How Broadband Providers are Building Smart Rural Communities

Episode ID S2E05
March 8, 2023

The most significant outcome of rural broadband is the difference it can make for unserved and underserved communities—the patients, students and farmers behind the statistics. In this episode of All Day Digital, guest Josh Seidemann, vice president of policy and industry innovation for NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, outlines how broadband providers magnify their impact with the Smart Rural Community initiative.


Josh Seidemann: We want them to think more expansively beyond the miles of network fiber that results from a policy. We want them to think in terms of, well, okay, how many patients now just had a better health outcome? How many students had greater opportunities? How many farmers were able to reduce their use of chemical and increase yield and productivity?

Jeff Johnston: That was Josh Seidemann, vice president policy and industry innovation for NTCA, regarding the impact smart rural communities can have on their residents. 

Hi, I’m Jeff Johnston and welcome to the All Day Digital podcast where we talk to industry executives and thought leaders to get their perspective on a wide range of factors shaping the communications industry. This podcast is brought to you by CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange group.

The NTCA’s Smart Rural Community initiative is about fostering an environment of fiber providers who are committed to driving growth and creating opportunities with educators, health care providers, farmers and other partners to help ensure their rural communities thrive.

Josh sits at the forefront of this initiative and his deep understanding of rural communities, broadband and technology makes him an ideal guest to discuss the economical and physiological impact broadband has on rural communities.

So, without any further ado, pitter patter, let’s hear what Josh has to say.

Jeff: Josh, welcome to the podcast. It's a pleasure to have you here with us today.

Josh: Thank you, and I appreciate being here.

Jeff: Great. Well, hey, I'm really excited to talk to you today about the NTCA and what they're doing or what you guys are doing with your Smart Rural Community initiative. Maybe you could just give us a little bit of background on the NTCA and maybe more specifically the Smart Rural Community initiative that you guys are undertaking.

Josh: Absolutely. Thank you. NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association is a trade association that's based just outside of Washington DC. We represent about 850 locally operated rural broadband providers and telephone companies.

All of our members are broadband deployed. About 80% of them are actually getting fiber to the prem in 80% of their locations. On behalf of these companies who are members, we represent them before the Federal Communications Commission as well as other federal agencies like USDA and the FDC. We represent them on Capitol Hill. We provide educational and training programming for them as well, and really help them as they manage really, quite simply, the business of doing business. Getting those networks out there, making sure that they have the resources available to continue to upgrade and maintain those networks over time.

Our Smart Rural Community initiative is a program that we started about 10 years ago. There are several goals to this program, but primarily, it takes as almost axiomatic that that robust fiber broadband network is there. Then what we do is we encourage our members to work with other industry leaders in their communities. Whether that's agriculture, healthcare, economic development, education, and to identify and develop ways that broadband can improve those other services in those communities.

We do this in a few ways. We publish white papers and case studies. We have an annual awards program. The goal of this is to really coax out of these ordinarily reticent members all of the good things that they're doing in their communities. Hopefully what that does is it inspires other members to follow their lead, to say to themselves, hey if that company in Indiana is doing that with their school district, there's no reason why I can't do it with mine.

What that does then is you create this, I'd say this constellation of smart rural communities throughout the United States that really demonstrates what broadband can do for rural America. The add-on benefit, of course, is for policymakers and for our advocacy because very often, and understandably so, policymakers are focused on how many locations can we serve with this program? How many more people will be connected? We want them to think more expansively beyond the miles of network fiber that results from a policy. We want them to think in terms of, well, okay, how many patients now just had a better health outcome? How many students had greater opportunities? How many farmers were able to reduce their use of chemical and increase yield and productivity?

It's not just that discreet, it's not that dollar into fund broadband results in X miles of fiber. It's what were the gains in agriculture, education, healthcare. It's really a general input technology and it's a general input investment.

Jeff: Well, that's fantastic because when I think about what we learned from the pandemic is we learned how incredibly vulnerable those living in rural America are who do not have access to a reliable high-speed broadband connection to take advantage of all the applications that are out there.

For the NTCA to really be spearheading this Smart Rural Community initiative to get those applications deployed and get those cities connected, I think is incredibly powerful. Certainly commend you guys for undertaking that.

I want to talk a little bit about funding because this is important. At the end of the day we need funding to build these networks and they're not cheap. There's been a lot of talk lately around various federal and state funding programs that are out there.

Of course, the big one being the BEAD program where there's about $42.5 billion that's earmarked for rural infrastructure broadband builds. I'd love to get your thoughts on that. Is that enough? Or do you think there's additional funding or additional approaches that maybe we should be thinking about?

Josh: That's a great question. There's always this tension of how much do we have to invest before we're done? The answer is, the way that I see it is, broadband is a moving target. Think of all the years ago when we moved from dial-up modem to DSL and then we moved into fiber optics and businesses had a T1 line. We thought, my gosh, this is incredible. Is it going to get any better? Then the conversation shifted was, well, I'm managing everything. I've got email and I can do my banking online. What else do I need?

Then we think about all the devices that come into IOT and the internet of things my connected stove and my washing machine and my dishwasher. I think we have to start with the proposition that demand for broadband, not just in terms of the number of people who will want it, but the capacity that each of us will demand is only going to grow.

Getting back to the question of whether $42.5 billion is enough, there was a study conducted, I think five years ago in 2018. I think then they estimated that it would be $61 billion to connect all the unconnected locations throughout the United States.

I think that $42.5 billion is historic. It is generational. It is remarkable. I think it speaks volumes to the recognition that Congress on both sides of the aisle had the growing import of broadband, not just for rural America, but for all areas because BEAD can be used in rural and unserved urban spaces as well.

The only caveat that I would place on my enthusiasm, and again, it's not to depress anything but it's, again, just to remind everyone. We also have programs that are administered by the Federal Communications Commission, the Universal Service Fund. If you're not deeply in the weeds, a person could understandably ask, wait a minute, you just injected $42.5 billion into broadband. Why do we need this FCC program?

There's a difference between capex programs that's paid for the deployment of the initial network, and then programs like the Universal Service Fund which are intended-- again, according to different Congressional directive from the 1996 Telecom Act-- that people in rural and insular areas have a congressional mandate that they should have access to the same, to reasonably comparable levels of communication services as do people in urban areas and at reasonably comparable rates.

BEAD is a capital expenditure program that gets the network in the ground. Let's turn up the service. Universal Service Fund ensures that, over the long-term, networks that have useful lives of 20 to 30 years, that those networks can continue to provide services at affordable rates and can be upgraded and maintained as time goes forward.

Jeff: I think that's a really important distinction you made because I think a lot of people are like, well, hey, if the government paid for the network to be built or paid for the majority of the costs for the network to be built, you're good to go. You should be fine. By the way, you're welcome.

I think what's lost in on a lot of folks is, well, it's not that straightforward because economically these networks may not pencil out from an operating expenditure standpoint without additional support. I think that's a really important distinction,

Josh: 1000%. I think one of the easiest analogies to think about is the network security that you use on your home computer. You don't install it in 2020 and then leave it untouched for the next five years.

Jeff: Yes, absolutely. Josh, how do you view broadband really functioning or as a function within rural communities? You touched a little bit on that stuff, but maybe if you can go a little bit deeper about how these technologies are ingrained in rural life.

Josh: Let's use the phrase “general input technology.” Again, I don't want to get into a conversation of whether broadband is a public utility, but think about the role of electricity in your daily life. Think about a day in your life without electricity. Think about a day in your life without broadband.

What are the use cases for rural America? Let's think about education. If you have a high school with 400 students, and that could be a big high school for some of these communities, you might have some students who are interested in taking courses that others aren't interested in taking. An AP physics, an AP calculus, maybe a foreign language course. There just might not be the economies of scale to have a teacher come in and teach a half a dozen students.

With distance education and broadband, you can aggregate a number of students in surrounding communities, put them in a virtual classroom, boom. It's not that they'd have the opportunity to take this course, but you've suddenly opened up a door to their entire future and career opportunities as well, because they can now start to experiment with courses and ideas and opportunities that they wouldn't have had the chance to do, but for that access that broadband enabled.

You take a look at healthcare. I think it's around 70% of healthcare shortage provider areas are in rural counties in the United States. Telehealth provides a great option that I don't have to get in my car and drive an hour and a half to a hospital for a simple office visit that could be conducted over the wires. That itself only takes 15 minutes.

I'm sure we'll dig into some detail on agriculture. Precision ag and agtech is growing day after day. There was some incredible demonstrations at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas just a couple of months ago. Again, all of these things that we do in life, our farming, our schooling, our working, our healthcare, all of those improve with the use of broadband.

Jeff: That makes a lot of sense. I guess, too, as I think about that from a global perspective, the investments that are being made by the federal and state governments to build out broadband in rural communities, I would even argue that that enhances the United States' competitiveness from a global perspective. How many brilliant minds are there in rural America that don't have the opportunity to develop new technologies and new products because they don't have broadband? You could even look at it from that perspective. Would you agree with that?

Josh: 1,000%. There are no borders to intellect. It's a conversation that comes up both domestically, it comes up in international relations as well. There's no construct that says because you live in a city of 5,000 or 10,000 people, we're going to move you off to the side and we're going to focus on sending the big city kids into the high-tech jobs.

Jeff: Let's talk a little bit about applications, economic development.

Certainly, intuitively, I would think that the more broadband there is in rural America, there is an associated economic benefit from that. That's just intuitively thinking through that. Maybe you could give us some specifics, if you've got some, around the impacts that you've seen when networks are built in some of these communities.

Josh: I think for a long time you had communities that relied on major manufacturing centers and factories and that was the economic force in town. You've seen a lot of rural towns contract when a large manufacturing facility begins to close. There's this notion of, my gosh, we've got to pursue that next big employer who's going to come in and support 500 jobs.

That's really an elusive silver bullet. What we like to talk about at NTCA, and particularly in the Smart Rural Community program is, let's stop focusing on the silver bullet. They're great when you find them, but silver buckshot can be a much more effective strategy.

If we're thinking about what broadband can do for economic development in a small town, imagine small or medium-sized businesses whose markets are now no longer defined by the 24 to 48-hour shipping route that they can manage. Or local advertising, but with a web presence, that they can really do business across the country, across the region, across the world.

The opportunity not just to support your workers teleworking from home down the street but to have people in that community teleworking for businesses hundreds of miles away, or for you to hire the right talent that may be hundreds of miles away.

What all that does is you begin to build those-- again, it's small, they're small LEGO blocks, but those small LEGO blocks interconnect and create a very strong and resilient tax base in the business community in those rural spaces.

Jeff: Josh, we can't really talk about broadband in rural America without talking about precision agriculture. You touched on it a little bit earlier, but I'd love to dig into it a little bit deeper. When I just take a step back and I look what's happening in the economy, we're seeing input prices like fertilizer, for example, going up significantly. Would love to get your thoughts on agriculture, broadband, precision ag, reduced inputs or increased outputs, however you want to approach it, but any thoughts on that would be great.

Josh: Let's start off where you started with input costs. We'll take a look first at some crop farming applications and we'll take a look at animal farming. The Ohio State University issued a report late last year. Nitrogen prices-- nitrogen is a starter fertilizer for row crops-- doubled since last year.

There are some others, MAP and DAP, these are starter fertilizers. They have increased nearly 100%. Potash, which is used to activate enzymes and growing plants is up over 133%.

John Deere at CES introduced some new applications to what they call See & Spray. What this consists of is a tractor and it has a boom from one end to the other. It's 100 feet wide, and it has 36 cameras on it. What those cameras do is they capture images as this tractor drives down field anywhere from 10 to 15 miles an hour.

Captures the images. It sees a plant growing, it determines whether that plant is friend or foe because weeds are bullies. By the time that back end of the equipment is passing over, it knows whether it has applied, in that exact spot, 0.2 milliliters of chemical, either as a herbicide to kill that plant or fertilizer to help it grow.

John Deere predicts and projects that these systems can reduce chemical usage by about 60%.

On the animal farming side, this stuff is just incredible, and I love talking about it. There is a firm called 406 Bovine. They have created facial recognition technology for cattle.

This technology to support livestock and dairy and poultry, it includes monitoring animal health, controlling feed, observing behavior.

When you and I don't feel well, we're grumpy. We don't look so good. Animals are the same way. This AI-driven facial recognition technology can determine, is this a happy cow or a sick cow? It can be used to verify really the origination of the animal from birth, through farming, through sale, through auction, through transport.

You can isolate sick animals before they infect the rest of the herd or the henhouse.

We're talking about microphones that can distinguish between different types of coughs. We're talking about air sensors and poultry facilities that can determine whether there are incidences of intestinal disease in the flock, and where it is, and where we need to start separating out.

Again, all of these are opportunities to reduce input costs, to increase efficiencies.

Jeff: Just to bring it full circle, broadband is needed because you've got to collect this data, you've got to manage this data, and it may be done in an edge computing location, not on the farm. You need broadband connectivity to get back to the server or to the data center. It all is interrelated.

Josh: Right. You want to get fiber to the farmhouse, and you want to make sure that out in the field you have wireless connectivity that can connect to the cloud for on-the-go solutions.

Jeff: Let's talk a little bit about sports, eSports in particular, Josh. This area is exploding. There's professional tournaments, people are making lots of money, but of course, you need broadband connectivity to play eSports. Talk to me a little bit about eSports in rural America and what's happening there from a broadband perspective?

Josh: Absolutely. I will be the first to admit that when eSports crossed my desk, I was a little skeptical because it does not involve cleats. You don't have to shower afterwards. Nobody's fighting for a bottle of Bengay.

Again, that's just because of the name. The bottom line is, it's really no different than any other club or extracurricular activity that you're going to find in the school. The difference is, though, that eSports is projected to be a $317 million market value in just the U.S, this coming year.

Jeff: Wow.

Josh: You have sponsors, you have people who are getting involved, and it's not just kids. It's moving up through young adults as well. There are a few different angles and benefits that are arising out of this. Number one, for the kids, this is an opportunity to be part of a team. It's another opportunity to be part of a team, to be part of a club, to be part of something.

Because it's all online, I'm not restricted to the half dozen people in my neighborhood who just happen to be interested in this. Now I've broken down geographic barriers by forming teams of people from different locations throughout the country. We've broken down demographic barriers.

Maybe I'm in a fairly homogenous community. I get to now interact with people with different backgrounds, so race spaces, sex spaces. That begins to disappear in the online eSports environments. You've got that. It's the club building. It's the opportunity in a very fun situation to build soft skills like team building and problem-solving and coordination, and cooperation.

You move it down to the business of the broadband provider, it increases demand for the service for high-capacity services. Then if we take it one step forward, and you spoke before about things that we think about intuitively, but are they really true? You'd think, okay, so you got a bunch of gamers and these people want to get into it. You're pretty skilled at modding out your desktop. You're fiddling with the equipment. You've got an understanding of how the network works with some of the technology and the end user technology.

We spoke to one of our rural companies that serves a fairly remote area. They said they had a couple of IT positions open. This is a company that hosts eSports teams and tournaments. They said they put out the job posting on their eSport community board and they filled two positions within 30 days. It's, again, cultivating a pipeline of skilled workers and a skilled labor force for the broadband industry in a way that very naturally bridges what we call the “relevance gap” in education, which is, does this really apply to me?

Jeff: That's fascinating. I never thought about eSports from that perspective, but you're right. The skills development is certainly an aspect of it. It's mental health too. I think there's a mental health element from whether it's broadening your horizons, meeting new people, but maybe more importantly, isolation.

A lot of people, I think, in rural America feel isolated. People can feel isolated in urban areas too. But certainly, in rural America, there's a certain isolation element to that. When you start playing games and interacting with new communities, that starts to go away.

Josh: You actually touched on an incredibly salient psychological issue. This really begins to get us full circle in terms of the use of broadband in healthcare. Now we get into the therapeutic applications as well. The people who really dig into the issues will tell us that there's a difference between isolation and loneliness. Isolation means I'm by myself in this location. Loneliness means that my emotional needs for connecting with other people have not been met. I can be isolated, but it doesn't mean that I have to be lonely.

I can be fully in a group of people and yet be lonely. As you pointed out, what that broadband connectivity does is, if you're isolated, it gives you an opportunity to ensure that you've got that antidote to loneliness right there because you can connect with others, who have those interests, who are like-minded.

Jeff: Well, Josh, look, we covered a lot of great material here today. Before we wrap it up, I want to give you an opportunity to address anything that wasn't addressed or talk about anything that you feel is important to cover before we say goodbye.

Josh: I think the closing thought that I keep thinking about-- and this is something we touched upon earlier-- we were talking about opportunities that students have that distance education affords. There's no guarantee where any of us end up in life. What we ought to do as a national policy, and that's really a human policy, is ensure that everybody has an equal opportunity.

What broadband does is it enables that opportunity. It means that no matter where you are, you have the opportunity to interact. You have the opportunity to learn, to work, to avail yourself of healthcare. Is it equivalent in all cases? No. It certainly increases, exponentially, the opportunity that people have to grow personally, to develop, and to contribute.

Jeff: Great. Well said, Josh. Well said. That's a great place to leave it. Thank you so much for being with us here today on the podcast.

Josh: Thank you.

Jeff: A special thanks goes out to Josh for joining us on the podcast today.

I think Josh made a very important point when he said that we need to kind of change the narrative and focus on the impact broadband has on unserved and underserved rural communities, versus just focusing on the number of homes passed. Coverage is obviously a critically important component, but making sure communities are taking full advantage of everything broadband connectivity has to offer is also extremely important, because that is where profound impacts can be made in rural America. 

Hey thank for joining me today, and watch out for the next episode of the All Day Digital podcast.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by listeners for such purposes. The information contained in this podcast has been compiled from what CoBank regards as reliable sources. However, CoBank does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this podcast. In no event will CoBank be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this podcast.

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