IT Trend Setting in Rural Telecom

Brian Thomason, CEO/GM, Blue Valley Tele-Communications
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Rural Telecom setting trends in the IT world may sound far-fetched and beyond the scope of reasonableness. However, there is  both a logical path to justifying the claim and reasons why this environment is the perfect techno climate for these trends  to gain life.
 
"For rural telecom, the delivery of TDM voice technology created challenges not necessarily experienced in other environments"
 
Rural Telecom companies are facing a decision point in their history in 2014. Is the model of providing traditional voice  service, internet access, or the relatively new introduction of video services the path that rural telecom companies should  continue to embrace? The answer is both yes and no. Rural telecommunication companies cannot move away from the voice service platform that has fulfilled the communication needs of their constituents for many years. It is why rural telecom exists and  is still required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
 
Along with this product line came the skill set development and knowledge base of TDM technology. Rural telecommunication  companies pride themselves on customer service as their customer base is unique. Not unique in the services they provide, but who utilizes their services. To a large degree, customers of rural telecom are the friends, family and neighbors of their  employees. Therefore, there is a personal commitment to make the communication services the optimum that is possible. It is  more about the enhancement to the “quality of life”.
 
This commitment is easily translated into a drive for highly trained personnel in the TDM world. TDM for years provided the  mechanism for all of America, including those in rural portions of the country to have reliable voice communication.

It could be argued that having high quality voice communication is more critical, or at least as critical, in rural America as  in urban environments due to the sparse diversion of the population. Should rural companies then continue to support high  quality voice services? The answer is yes. Should it continue to be supported by TDM technology alone? The answer is no.
 
TDM is now moving quickly to Internet Protocol technology, and the rural telecom environment is making that transition. In  January 2014, a selected group of member companies, from the trade association NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, met with  a portion of the FCC IP Transition Team in Washington DC. The purpose of the meeting was to share with the FCC that rural  telecom companies are already engaged in the transition to IP technology and in many cases have aspects of it already  deployed in their networks.
 
What has been a natural component of this movement to Internet Protocol is the same commitment by rural companies to their  customer base and to keep their employees on the leading edge of training and skill set development. Where are these  instructional hours focused? They are laser directed of course, on the equipment that supports the IP technology. The “soft  switches” and transport equipment used in IP-based telecom, including those in rural environments are comprised of  processors, hard drives, servers and routers.
 
Here is where the logical path for rural telecom to be trend setters in the IT world begins to take shape. Advancements in technology gain momentum best through a wide scope perspective, not through a single population base or corporate structure.  It takes a varied approach to satisfy a need that will bring about true innovation and spur on technological advancement in  areas such as IT. For rural telecom, the delivery of TDM voice technology created challenges not necessarily experienced in  other environments. How do you effectively deliver service to customers who may likely number only a few per square mile,  often through rough terrain? Answers were found and rural America benefited greatly. It is that pioneer spirit, the spirit of  overcoming challenges through innovation that exists with the farmers and ranchers that make up a good portion of rural  telecom’s customer base that drive these companies as well. The spirit of overcoming challenges through innovation. Trends  are often set through the desire to satisfy a need, and innovation does not exist only within the confines of metro city belt ways.
 
A rural techno climate exists because they are needed and the elements are in place to allow them to flourish. Telecommunication companies in rural areas have stayed on top of trends in technology, through TDM, and now IP. They have  trained their work force to be efficient in their trade and skill set. These employees have a unique drive to fulfill the needs of their customer base because they know them as friends, neighbors and relatives. Now introduce the final catalyst to make rural techno climates burst forward with new IT trends, it is the customer base themselves. Agriculture, for example, is relying more and more on IT technology to keep the farm running.
 
This spring I was privileged to be invited to a special showing of the movie Farmland. It is a great documentary showcasing  the lives of farmers and ranchers today through the eyes of a young segment of those engaged in the industry. The film was  created through the support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. There were many compelling segments for me in the  movie, including one where  one of the farmers noted how technologywas impacting his operation. Specifically,  he described  how he recently had to wait several hours for a software download before he could begin planting. Who is best suited to work  on establishing a more positive trend in software utilization than those in rural telecom?
 
Telemedicine in rural areas is vital to the quality of life and can be measured in the crucial seconds that are saving lives for rural residences. Who is best suited to work on establishing a continual positive trend in the utilization of  telemedicine in rural areas than those in rural telecom? After all, it is the rural telecom companies who are providing the  broadband “life blood” infrastructure to allow telemedicine to flourish in the areas they serve.

The talent, need, and motivation exist in the rural sector of the United States for IT trends to be set. It is not a matter   of if, but when.

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