A 2023 Look into Smart Rural Communities, With Laura Withers

Posted: February 22, 2023

Episode Description

Laura Withers, Vice President of Strategic Communications at NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, discusses the perks of being designated as a Smart Rural Community and how members can leverage the designation to benefit their community.


Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio, conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, health care and other topics impacting our communities.

Carrie Huckeby: What is a Smart Rural Community? And the more important question is, are you living in one? That’s what my guest is here to talk about on this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio. I’m your host, Carrie Huckeby, executive director for the Tennessee Broadband Association. And my guest is Laura Withers, Vice President of Strategic Communications for NCTA–The Rural Broadband Association, and she is here to talk all things Smart Rural Community. So, Laura, we go way back. It’s always a pleasure to visit with you, to talk rural broadband, marketing, NTCA initiatives. Thank you for joining me.

Laura Withers: Oh, thank you for having me, Carrie. We do go way back, and I just don’t go as far as you do. And I will celebrate that as long as I can.

Carrie Huckeby: As you should, Laura. Thanks for that reminder. So for those that aren’t familiar with the NTCA Smart Rural Community program, tell us how long it’s been around, how long it’s been an NTCA initiative and what was the purpose behind it?

Laura Withers: Well, this program has been going on ten years now, and it has really grown significantly over those ten years. We are now up to 250 of our member providers that are involved. And the focus is really three things. First, to help our members learn from each other by elevating the best practices that they have in supporting their communities and creating new innovations with the technology that they provide. Second, to really champion the optimism and opportunity of rural America by sharing their stories with others outside of our industry, including and especially, folks who have influence over public policy, not only here in D.C., but now more in the state capitals and even at the local level. And then third, to really demonstrate to those policymakers through those stories the ROI on rural broadband investment and showing that it’s more than just putting fiber in the ground, but also creating opportunities for students who rely on it for education, for patients and families who have better outcomes from telehealth and health care. And of course, all the business and economic development impacts that broadband has in our members’ markets. So we are super excited to continue investing in this program. And it’s just remarkable how much we’ve accomplished over the last ten years and how many of our members now are a part of it.

Carrie Huckeby: Yes, it is a great program, and it’s fantastic that 250 companies are designated as Smart Rural Communities. How do they earn the distinction of being a SRC?

Laura Withers: Well, it has been kind of a different road for a lot of them, because this program started out as an award. It started out as a way for NTCA to award our members and their communities for going above and beyond with what we called Showcase Awards. So ten years ago, we gave out, you know, a dozen or so showcase awards each year. And some of the program participants ended up receiving those awards. And then through the years, we have given them more value in terms of branding and marketing resources, storytelling resources. We’ve upped our game as far as sharing their stories in the media, and they all benefit from that. But I would say the majority of the providers that have joined the program have joined through a branding platform that we created about five years ago. Actually, it might be more like six years ago at this point, that included some requirements. They had to provide at the time 25 meg to 50% of their subscribers. We’ve now increased that requirement to 100 meg. And then at the same time, we also ask that they confirm that 50% of their subscribers are adopting those speeds because we really want to stand for a service that we consider above and beyond what even the FCC designates as broadband. So that is, I think, how the majority of the providers that are currently in the program have joined through that branding platform. And we have actually seen, you know, significant growth just even in the last year. I think we entered 2021 with maybe 100 providers. And through some of the ways that we invested in this program have contributed significantly more NTCA providers to the program.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. Well, I’m happy to say that I live in a designated Smart Rural Community because my provider Ben Lomand Connect qualified for the award. And matter of fact, ten of our association member companies have been recognized as Smart Rural Community recipients. And so that does say great things, I think, about the work they are doing. But because you and I work in the industry day in and day out, but for my neighbor that’s in other lines of work, what does it mean to them to live in a Smart Rural Community, and why should it create a sense of pride?

Laura Withers: Well, it really depends on the person. And that’s the beauty of this, is every person who benefits from broadband probably has a different story. And we really try to tell all of those stories, although we focus on the ones, of course, that pull at the heartstrings and also show the biggest impact on a community. But I would say the folks that live in Smart Rural Communities or Smart Connected Communities, which by the way, is another designation we created for communities that aren’t truly rural, but maybe suburban or just outside a rural area. I think that they should take pride in the fact that they have these technologies that other parts of the country don’t have, and maybe it’s helping them as a mom make sure that their kids can get online and do school work from home if they need to, while at the same time supporting telework. Maybe it is a patient of a doctor who is able to provide telemedicine. I mean, during the pandemic, one of the stories that really touched me was from Bemidji, Minnesota. There was a hospital chain there that had to take COVID precautions like every health care provider in the country. And they were able to, through the broadband service provided by their local provider, do more telemedicine for prenatal care for pregnant women who didn’t want to come into the hospital and potentially make themselves sick. So I’m not sure exactly if that’s happening in Tennessee, Carrie, but I would venture to guess that those stories exist. And for each person that lives in that community, they have had some kind of experience with their broadband service and with their local community-based broadband provider that has improved their life in some way. So I hope that, you know, they are making that connection, and it’s really on us to make sure they are making that connection and understanding that it’s brought to them by these local companies that have such a strong commitment to what they do.

Carrie Huckeby: Yes, I think that’s such a good point that we all have this reliable, you know, some of us are very fortunate, like myself, to have this reliable gig connection out here on my century farm in a rural community, which gives me the ability to work from home and do Lead Tennessee Radio with that connection. But it does mean different things to different people. There are over 250 companies, you said, all members of NTCA that have earned this SRC award. So you kind of touched on it, but what do you think this reflects or represents about what is happening in broadband in our rural communities or maybe the less urban communities across the country?

Laura Withers: Oh, goodness. Well, first, I think the pandemic really taught us some things. I think it showed us that broadband is not a luxury at all. It’s absolutely a necessity. And even years ago, you and I know, we used to talk about fiber a lot, and people would say, “Well, that’s gold plating.” Or “That’s, you know, that’s expensive.” But then when you saw those families that had multiple people on multiple devices all at the same time, and they were doing really important things: staying in touch with family, getting health care, getting work done, educating their children, trying to provide some sense of normalcy to their kids. It wasn’t gold plating anymore. All of a sudden, it was the gold standard. So I think that’s one thing is, we’ve been able to see how those fiber networks and those networks that provide bandwidth and, you know, low latency and higher levels of service for multiple applications at the same time was really important. And so our members fared well in that regard because they had built out those networks well before the pandemic hit. So that was one thing, I think is that, you know, even in rural America, we’re seeing those bandwidth needs like we’re seeing here in the city.

Laura Withers: I think another thing that has happened is the story has shifted in some regard to focus even more on the parts of the country that do not have great service. So while our story predominantly was very positive during the pandemic in terms of our members, communities were very well served. It also underscored the parts of the country that are not so well served and created an opportunity for our members to step up and say, “Well, we can help them out too.” So I think here we are in 2023, I think rural broadband is now not just about our members great track record, but also about how they can help the rest of the country find better services. And gosh, there’s a whole bunch of funding also available to help them out with that. So that is what we’re going to be really focusing on this year, is helping our members make the most of this moment that we’re in right now as a country.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, totally agree. I think the pandemic really accelerated and brought to the forefront those that do not have broadband connection and how difficult it was for them to function with classes and work and all of that, and even work from home. That possibility wasn’t there without a reliable connection. There’s another piece of the program, and you mentioned it the Smart Rural Community Showcase Award, and I believe four of our members here in Tennessee have received that recognition: BTC Fiber, BLC, DTC, and NCTC. How do these members earn those extra showcase awards on top of being a Smart Rural Community?

Laura Withers: Well, a couple of years ago when we kind of changed the program to be more of a branding platform, we encouraged folks to join the brand platform to celebrate the designation as becoming a Smart Rural Community or a Smart Connected Community. And then go above and beyond that to apply for this competitive award, which comes with its own application process, and also is decided by a panel of folks in our industry. Several of them serve on our Smart Rural Community Advisory Council, and they tell me every year that it gets harder every year to select award recipients. Because we as an industry, I think have gotten a lot better at telling our stories in a way that shows the real impact of what we do. And so I think the award program has grown and even gotten more competitive over the years. So basically it’s an application that we give out to the companies that are already in the program. And it has four questions. We’ve made it a very simple application, but those questions are pretty hard because they ask for the applicant to talk about the real ROI, and the impact of what they’re doing.

Laura Withers: And it’s funny, Carrie, I was just out in Wisconsin this week talking to the Wisconsin State Telecom Association marketing folks, and they were saying it is so hard. And I said, “Well, it’s just four questions.” But the hard part is, I think, our members are just so humble naturally, that for them to even think about stating, you know, what has been the real impact of your service on your community, you know, kind of makes them stop and think. So that’s part of the exercise, is trying to uncover these new little golden nuggets of stories as part of the application. Then it goes to that panel of judges, and they make a selection over the summer, and then we announce the winners at our fall conference in September and really make a show of it: celebrating them on stage, sharing their stories on stage. And yeah, you mentioned Kentucky, or excuse me, you mentioned Tennessee. I almost said Kentucky. Sorry. I know some of your Tennessee providers are close to Kentucky.

Carrie Huckeby: And serve both. Yes, they do.

Laura Withers: And serve both, yes, which we learned recently. And I will just say, like Ben Lomand, they received an award, and they created a partnership with the local electric utility to serve more customers. Bledsoe, BTC, they worked with an equipment manufacturer and serving the automotive and mechanical engineering industries with their service. And NCTC received an award for helping a community following a tornado in 2008. And, you know, getting their local hospital back up and running. And then finally, DTC was recently awarded for working with a local agriculture center that also serves as a community event center and supports the local agriculture and cattle ranchers. So that’s just a flavor of some of these, you know, incredible impact stories that we get through this award.

Carrie Huckeby: And I think it’s great that you have this award, this recognition, because I know many of our members go to work every day, and they do what they do. And their mission is to serve their communities. And they probably don’t take a whole lot of time to stop and think what the end package is, what that standard of living is. And as you mentioned earlier, how everyone is using their broadband differently. So I think that award just puts a nice little bow on, you know, what sends you to work every day. So it is a new year. You mentioned, it’s 2023, hard to believe. Tell us what some of the goals are for the Smart Rural Community program this year. If a member is out there kind of riding the fence and hasn’t, you know, talked about or thought about applying for SRC, what would you say to them to push them to get that done?

Laura Withers: Well, I would say, why are you not in the program? What is holding you back? Is it that you’re humble, and you don’t know how to tell your story? Because we can help you with that. Is it that you’re not sure if you can achieve the benchmarks of 100 meg to 50% of your service territory? Well, most of our members now can, thanks to their fiber builds. And so it really depends on what might be holding somebody back. But as far as 2023 goals, they are the same thing. You know, I told you at the top here: elevating the best practices of our members, helping them learn from each other, and then championing watch what they do through their stories and demonstrating that to policymakers as the true ROI on broadband investment. And gosh, with so much money coming out for deployment, I think it’s going to be really important to continue to tell the stories of how that deployment funding needs to be maintained over the future years to sustain these services in the future. You know, I think one thing that people might be interested in knowing about this year is that we’re sort of stepping up our storytelling efforts. And I think we did a really good job in 2021 and 2022, bringing more providers into the program and helping them celebrate being a Smart Rural Community. In 2023, we’re going to take that to the next level and encourage our members to share their impact stories around a couple of content themes throughout the year.

Laura Withers: So in February and March here, we’re going to be talking about agriculture and encouraging our members to participate in National Ag Day on March 22nd. In April and May, we’re going to be talking about small business and economic development, and we will be looking at maybe participating in Small Business Week. I think it’s in early May, if I’m right. June and July over the summer, we’re going to be talking about advocacy and especially smart states. Carrie, you and I have been working on some branding and outreach efforts in Tennessee with your state broadband office and others. And we’d like to share that and talk about how other states can do that. In August and September, we’re going to be talking about back to school and education. And then October and November, health care leading into National Rural Health Day on November 16th. And then finally in December we’ll do a year in review, like we did last year and share the success stories of our members with everybody else so they can learn from them as well. So that is a lot of stuff that we’re going to try to do this year. And it’s actually like quite daunting when I look at it. But the idea is giving our members some resources and then a big kick in the behind to go use those resources and talk about how they support all those themes in their own communities.

Carrie Huckeby: It sounds like you’re going to be very busy this year.

Laura Withers: For sure, and I will be asking for your help with the advocacy stuff, no doubt.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. And you also have SRC Live, which is a conference, I believe it’s in June, where you invite the SRCs to participate, and you sort of reveal or unveil all of this storytelling potential, right?

Laura Withers: Yes. Yeah. We had our first one last year in Vegas. It was very successful. We really tried to make it unlike any other NTCA conference. We did it, you know, in a very discussion focused format where we had hallway conversations. We had breakout discussions. We have presentations followed by discussion because we really wanted it to be a summit where everybody kind of heard from each other and shared ideas, rather than just hearing from a speaker, and then walking out the door. So we’re doing it again. It’s going to be June 26 through 28 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And again, we’ll be doing a lot of discussion for people in the program and also people that are not in the program and want to learn more about it. So you do not have to be in the program to attend. And then another cool thing that we did in Vegas was we encouraged our members to bring a member of their community who might be influential in the telco’s success in the future and sort of did a bring a buddy program where you could bring somebody from your community, and we would cover the registration as long as you could get them to Vegas. We had a few members take advantage of that and bring either like their local mayor or even like a hospital administrator who was really interested in learning more about broadband. And we’re going to do that again. So if anybody listening is thinking about coming, also think about somebody in your community that might benefit from hearing from others who have benefitted from broadband, because our speakers are not just going to be talking about broadband, but also the impacts of it on agriculture and education, etc. So it was probably my favorite thing I did last year because we heard so many great stories. I think I took like five pages of notes and followed up with several of the stories I heard so that we could share those in other ways digitally, etcetera, after the conference. So yeah, I encourage everybody to take a look that one.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, I look forward to attending this year. I heard it was a great conference last year, and I think it’s fantastic that they can bring some of their community leaders because it just helps with that sense of pride and that ROI in your rural community. So I think that’s an outstanding idea. I’m glad you guys did that. So if I’m an NCTA member company out there listening to us talking about SRC, how do they get more information about the program?

Laura Withers: Well, we are also redoing our website, so that would be my first suggestion is to go to Smart Rural Community.org, or you can also go to NTCA.org/smart. And there are links on there about how to join the program, why to join the program and then also some of the branding resources that we provide. So if you want to take a sneak peek at those before you officially join, you can do that. We have not posted all of the themed content that I just mentioned. We’re getting ready to post that very, very soon. But it’s pretty simple, Carrie. There’s an online application process. If you’re an NTCA member already, which I hope all of your members are, you go in to our online application. You have to log in using the account that you use to pay your NTCA dues, and then basically check a box. And the administrative fee gets applied to your NTCA dues invoice. So that part of it is pretty simple, straightforward. And then once you get enrolled, and we do, you know, send you some information by email to say welcome. That’s when you get access to the marketing, branding kit, and you start receiving the every other month e-newsletter called Smart Notes and invites to other events that we host throughout the year. So instant gratification, I would say.

Carrie Huckeby: Sounds good. And doesn’t sound, as I think sometimes people think it’s too difficult. You know, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s just too difficult.” But I think NTCA has really worked really hard to streamline and simplify that application. So no reason not to do it here in 2023, right?

Laura Withers: Yeah, and I would say what we did was, we separated the award application from the program application. And a lot of people didn’t realize that the program application is pretty simple. Now, the award application, like I said, is also pretty simple. It’s four questions, but that one might take a little bit more time and thought to put together. So if you do join the program, get access to the resources and celebrate being a Smart Rural Community, then you can decide as a second step, if you want to apply for the Showcase Award, get the extra media attention, the extra NTCA attention, as part of that.

Carrie Huckeby: Thank you, Laura, for being my guest. I think we’ve had a great conversation.
Laura Withers: I agree, Carrie. And I just can’t let you go without saying thank you so much for working with us late last year on several things, including that we sent a video crew out to Cookeville to visit with some of the customers of Twin Lakes.

Carrie Huckeby: Right. DTC.

Laura Withers: They even went, yep, they went down the road to DTC as well. We produced a wonderful video testimonial about some families that relocated to Tennessee from other parts of the country, Southern California, during the pandemic and have found ways to thrive in what I think might be the most beautiful part of our country because you have so many beautiful lakes and valleys. And I just hope that we can find a way to share that video with all of your members because, gosh, it just made me want to pick up and move to Tennessee.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, it made me really proud that I live here. We’re sort of partial here, you know? We think there’s no better place to live. Love seeing the country, but I always love coming home. But that’s a fantastic video, and I’m looking forward to it being out there and sharing what we have here. So the beautiful scenery and waterways and you know what our members are doing. So we really appreciate you highlighting Tennessee in that for sure.
Laura Withers: Yeah. And don’t be surprised if you get a few new neighbors coming your way at some point here.

Carrie Huckeby: That seems to be happening anyway, so we’ll take them.

Laura Withers: Okay.

Carrie Huckeby: My guest has been Laura Withers, VP of Strategic Communications for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. And you’ve been listening to Lead Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association, cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.