s students, teachers and school administrators for helping to transform its schools into 21st century learning environments.
Despite the many challenges of serving these areas-notably the extreme high-cost of deploying network infrastructure over sparsely populated and often rugged terrain-local telcos are committed to delivering the reliable, high-quality broadband at affordable rates. To do this, small telcos rely on a proven system of cost-recovery mechanisms to ensure they are able to recoup the large financial investment necessary to build and maintain the networks that connect rural communities to each other and to the world.
A federal plan to expand broadband access to all Americans, known as the national broadband plan, threatens that cost recovery system and undermines small telcos’ own efforts to make broadband available throughout their service territories-and to continue the initiatives that create jobs and improve the economic standing of rural communities. The national broadband plan puts rural businesses at the risk of an extreme competitive disadvantage. As written, the plan dismantles the cost recovery mechanisms that rural telcos rely on to build and maintain their broadband-capable networks. It also proposes to fund broadband speeds in rural areas that are 25 times slower than those in urban areas. Small businesses that rely on affordable high-speed broadband should support their local communications provider’s efforts to alter the course of the national broadband plan. Doing so will help ensure businesses receive the broadband services they need to keep rural America a vital engine for innovation and prosperity.
Shirley Bloomfield is Chief Executive Officer of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, which represents more than 560 locally owned and controlled telecommunications cooperatives and commercial companies throughout rural and small-town America. Reach her at email@example.com.
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