Community, Connectivity, and Telecom Cooperatives

October 28, 2022


Carrie Huckeby, executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association, joined the podcast to discuss the history of telecom cooperatives, broadband expansion across our state, and the importance of engaging the next generation to continue the legacy of cooperatives.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Karen Wilson: Welcome to the BLC Connection Podcast. I’m Karen Wilson, your host for today. Today’s guest is Carrie Huckeby, director of the Tennessee Broadband Association, to discuss the evolution of cooperatives into broadband providers. Welcome to the BLC Connection Podcast, Carrie.

Carrie Huckeby: Thanks, Karen. Thanks for asking.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. All right. Well, let’s get started. Right now, we’re recording this in October, which is cooperative month. It’ll probably air sometime end of October, first of November. So, we kind of got started on this thought process because of cooperative month. But telecom cooperatives have evolved so much since most were formed out of necessity during the rural electrification years. So what do you think was the catalyst in starting this evolution from phone lines into fiber service?

Carrie Huckeby: Well, I think all those years ago, 70 years or more, that knock on the door from key community leaders or concerned citizens, to ask residents to become a member of a cooperative or to get a phone line. That catalyst, I think, was about connectivity. It was about safety, being able to stay connected with one another. You know, and this question reminded me, I got a phone call a few weeks ago from a lady in a community here in Tennessee, and she was asking me about getting broadband service. She didn’t have any, and she just had satellite. And her question to me was, “Aren’t we just as important out here in the rural areas as the people that live in the city and more populated towns?” And of course, my answer was, “Well, of course you are.” And I think that 70 years or 80 years ago when they were going door to door, they were saying, “Hey, you out here in the country, as we call it, are just as important as everyone else.” So years later, you know, the technology has evolved and now we’re talking broadband. But it’s still the same thing. The catalyst is still connectivity. It’s connectivity to education, health services, precision agriculture, emergency services, all those things that drive that connectivity. So even though the innovation and the technology has changed and our cooperative has changed, our companies have changed, that catalyst is still about communication and connectivity, I believe.

Karen Wilson: Well, even in those days, you know, most people stayed close to home. But you also had families that were beginning to move away, move to larger cities where jobs were more prevalent. So they wanted to, I guess, talk to their families that were in. I remember, like in my grandparents day, lots of people moved to Michigan because that’s where the jobs were and stuff. Well, you wanted to talk to your family. And so a lot of these small rural farms did not have that opportunity until the cooperatives were formed.

Carrie Huckeby: Exactly. I can remember my aunt and uncle, James and Overlin, that moved to Michigan. And, you know, they didn’t get to come home very often, but they definitely wanted to keep up with their nieces and nephews and their brothers and sisters to see how they were doing. So the cooperatives and that getting that telephone line at that time really played a role in keeping families connected, as you said, when they were forced to leave to get jobs somewhere else or they didn’t want to stay and work on the farm. So that evolution and that progress and all that, just because the world was moving and there were other things to do, did not mean you still didn’t need that connectivity.

Karen Wilson: Right. Sometimes I think we think we’re the only generation that has been moving and evolving. But, you know, it started with our pioneer fathers and mothers.

Carrie Huckeby: It did. It just looked a little different than it does today. But it’s the same thing.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. So no doubt the availability of grants has sped up fiber builds and deployment. Do you feel these efforts will be sustained until every rural Tennessean has fiber to the home?

Carrie Huckeby: Well, there’s no doubt the administrations, both federal and state, are evaluating and counting the number of homes and locations that do and do not have broadband service. And they are allocating funds through multiple grant and loan programs. And that funding, you know, it’s necessary. We can’t do it right now without it. It’s imperative that we have that to reach every location in our state. Now, whether that happens in five years or whether that happens in ten years or longer, the fact is that there are locations in our state that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach. One of our member company said a few weeks ago that it had caused over $80,000 to reach one home in a remote area. So, you know, without this funding, it’s very difficult for a company to afford, you know, to build that, because if it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, there’s no way to justify a build like that sometimes because it’ll never be right side up on the balance sheet. There’s no rate of return for something like that. And it’s so important to connect as many Tennesseans as possible while this funding is happening. But the well will go dry at some point. You know, it just will. And we know that. So that’s why we are working as hard as we can. The member companies are to get everybody connected. But I think that if they haven’t been able to reach everyone, that they’ll go back to the same principles that they had before the grants and funding. That they will examine every location, they’ll examine every community to see what’s financially feasible to get to. And, you know, they’ll do what, like I said, what they’ve always done. They’ll keep trying to move in the right direction. But it will slow things down. And I think that companies will not be able to look at the community next door and go into that area as quickly as they will today with funding.

Karen Wilson: That’s true. Yeah, because that’s what’s, you know, in the underserved areas where their current provider has chosen not to build there, the grants are enabling others to go in and build. But I could see that, that probably will slow down.

Carrie Huckeby: Exactly. And it’s like the lady I mentioned, her provider had decided or was not coming into her area to build. So she was looking for someone else that has the expertise and the funding that will come in and do it. So many of our members have 100% fiber networks in their own cooperative territory, but now they’re taking that funding and their expertise, and they’re going to the community next door and providing it there. So, you know, we hope the funding lasts a long time until every Tennessean is connected. And I definitely think our administrations are. That’s their goal, if all possible.

Karen Wilson: Yes. It seems to be on their mind, and they talk about it so frequently that you know it’s a top priority for them. So Tennessee recently had a visit from FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Senator Marsha Blackburn with a roundtable discussion with executives from independents and cooperatives. So it’s, you know, we’re always honored to have people like that come give us a voice and to see what our opinions are. What was that discussion like? How did that go?

Carrie Huckeby: Well, like you said, we were very honored that they reached out to, Senator Blackburn’s office reached out to our government affairs director, Lavoy Knowles, and said, “Hey, we’re coming to town. We’d really like to sit down and have some discussion and get your feedback. And then you hear from us as well about what’s going to happen in the future, what’s in the pipeline.” So Commissioner Carr started the day with DTC and he stopped in, was able to talk to Chris Townson, the general manager. But the more important part, he was able to go out into the community and see the DTC employees putting up fiber. And he had never seen that before and really didn’t know what kind of work it takes and expertise it takes to make that happen. So when he goes back to Washington and he’s sitting at the FCC conference table, you know, he will have a much better, clearer picture of what it actually takes to get broadband into these rural communities. So he was able to do that and start the day. Then we came together in Nashville there with Senator Blackburn, and we were able to sit around the table and when they had requested the meeting, they did ask for us to bring together companies that were offering broadband, but they were doing it with different technologies. So fiber broadband, or they were using fixed wireless or they might be using a cable modem. So we were all sitting around the table there having the discussion.

Carrie Huckeby: And that conversation included things like mapping, you know, the accuracy of mapping, which is so important when it comes to the grants, who gets the funding, who is identified as underserved or served or not served at all. And, you know, it all comes from that mapping. We talked about labor shortages because, as you know, there are people retiring. From Ben Lomand Connect and all these other cooperatives and commercial companies that as that expertise retires, you know, where is the succession plan? Where do we find the labor force? Where are these students being exposed to the disciplines that we need to keep going? So we talked about TCAT and college and high school courses. We also talked about supply chain delays because that’s a big conversation. I just returned from the KTA/TNBA Conference. That’s a big, that’s a big discussion. And when you have deadlines to complete a project in three years or five years, if you’re not getting fiber, you know, four or five years or three years, or you’re not getting a truck for three years, you know, that can cause those delays in completing those projects. And so that was very important for our member companies to talk to Senator Blackburn and the commissioner, FCC commissioner, about that and say these are the things we’re facing, environmental studies, the delay sometimes that it causes in a fiber build…

Karen Wilson: Waiting on them to come and do the study.

Carrie Huckeby: Yes, it’s laying on someone’s desk, and it lays there for a while. And, you know, then it delays a project 12 months. And so those were all things that were discussed around the table. And, you know, I’ve said this many times that even though the FCC commissioner and our senator, legislators hold these very important positions and, you know, vote on all things that are imperative to our state, they cannot be an expert on every single subject. You know, they have to have these discussions in our member companies and these CEOs and these other people that are working in it every day to enlighten one another. You know, they have to have that to take back to Washington D.C. to make those decisions and to have all the info they need.

Karen Wilson: Yeah, I guess, you know, it’s a proof of the grants and the money being put to good use. The employment, seeing the employees out there working in the field, I’m sure is an awesome thing to see the jobs that it’s creating. But then also like the domino effect, as you said, of employee shortages and supply chain shortages and how that affects everyone in that process.

Carrie Huckeby: It does because it takes the workforce to get the supplies, you know, make the supplies. It takes us, you know, we have to order them and, you know, they’re manufactured and delivered. But then also the expertise and experience you need from your employees to work in everything from accounting, you know, because you’re doing the auditing and the reporting back to the government on the grants that you’re using it properly. There’s no misconduct or mishandling of that funding. It’s going exactly where it needs to be. So you’ve got all these employees marketing, communications and all these employees that are needed working in this field. So where do you find them? You know, where are they being trained? Where are they hearing about the careers that are available in telecom? And so our legislators are just as concerned about that as we are, and they’re here to help us find ways to develop programs to train those people. You know how far back in school do we talk about STEM and technology. So it was a really good roundtable discussion. It was an over an hour, hour and 15 minutes. And again, we were thrilled that they were giving us that amount of time.

Karen Wilson: Yeah, that’s good because, you know, thinking about kids and very few kids like, take their time to say or give that thought process of like, I want to work in telecom, you know. But we want to be there, and I’m surprised and that’s great that that went back as far as even education of our children in these rural schools.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, it all fits together. I mean, it’s one great big puzzle. And then we started this conversation about cooperatives. And I think that’s part of it, too, that we have roles here of talking about the disciplines that are available and what a cooperative is. Why would you want to work for a cooperative? So kind of falling back on that. But lots of great discussion. So we were really glad that happened.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. Always good to have a face in front of those affecting decisions on the national and state level. So as someone who’s had a successful career in the telecom industry, what is the greatest source of pride amongst cooperatives in Tennessee?

Carrie Huckeby: Well, I thought about this a little bit. And again, I think we talked about the catalyst of connectivity. I think the pride you know, I don’t think the source of pride has changed much. I would think the same thing that drove the knock on the door to sign people up for phone service, drives cooperative boards and employees today. You know, that willingness to serve, to innovate, to educate, to inform, to be a great corporate citizen, to be socially responsible, just show up every day to ensure that their cooperative stays strong and their community is supported. And for each cooperative that I worked for, I knew we played a role in the welfare and the success of our community. And I think it’s that pride. I know it was that pride that drove me while I was working in telecom. And but I think it’s that pride that drives employees to show up every day. You know, we laugh and say, of course, a paycheck is important, but you’ve got to have some reason that you put your feet on the floor every morning, and you get dressed, and you go to work. So I think it’s really that seventh cooperative principle that it’s concern for community. And I think that pride of helping everyone in the community and being a part, you know, just being there for support is what that pride is. You know, I think everybody’s proud of that.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. And, you know, I hear installers and customer service people when they help someone and that customer comes to them and says, thank you for connecting or helping me with my Internet or anything. My phone line was down, something like that. They are, the customer, is so appreciative. Most of them are. And then the employee gets the gratification of thinking. I made a difference in that person’s day, week, month, how their life is exactly.

Carrie Huckeby: Because you don’t know what’s going on in their life. I mean, you know, they need a phone call. They need to call a doctor. They need to check on their kids. They need whatever. So, you know, they need to do a college course and get an exam in. So when you’re improving and enriching their quality of life, you know, that’s just the pat on the back that you need to make You go to work every day.

Karen Wilson: Yeah, that’s true. Paycheck is nice, but…

Carrie Huckeby: Paycheck pays the bills, but…

Karen Wilson: That’s right. But there is something to be said about making a difference and the motivation to do that.

Carrie Huckeby: Exactly.

Karen Wilson: So do you see other future evolutions of the telecom cooperative model coming, or what do you think about that?

Carrie Huckeby: You know, I think the primary purpose of a cooperative, and we’ve talked about the principles a little bit, is that it’s there to serve the community in which it operates, where it operates. And since co-ops are not-for-profit enterprises, you know, the profit goes to fulfilling the social and economic and cultural needs of the community. And, you know, when a co-op does well, it benefits the community. And the cooperative model or the core values are based on those seven principles: voluntary and member control, democratic member controlled, economic participation, autonomy and independence, education and information, and cooperation among other cooperatives. And, you know, like we said, number seven, concern for community. It’s a good model now. And personally, I can’t visualize that the telecom model changing or evolving to look differently than it does today. It works. There’s farmers co-ops. There’s small flower co-ops. There’s.

Karen Wilson: Food co-ops.

Carrie Huckeby: Food co-ops. And the electric co-ops. And it’s still working and cooperatives are still being formed today. So I think about this question, I think it’s not broke. Why try to fix it? So I could totally be wrong, but I just think the cooperative model works so.

Karen Wilson: Well, it seems like society has a renewed appreciation of cooperatives. You are seeing our young people participate in more, like we said, food cooperatives and things like that, and they’re thinking more about it. And when they think about those things, it makes them think about their providers, their telecom service. And so I think we’re going to see a resurgence in that appreciation of the cooperative model.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, it’s their company, you know, their members, they’re stockholders in that company. So they have a vote, you know, they can choose their board of directors, and they can help direct the company as they see fit and, you know, be informed. And so, you know, that’s a model that works well in smaller communities, too. And and then I think also they, in our communities, we see the cooperatives are able to put that sign in the ballpark, and they’re able to do a scholarship, and they’re able to touch a whole lot of lives in ways that…

Karen Wilson: They give back because they’re supported by the community.

Carrie Huckeby: That’s exactly right. They give back, and they play an important role. So hopefully younger people are seeing the benefits of that and understand what a cooperative is.

Karen Wilson: Yeah, well, with it being cooperative month, we will encourage everybody to come to their annual meetings of their cooperatives in their area. You know, take an interest and participate in the democratic voting of their board members and things like that, because that’s how you have a say in what happens in your cooperative.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, and I totally agree. And I’m really, and I meant to say this, that I’m really happy that we still celebrate cooperatives in October, that that month is dedicated to it because I think it does give us an opportunity to have these discussions and remind everyone what a cooperative is and the importance of them.

Karen Wilson: Right. So what do you think those who started the telecom cooperatives would think of their current legacy?

Carrie Huckeby: Well, I’ve worked, like I said, in cooperatives throughout my career with them and for them and still working for them and commercial companies. And I thought about those people that went house to house and talked about the benefits of having a telephone connection and starting a cooperative. And I don’t think they were looking too far into the future at that time or imagining all the things that would evolve after they knocked on that door. You know, they didn’t see four party lines changing into two party or then change into private phone lines. Or the addition of, you know, features like call waiting and caller ID. You and I worked together. You remember how exciting caller ID was and voice mail.

Karen Wilson: You beeped over, and there was another person I know.

Carrie Huckeby: Right? I know. Conference calling. Yeah, you could do that. And then there was voice mail. You either loved it, or you hated it. And then came along the internet. So they just wanted the connectivity and to take care of their community. But I can’t imagine any of those people would be unhappy with the direction their cooperative or the evolution of the phone line to fiber broadband. I can’t imagine. I mean, you and I certainly would not be sitting here and talking about this evolution if they had not knocked on those doors and built that foundation and started with an idea. Now, granted, they might not be too crazy about social media and how we use that connectivity, but the fact is that they, you know, they kicked it off. And we are here today with a vision to continue to connect rural communities with broadband. So, you know, they started a whole lot. And so I can’t imagine they would be unhappy with the connectivity or the legacy that came out of that single knock on someone’s door.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. Who would have thought, you know, 75, 84, some getting close to maybe 100 years, that the cooperative that they started is still thriving. It hasn’t had to sell out to another company, and they’re just still in that connectivity, just in a different way.

Carrie Huckeby: Exactly. So you almost wish you were around then to knock on that door and make that first connection and talk people into being a part of the cooperative. But of course, we still do that today in some way, knocking on doors and say, you know, how would you like broadband service?

Karen Wilson: Yeah, I know we’ve struggled with thinking about that. You know, door knocking is something that people don’t do, but it’s another touch to the customer. Hey, a reminder that we’re here. We’re always soft sellers and not somebody that’s forcing you to take anything like that. But it’s a good connection with the customer.

Carrie Huckeby: I definitely agree. So I think it’s an outstanding legacy that they started many years ago.

Karen Wilson: I agree. Lots of good things came from that. Think of all the people that have been employed by cooperatives in our rural areas, the families that have been raised because of the jobs and cooperatives and then all the connectivity that has come from it. It’s a great source of pride, I would think.

Carrie Huckeby: I think so, too. I mean, I’ve been retired a little while, but I still carry that little cooperative pride and telecom pride and all that around with me.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you. Carrie Huckeby, the director of the Tennessee Broadband Association, for joining us on the BLC Connection Podcast.

Carrie Huckeby: Thanks, Karen. Thanks for asking.

Karen Wilson: We invite our listeners to tune in for future episodes and share this content with other businesses. Until next time, this is your BLC Connection.

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