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Reflections from NTCA Fall Conference

By: Carol Mattey


On September 25th, I participated in two panels at NTCA’s Fall Conference to discuss potential opportunities and challenges for electric and telephone companies to work today to serve rural communities.  Chris Martin of NRTC moderated a lively discussion that included Dennis Bachman of Citizens Connect in New Auburn, Wisconsin and Cindy McCarty from Eastern Kentucky Network d/b/a Appalachian Wireless.  Dennis described the nuts and bolts of his company’s new venture with nearby Chippewa Electric Cooperative to build an all-fiber network to serve homes and businesses in the Chippewa Valley, an area unserved by a larger telecom provider.

Here are my top takeaways from the day:

1) Not all electric companies want to be broadband providers. There may be opportunities for smaller telcos to work with neighboring electric cooperatives that want broadband in the community, but aren’t actively interested in becoming a retail broadband provider. Electric companies – like many other businesses –  need broadband so their employees can do their jobs.

2) Electric-telco joint ventures for the Phase II auction are unlikely. Time is running out for new partnerships to form in order to bid for funding in the FCC’s upcoming Connect America Fund Phase II auction.  The FCC’s working hard to hold that auction in mid-2018.  After the initial applications to bid in that auction are submitted, companies won’t be able to form new business ventures with other bidders.  I didn’t hear of any electric coops and telcos in discussions to bid jointly on subsidies from the Connect America Fund.

3) Personalities drive business relationships. It takes more than a sound business plan to get a new venture off the ground. Sometimes chance conversations, and the spark of a new idea, can help to get a new venture rolling. It’s good to talk to your neighbors, at home and in business.

4) Telcos need to pay attention to what neighboring electric companies are doing.  One attendee noted that one electric cooperative in the Midwest has deployed broadband throughout its 2,500 square mile territory, a territory that likely includes areas served by several rate-of-return carriers. A word of caution to telcos in areas where the electric utility is getting into the broadband business: the FCC’s focused on ensuring universal service where no one wants to serve the market. If other companies can serve an area without subsidies, the FCC’s not going to step in the way. 

Communities in rural America are clamoring for broadband. Let’s be open to new ideas on how to close the gap. As the saying goes, “Half of something is better than all of nothing.”

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