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  • Guest: Betty Buckley

  • Company: Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA)

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

    Welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us. Our guest today is the Executive Director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA), Betty Buckley.  Betty has had a tremendous impact on the residents of Washington State while serving in state government, managing a nonprofit and a coalition of public/private organizations. For the past 10 years at WITA, in the field of technology and communications, she has been a diehard and dedicated advocate of the Evergreen State’s rural landline telecommunications providers.

    Craig:

    Her career began with more than a decade of service in executive management in the state government where she was honored with the Governor’s excellence in management and leadership award for her efforts to improve staff diversity, employee involvement and customer service while at the same time reducing costs. She was a Co-Founder and Director of Stone Soup, a nonprofit working to improve the lives of women through entrepreneurship and computer proficiency. Prior to accepting her current position, she served as Executive Director of Communities Connect, a statewide coalition of public and private organizations working to make Washington state a leader in technology opportunities for all.

    Craig:

    We had a chance to visit prior to today’s session and I was impressed with what your organization is doing now, and what they’ve done for more than a century, as a leading advocate for telecommunications in Washington state. It must be phenomenal to be a part of an organization that has had such a strong impact for that period of time.

    Betty:

    It’s not everyone who can say that they are both blessed to have a job today but blessed to have a job they love so much. Our members are all doing wonderful things in their communities and I’m so proud to represent them and feel so fortunate to be a part of that effort.

    About WITA – Serving Rural Areas of Washington State

    Craig:

    WITA is an association of 18 traditional landline telephony companies that serve nearly two dozen remote areas of the state. Talk a little bit about the membership of the WITA.

    Betty:

    The members represent 21 different areas of the State of Washington. From the very tiny Point Roberts, which is that little tiny finger that sticks into the far North end of Puget Sound, that you have to go through Canada to serve –  that’s a very challenging area – to some parts of the beautiful Palouse, where we have fewer than four people per square mile. Member companies such as Pioneer, St. John Telephone and TDS Telecom service these areas. It’s a wide ranging group of companies. Most of them small, all of them doing tremendous work in the area of rural broadband. They know that landline telephones aren’t really a thing anymore. Although, they certainly do have people in their areas that don’t get cell phone connections. So the only telephone service they have is still a landline telephone in some areas, but all of those companies do a great job in terms of providing rural broadband.

    Craig:

    The necessity of broadband connectivity is so important, especially now. It’s long since passed being a luxury especially given the need for remote working, tele-health, and distance learning. Tell us about some of the other aspects of the need for broadband in the areas that your members serve.

    Betty:

    So many of those companies serve in agricultural areas where farmers depend on daily updates, if not hourly updates, on such things as stock prices and the weather. They need to know when they get up in the morning if now is the time for them to spray their crop or not. A lot of the success of those agriculture companies, depend on our ability to get them the right information – live and in real time.

    Craig:

    The agriculture industry is not an area of broadband connectivity that many across the country are familiar with. But there is a daily need for instant information and connectivity in that industry in particular. Would you provide us with examples where broadband connectivity impacts an agriculturally based economy?

    Betty:

    There are parts of the state that have been tracked by the square foot and studied in terms of soil content, water content, et cetera. A lot of large agricultural companies buy these quarter million dollar, half million-dollar pieces of machinery that are literally driven by a thumb drive. So the farmer gets up in the morning, downloads the latest information, downloads the area of where that computer is telling him or her, where to go and what to do. And puts that thumb drive into these massive machines and pulls it out there. And the giant spray rig responds according to every foot of land and what are the requirements for that land. That’s meant a great preservation of the land in terms of fewer products on the land, fewer pesticides, the right amount of fertilizer, the right amount of water. It really has made that industry continue its competitive edge.

    Not FTTH but FTTB (Fiber-to-the-Barn)

    Craig:

    In the world of broadband, we utilize the terminology Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) but in parts of the service areas for your members, Fiber-to-the-Barn is very much a reality.

    Betty:

    It’s not only a reality, it’s a necessity. Again, if you’re an agricultural based community, the big business may not happen in your house. It happens in your barn. If you’re running a crop duster, for example, as one business is outside of St. John, Washington, that’s where you’re going to want to have your connectivity to understand where your customers are needing you to go and what’s the latest information about the land you’re about to cover that day. Whether you’re in St. John or up in the Hood Canal communications area at the South end of Puget Sound, where a rather wealthy individual from Washington State owns a second home – those areas also have a large seafood industry and other industries where the business doesn’t take place in the house. It takes place in the shed, in the barn or on a dock.

    Craig:

    Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about a large transaction recently with Rainier Connect agreeing to operate Click! Network. This is a big deal as far as communications in the State of Washington.

    Betty:

    Rainier Connect is an incredible company that has done a lot for the small town of Eatonville, which is in the foothills of Mount Rainier and is where they started. (There are beautiful views from there.) They started expanding out into areas that weren’t well-served and for the last few years have been a provider on the City of Tacoma’s Click! Network. Unfortunately, the city has not fared well in terms of being able to pay for that system, they were losing several millions of dollars a year and so the city council came to an agreement with Rainier Connect to operate the system. As part of that agreement, Rainier Connect will provide a low-income package for people in that area. But beyond that, the company is also providing free upgrades and free service to homes of school kids, so that those kids can learn from home. It’s a very community minded and family run organization with great people who operate the company. They’re very much committed to making the network pay for itself and serve its community at the same time.

    Fiber Broadband Infrastructure – Doves, Shotguns and Weather

    Craig:

    What infrastructure is utilized to deliver service to the customers of your member companies? How much is overhead or on a pole? How much is in the ground? What’s the norm for most of the builds in Washington State?

    Betty:

    You would think that hanging fiber on poles would be the most effective way to serve these really rural areas. But as one of my members pointed out to me years ago, we’ve got a couple of problems with overhead fiber. One is weather and the other is shotguns. Dove season is not good on fiber. You get really frustrated hunters out there. They haven’t seen a dove all day long. Dusk comes, they look up on this line and there are seven doves and they start shooting. And you can imagine what a shotguns and glass do when they collide. We had one company that actually did a study to determine the best way to serve their area which is a very small rural area with about 600 locations that they had to serve. They thought given that it was a relatively flat farming country, that they just put up some towers and all would be done.

    Betty:

    Unfortunately, farms tend to be located at the bottom of the hill, not at the top of the hill. They stopped counting at about 32 towers and decided that wasn’t going to be the least expensive way to go. The provider then did a more complete study and had a CPA group help them out. What they discovered was that over the long term, even though the upfront build costs were several millions of dollars, it was going to be less expensive to dig through the rock and bury fiber than to do anything else! So that’s what they did.

    Betty:

    A number of my members do the same thing. I only have one example of a member company that had to actually take its fiber out of the ground and that was because a family of beavers was eating through the conduit and breaking the fiber. So, after replacing the conduit a few times, they decided that they would have to go aerial. But that’s the only example I can think of where that had to happen.

    Craig:

    That is unique. You have certainly been an advocate for the providers for a long time.  Can we talk about the transition from what broadband services were before compared to today?

    Betty:

    The transition started way before my time here at WITA. By the time I started this job 10 years ago, all of my member companies were providing internet access at some level. The original Fiber-to-the-Barn project was one that we weren’t even supposed to talk about back then because regulators thought we were “platinum plating” our systems by putting in a Fiber-to-the-Home network. Of course, now everyone thinks that company was way ahead of its time and so brilliant. Knowing the people who run that company, I’d have to agree. It’s been an ongoing process as our companies have recognized both the need of their customer and the way things have been changing. They started putting copper in some areas but now, of course, fiber is predominantly what’s used in all of our members service areas.

    Betty:

    There are some copper plants still out there. And now that we’ve had a number of innovations on how to bond copper so that you can get much better speeds,  some areas are getting 50 down, five up because of bonded copper and in some areas even better (depending how close you are into the system itself). Our members have constantly looked for ways to expand, ways to engage their customers. Another example of how they’ve engaged the customers is a company in Western Washington, Hood Canal Communications, where a number of their customers were complaining about, “I’m not getting the speeds that I’m paying for.” They scratched their heads for a while, decided that they needed to figure this out and started having customers bring their devices into the office. What they found, in most cases, was that the problem was viruses on the person’s device.

    Betty:

    In a few other cases, they’d go out to homes and discover that, “Sir, your system might work a lot better if you didn’t have the router behind the refrigerator.” There were some adjustments that had to be made. That company now has four people on full time doing computer repair and assisting customers. Whidbey Tel up on Whidbey Island, which is just across Puget Sound from Seattle, is another one that has invested heavily in that kind of interactive work with their customers. To help them understand not just that they have access, but how that access works and how they can maximize what they do have available to them.

    Craig:

    What is the average bandwidth that is available for consumers across the span of your membership?

    Betty:

    It varies significantly because of how diverse the properties or service areas are. There are several areas where if you want a gig to your house, not a problem. You go down to Toledo, Washington, which is south of Seattle by a couple of hours, but only an hour away from Portland, it’s an adorable little town, and ToledoTel provides Fiber-to-the-Home so it’s become a bedroom community of Portland. If you want to move right into Toledo and get a gig to your house, not a problem. There are areas such as Ellensburg, where we have one of our larger member companies and they have a partial copper system, but still a very effective copper system. Many of the people in those areas get only one at the downside, but significantly faster, the closer you get into town. That’s an area of where that company is currently expanding its system, using some Connect America Funds (CAF) to upgrade their system. So there’s a lot of that going on in several of our companies right now.

    Rural Broadband Funding

    Craig:

    Let’s talk about funding.  You mentioned CAF and there is the RDOF auction coming up as well.  Those funds are supposed to be for rural broadband service providers to address the issue of the digital divide. Some believe that the digital divide is narrowing when it’s actually expanding in so many parts of the country. Talk about how so much of what you’re involved in, is fighting the good fight to make sure that the opportunity to have access to those funds from Washington, DC are available to your members.

    Betty:

    Government tends to create programs that are one size fits all, and that simply doesn’t make any sense. There are solutions that might help with the price of services in an urban area for example create a new competitor. Those programs don’t do the same thing for rural areas and have a negative effect really on rural areas. I had to chuckle the other day, one of my members called me, he’s got a Fiber-to-the-Home network in several parts of a very rural County, and there’s an unserved area where a certain group wants to provide service to that area. So, they got themselves a grant to write a study.

    Betty:

    And I have to say, if you give me one more study, I’m just going to do something really unladylike because we’ve been studying this problem to death! If you want to give me $50,000, I’ll do a study for you. The study is this. The results of the study are: 1. Broadband is really important. 2. Everyone needs to have it. 3. Everyone deserves to have it. 4. There are lots of reasons to have it. 5. It’s really expensive. That was it. I hope you enjoy the results of the study.

    Craig:

    Why is there a disconnect between the very straightforward concepts that you just talked about and what’s happening in DC? We’re at a time where this is a golden opportunity to take advantage of the critical mass that is forming all across the country. To ensure that in rural America, that we get it right, so that the funding is just not good money after bad.

    Betty:

    Let me circle back to the member I was starting to talk about… there’s another company who wants to serve what they’re saying are unserved parts of the area and that company is doing a study. So they sent a letter to a number of entities in that County saying, “Hey, would you really like to have great service? Because we’re doing this study.” One of the letters went to the mayor of a small town served by this particular [WITA] member saying, “Would you like great broadband?” The mayor sent the letter to my member and said, “Do they know you exist? Because we have fiber from you!  I think we’re okay.” So there’s a big disconnect there.

    Betty:

    Let’s take a look at RDOF. I would love to think that RDOF is going to be the salvation of rural America. But when you look at how much money is available through RDOF and you compare that to the number of areas that are qualified to bid on and receive that money – the total of those areas is more than 40% greater than the amount of money available to serve those areas. Let’s say you choose to bid on an area that is unserved, according to the map, and you bid a million dollars to service that area. The next thing that happens is that the FCC will add up all those bids. And they’ll say, “That’s great. We came in at 20% over our budget. So now you don’t get a million dollars, you get $800,000. Oh, and by the way we’re also going to do an additional count on the number of locations you have to pass with that 800,000. And when we first started this process, there were only 300 locations to pass. Now there are 344 locations. So, we need you to pass 344 locations for the $800,000.”  It’s a fairly risky business, the number of locations to serve goes up and the dollar amount to service them goes down.  The math doesn’t work well.

    Betty:

    And if you’re not going to provide fiber, you get an even larger cut/deduction in the amount of money that you’ll be receiving. They’re trying to push fiber and so are my members, so that’s not a significant problem. But it’s a rather risky operation. It all comes down to how much money is going to be available. All of the programs we have seen, to date, indicate that a certain percent of our country is simply not going to get served. We’re going to wait for satellite service to improve or something along those lines. But no one’s going to run a line out to my ranch for example. It’s a $1.6 million build, and maybe you’re going to pass 15 to 20 homes along the way. That’s just not going to happen. Although we haven’t really come out and said it, we’ve already made the decision that not everybody is going to get served. Not right now anyway.

    Craig:

    What would it take for people to admit that the data that’s being used to make decisions on the distribution of these funds is way out of whack with reality? What has to change? How do we do that?

    Betty:

    I think people are aware of it. I think that we have to understand how much money might be available. It’s a really complicated problem because it is about the money, but it’s also about other access issues. One of the things I’ve learned in the last few months, listening to people working on digital equity issues, is that it’s not just about money for the infrastructure – it’s money for devices, it’s money for IT training. how do you get an IT person in a small rural school?  My focus has been on rural broadband and so I haven’t taken as much of a step back as I have in the last few months, to get back to my previous life in a community technology issues as a whole.

    Betty:

    Our member companies are frequently involved in providing IT services to those schools that really can’t afford their own IT person. So, some training dollars are needed there. Everybody just has to take a deep breath and say, okay, this is a really big problem. In Washington State, we estimate, based on my members build costs, that it’s going to take $2 billion to build to 25/3 [download/upload Mbps] all across the state. That’s not the amount of money that they’re going to get out of RDOF or any other fund. So, what are we willing do?

    Fiber Broadband Deployment Barriers

    Craig:

    While that number is $2 billion today, the longer that we wait, that number gets larger and larger. Had there been the will to go down this road years ago, it would have been a much smaller number than $2 billion to give coverage to everyone. Earlier you mentioned a rather notable resident of western Washington State. He and his wife formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create community opportunity programs. There’s also a lot of state sponsored funding to help teach about the internet. Talk about the WITA’s involvement in that.

    Betty:

    We are of the belief that there needs to be more done than just infrastructure development. That the state should get more involved, as we did back in the CTOP days, the Community Technology Opportunities Program, which still exists but hasn’t received funding for several years now. We believe the state should be more focused on those kinds of efforts. We also believe that the state should be looking at a broad range of barriers to broadband deployment. It’s about permitting. It’s about the cost of the polls, where we do hang on polls. It’s about the cost of training people to understand what the internet can do for them. It’s about getting infrastructure out to libraries. There’s a broad range of things.

    Betty:

    My members are of the belief that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was going in the right direction when they looked at and then created the CTOP program. More work like that needs to be done. We’ve had members involved in community technology programs.  ToledoTel, which I mentioned earlier, was a recipient of a CTOP grant years ago and got into the business of helping to train and provide devices for people. There’s a lot of work to be done.

    Craig:

    I did want to mention the organization that you co-founded and directed, Stone Soup, a nonprofit designed to improve the lives of women through entrepreneurship and computer proficiency. Tell us more about that.

    Partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Give Back to the Community

    Betty:

    My sister and I were sitting around one evening and talking about how we wished we could have a greater impact on communities, like the one in which we were raised. We were raised in Kettle Falls, Washington, a town of about a thousand people. Their biggest claim to fame is that they have an annual Grump contest. If you would like, you can run for Town Grump! It’s a great little town

    Betty:

    I’m fourth generation in this area, my family homesteaded here in about 1892 and we wanted to figure out a way to give back. What we decided is that she had the financial ability to run an organization and I had the administrative background to run an organization. Then we spent the next few months looking at what kinds of services were available out there already. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We didn’t want to duplicate what some other nonprofit was already doing well. What we found was that it’s very difficult for nonprofits to get funding, to develop their own infrastructure. And by that, I mean training for their board on how to do fundraisers, how to do fund development, how to write a job description, how to put your client’s information on a computer.

    Betty:

    All those kinds of things that make an organization more efficient. And so that’s where we focused. Because my background was in management, a part of the deal was that they got free consulting time from me. That’s a service we provided in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, over several years. During that period of time, we would get funding requests for computer centers. For example, shelters for women who wanted to have a computer lab where they could do some training for the women who were staying at their facility. That’s not the kind of thing that we funded, but it was the kind of thing that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Washington State Program at that time.

    Betty:

    I went to the head of that program and said, “Okay, we’re this little tiny program. We get these applications and they’re more appropriate for you. How about I turn them over to you?” And he said, “Better yet, how about you work with those organizations so that they become viable enough to apply for and receive a larger grant from our program.” That’s where the partnership started with that organization. We have women who crocheted hats, for example, who are still in business. They now work with an organization in Seattle selling their crocheted hats in the Pike Place Market.

    Craig:

    You referenced a moment ago being the fourth generation of your family living near the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington. You’re also a fourth-generation rancher and up until the last couple of years, took a very retro approach to farming the several hundred acres that you have. Any truth to that, that it wasn’t tractors, but draft horses that you and your husband used?

    Betty:

    It would be Rainy, Lucky, Windy, and Sunny – our Belgians. Rainy, would like you to know that he was actually a Belgian quarter horse cross, which made him particularly handsome. So yes, my husband had logged with horses for 30 years. He logged in places like the Redwoods in California, areas where people didn’t want as heavy a footprint on their property, but did need some tree thinning done, some rather significant tree thinning done. My husband had been doing that for a long time. He logged a bit up until just the last few years. And we farmed our ranch with horses until we decided that both the horses and my husband were getting too old and it was time to get a tractor. But yeah, there aren’t a lot of people around who know how to drive a three [horse] hitch.

    Craig:

    I imagine that would make for some pretty interesting photo ops for people passing the ranch.

    Betty:

    We actually had people stopping when we would be out in the field. At first we thought let’s put up a sign that says, “We’re not Amish” and then we decided the better sign would be, “What’s your carbon footprint?”

    Craig:

    We appreciate you taking the time to visit with us and share the work that the WITA is doing.

    Betty:

    I really appreciate your time today. Rural issues don’t get much play, and I appreciate you spending the time to learn more about what’s going on and what great services are provided by the WITA member companies.

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