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Thursday
Dec292011

2011's Broadband Bonanza Means New "Explorations" in 2012

While researching for a profile on Paul Bunyan Communications several months ago, I was struck by the cooperative's 60-plus years of underdog status—a fitting 2011 year-end metaphor for many of the companies I talk to across the country. There, in Minnesota, was a cooperative that organized in 1950 to connect underserved areas, and was helped along in its goal by federal legislation that sought to improve rural telephone service. Now, as 2011 draws to a close and we look ahead to what 2012 will bring, many companies I've interviewed this year are still trying to reach underserved areas—this time with broadband—and doing so is part of the larger, national plan to bring valuable high-speed internet connections to every home and business, in every community. With the year ending, these companies and co-ops are also hoping that broadband subs will help offset landline losses; this may be the last year for such a ying-yang balance, too, as broadband growth slows and it becomes less likely these adds will be able to offset the losses going forward.

A sweeping dedication to broadband will certainly continue into 2012, but boy has the game gotten more complex.Thanks to the recent detailed analysis offered by our own Cassandra Heyne, I won't use this space to parse out the specifics of federal funding for broadband or other regulatory hurdles facing rural providers. But I would like to reflect on what 2011 has meant for the rural service providers, cooperatives, start-ups, and advocacy groups I've spent the year researching and interviewing. Whether the goal was to tap into vertical markets, harness the potential of the cloud, or test out new services and platforms, without a question the name of the game this year was broadband—how to build-out fiber networks, how to increase speeds, how to offers services via broadband, how to pool resources and efforts through alliances and consortiums, how to share resources and infrastructure, how to get into the data storage market, and so on. Ultimately 2011 centered on a challenge and a source of opportunity; both are captured in the phrase I heard over and over again—“broadband build-out."

2011: Betting on Broadband

Just last week, new ceo of 3 Rivers Communications David Gibson summed up one of the most fitting characterizations for rural and independent companies. In an interview for the Great Falls Tribune, he said that, without a doubt, “Fiber is the way of the future... When you replace all that copper [with fiber] the service quality is better; you get much faster broadband speeds. You can offer IPTV. It's just good all around, it's where we need to be to position ourselves.” But Gibson went on to note the snags in building out rural broadband—threats to funding by “problems... in the mechanics” of the new Connect America fund and threats of stiff competition from satellite and wireless broadband, encroaching cable companies, municipal-owned broadband and others.

This year, I've talked to rural co-ops, independent providers, advocacy groups and consortiums in Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, Texas and the Dakotas, and for all of them, broadband was central to their goal of providing new services and connecting unserved or underserved rural communities. In some cases, broadband meant better connectivity for local high schools, community colleges or universities; in other cases, there were advances in telemedicine, improvements for tribal communities, or farming technologies. But in every case, the directors and spokespersons I interviewed insisted that broadband brought with it the possibilities for a changed community and more vibrant opportunities for rural residents and businesses. And they had examples of these improvements... many, many examples.

The question remains, however, do these broadband build-outs actually mean more stability for the ILECs and co-ops, many who find themselves in an increasingly competitive market? Will all of the federal dollars in broadband grants and build-outs in 2011 equal more advancements to rural areas in 2012? Will rural providers need to delve more deeply into new options like LTE and cloud services to remain relevant? Or will fiber as the “way of the future” actually mean subscriber retention and added revenue? These are all questions to investigate in the coming year, by talking to the experts on the front lines: the rural providers themselves.

2012: Building on Broadband, Exploring New Territory

Just recently we've seen announcements about IPTV and LTE—two services that are getting attention from rural ILECs and co-ops who consider them potential golden tickets. Most likely, 2012 will bring more in-depth look at what these services might mean for the independent communications provider industry—most specifically for the rural companies I talk to regularly. LTE's potential is up in the air (pun intended), but IPTV has already become a key talking point for ILECs who want to attract and retain customers in their communities. Earlier this year, we ran the numbers and found that, for the companies who disclosed that they provided video services, “their rate of decline in access lines... was sharply lower than those in the survey who did not provide data on video subscribers.”

Several of the companies I profiled to this year—Palmetto Rural Telephone Cooperative and Paul Bunyan Communications, to name two—named IPTV as central to their business strategy going forward. Earlier this month, Texas ILEC Valley Telephone Cooperative announced that it would offer a hybrid IPTV service that combines HDTV, DVR and cloud services through a single TV input and interface. And last month, Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company announced it would use its hefty $12.7m RUS loan, in part, to lay fiber that would support advanced services like IPTV.

As for LTE, it will be interesting to see what comes of the partnership between rural ILECs/ rural cellular providers and Verizon's Rural 4G LTE Program. Just last week, Pioneer Cellular (of Kingfisher, OK-based Pioneer Telephone) announced its first successful end-to-end data test with Verizon's 700 MHz spectrum, and so far Pioneer is just one of 13 rural providers partnering with Verizon for use of its LTE network. The goal, of course, is to provide LTE services in areas where Verizon does not plan to extend coverage, and, through the program, rural partners are allowed to build and operate their own LTE network, using some elements of Verizon's core network. Just as cooperatives and partnerships have helped bring fiber to rural areas, it's possible that partnerships between small, rural providers and the Big Guys could supplement existing services and retain customers. It's possible.

Ultimately the influence of LTE in rural areas remains to be seen, but it is a step toward spectrum use that so many rural providers have looked into but not developed. In my own discussions this year, I have heard numerous company spokespersons say that they were currently “exploring the possibilities” of spectrum for a variety of services, but had not made any definite commitments. Perhaps 2012 will bear the fruit of these, and many other, “explorations.”