I had the pleasure to attend some of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance Spring Conference this week. It’s always interesting to talk with the providers who are working on the frontlines of rural communities. I spoke with folks in small rural areas who (Emily Telephone) who provide fiber to their customers and folks who cover a more territory (Paul Bunyan Telephone) and are often asked to expand into new areas. I’m hoping to post more later on some of the conversations we had.
It was also interesting to attend some of the sessions where providers learned about opportunities to expand their services. Conversation of the cloud seemed to be a hot topic. It was fun to hear about the range of services that are available – from remote monitoring to management.
One of the highlights was a keynote conversation between FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield, which is captured in the video below. (Thanks for Brent Christensen for permission and John Schultz for help with video.) The video includes a nice introduction from Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Al Franken advocating for the need to expand broadband.
Unfortunately the quality of the video isn’t the best while Commissioner Clyburn is speaking – although it gets better after the first 15 minutes. Bloomfield did ask about the Chairman Genachowski and Commissioner McDowell stepping down. The assumption is that the 1700 people working at the Commission will be able to carry on.
Here’s a very abbreviated list of questions from the video…
What are your priorities?
Lifeline reform, universal service reform, broadband pilot programs. Healthcare is also important. We want enhanced and more robust service for consumers.
Universal service and Intercarrier Compensation and need for predictability are important to providers. How will the Sixth Order help?
We’re in a state of transition. The market breeds unpredictability. We have been engaged with reforms that we all agreed had to happen.
Clyburn talks about highlights
- MTA members use funding to provide broadband but there was a need for efficiencies and we have been addressing that need. In the long run we’ll all be better off.
- We have tried to create a smooth transition to leaving within our means while providing the most modern service available.
A lot of providers have lost of SafetyNet additive support for investments made in hard to reach (high cost) areas. Are you looking at consistency and stability for these providers in the future?
About 40 percent of consumers are choosing mobile over fixed phone lines. The challenge is also an opportunity. Providers can transform current investment to include broadband.
We have aging demographic in rural areas. The transition has been difficult because we have some customers who want only to make calls locally. How do you address the issue of local rates going us while local calling area isn’t?
That’s a difficult question. Hard to serve the most vulnerable population. In some areas the cost is going down due to technology. We made sure that the fund no longer subsidized extremely low rates in some areas. It’s part of the new reality. But we are providing protections. The reforms are set up to support folks who want voice-only services. Also we are concerned about lifeline programs. We are increasing efficiencies. We need that to stay in place. It’s a benefit to all of us to have more people connected – in terms of public safety, to secure jobs and for communication.
We’re concerned about people on fixed incomes and people who don’t quality for lifeline. Calling areas of 900 numbers if not the same service as in metro areas where you can reach so many more. How is this addressed?
Our mission is to make sure there’s competition. With competition we provide a wider range of services. I’ve been hearing about basic phones (voice-only) that will be $10/month.
The services you see for unlimited calling (Magic Jack et al) require broadband. But folks like us who provide basic service cannot meet those prices. How can we compete with Vonage?
But there are people who prefer local providers. You could make the case that your service is superior.
The Chair of the PUC spoke to the group. What do you see as the role for PUCs?
They will become more robust. They will continue to be partners. They will be on the frontlines. That’s why we continue to strengthen the relationships.
Minnesota has statutory authority to set state universal service fund for landline only. They’ve never done it. Will there be an impact on Phase II CAF if we don’t look at state USF?
Yes it could but it’s uncertain. We need to see results of cost models. The biggest impact would be price cap carriers choose to accept federal funds – if they don’t we’ll go to reserve auction, which may present unique opportunities. If the state supported price cap carriers, that might help they move forward.
One issue have been getting all broadband providers to pay in (such as wireless). Is there anything we can do to make that happen at a state level?
No. Some states have adopted different approaches.
Going back to broadband adoption. Several members have been piloting lifeline projects. What do you hope to learn from the pilot programs?
Pilots do help us learn. Broadband adoption is a good goal. We need to find a way to best increase broadband adoption efficiently.
Call completion is a problem here. The FCC has established a site for complaints. Do you have an update?
We have taken steps forward. We understand the dire situation. We have talked to providers about our concern and their responsibilities. We have been collecting comments and have been researching call completions looking at rural vs urban.
Some of our providers also do video and wireless. Spectrum is a big issue. We have folks who have spectrum. We have issues with interoperability. Spectrum auctions were most effective when there were smaller spectrum sections available. We still need a wired network – wireless needs wired.
We do ask people about whether or not here should be a mixed framework. Other countries have created situations that have better suited smaller providers. Competition is best served when there’s a diversity of providers.