motivation behind telco americana

A short history on the motivation behind the Telco Americana project and my focus on the people that will lead its resurgence

I’ve spent many years marketing networking products to telecommunication service providers. Many of those are rural “telcos” that are often portrayed as heavily government-subsidized businesses delivering phone service to the most remote parts of North America. In the last few years, these operators’ revenue streams have been undercut by “over the top” services, while the FCC simultaneously changed the subsidy “rules” away from voice services and towards the delivery of broadband.

While 100% penetration of broadband is undoubtedly a good thing, many industry opinion formers concluded that this would be the death knell for rural operators and that they would likely be relegated to the role of “dumb” service providers – at best. Obituaries were written for a quick and unceremonious demise, after a century of valued service.

But to those naysayers, I thought “not so fast.” Rural telcos are a tough bunch. While some have “consolidated” (or sold out), many are figuring out a way to reduce their dependency on government subsidies and innovating their business through a broader range of non-regulated services, in and out of region. For sure, they’re maintaining a rational regulatory strategy, but in my opinion future survivability, relevance and success will actually depend on four key factors:

  1. Customers to sell to
  2. A cost-effective network
  3. New service innovation
  4. People

And in all 4 areas, I actually feel remarkably positive.

Steve Gleave | Metaswitch SVP Marketing & Rural Enthusiast

On customers to sell to:

Where are the customers for rural operators? Some reports suggest a hollowing out of rural America while others argue the opposite. While there might be a stream of traffic into denser, urban areas, the exponential rise in property prices will ensure that it cannot continue unabated. Families will ultimately only be able to afford suitable homes in more rural areas, and will willingly cross “the dirt gap” if they’re not left disconnected. In the long term, government policy might even encourage this transition, given the falling fertility rate in the US, our aging population and the very real threat this brings to the nation’s long-term economic prospects. Simply put, aging populations don’t innovate and their economies shrink. And fertility rates won’t exceed replacement rates if everybody lives in 800 sq ft city apartments. So no reason to think that there will be a permanent hollowing out of rural America – it’s much more likely to be a filling in. Build the network, and they will come.

On cost-effective networks:

Our industry is currently undergoing a seismic shift in the way that networks are being built, leading to a dramatic drop in the cost of construction and operation. Savvy telcos are becoming more software-centric, moving core network functions and real time communications into public, private or hybrid clouds. This is the model that has allowed OTT service providers to drive their cost per sub to negligible amounts. With the huge amount of work being performed by the network product vendor community in the fields of Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN), more traditional telcos are now able to gain the same cost efficiencies while simultaneously speeding service innovation and opening the door to a truly programmable network. The technology playing field has been leveled.

On service innovation:

There’s a key difference between invention and innovation: Inventions turn money into ideas, whereas innovation turns ideas into money. After decades absorbing technical inventions, telcos understand that they now really need more innovation -> delivering better, more cost-effective products (services) that are readily available. But none of this service innovation happens without people; people that can actually create and deliver services – and also the people that consume them. And it’s these people that the Telco Americana project wants to celebrate.Bernie Arnason is one of many doing nice work reporting on industry developments and innovation, while the NTCA is perhaps the most well-known advocacy group, lobbying for the legislative needs of its member companies while also encouraging a focus on innovation and a transition to more contemporary business models. There are also too many tech product sites to mention.

The People:

What isn’t being reported, or truly represented, is probably the one topic that matters the most: The people of Telco Americana. After those many years of marketing technology products, I am constantly reminded that nothing happens, nothing at all, without people in the service trenches, rolling out innovative residential and business offerings to their communities. Typically, these folk are also active members of their communities – leading, participating in or contributing to the groups, functions or events that build real neighborhoods. These are the people whose stories I want to tell; the people behind the news, driving a community’s engine. Without these people, whatever technology you’re marketing, however compelling, it’ll never be put to good use. Without these people, there would be no news, no future for rural services, and this site would have no reason to exist.