By Jim Cook
For the past few years, the Foundation for Rural Service has brought a busload of congressional staff members through rural America. This is a big opportunity.
This year’s tour, which wound through the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, saw the biggest group of legislative aides yet go on the tour. The 2014 tour went through upstate New York, and the 2013 tour exposed the staffers to rural Montana.
FRS took these bright, young staffers — most of whom work for representatives and senators on key commerce, technology and communications committees — out of Washington, D.C., to see what rural broadband looks like firsthand.
The staffers came from across the country, representing places such as Salt Lake City, the Dallas suburbs, Central Florida and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Before moving to the nation’s capital, many of them lived in big cities, such as Chicago. For some, this bus trip may have been the first time they’d ever spent in an area that could be considered rural.
It was good for them to hear rural business owners, hospital administrators and local officials talk about the importance of a broadband connection. It was good for them to see how vibrant rural communities are, and how important cooperatives like ours are to those residents.
And it’s important for them to understand the challenges rural telcos face in building a network that may cost tens of thousands of dollars each mile, with as few as five customers per mile.
Long term, Congress and Washington regulators play a significant role in the strength of our telco and our industry, through issues such as the Universal Service Fund. As you’ve read in this space before, the USF provides funding that allows rural, high-cost providers like us a way to recoup the investments we’ve made in our communities and still provide telephone and broadband service at a price local residents can afford.
Cooperatives like ours work closely with FRS and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association to make sure rural voices are heard among elected officials and policymakers. We’re about to move into a busy election year in 2016, and their work will be more important than ever. You can read more about that in Shirley Bloomfield’s column on Page 2.
Rural telephone companies like ours have a great story to tell, and it’s a story that our country’s leaders need to hear. We are providing service in areas that for-profit companies will not serve, and local residents depend on our network to work, play, shop, learn and connect with friends and family.
I am proud of the work FRS, NTCA and our fellow telcos are doing to bring our voice to leaders in Washington. And I’m proud every day that you’ve trusted NHTC to connect you to the world.