The Rural Broadband Association: Access at the Edge

Work in the realm of cyborg anthropology means listening. Rural broadband access is a vital part of lessening the 'digital divide' between the know and known-nots—people who have access to the wealth of information, especially multimedia, on the web. 

Today, I had the opportunity to open the QuEST Forum Americas Conference, where top telecom providers and their vendors come together to raise the quality, stability, speed and security of modern networks. More exciting, though, was the session which followed. The discussion was a talk by Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association. NTCA is is doing work to ensure that the edges of our networks get the access necessary to advance our society. The 40%+ of our country which doesn't have access to life-changing data, voice and video services bringing education, economic opportunity and vital information are the reason NTCA exists. 

How do you provide modern data service in areas where the money just doesn't make sense?

Bloomfield brings up the challenge of providing access where it just doesn't make sense financially. There are opportunities for large providers to cooperate with local providers—who already have the relationships and teams to serve customers in rural environments. Rural life has huge needs for access: 

  • Aging in place: remote/telemedicine and communications to support a high quality of life for seniors committed to staying in their homes and communities
  • Agriculture: connected data on agriculture yields, weather, threats to crops and coordination of shared resources
  • Hospitals: sharing data securely for patient records, educating staff and patients, remote teaching hospitals and other key services dependent on larger data pools
  • New business opportunities for remote workers

NTCA certifies their network providers as 'GIG-Capable' when they reach the capacity for gigabit network connections. They also designate 'SMART Rural Communities'—communities where schools and hospitals and others critical community services are able to tap in to the best of the modern web.

The association also works with the FCC and other organizations to ensure that regulators at the national level understand the necessity of access at the edges of the network.

Questions from the audience: 

  • Who owns the data collected by partners like John Deere?

    • Farmers like to own and collect their data. Getting farmers comfortable with data services—terms of ownership included—is difficult. Teams at John Deere and the USDA and the Rural Broadband Association are working together to determine how to share data for common benefit while maintaining privacy. 

  • How are hospitals relating to these efforts?

    • It's important to support patients so that they don't need to return to hospitals from remote areas as often. Getting medical practitioners up to speed about how to use newer data-based services to increase the quality of care and offset the costs of the new data services being contracted. 

  • How do we scale this from a financial perspective?

    • Pricing is a huge challenge. But coordination between big and small organizations alike causes breakthroughs with unique pricing models because small rural communities understand the importance of providing access and that business models have to work in order for access to happen.