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Helping rural areas get connected

Helping rural areas get connected
© Greg Nash

Amid the mad dash to develop fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies, Shirley Bloomfield likes to remind people that vast swaths of America have other hurdles to clear first.

“As everybody gets super excited about 5G ... we just tell them in rural America we’re still waiting for 1G in some areas,” the CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association told The Hill in a recent interview.

Throughout her time at the trade association, where she represents more than 850 community-based telecommunications companies across the country, Bloomfield has only seen the interest in getting rural areas connected grow.

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“It’s so funny to me because I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s like when you’re the ugly stepchild and then suddenly you’re the belle of the ball and people actually want to talk about this stuff, which is really cool and gratifying,” she said.

Bloomfield was driven to move to Washington, D.C., after working in the private sector briefly post-college by a passion for policy.

That passion landed her a staff job on the House Budget Committee, where she got exposure to a broad slate of issues.

She was eventually hired by NTCA to be a part of its policy shop.

After roughly 20 years of representing carriers, she took another stint in the private sector but found herself raring to come back to NTCA.

When the top job at the association opened in 2010, she called the headhunter charged with finding a successor immediately.

“I said, ‘That is my job, I’m coming back.’ She of course thought I was probably a lunatic,” Bloomfield told The Hill.

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“I missed these guys,” she said. “The carriers I represent are so committed to what they do. Because they’re small, they’re really innovative, they try stuff ... their spirit of service really resonated with me.”

Larger telecommunications companies service approximately 130 customers per square mile, while NTCA member companies’ customer density is only around seven per square mile.

In her nearly 10 years as CEO of NTCA, Bloomfield has worked tirelessly to help position member companies to improve and grow their coverage.

Much of that work involves facilitating a given company’s access to the handful of government grants and repayment programs set up for rural broadband.

“It’s kind of my job — connector,” Bloomfield said.

One of those programs is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The program, approved earlier this year, creates a fund of more than $20 billion for cooperatives, satellite operators and other telecom companies to compete for in order to connect unserved areas across the country. Many of the companies that NTCA represents could get significant windfall from the fund, which is set to have its first auction in October.

“I think this program really has the capability to come in and start filling in those gaps,” Bloomfield said.

Another key program for expanding rural connectivity is the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Program, which was authorized by Congress in 2018.

The program allocates funds for internet providers in low population density programs but has come under criticism for not doling out enough.

“My biggest frustration with these programs is I think we’re aiming really low,” Bloomfield said.

Some of her concerns are shared by lawmakers. Last month, nine senators led by Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (D-Ore.) wrote a letter to the USDA demanding it extend more funding to rural communities. The lawmakers criticized a restriction where companies that have received funding from the FCC are not eligible for ReConnect.

“This USDA-imposed restriction — which is not required by law — prevents rural communities across the country from receiving their share of over $500 million in federal funding for high-speed broadband, which is vital to reducing the digital divide and harnessing important opportunities in telemedicine and online education, and the high-paying jobs that come with them,” they wrote.

On the other side of the equation, Bloomfield also tries to increase awareness with key officials of the nature of the problems holding back rural America from getting connected. She connects FCC commissioners, lawmakers and other relevant parties with rural providers to get a better sense of what they’re doing.

“It’s pretty sobering to have people realize what distance really means in terms of providing broadband,” Bloomfield said.

One of the myths that Bloomfield tries to dispel by bringing officials out to her providers is that there is a stark divide between service penetration and quality between rural and urban areas, when the truth is that some rural regions lag far behind others.

“One of the things that people immediately default to is this whole sense of that there is a rural-urban divide,” she explained. “But what we really find in our experience is that it’s a rural-rural divide.”

Bloomfield’s argument is that large providers focus their energy on urban areas because they’re more competitive, a strategy she acknowledges is fair, but it means less densely populated areas covered by the biggest suppliers suffer.

By contrast, the companies that NTCA works with are “providing service to their neighbors.”

Telecom cooperatives in particular, which are owned by the communities they operate in, “are not there to make money.”

“They are there to provide this service,” Bloomfield said. According to NTCA, telecom cooperatives serve less than 5 percent of the country’s subscribers, but cover 40 percent of the nation’s landmass.

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Bloomfield said lawmakers and agency officials are receptive to her arguments about the rural-urban coverage divide “when they see it.”

“I think in this town you’ve just got to have a passion for what you do,” she said, sharing a story about a company that provided a Veteran Affairs clinic in Vermont with telemedicine services.

“I have the luxury of being able to see those things happen, which then comes back and makes me more motivated.”