Rural America is about community, family, and people coming together to be more than what they could be by themselves. That’s what NetAmerica Alliance CEO and chairman Roger Hutton believes, and it has served as his guiding principle over the course of a 50-year telecom career. In this interview, the Kansan-turned-Texan discusses his history with the telecommunications industry, particularly his involvement with his most recent endeavor, NetAmerica Alliance.
Roger grew up poor on a struggling dairy farm in Iola, Kansas, and while it was “a lot of hard work” and a “tough way of life,” it also was a “rich experience,” because it instilled in Roger a work ethic and sense of responsibility that enabled him to achieve a great deal of success, which started when his family sold their farm—due to his father’s health problems—and moved to Amarillo, Texas. Roger attended high school there, and upon graduation, obtained a job with Southwestern Bell (SW Bell) as a construction lineman. Within three years, he was promoted to a management position in the engineering department and then, soon after, to the public affairs department, which is where he spent the rest of his 20-year tenure at SW Bell. As part of the public affairs team, he managed financial relationships with rural telecommunication companies. This was his first exposure to the rural telco industry.
In 1987, Roger left SW Bell to start a consulting firm with his wife, a friend, and his friend’s wife. “We looked at the challenges we could predict for the rural telecom segment,” explained Roger. The four hoped the consulting firm would enable them to “be part of making something good happen,” and it certainly did, eventually evolving into CHR Solutions, the premiere technology and business solutions company for rural telcos. But that successful evolution was not without turmoil. After growing to more than 300 employees, the firm—like so many businesses during that time—fell victim to the dot-com bust of the 2000s and shrunk to a workforce of roughly 80 people. But they survived and merged with a Houston-based IT company in 2006. Today, the company is growing and has a far more diverse menu of service offerings. Demonstrated by its adventures in Internet, fiber, and wireless, the company has become known “for taking customers into new and potentially lucrative opportunities.”
In 2009, Roger would see his career shift again. During that time, there was a huge focus on spectrum and broadband access in rural areas. Telcos were asking what they could do with the spectrum they’d purchased, and Roger realized there was a great opportunity with LTE. But in its current state, that opportunity was plagued by difficulties. Rural telcos have small population centers, small markets, and limited revenue, and LTE is expensive and requires scale. Consolidation is one obvious answer to achieve scale, but telcos are fiercely independent. So, Roger envisioned a new way to achieve scale without consolidation. He developed NetAmerica Alliance and incubated it inside CHR. NetAmerica would bring telcos together. The telcos would put up the antennas and radios, and the alliance would share tech costs and provide back-office and support services, like marketing and service development. Roger’s vision for the alliance was that it would allow telcos to “maintain independence, but gain the benefit of scale to be successful in the mobile and broadband business.”
In 2011, Roger took NetAmerica out of CHR, establishing it as its own independent business. Not too long after launch, though, Roger pinpointed a new problem—lack of commonality among devices and closed network environments. In short, there was no interoperability; mobile and broadband carriers weren’t talking to each other, and devices were carrier-specific. According to Roger, “…some folks were trying to solve the interoperability issue through legislative action,” but NetAmerica needed something sooner. That’s how the Small Market Alliance for Rural Transformation, or SMART, program started. The program would address “the barriers that existed for rural telecoms to enter mobile” by aligning with a tier 1 network carrier. “We needed to pick an ecosystem that’d been driven and developed by someone with scale,” explained Roger.
After a thorough review process, NetAmerica partnered with Sprint. The alliance offered to build the network and share the capacity with Sprint, and in exchange, Sprint would provide more spectrum, access to its national footprint and iconic devices, connectivity with its tier 1 network, cash contributions, and the ability for the alliance networks to connect with Sprint’s mobile core. Since partnering, the alliance has deployed eight or nine successful fixed LTE networks. You can read two of these stories of success here.
Pretty impressive career, eh? But while Roger has certainly dedicated his life and career to rural telecommunications, he’s not a man without hobbies, and one of those hobbies actually has turned into quite the fruitful 20-year career. Roger is one of the most renowned owners and breeders of Texas longhorn cattle in the state of Texas. In fact, his cattle claim to fame is that he’s got the “best genetics in Texas.” Curious as to what that means? You’ll have to tune into the interview to find out.
From dairy farmer to longhorn breeder, from impoverished Kansan to successful Texan, from phone company lineman to multiple-company exec, this telco titan is certainly a perfect example of the American dream. Or maybe he’s just proof that strong rural roots can do wonders—not only for oneself, but for one’s family and community.