Bringing Congress to Rural America

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

It’s not often that rural telcos like ours get a chance to share our stories, struggles and successes with a busload of congressional staff members.

So when the Foundation for Rural Service recently brought a group of legislative advisors on a bus tour through East Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, we at NCTC made the best of the opportunity.

These bright, young staffers — most of whom work for representatives and senators on key commerce, technology and communications committees — left Washington, D.C., to visit our part of the country and see what rural broadband looks like firsthand.

The staffers came from across the country, representing places such as Salt Lake City, the Dallas suburbs, Central Florida and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Before moving to the nation’s capital, many of them lived in big cities, such as Chicago. For some, this bus trip may have been the first time they’d ever visited a rural area like ours.

While in Lafayette, they toured the NCTC data center, the city’s technology park and Macon County General Hospital. They met with some of our local officials. At one stop on the tour, we explained to a few of the staffers the impact our mission has on local residents. We wanted them to see how vibrant our communities are and to meet the great people in our area. We wanted them to hear rural businesses owners, hospital administrators and local officials talk about the importance of a broadband connection.

It’s critical for congressional leaders to understand the challenges cooperatives like ours face in building a network that may cost tens of thousands of dollars each mile, with as few as five customers per mile.
The tour was a great chance to tell them our cooperative’s story: We are providing service in areas that for-profit companies will not serve, and local residents depend on our network to work, play, shop, learn and connect with friends and family. I am proud NCTC could play a role in bringing the congressional delegation to rural Tennessee and Kentucky.

There is much to be excited about as a member of NCTC. As you may recall, we were designated a Smart Rural Community last year. This year, we were named a “Gig-Capable Provider” by NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. This means NCTC is certified as being able to deliver Internet connection speeds of up to 1 Gbps — that’s 1,000 Mbps. The “Gig” speed you keep hearing about that is coming from the big providers … that impressive service that Google will deliver to Nashville in the future … it is available in many parts of NCTC’s service area today.

Much of that is possible thanks to the broadband stimulus project your cooperative has been working on for three-plus years. I am proud to report that we have completed this progressive construction project — on time and on budget — and that we are delivering advanced telecommunications services across the new fiber optics network.

To hear more good news about your cooperative and the great things happening in our connected communities, please attend our annual meeting on Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Macon County Junior High School. Entertainment begins at noon, and the business meeting starts at 1 p.m. We hope to see you there!

Making a ‘smart’ decision

CEO. Nancy J. White

CEO. Nancy J. White

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

When it comes to technology, we want everything to be “smart” these days. We have smartphones and smart watches, smart appliances in our kitchen and laundry room, smart thermostats and smart home gadgets with smart apps to control them.

While all this smart technology is impressive and can make life more convenient while saving us money, the really smart part of it all is the broadband network that so many of these devices and apps rely on to bring us this functionality.

This trend toward devices that are only possible with broadband is not going away. And as broadband becomes the leading infrastructure driving innovation, it is impacting every facet of our lives.

That’s why NCTC decided long ago that improving broadband service in our rural area was the smart thing to do. And that’s why we worked hard to earn the distinction of being a Smart Rural Community. With access to an advanced broadband network, boundless opportunities open up for our region:

Smarter businesses: Technology allows businesses to reach new customers and better serve the customers they already have. Smart businesses are using data and their broadband connections to learn more about customer habits, streamline supply chains and optimize their operations. Studies have shown that broadband-connected businesses bring in more annual revenue than non-connected businesses. Our network ensures that these tools are available to our local businesses so they can compete regionally, nationally or even globally.

Smarter education: Local teachers and school administrators are doing amazing things with tablets, online resources and other learning tools. These smart schools are opening up new avenues for students to learn. Experts say that nationally, students in schools with broadband connections reach higher levels of educational achievements and have higher-income careers.

Smarter health care: From bracelets that keep track of physical activity to telemedicine, smart technology and broadband are improving the way we monitor and care for our bodies. Physicians are able to confer with other medical experts, transmit X-Rays and lab results and communicate with patients over our network. Through smart electronic medical records, everyone from stroke patients to expectant mothers is receiving better care because hospitals and doctors are getting “smarter.”

Smarter homes: A host of new devices has allowed users to bring smart technology into their homes. Smart devices, some of which are available through North Central, allow you to monitor your home, change the thermostat, turn on lights and even lock or unlock doors remotely. While these smart devices offer plenty of convenience, they are also a smart safety decision to avoid coming home to a dark house or to receive an alert anytime someone pulls into your driveway.

We’ve made smart decisions that put our community in a position to take advantage of this smart revolution. As our devices, businesses, homes, schools and hospitals get smarter, rest assured that your cooperative is smart enough to have the infrastructure in place to handle these demands — plus whatever the future holds.

Empowering members to be advocates for rural telecommunications

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

The results are in. Almost 200 readers responded to The North Central Connection readership survey in our January/February issue. Your responses gave us good insight into what we’re doing right and how we can serve you better.

I appreciate those who took the time to share this valuable feedback with us.

Not surprisingly, the stories about local people in our community and the articles about food are the most popular pages among respondents. But I was pleased to see readers also enjoy the articles with information about your cooperative.

Perhaps that readership is why 85 percent of respondents said this magazine gave them a better understanding of technology, and 90 percent said they have a better understanding of the role this cooperative plays in economic and community development because of The North Central Connection. It’s very gratifying to know our efforts are working.

I shared this data not to boast about how proud we are of this magazine, but to explain the reason why I’m proud of it. I believe having informed and educated members is a key factor to the long-term health of this cooperative.

In fact, educating our members is one of the seven core principles that lay the foundation for a cooperative. The National Cooperative Business Association says members should be informed about company and industry news “so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperative.”

Informed and engaged members make our cooperative better.

Broadband has been in the news quite a bit lately, from net neutrality to the president discussing high-speed network expansion. It’s important for our members to know how federal regulations, state policies and shifts in the industry can affect their broadband and telephone services.

Educating you on issues that matter to rural telecommunications and your community empowers you to become advocates for rural America. Big corporations and urban residents certainly find ways to make their voices heard, and it’s up to cooperatives like us and members like you to let legislators and policymakers know that rural America matters and decisions that affect telecommunications cooperatives matter to rural America.

I hope you enjoy the stories and photos in this magazine. I always do. But I also hope you come away with a little better understanding of your cooperative, the role we play in this community and the role you can play in making rural America better.

With broadband, North Central is unlocking our community’s potential

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

Nancy White

Nancy White

Our culture is fascinated with potential. We talk about athletes at the high school level having great potential, with hopeful futures at the college and pro levels. We talk about friends having the potential to be successful in business, education or the arts.

When we view something as having potential, we believe that within it lies the power for it to become greater than what it is now, to accomplish good things and impact lives in a positive way.

I can’t think of a better description for the broadband network we are building today.

At North Central, we’re nearly finished with our state-of-the-art fiber network. The project, started in 2010, brought more than $50 million into the local economy. The money, which was a grant/loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is transforming our region and preparing us with a new technology that’s truly future-proof.

But that is just the beginning of the story. The most important feature of our broadband network is the potential it holds. Studies have shown that when people put broadband to work in their homes and communities, some exciting things happen:

  • Household incomes rise
  • Job opportunities increase
  • Poverty levels and unemployment drop

The potential is there — but the key to unlocking that potential is you. Some of our customers are doing an outstanding job in this area:

The staff of the Macon County 911 Center is able to keep residents safer than ever before thanks to new technology that enables first responders to get to the scene faster, armed with more information.

At local medical facilities, like Macon County General Hospital, HOPE Family Health and Scottsville Urgent Clinic, X-rays, lab results and other medical information can now be transmitted via the facility’s broadband Internet connection. Physicians can access the information from their computers or smart devices and make treatment decisions before patients arrive.

In 2014, NCTC’s service area was awarded the prestigious honor of being named a Smart Rural Community by the NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. The NTCA developed the award as a way to recognize cooperatives that are promoting and using broadband networks to foster innovative economic development, education, health care and government services.

The network we are building today allows you to take advantage of today’s technology. But here’s the most exciting thing: Where the true power lies is in our network’s ability to adapt to new technologies as they become available, freeing you to explore new ways to put broadband to work. You have the tools to reinvent how you live, work and play.

So go innovate. Go learn. Go imagine new ways to use the technology we are blessed with in this region. Put it to work to change your community, your family, your business. Then be sure to share your story with us. Like those I mentioned above, your story may inspire someone else to unlock the potential of broadband, while discovering the potential inside themselves.

Helping you build the life you want

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer
 
Nancy White

Nancy White

Why do you live in rural America? Maybe it’s family connections. Maybe it’s the close sense of community and the importance of tradition. Maybe it’s because you enjoy a quality of life in this area that would be difficult to find in a metro region.

Whatever your reasons, the people who work at NCTC understand that we play an important role in helping you build the life you want here. As your local telecommunications provider, we know you depend on us to supply the technology you need to stay connected. And that is becoming more important as our world grows increasingly dependent on broadband connections and Internet-based solutions.

Some might think that living in a rural area means sacrificing access to technology. We are proud that, as a member of NCTC, you do not have to sacrifice at all. In fact, because of our focus on building a state-of-the-art network, you have access to Internet speeds higher than those available to some people living in larger cities.

The results have been rewarding. Not only are we impacting lives, but your cooperative has received national recognition for these efforts. As I mentioned briefly in the previous issue, we are the recipient of a national Smart Rural Community award. On Pages 8-9 of this issue, you will find the full story of that award, including our visit to the White House to talk about our work to bring fiber technology to the region. You’ll also see examples of the relationships we’ve built that helped earn us the recognition.

On Page 12 is a feature story that shines a spotlight on the impact a robust broadband network can have on a community. You will see such stories all year long, marked by the Smart Rural Community logo.

Of course, we still have many challenges. While just over 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in a rural region, almost half of Americans who are not connected to the Internet are rural. That means there are still millions of rural Americans who are missing opportunities made possible by a broadband connection. From education and jobs to health care and family connections, they have yet to discover what so many of their neighbors have already learned — that a broadband connection can help them build a better life.

That is one of our biggest challenges as your technology leader. Building a broadband network is only the first step; we must also help you understand how to use it. The magazine you are reading now plays an important role in those efforts. We choose the stories for this magazine very carefully. We include subjects that appeal to a broad range of readers with a variety of interests. We can almost guarantee that during the course of a year you will be drawn to something in these pages, no matter what your interests may be. And whether it’s a profile on a local person with a unique hobby or business, a story on how someone is using technology, or a feature on a road trip, these have the mission of helping you learn to put our services to practical use in your life.

Living in rural America really is all about being connected. At NCTC we are proud to provide the technology that makes many of those connections possible.

Building a smart community

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

We live in a day when progress is driven by broadband. From education and health care to economic development and government services, a high-speed connection is what powers the progress in our homes, businesses and communities.

Nancy White

Nancy White

It’s therefore our challenge at NCTC to ensure our region can enjoy the full benefits of broadband connectivity. We are a community-based company, and our mission is to build the infrastructure that will equip this region for progress — today, and years into the future.

As we build out our advanced fiber network, we are already seeing the difference it is making. Customers are enjoying the high speeds and reliability of fiber, signing up for 30 Mbps and even 100 Mbps in their homes. Businesses are turning to us for cloud-computing solutions, taking advantage of the processing power, storage capacity and security of our data center. Homes and businesses are creating their own “hot spots” with wireless routers, connecting their many devices to broadband over Wi-Fi. And everyone is experiencing more reliable service than ever before, as there are far fewer service interruptions with fiber technology. Nashville may be excited about Google, but we are offering better service today than what is available in Music City, USA!

Our efforts have not gone unnoticed. I am proud to announce that your cooperative’s service area has been designated a Smart Rural Community by NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. Earning this certification required an extensive application process, which included documenting not only the work we have done at North Central to build a fiber network, but also the partnerships we have built in our communities and how those partners are using our network to serve the public and grow the economy. This national recognition is something every member of NCTC can be proud of. Please see our January/February 2015 issue for full coverage on what being a Smart Rural Community really means for our region of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Our network has also allowed us to bring you quality television programming. The new SEC Network is very popular, as is the ability to “Watch TV Everywhere” (See nctc.com for more). Many of you tell us how much you enjoy the local school channels, and our newest addition of Smith County on Channel 99 is no exception! The launch of

WatchESPN brings 24/7 live programming from the ESPN networks to your mobile devices. Also, be watching for a new service for remote programming your DVR from your tablet, phone or other device.

You will notice that this issue of The North Central Connection features our financial statement, which usually come to you in our annual report. Since launching this magazine at the beginning of the year, we have been able to update you on our progress every other month — so there is no need for the annual publication. We have received excellent feedback from our members, who enjoy learning about interesting people and places in our region while staying informed about the progress and services of NCTC. Keep reading The North Central Connection and, as always, we welcome your feedback.

I wish you and your family many blessings during the upcoming holiday season.

What our job is really all about

Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer
 

You wouldn’t believe the amount of news articles, policy briefs, mail (paper and electronic) and other documents that come my way each week. These items remind me just how complicated the telecommunications business has become.

Nancy White

Nancy White

As the leader of your cooperative, it is an important part of my job to stay on top of technology and industry changes. As I do so, it’s easy to start thinking that my job is all about building a network, advocating for fair laws and policies, managing budgets and leading teams. But those are merely tasks. My real job — and, indeed, the real mission of this company — is all about growing communities and changing lives.

There have been a few times in the history of our country that we reached a turning point, a moment where we accomplished something so important as a society that life would never be the same after that. For example, when the rural electrification program lit up the countryside, it helped families automate labor-intensive chores in their homes and on their farms, enabled a healthier standard of living and empowered people to open small businesses that would provide goods and services to their growing communities.

With the interstate highway system, we opened up new parts of the country for development and created a means of moving products made by American workers to markets all over the continent.

And now, here we are in the early part of the 21st century, creating a new kind of system that will have the same level of impact on society as electricity and interstate highways have had for decades. I’m speaking, of course, about today’s broadband network.

In our service area, and in regions like ours across the country, providers such as NCTC are building a network to provide homes and businesses with high-speed data connections — not in the “big city,” but in the small towns and rural communities we call home. And like power and highways, broadband is changing lives. Consider these stories, which are playing out all across rural America:

  • A fifth-grade boy sits at a home computer taking remedial classes over a broadband connection, helping him stay current with his class and improve his grades.
  • A single mother visits a local campus at night to take broadband-enabled distance learning classes, helping her improve her skills in hopes of landing a better job.
  • A clinic runs tests on an elderly woman, then sends the results over broadband to a radiologist at a regional healthcare center to determine if she has suffered a stroke.
  • A couple opens a business in their town, filling a need in the community while creating jobs — and they use broadband to connect with suppliers and other resources.
  • Emergency responders gather in their training room, using broadband to access new information without losing time and money traveling to numerous training events.

This is what my job is really all about. And I’m reminded every day that our mission here at NCTC is about more than providing today’s most important infrastructure. Our mission really is about changing lives.

Net neutrality is a complex issue

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer
 

The term “net neutrality” has been in the news many times this year. It’s a simple term for a complex issue that concerns how the flow of Internet traffic may someday be regulated. Here are some of the main questions people have about the issue.

Nancy White

Nancy White

What Is Net Neutrality? Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet is an open environment where users have the ability to access whatever legal content they choose. Whether you want to watch an action movie on Netflix or a funny video on YouTube, net neutrality says this should be treated the same as checking your email or surfing websites about your favorite hobby — no content should be given preferential treatment across the network, either through more speed or easier access.

Should Net Neutrality Be Protected? Those who support net neutrality say it is a matter of personal freedom, and that neither the government nor big businesses should be allowed to limit what content is available to you on your Internet connection. They say a free and open Internet — where no type of service is given a “fast lane” over any other — encourages people to create new technology and business ideas. There is also concern that, without net neutrality, national Internet service providers who also own cable channels could unfairly provide easier access to their own content.

Should Net Neutrality Be Changed? Those who believe net neutrality policies should be changed say that the concept actually discourages innovation. They say Internet service providers should be able to charge a fee to high-bandwidth services that place more requirements on their networks, which in turn would allow them to provide consumers with faster access to these services. An example would be giving a fast lane to video services such as Netflix and YouTube (which account for 50 percent or more of Internet traffic), allowing them access into your home at a faster speed than basic Web browsing.

What Is The Status Of Net Neutrality? In January, a federal court struck down the net neutrality rules established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2010. These rules were intended to prevent Internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to different types of content. As a result of the court order, the FCC is now in the process of creating new rules, seeking public input to develop a framework that the agency says will ensure choices for consumers and opportunity for innovators, prevent practices that can threaten the open Internet and expand transparency.

Is There A Right Or Wrong Approach? As I said in the beginning, net neutrality is a complex issue, as is the case with many public policies. There are pros and cons to each approach. And the debate is sure to continue no matter what rules the FCC adopts.

The future of the Internet will certainly be written in part by these rules, and that is why rural providers like us remain involved in the process through our combined voice, NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. There are no quick, easy answers to an issue as complicated as this one; therefore, we are dedicated to closely monitoring the FCC’s rulemaking process while providing information to help keep the needs of all rural consumers in front of the agency.

Ringside seats to TV’s future

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer
 

Today’s television industry is very much like a wrestling match. In one corner stands the champion, the current structure where pricing and packaging are driven by the content providers. In the other corner is the fast-rising newcomer: OTT.

Nancy J. White

Nancy J. White

The term OTT means “over the top,” and is used to describe television programming that is available outside of a TV subscription. This includes services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.

These services charge a subscription fee for users to watch movies, TV shows and even original programming — and the approach is changing peoples’ viewing habits. For example, the Netflix political drama “House of Cards” released its second season in February, and almost 700,000 Netflix subscribers watched all 13 episodes in the first weekend. Viewers are becoming more interested in watching what they want, when they want to watch it (even if that means spending their weekend consuming 13 hours of a political drama).

Also in February, we saw the launch of a service that is different from anything we’ve seen so far. The WWE Network offers wrestling fans original programming, a back catalogue of shows spanning decades and access to its pay-per-view events — all for $9.99 per month. And it’s only available over the top. Will this be a model that other niche providers pursue? Would consumers pay a separate fee for that kind of access to football or basketball? Home improvement or gardening shows? It remains to be seen.

We all use our TVs to connect with traditional programming, like the packages offered by NCTC. But how do people access the OTT programming? The list of devices is long, and continues to grow. There’s the popular Roku and Apple TV, devices that connect to your television and your home’s Internet connection. In April, Amazon introduced its own video streaming device. Some devices with different primary functions, like the PlayStation, Xbox and Blu-ray players, also provide access to OTT services. And many newer television sets have built-in OTT functionality.

Rick Schadelbauer is an economist with NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. In a recent industry report, Rick shared with us that the number of households with connected TVs is on the rise. “According to a study recently released by The Diffusion Group (TDG), more than six in 10 U.S. households have at least one television connected to the Internet in order to access content from online services,” he wrote. And that number is up 19 percent from 2013.

These numbers, along with the OTT examples I mentioned above, paint a clear picture: television entertainment is rapidly evolving. Adding more pressure to change is the fact that content providers continue to demand more money from companies like ours, while telling us what channels we must carry and where we must place them in the lineup.

As we watch this match play out, there is good news for members of NCTC. We continue to invest in creating a robust broadband network, and we will be ready to provide you with a reliable connection to whatever services you decide to access — across whatever device you decide to connect to our network.

Connecting you to the future

By Nancy J. White
Chief Executive Officer

It has been almost 30 years since our imaginations were captured by the movie “Back to the Future.” One of the reasons it became the top-grossing film of 1985 is that we as humans are fascinated with the idea of seeing what the future holds.

Nancy J. White

Nancy J. White

Spend a few minutes online searching for news articles covering the recent Consumer Electronic Show (CES), and you will start to get a fairly clear picture of the future. The show is billed as “the world’s gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technologies.”

Josh Seidemann is director of policy for our national trade group, NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. He attended CES and kept rural telcos informed about what he saw. “You cannot leave CES without the growing sense that beginning now we are becoming increasingly connected to machines that measure, analyze and interpret our data,” wrote Seidemann at ntca.org/new-edge. “So, if I had to describe what impressed me the most, it would not be any particular product — rather, it is the proliferation of connected devices and how normal their use will become.”

Even if we’d had a time-traveling DeLorean, it would have been difficult to predict all this connectivity. In the early days of the Internet, even the tech leaders were short-sighted. Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet technology, wrote in a magazine column in 1995 that “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

I think it’s safe to say, 17 years later, that the Internet is here to stay.

When we first rolled out Internet service in this region, no one could have foreseen the level of connectedness we are seeing today. Already, many households have simple devices they can control with their smartphones or tablets, including security cameras and lighting controls. But change is coming fast. Think about some of these products displayed at CES, and how you might use them in your home:

• An infant sleep monitor that fits into a chest pocket of a baby’s clothing, tracking breathing, temperature and even how the baby is positioned, sending all this information to your mobile device

• A simple heart monitor you can wear comfortably that will send your electrocardiogram to your smartphone and to a physician to monitor your heart remotely

• A tiny device you can wear that will record information about your movement and activities, then display the information in an app

All this talk of the future emphasizes an important point. As your telecommunications company, we don’t know what’s coming — but through the network we are building, we are committed to equipping you to fully participate in all the future has to offer.

I think Seidemann said it best: “Sure, we could live without all the technology, but you could also hike down to the creek with a washboard to launder your old socks. Fact is, we expect electricity, we expect water, we expect broadband.” I couldn’t agree more.