Telco groups unify to bring stronger voice and new opportunities to rural subscribers By Stephen V. Smith, Editor
Editor’s Note: In February, America’s leading telecommunications trade groups voted to become one association. The unification of NTCA (National Telecommunications Cooperative Association) and OPASTCO (Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies) created a single group representing the concerns of rural telcos and their customers across the nation. As of March 1, the organization became known as “NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.” In an interview following the vote, we asked Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of NTCA, about the impact a unified group will have on rural subscribers. Smith: NTCA and OPASTCO were both 50-year-old trade associations comprised of rural telecommunications providers. How were the two groups different? Bloomfield: NTCA had a very strong basis in the cooperative movement, and actually originated as an arm of the NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperation Association). The organization itself was established as a cooperative entity, with control being held by telephone cooperatives. OPASTCO was formed as a home for those companies that were traditionally family-owned. When rural telephone systems were first established, people either got together and created member-owned cooperatives, or a family said “we see a void, let’s fill it,” and they built a telephone company. Smith: What was the driving force behind unifying the two organizations? Bloomfield: Over the past several years, we have found that in this industry the issues are all the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are a cooperative or a family-owned company, the issues facing this industry impact all the carriers. Things that are taking place on the regulatory front, with state utility commission deci2 | May/June 2013
sions, with technology transforming at a daily rate and changing people’s business models ... these things created an opportunity for the two organizations to work more closely together. We all began to realize that if we bring these forces together there is more that we can do as one, as opposed to trying to do the same thing with two separate organizations. Smith: What benefit will rural telcos, and the industry as a whole, gain from the unification? Bloomfield: The first area I would highlight is advocacy. Because there is so much dissension and politicking in Washington, it has become imperative that the message of the rural telecommunications industry find a voice, that we speak a little bit louder. When you have two entities saying the same thing, they diffuse each other. When you put all carriers together, speaking in a definitive voice for the entire industry, it cuts through the clutter. It allows us to move faster and be more powerful, in a day and age where, frankly, this industry is still very heavily dominated by the large carriers. Another area is the business opportunity front. We now have more than 800 companies at the table, and that will give us the ability to go to wireless carriers,
Shirley Bloomfield NTCA CEO go to middle-mile institutions such as hospitals and educational institutions, and form partnerships to offer different kinds of services. Smith: How do these benefits translate to the consumer at the end of the line? Bloomfield: It will give rural telcos the ability to create some scope and scale in order to offer new services. Rural providers have been terrifically innovative, but what could they do if they could get a nationwide presence? What kind of things could they offer their customers? Also, so much of the revenue of these carriers is tied up in the regulatory arena. If we can be successful speaking with one voice, we hope to keep local costs low, to minimize rate increases and to continue universal service support, which makes things like advanced broadband affordable in these rural communities where you don’t have the customer base to offset the costs.
Our interview with Bloomfield continues in the July/August issue, as she talks about how the uncertainty surrounding FCC regulations is threatening the level of service and investment in rural communities.