Broadband may be the greatest health care innovation for rural America

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By Shirley Bloomfield, CEO
NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

When we talk about the impact of broadband Internet access, we often focus on its importance to economic development, business growth and such. While it is absolutely an economic driver, broadband may also be just what the doctor ordered for rural America.

You will sometimes hear it referred to as telemedicine; other times, telehealth. Whatever you call it, the use of broadband technology is changing the way health care is delivered. And I believe we are only seeing the beginning.

For example, electronic medical records are allowing doctors to streamline care, especially for patients in rural areas. A patient who normally visits a rural clinic can be confident that their health information is accurate and up-to-date when they visit a regional hospital.

I wrote in the previous issue of this magazine about aging in place, noting that technologies such as videoconferencing, remote health monitoring and X-ray transmission are helping rural seniors stay at home longer. But the aging population is just one segment that can benefit from broadband-enabled applications.

Recently, I attended a technology showcase that focused on the interconnection between technology providers, health care providers and innovation in telemedicine. It was a fascinating conference that left my mind spinning with the possibilities for rural health care delivery.

We heard from a rural telecommunications provider who said small telcos are often too small to get the main contracts from the base hospitals, but that they have an important role in providing the local infrastructure and having the construction team on the ground. This has helped build the case for having a role in the large clinic and university hospital contracts in the future.

Hugh Cathey of the innovative company HealthSpot provided a real glimpse into what broadband can mean to all segments of society. His company has kiosks in several Rite Aid drug stores in Ohio where patients can walk in and be face-to-face with a healthcare professional via a video screen. These stations come outfitted with everything you need to receive a wide variety of remote treatments. The HealthSpot network has seen thousands of patients since May, for ailments such as allergies, cold and flu, bronchitis, cough, rashes, sore throat and fever.

With applications such as these, it’s easy to get excited about what the future holds for telemedicine. And with the great work being done by your telco and others like it who are building world-class broadband networks, we can know that rural America will not be left behind in this evolution.

Introducing (854)!

PrintCoastal South Carolina is getting a new area code, but PRTC and other telephone providers are working along with state officials to make the changes easy.

The odds are good that adapting to the new code will be simpler than you think.

Beginning this fall or winter, telcos in the region, including PRTC, will begin issuing new phone numbers with the new 854 area code.

“This is a necessary change for all telephone customers in our region,” says Valerie Ancrum, regulatory affairs manager at PRTC. “While any change can have its challenges, we’re putting a lot of effort into making this as smooth as possible.”

The additional code is necessary because the 843 area, which includes all of Colleton County, Hilton Head, Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Florence, has almost run out of phone numbers. Population growth forecasts done over the past several years, along with an increasing number of mobile phones, led officials to conclude that the coastal area of the state would run out of new phone numbers to issue at the end of 2015.

It’s easy to see the growing demand for phone numbers when you consider that even a few years ago, every home had one single landline phone. Now it’s common for every member in the family to have a mobile phone with its own unique number.

10-digit dialing

The new area code comes as an “overlay,” which means the new area code mixes with an existing code rather than replacing it in a geographic area. Any other option would have split the 843 area into two codes, forcing thousands of businesses and residents to get new phone numbers.

“Splitting the area code was never really an option we liked because it would have put a burden on local businesses to change signage, business cards and other materials,” Ancrum says. “The overlay is really the best option for the region.”

The challenge of an overlay is 10-digit dialing, meaning that residents will soon have to dial the area code — whether 854 or 843 — before all phone calls. Ten-digit dialing goes into effect on Sept. 19. After that date, calls dialed with only seven digits will not be completed.

854 FAQs

Q: What is the new area code and when will it come into place?
A: Phone service providers like PRTC may start issuing new 854 numbers on Oct. 19.

Q: Why is this happening?
A: With a growing population and the rapid increase in the number of wireless phones, coastal South Carolina is running out of telephone numbers with the 843 area code. Adding the 854 prefix allows for more numbers.

Q: When should I start dialing 10 digits?
A: Now! Your calls will still go through with just seven digits, but PRTC is encouraging members to start dialing the 843 area code in front of all calls within South Carolina so that you are in the habit when the changes come.

Q: When will it take full effect?
A: After Sept. 19, seven-digit phone calls will not go through.

Q: What do I need to do to prepare?
A: Reprogram speed dial numbers or contact lists to include 10-digit numbers with the 843 area code.

Know your codes:

  • 854 — Coastal region, added in 2015
  • 843 — Coastal region, added in 1998
  • 864 — Upstate region, added in 1995
  • 803 — Original area code for the entire state; now in the state’s center

Popularity of online video is growing

Online video is bringing consumers greater entertainment choices, making broadband even more important. A recent study by networking company Ciena predicts that average household bandwidth requirements will increase by 31 percent annually over the next five years, as viewers connect their smart TVs and devices (Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, etc.) to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, Hulu and more.

Do you enjoy online video? Share your story at www.HowDoYouBroadband.com

FCC rules force rate increase Dec. 1

Telecommunication providers like PRTC are some of the most heavily regulated businesses in the country.

TalkingIn many cases — especially with small rural providers — government agencies dictate where a cooperative’s services can go, who can use which services and even how much or how little can be charged for services.

That last instance, determining how little PRTC can charge its members, is what’s having the biggest impact on the cooperative today.

Due to new regulations from the FCC, PRTC must increase its monthly residential phone service rate from $14.35 to $16.00. PRTC has not increased its monthly residential phone rate since 2003, despite rising costs.

The $16.00 monthly rate will take effect on Dec. 1, 2014.

The FCC sets price floors for certain phone services, meaning PRTC, or any other provider, cannot charge below a certain amount for phone service without penalty.

Many cooperative members count on the dependability of their landline phones and want to enjoy that service at the lowest possible price.

Telcos, including PRTC, are not happy about being forced to raise prices on their members and are addressing the rate floors and other regulatory issues as a group through NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association.

NTCA has petitioned the FCC to consider changes to some of these rules.

PRTC will continue to work on this issue through NTCA to make sure rural consumers have a voice at the table.

NTCA unveils ad campaign focusing on work of rural broadband providers

As your community-based telecommunications provider, we are committed to delivering the services our rural region needs to stay connected. In fact, no one is in a better position to serve you — and that is the message our national association is sending to Washington through a new advertising campaign.

The first print ad in the NTCA campaign reminds policymakers that solutions to rural challenges — such as making technology available to students in our local classrooms — have long come from rural telecommunications providers.

The first print ad in the NTCA campaign reminds policymakers that solutions to rural challenges — such as making technology available to students in our local classrooms — have long come from rural telecommunications providers.

NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association launched the print and digital ad series in July, sending a strong message to elected officials, regulators and their support staffs in the nation’s capital. That message is twofold: 1) that for more than 60 years, rural telecommunications companies have successfully met the challenges of delivering quality, affordable services to the country’s most rural and remote communities, and 2) that with the right support, these rural providers can continue to deliver real solutions as society becomes increasingly reliant on broadband connectivity.

The campaign is part of NTCA’s work to ensure the story of rural telecommunications is heard at a time when policymakers in Washington look to update rules affecting the industry. These ads are appearing in print and digital publications that have a high level of readership among these policymakers.

NTCA represents nearly 900 independent, community-based telecommunications companies that are leading innovation in rural and small-town America. The ad campaign is another example of how we work with other companies like us through our national organization to benefit our members and their communities.

Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA. “As policymakers in Washington consider who to turn to as we continue to tackle the rural broadband challenge, we want to make sure they recognize that community-based telecommunications providers have been the solution for rural America all along,” Bloomfield says. “For decades, rural telcos have offered the most effective answer for rural communications problems by leveraging their own entrepreneurial spirit, their technical know-how, their commitment to community and federal partnerships that were effective in promoting investment. If they can continue to have access to the tools to do so, these community-based providers will remain the most effective answer to solve such problems in a broadband world.”

Small business cyber security

Protect yourself today: Practical steps small businesses can take to protect against cyber security threats

With the ever-growing number of cyber security threats, all businesses should take immediate steps to ensure that their operations, systems and networks are secure. In the July/August issue, we looked at some of the threats facing small businesses. Now, let’s discuss steps that every small business should consider immediately.

Below are four inexpensive steps that will provide some immediate protection from cyber security threats for any business. These are four steps of many, but they provide a good starting point.

Michael Ramage is the Associate Director of the Center for Telecommunications Systems Management at Murray State University.

Michael Ramage is the Associate Director of the Center for Telecommunications Systems Management at Murray State University.

  • Anti-Virus Software — An essential step that every business should consider is software to help keep its systems clean of viruses and malware. Having a clean computer is vital to a secure network. Several anti-virus software options are available, some even for free.  Choose an option that provides real-time monitoring.
  • Password Usage — A basic requirement that is often overlooked by organizations is the use of passwords. First of all, use them. Every computer, no matter how insignificant, should require a password to log on. Complex passwords should be used if possible. The SANS Institute (www.sans.org) provides tips on security and password usage, such as not mixing personal and business passwords.
  • Employee Training  — Employees are the first line of defense in cyber security protection. Many security attacks could be prevented with proper security awareness training. This should include the do’s and don’ts of Internet and cyber security. Examples would include proper password usage, what information can be shared over the phone and how to protect customer information.
  • Regular Backups — Data loss happens all the time. Sometimes it is due to human error, sometimes to natural disasters. Other losses are due to malicious activity. Every business should create a regular backup schedule for its critical data and provide offsite storage. Ideally, a business should follow best practices. For example, if you back up to a system within the same building and your building burns down, then you lose your original data and your backup data.

These are just a few steps that small businesses should take immediately. In the November/December issue, we will discuss some longer-term measures small business should consider to protect their systems and information.

FCC delays implementation of increase in local phone rates

Thanks in part to the unified voice of America’s rural telecommunications companies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to change its approach to an increase in local phone service rates.

Earlier this year the FCC announced a new “rate floor” for rural telecommunications services that, if enacted in full, would have forced some rural companies to raise their local phone service rates by as much as 40 percent this summer.

NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association filed a notice with the FCC expressing concern on behalf of the nation’s rural telecommunications companies and their consumers.

Toward the end of April, the FCC announced a decision to delay implementation of the rate floor increase until January 2015, and to phase in the increase over a longer period.

This increase in the rate floor is intended to bring rates across the country into better balance. To comply with the new minimum, some telecommunications providers would be forced to raise their rates for local phone service by as much as $6 per month.

We will continue to keep you updated through the pages of our magazine, and to work through NTCA to ensure your voice is heard in Washington, D.C., on important issues that impact telecommunications services across rural America.

The IP Evolution

Support for ‘middle mile’ networks is vital to keeping rural regions connected to Internet

The technology that powers the Web — known as Internet Protocol, or IP — has become the standard for transmitting information between devices.  As we use this technology to connect everything from security systems to appliances, in addition to watching movies and sharing files over the Internet, it is more important than ever that federal regulations support the “IP Evolution.”

When you use your Internet connection and our local network to access the nation’s Internet backbone, your information travels across “middle mile” networks. Because these networks are a vital connection between your local provider and the rest of the Internet, it is important that our nation’s policies support their development — especially as people in rural America grow to rely more on broadband connections for education, business growth, entertainment, telemedicine and general communications.

“The networks required to connect rural areas to Internet ‘on-ramps’ are costly, and consumer demand is increasing the need for bandwidth,” says Mike Romano, senior vice president of policy for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. “To keep rural broadband services affordable, such networks need universal service support.”

As your telecommunications provider, we will continue working through NTCA with other companies like ours across the U.S. to encourage changes in federal regulations that will help consumers take advantage of the IP Evolution.

Telcos respond as FCC pushes for increase in local service rates

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced in March a new “rate floor” for rural telecommunications services that, if enacted in full, could raise local phone service rates by 40 percent for some rural consumers.

This increase is intended to bring rates across the country into better balance. To comply with the new minimum, some telecommunications providers would be forced to raise their rates for local phone service by as much as $6 per month.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association filed a notice with the FCC expressing concern on behalf of the nation’s rural telecommunications companies. “The strict implementation of this rule presents real challenges for rural consumers and could put at risk access to both quality voice and broadband services in many rural communities,” wrote NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield in the notice.

Suggestions to the FCC include phasing in the rate increase amounts over time as well as delaying the dates for the increases to be implemented.

As your telecommunications provider, we will continue working through NTCA to present the concerns of rural consumers to the FCC. Please see the July/August issue of this magazine for an update.

Our national telco association joins with 34 rural groups to work for broadband support

Access to affordable broadband Internet affects all aspects of rural life, and regulators should act quickly to put a plan in place that will support the availability of affordable broadband service in rural America.

That was the message a group of 35 national organizations sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in March. NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association signed the letter, along with groups representing consumer, community and business interests. NTCA is the national voice of telecommunications companies such as ours.

Because of the way Universal Service Fund (USF) support is currently set up, “consumers in rural America are being forced to select services they may not want, such as traditional landline telephone service, in order to gain access to broadband services at an affordable rate,” says Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA.

The letter specifically urged the FCC to move forward as quickly as possible to implement a Connect America Fund (CAF) mechanism for rural telecommunications companies like ours — a mechanism that will “provide sufficient and predictable support for broadband-capable networks across all of rural America,” Bloomfield adds.

The letter stated that “our groups include representatives of agribusiness, farmers and ranchers, rural health care providers, rural educational initiatives, economic development agencies, utilities, lenders and other sectors that are indispensable to our rural and national economies.”

—From NTCA Reports

In addition to NTCA, other organizations signing the letter include: 

  • Agricultural Retailers Association
  • American Association of Community Colleges
  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Library Association
  • American Telemedicine Association
  • Independent Community Bankers of America
  • National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education
  • National Rural Economic Developers Association
  • National Rural Education Association
  • National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
  • National Rural Health Association
  • National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative
  • Rural School and Community Trust
  • State Agriculture and Rural Leaders