Given a chance, what would you say to a top federal policy maker about rural broadband? I had my chance at the Broadband Properties Summit this week in Dallas with USDA Rural Utilities Services Administrator Jonathan Adelstein. I first saw him in the elevator and he asked me what I wanted to hear from him during his keynote. I asked him how we will get broadband to the countryside surrounding RBOC-served communities that have been CLEC’d by smaller independent companies who have cherry-picked the significant customer base in the town but are unable to overbuild the countryside. He told me that this was too hard of a question! As we got off the elevator, I saw that he was heading to the restaurant for breakfast alone. I overcame my natural shyness and asked him if I could join him and he welcomed me to his table. What followed was a very interesting discussion (at least for me!).
He was a very good questioner. We talked about the marvel of cooperatives as a model for rural broadband development. We talked about the appropriate scale for this type of cooperative development and whether new cooperatives could make it economically today as start-ups. Necessary scale versus local control – how does one find that balance. As Minnesota’s telecommunications providers get larger through acquisitions (CenturyLink purchasing Embarq and Qwest, growing independent telcos like ACS, Iowa Telecom and New Ulm Telephone), will the connection to the local community remain a priority?
The Broadband Properties Summit includes a focus on the business linkages between real estate development and telecom services. Telecom providers like ATT and Verizon pay real estate developers commission when tenants sign on with these providers. This got me thinking about if there was any real differences between an apartment building and a community? If communities are actively working to boost broadband adoption and subscriptions for community economic vitality, what is the proper role between communities and their providers on broadband promotion initiatives? I will be meeting with Minnesota’s telecom providers to discuss this very topic as we prepare to implement the Blandin Foundation’s MN Intelligent Community NTIA BTOP program.