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Light Reading Network X Americas
May 21-23, 2024
Irving Convention Center at Las ColinasIrving, Texas

Are US funding programs just one piece in the puzzle of achieving universal connectivity?

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, talks to the team about the next five years in broadband, challenges for rural operators and trends to watch.

Shirley Bloomfield


NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

Q: Tell us about NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association: what is the key focus of the organization?

A: NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association is the premier association representing over 850 independent, community-based telecoms companies that are leading innovative change in Smart Rural Communities℠ across America.

NTCA is committed to advancing policies to help close the digital divide; it advocates on behalf of small, rural broadband providers in the legislative and regulatory arenas; provides educational programming, training, and development; and offers an array of employee benefit programs.

Q: What is your view of the progress so far on the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program?

A: Standing up the largest broadband funding program in history is no easy task and takes time. The US’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been working around the clock to review the initial proposals of each US state.

At NTCA, we greatly appreciate their willingness to listen to the concerns our provider members have and to seek a balance between accountability in the use of program funds and relief of administrative burdens that could prevent small, rural broadband providers from pursuing funding.

There are still some key decisions to be made, however, and we continue to hope that NTIA will work with the states and potential applicants to adopt reasonable policies on issues like the scope of low-cost service options and prioritization of certain kinds of broadband projects.

Q: What are your predictions for the US broadband industry, five years from now?

A: To begin with, NTCA members are already relatively well deployed in terms of fiber and broadband. NTCA’s 2023 Broadband/Internet Availability Survey Report highlighted that, on average, nearly 84% of respondents’ customers are connected by fiber. But there is still more to do to reach those in need of better connectivity.

In the next five years, two distinct broadband challenges in rural America will need to be confronted. Firstly, where broadband hasn’t been deployed yet, there will be a race to build using BEAD, ReConnect, and other federal and state funding. If anything, the hard part could be getting supplies, workers, and permit approvals to keep pace with the funding flooding the market.

Secondly, where broadband has been built already (and as more builds are completed over the next several years), the challenge will be sustaining this progress and keeping services affordable. If providers had to charge customers “full cost” for service in these deeply rural areas, it would make service rates in some cases reach over US$200 or US$250 per month. This challenge is often overlooked, but it will become a higher priority over time, as more networks are built and the question increasingly becomes how customers can make good use of services over these networks at affordable rates.

I hope in five years we have a solid network foundation in place in every rural community for lasting connectivity – with a committed service provider, with a proven track record of performance that is ready and eager to deliver on the ongoing mission of universal service.

Q: What are the key challenges for rural broadband operators?

A: The greatest challenges for rural broadband operators are making the business case for initial investment in networks and the ongoing delivery of high-quality services to customers at affordable rates. It’s important to be clear on this. Many focus on the initial challenge of deployment, but that’s just the first step in the longer-term effort of getting and keeping rural communities connected.

This is why, as exciting and meaningful as the new grant programs are, they’re only a part of the overall picture in sustaining rural broadband. The federal Universal Service Fund (USF) is a mission-critical program that helps to ensure that rural networks can be operated and maintained, and private investments recovered, without the need to charge customers unaffordable rates for services. Sustaining the federal USF will be essential to the viability of rural broadband networks long after the work of the various grant programs is complete, and networks are built.

In addition to the sustainability of the USF, finding the workforce necessary to build and maintain networks is a challenge for NTCA members. And, with BEAD funding coming, supply chain issues are also top of mind. With the ambitious buildout timelines that apply under the program, it will be critical that providers have access to equipment and materials that they need to deploy networks as soon as possible.

Q: What do you aim to achieve by attending Light Reading Network X Americas?

A: I look forward to sharing the perspectives of small, rural providers as part of broader discussions about the telecoms and broadband industries.

Q: What current telecoms innovations will be industry trends to watch in 2024?

A: The broadband industry is constantly evolving, and at every turn, small, community-based providers have been leading the way. NTCA’s membership includes more than 250 Smart Rural Community℠ providers, who are not only connecting their customers with high-speed broadband but have demonstrated commitment to driving growth and creating opportunities to help their communities thrive.

As just one example, we have several members who are leveraging their network investments and broadband innovation to engage with esports and robotics teams. Some members are even hosting their own esports tournaments that draw hundreds of participants. Our members are also partnering with hospitals to improve access to telehealth services. The list goes on and on, and I am looking forward to seeing further innovation from our members throughout 2024.

Shirley Bloomfield will be speaking at Light Reading Network X Americas. Join us in Texas from May 21-23, 2024, to find out how telecoms stakeholders in the US are working to close the digital divide in rural areas.