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  • Guest: Josh Seidemann

  • Company: NTCA Rural Broadband Association

  • NTCA’s Ongoing Mission in Support of Rural Broadband

    The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Hello and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. Today I’m joined by Josh Seidemann. He’s the Vice President of Policy at NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association. Josh helps us understand NTCA’s role in both supporting rural broadband service providers, as well as helping policymakers at the state and federal levels understand the impact and the importance of high quality broadband across the nation. We dig a little bit into the COVID crisis and its impact on rural America. We discuss a little bit about senior isolation, telehealth, as well as remote learning. Josh provides some resources and stories from some of the providers and members of NTCA. I hope you enjoy the episode.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Let’s start with a little bit of background – we have a lot to get into in terms of how you support the community and what’s going on with the current COVID –  just give us a little backdrop about what NTCA does.

    About NTCA Rural Broadband Association

    Josh Seidemann:

    NTCA represents about 850 small, locally operated communications providers in rural America. These are companies that were founded in regions where the Bell [Telephone] Company [ATT] wouldn’t build in the first half of the 20th century. So whether they are cooperative organizations or small family-owned companies or commercial companies, they serve their rural areas, often cities and towns of 5,000 to 20,000 people. They started as telephone companies. They are all now broadband deployed to different degrees, but the results of our latest survey, (that we do annually of our members), narrowly 90% of our members’ customers can achieve internet speeds of 10 Mb and up. And the numbers are actually more impressive than that – 70% of those customers can get 25 Mb and nearly 60% of those customers could enjoy a 100 Mb or more.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Rural broadband is coming into the mainstream conversation right now given the current crisis, but you’ve been at this for a while – almost a decade. What drew you to trying to solve this problem in America?

    Josh Seidemann:

    Well, I’ve been with NTCA for about 10 years. But NTCA has been around for 50 years and doing really nothing more than helping its members serve rural America with whatever that era’s best communications technology was. So certainly when it was telephone, it was telephone. As broadband came onto the marketplace through DSL or other technologies, the members jumped on that. And now that we’re in fiber, we’ve got fiber connections with many companies that begin depending on their terrain and their network service area, will use a blend. They’ll have some fiber, they’ll rely on some copper, they’ll use fixed wireless, whatever they can do to get the best technology that’s feasible out to the customer.

    Value of Fiber Broadband Networks Binding the Nation

    Josh Seidemann:

    In terms of what draws me to this and what excites me about this? There’s an awful lot of conversation about rural America and urban America and that’s a conversation that emerges at the 50,000 foot view. If you dig into it a little bit though, you see that there are so many cultural and particularly economic interdependencies between the rural and urban areas, that it’s really one America, it’s one nation. And I find that discipline, that study to be critically important. And when you take that approach, then you see the value of broadband as a network to bind all these areas together.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    That’s a great point about the ecosystem and the interdependencies. Given where we are today with this crisis, that’s going to be amplified. There’s going to be certain aspects of different industries and of our markets that are impacted differently. And the impact in rural areas is definitely going to trickle into urban areas. It may not be directly or in plain sight, but we’ll feel that eventually. Speaking of the current crisis, I’m sure you had grand plans coming into 2020 about what your mission was. And this has had to have thrown a curve ball in there. What is your guidance in how you’re talking to the existing providers today, to rural America?

    Josh Seidemann:

    It’s funny, it’s a crisis and it is all hands on deck now to do what we can. I think the fortunate position that our members are in, is that sometimes you find yourself up against a task, you find yourself up against a crisis situation and you turn around at your toolbox. You think to yourself, “My God, if I only had that in my toolbox, if I only had this resource available, I’d be able to meet this challenge and I’d be able to mitigate the immediate problems at hand.” Our members, very fortunately, that’s not the problem they have. Because they’ve got this armory of broadband networks to enable distance working. They’ve got the commitment to the community because they’re locally operated that enables them to work with their school districts and transition all these kids to distance education and they’ve got these existing relationships with their healthcare providers.

    Josh Seidemann:

    We’ve got one healthcare provider in Indiana. They were asked by a local healthcare clinic last week. The closest fiber connection is about three quarters of a mile away. Can you bring that line into our health clinic? We think we’re going to need that connectivity. And this is something where it usually takes weeks just to get the permit. But the local permitting authority turned the permit request around by the end of that business day and the company was able to extend the fiber line into the hospital over a weekend.

    Josh Seidemann:

    One analogy is you think about athletes who train for the big game- that this is it. This is where we pull out the stops and all that training and all of those drills and all that work we’ve done. These members, they’re killing it.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    How are you conveying that back to the policymakers?  That’s the bridge that the NTCA is providing. How are you helping them think about the situation?

    NTCA and Rural Broadband Policy

    Josh Seidemann:

    Honestly, we’re very happy. There’s a certain sense of credibility afforded to us that we bring to the policymakers when they come to us and say, “What are you guys doing for education to get these people back to work?” And we can say, “Listen, we’ve got members, (and again, these are all documented stories that we’re posting on the NTCA website as they come in), we’ve got members who are turning on service in the home of any family in their community that didn’t get subscribed to broadband. But if there’s families in that community that have school aged children that weren’t subscribing, we’ve got companies that are waiving the installation being there, turning it on for no charge for the next couple of months.

    Josh Seidemann:

    We’re happy to share those stories. By the same token, we’ve got a message back to our members, information about OSHA requirements. For example, sending technicians off to service calls. If there’s a question of risk to health or personal safety. You’ve got a message back to them or there’s just these run of the mill mundane filing deadlines for federal reporting requirements. Are those going to shift? Are there other regulatory requirements that regulatory agency is going to say, “You know something, this is an administrative ministerial task, we’re going to defer this for the next couple of months.” And by the same token, we go to our companies and we say, “Listen, what are your pressure points right now?” You’ve got all of the work of getting service out and making sure that everyone remains connected. What are some of the back office functions that might be affected by this that we need to inform policymakers about? So there’s certainly a lot of two way communication going between us, between the regulatory agencies, between Capitol Hill and between our members.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Do you think some of that friction, the administrative and political bureaucratic friction that’s getting removed in the current situation will last? Do you think that it’ll force us to think about this as more of critical infrastructure and that things needed to move much more swiftly than they have?

    Josh Seidemann:

    I hope that is the case. I think that everyone’s strongest hope at this point is that we flatten the curve. We bring the population through this crises with the smallest number of affected people. Whether that’s health and certainly economically that we really as much as we can depress the adverse impacts of this virus. Going forward, there is an eye opening, there’s a recognition…we’ve said for a number of years at NTCA and throughout partners in the industry, telehealth is a really great thing. It’s going to save money, it’s going to create better health outcomes. And it seems axiomatic, it seems intuitive of course, why wouldn’t this work? But the story becomes more believable when we put numbers to it.

    Rural Broadband Economic Benefits of Telehealth

    Josh Seidemann:

    So we worked with organizations like The National Rural Hospital Association and we’re able to share and to develop health data and statistics that showed the benefit of telemedicine. And then internally, NTCA, a couple of years ago crafted an economic report that quantified the economic benefits of deploying telehealth in rural America. So we moved from what do we believe on an intuitive basis to what have we quantified and we see presented to us with the numbers. Now we’re in the third stage because now we have people who weren’t previously using telemedicine are now being encouraged, if not told, you must use telemedicine because we can’t bring you into the healthcare facility, your symptoms, your situation can be managed from your home. Once you experience it, I think experience is sometimes the greatest convincer that there is.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Even on a local level, you’re starting to see some of the grass roots efforts, doctor’s offices doing some triaging through FaceTime because they just don’t want the kids coming into the office.

    Josh Seidemann:

    To your point again about how we perceive and view the value of these initiatives, I think you’re going to see it with distance education as well. And I don’t propose for an instance that distance education is the best model for every type of educational experience. But I do think that again, we’ve spoken before over the years of the value for small school districts that don’t have the economies of scale perhaps to offer, I don’t know, maybe an AP physics class because maybe only 10 students are interested in signing up for it. And the break point is 20 students. We’re watching across the company how many, country rather, how many classes are now being conducted on Zoom. And is it a perfect substitute? No, but it is certainly a remarkable platform for interaction for active instruction between teachers and students. We’re going to get a lot more people on board with considering these technologies.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    I just had a conversation with the Quello Center about their Homework Gap Study.  As much as the students and the accessibility of broadband within their home was an obstacle, there’s also the realization that the learning centers and the teachers and the culture around teaching, none of it was ready for remote learning. This is the compelling event that’s forced all those educational professionals to figure out how they get their curriculum or the platforms or the culture or the comfort level of being able to maintain a learning cadence regardless of where the students are. It’ll be interesting to see what falls out of that in long-term.

    Josh Seidemann:

    And it took a microscopic virus … that’s what it took, unfortunately.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    In terms of rethinking paradigms as well. You mentioned something on our initial call about the no phones at the table rule, right? As a parent of three teenagers and one 10 year old who acts like a teenager. We definitely check the phones at the door. But you’re suggesting that we think differently about that.

     

    NTCA Smart Rural Communities Program Easing Social Isolation

    Josh Seidemann:

    So I am not proposing for your household or for mine because we have the same rule in my household that one it is meal time, those phones go on the counter and it… Number one, it shouldn’t be dinging because we should be putting it on do not disturb. When you’re gathered around the dinner table, absolutely let’s not have any devices. But there is a problem called senior isolation and these are people who on the best of days, elderly people who can’t get out and if they can get out, how much of the day can you spend outside at the grocery store, the mall. We’re talking about hours upon hours of being alone. We are talking about the, meals are such a social hour and it encourage, that’s part of the joy of eating is the social aspect of it. That’s why we have business lunches and dinner parties and when you eat alone, not as enjoyable.

    Josh Seidemann:

    And we see that in the elderly, instances of malnutrition, of depression and depression also has an impact on eating habits again, which then has the spinoff impacts on general health. So NTCA has been involved a couple of times through our Smart Rural Communities program in providing grants to some of our members to explore how socialize isolation among seniors might be mitigated. We work with a company in Minnesota. They put together some MyFi technology for a hospice that enabled both social and medical connectivity for patients. And then even for healthy adults, we piloted a program in Wisconsin with an organization, a company called GrandCare. And this was a pilot program that’s aimed at easing social isolation among senior citizens. So when we talk about no devices at the table, you’re right. Not my phone, not your phone, not the kids’ phones. But if we’re having dinner and grandma is across town or across county or across state or over the state line. There’s no reason why we should be eating alone. Let’s turn this tablet on, let’s eat together. And if it’s not during meal time, let’s spend 30 minutes to get together.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    You see a lot of our colleagues are doing virtual happy hours or virtual picnics. So even in the small amount of time that we’ve been isolated, we thirst so much for that human connection that we’re starting it and extending it to those folks, not only in the senior community but also in the mental health community. There’s a lot of folks that this isolation is really going to be a challenge for and being able to have mechanisms to reach out to them, have the wherewithal to think about them and include them is really important.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    What I really like about your approach and the NTCA’s thinking is because you’ve been doing this for 10 years and at this mission for a long time. And with this massive spotlight generated by this micro virus, it’s a great opportunity to say, “I told you so.” But that’s not the attitude you guys are embodying right now. And it’s very optimistic and hopeful. And you see this as a learning opportunity. You’ve mentioned some of the ways that you see that. But how do we take all the bottoms up grassroots stuff and make sure that we learn from this?

    Josh Seidemann:

    I think it’s like any other situation, and I don’t mean to be glib when I say that. I think we’ve got to, we’re going to push forward and we’re going to conquer this and we’re going to get through a tough time as a nation and as individual communities. And I think afterwards we can take a look back and we’re going to have to see what worked, what didn’t work. Because we’re going to learn as much from what didn’t work as what did work. But I agree with you. It’s never a time to say, no one should ever invoke that phrase of “I told you”. That’s not helpful. What we do now is that each broadband provider that knows what it can do, do that. And then let’s get together. And at the end of all of this, we’ll sit down and we’re going to point to the success stories.

    Better Rural Broadband Provides Equal Opportunities

    Josh Seidemann:

    And we’re going to see how we can use these as models for building better broadband throughout the nation. I’ll tell you this is one of our general managers told us this past week. He did what he called a MacGyver stunt. He walked into his, they’ve got a tech office in the company and he walked in with a box of raw materials and he dumped them out on the table. And he looked at just technicians and he said, “This is not the stuff that you ordinarily work with, how would you bring new service to someone with just the limited tools that we put on the table in front of you?” It’s problem solving. It’s everything that we done and how do we now take this knowledge and apply it, problem solve for the next issue.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    As a, even a layman, I’m seeing some interesting innovation happening. Crowdsource innovation, right? And I think this is really important for the rural community in two directions. One, there’s folks that are trying to solve or help the shortage of medical supplies. So these masks and ventilators by digitally printing them or making them, finding different ways to design them. There are folks on Facebook floating around designs and ideas about this stuff. And if you think about the massive amount of folks that are disconnected from that conversation in the rural communities, we’re robbing ourselves of the folks that maybe have an innovative idea. Or be able to participate in that digital innovation. So I think this is a really unique time to see what comes out of that effort. Not just in the broadband telecommunication space, but all the industries that are crop up in terms of managing pandemics or virology or biology.

    Josh Seidemann:

    You hit the nail on the head and that brings it back to what we talked about the beginning of this session. What excites me personally about this and it’s opportunity. There’s no reason why a student in a town of five or 10,000 in the Midwest should have any less opportunity than a student who lives in the biggest metropolitan areas or a worker. And we’re all familiar by now with 3D printers and we’re printing out Yodas or replacement parts that are plastic. But 3D printers also print metal. And you talk about resilience and you talk about redundancy and supply chains and you talk about a hospital in a small town that needs a part for a ventilator.  That might take two days to ship, wait a minute, if I have an entrepreneur in my area that has these tools at his disposal, he can print that part for me in two hours.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    It’s life changing.

    Josh Seidemann:

    Not just life changing. It’s lifesaving.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    We’re in the short-term churn of getting through it and then we’ll see where we are in months and years after this in terms of that learning. But the stimulus package just got passed by the House. I’m not sure what’s in there for broadband. And we could talk about it in a different episode, but there are certainly more funding and awareness around building out this really critical infrastructure. And before that rush and since you seen a lot of this develop. What are some lessons that folks should be thinking about before we rush to move forward, building out these networks?

    Fiber Broadband Networks Change Lives

    Josh Seidemann:

    I think one of the, we take a look at what are the lessons that we learn. And one of the lessons is we want to take a look at what were the technological platforms that we used? And we always want to build infrastructure that’s going to last for the long term. So I think one of the lessons that we’re beginning to see is the resilience and the ever expanding capability of what we call future-proof fiber. Now we spoke at the beginning of the session as well that we have members in NTCA that use all sorts of technology. They’ll use a mix of fiber and then copper and fixed wireless. But the bedrock for all of these technologies, we like to say wireless needs wires. There’s always going to be that need for the fiber capability as forecasted demands for internet usage. We’re talking, what do we have now? We’ve got them 328 million internet users in North America today. That’s going to go up to 345 million.  Fixed broadband speed in the next four years – Cisco anticipates it’s going to increase two and a half times. So the average fixed broadband speed is going to be 141 Mb.

    Josh Seidemann:

    We’ve got to build for that. And we’ve got to provide even for the wireless services. Again, every wireless call hits a wired center at some point and there’s always a need for backhaul to carry all that data. So I think lesson one is, what were the strongest, most resilient, most reliable networks. I think that’s going to be lesson one. And then lesson two as you said is that recognition of what these networks supported, not just change lives but to save lives – to preserve life.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    What about coordination? There’s the mix of state and local, federal and private equity…all trying to solve this problem. What about that private public partnership conversation? Anything to learn there?

    Coordination, Cooperation and Innovation Across Rural Broadband Stakeholders

    Josh Seidemann:

    I think you might see a greater recognition among both parties of what the other can bring to the table. I think we’re going to see the need for continued coordination among federal and state policymakers. I think what I like to see, we have an awful lot of conversations about broadband policy. I’d love to see more coordination and I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist already. But I’d love to see more public coordination among parties that represent agencies that represent the community communications sector. And agencies that represent the education needs and HHS, the Health and Human Services.  Again, once we’re past this, bring all these leadership sections together and learn from each other.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    A lot of the criticism from remote learning and telehealth isn’t so much the infrastructure – it’s the anchoring institutions that weren’t really thinking about how to use that, leverage it. Hopefully, this shifts the conversation away from broadband [infrastructure] as it’s separate. Generally, people think of it as a foundational capability like electricity. But I think people say that, but don’t fully understand it. This is definitely a punctuation in that statement that says, “Here’s how it truly is.” To have that conversation, you need to talk across all those stakeholders across industries to make sure that, like you’re saying, the coordination and the innovation is happening more holistically.

    Josh Seidemann:

    I agree.  Again, at the end of this, I think the questions we’re going to ask ourselves are how many students participated in school through distance education? How many patients were served through telemedicine?

    Learn More

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    We’ve been speaking with Josh Seidemann from the NTCA Rural Broadband Association. Josh, thank you for all your passion, the work that you all are doing. How can our listeners learn more about the resources or information that you’re providing and some of the stories that you’ve already conveyed to us today?

    Josh Seidemann:

    Quite appropriately online, ntca.org will provide listeners with a great overview of the organization and what our members do and what we do on behalf of the rural industry and rural America. If you go to ntca.org/smart you can key into our Smart Rural Communities program for some research papers and more stories about what our members are doing in distance education, healthcare, and Smart Ag. And on social media, on Twitter, you can find us @ntcaconnect and Facebook @ntcaruraltelecom.

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