Bringing Congress to Rural America

By Mark Patterson
General Manager

It’s not often that rural telcos like ours get a chance to share our stories, struggles and successes with a busload of Congressional staff members.

So when the Foundation for Rural Service recently brought a group of legislative advisors on a bus tour through East Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, we at Highland made the best of the opportunity.

These bright, young staffers — most of whom work for representatives and senators on key commerce, technology and communications committees — left Washington, D.C., to visit our part of the country and see what rural broadband looks like firsthand.

The staffers came from across the country, representing places such as Salt Lake City, the Dallas suburbs, Central Florida and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Before moving to the nation’s capital, many of them lived in big cities, such as Chicago. For some, this bus trip may have been the first time they’d ever spent in an area that could be considered rural.

While on the trip they observed a crew plowing fiber in Middle Tennessee, toured the facilities of a number of small rural communication companies like ours and talked with local officials.

At one stop on the tour, I, along with other nearby rural broadband providers, made sure to catch the ear of a few of the staffers and explain how important our mission is to our local residents. It was important for them see how vibrant our communities are and to meet the great people in our region.

It was important for them to hear rural Tennessee and Kentucky businesses owners, hospital administrators and local officials talk about the importance of a broadband connection.

And it’s important for them to understand the challenges cooperatives like ours face in building a network that may cost tens of thousands of dollars each mile, with as few as five customers per mile.

Long term, Congress and Washington regulators play a significant role in the strength of our telco and our industry, through issues such as the Universal Service Fund. As you’ve read in this space before, the USF provides funding that allows rural, high-cost providers like us a way to recoup the investments we’ve made in our communities and still provide telephone and broadband service at a price local residents can afford.
It was a great chance to tell them our cooperative’s story: We are providing service in areas that for-profit companies will not serve, and local residents depend on our network to work, play, shop, learn and connect with friends and family.

I am proud Highland could play a role in bringing the congressional delegation to rural Tennessee and Kentucky. And I’m proud every day that you’ve trusted Highland to connect you to the world.

Highland is hosting receptions for area businesses

HTC would like to thank everyone who recently participated in a reception for Morgan County businesses. During the reception, local business leaders had the opportunity to hear about Highland’s latest offerings and see demonstrations of HTC’s newest services, including high-speed broadband and digital television. The reception also allowed businesses to hear about local companies doing important work in the community, which they wouldn’t be able to do without broadband from HTC.

A reception for local businesses in McCreary and Scott counties will be held soon. Business customers, please watch your mailbox for an invitation to the upcoming reception in your area.

Congressional staff members tour Kentucky and Tennessee

Highland Telephone Cooperative CEO Mark Patterson visited with congressional staff members as part of a tour organized by the Foundation for Rural Service. Many of the staff members on the trip had the privilege of advising members of congress on telecommunications issues. The trip throughout East Kentucky and Middle Tennessee gave them a firsthand look at the challenges and triumphs rural telcos experience while providing high-speed broadband.

The Foundation for Rural Service is the nonprofit organization which functions in collaboration with NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. NTCA represents nearly 900 independent, community-based telecommunications companies and their interests in national government affairs.

“It was wonderful to have several congressional staff members on the ground in rural Tennessee and Kentucky,” Patterson says. “Any time we can get staffers out of Washington and in the rural areas like where Highland serves, it helps them to understand our mission, and it helps us to showcase the high-quality services we provide to our members.”

Customer friendly, fiber powered

By Noble Sprayberry

Modern banks often nudge customers toward ATMs and online tools, reducing the workload in branch offices. However, expect a more personal experience from United Cumberland Bank in Oneida.

“The trend across the nation is that traffic in branches is decreasing,” says Jim Johnson, bank president. “But in our communities, the branches get heavy visitation.”

And while a face-to-face visit is welcome, all United Cumberland branches also offer the online resources considered essential to today’s consumers. “There’s so much business customers can do now without stepping into a bank,” Johnson says. “And we want to make it easier and more convenient for them, too.”

From technology to customer service, the goal is to provide both the human touch and technology customers expect from the local bank. And while the bank may seem like a newcomer, it’s built on a long tradition.

The bank was formed in 2014 by a merger between Bank of McCreary County and First Trust and Savings Bank. The move solidified a 20-year affiliation between the two institutions, which combined have more than 200 years of experience serving the region. The McCreary County bank formed in 1906, and the Tennessee bank was created in 1923.

“We feel that if our community does well, the bank will do well,” Johnson says. “And we continue to bank based on relationships. These are the friends and family we deal with every day.”

New bank, new technology

The merged bank maintains six branches — three in Tennessee and three in Kentucky. Fast, reliable fiber-based broadband by Highland created a valuable new resource.

Just more than a year ago, the bank moved to a business-level, all-fiber Internet system that connected each branch’s computers. During the workday, more than 200 computers or devices may hit the network at once.
And with the fiber optic system, transactions flow smoothly. “Since we’ve had fiber in place, speeds have increased tremendously,” says Ryan Duncan, network administrator. “Our banks are able to communicate faster between one another.”

For customers, the new system means more efficient interactions at the bank, particularly when someone visits a branch. “It allows us to get on our systems quicker,” Johnson says. “I’m sure the tellers and the lenders, who go back and forth between the different systems we use, find it much faster.”

Upgrades did not stop with the computer network. The bank depends on a new telephone system provided by Highland that runs on fiber. Known as VoIP (Voice Over IP), the system provides flexibility, Duncan says. “It gives you more options. Now, if someone calls and you don’t get an answer, the call falls over to the next person in the group,” he says. “It really allows you to expand the phone system, and it gives you full control over your own system.”

The result is a technology infrastructure that allows the bank to better serve the community. “For us, fiber has been fantastic,” Duncan says.

Shop Safe

Protect your money, and identity, with a few simple tips

With the holiday bustle, who doesn’t want to find the easiest way to fill the space beneath the Christmas tree? It’s the season when stores offer up some of the best deals of the year — and broadband Internet can make shopping a breeze.

Online stores such as Amazon put buying a gift one simple click away. And people love it. In fact, last year e-commerce sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving — known as Cyber Monday — topped $2 billion.
But shopping online is not without risk. Follow a few simple guidelines to make shopping, whether online or in person, during the busy holiday season a hassle-free experience.

Avoid paying with debit cards

Credit card companies generally have policies in place to protect you from paying for something you didn’t buy. However, a debit card linked directly to a checking account makes it much harder to get your money back. So, consider using a credit card as the better payment option. Also, be sure to check your account balance often. Catching a fraudulent charge early makes it easier to resolve.

Purchase from retailers you know and trust

While there are countless retailers on the Web, the safest bet is to buy from companies with which you are already familiar or already do business. Most well-known major online stores are safe. Remember, never respond to an email or follow a link to a site seeking your personal information.

Use a separate email account for online shopping

Consider setting up a separate email address just for signing up to websites or when shopping online. That way, your work and personal inboxes won’t fill up nearly as fast with ads, coupons and offers. But, you will still have access to these promotions if you want them in your “shopping” email account.

Use caution when accessing free Wi-Fi in public

Hackers and identity thieves sometimes target connections in airports, malls and coffee shops. They hope to snoop on people who check bank accounts, enter credit card information or conduct similar transactions. Please understand, it’s fine to choose public Wi-Fi for casual use, but avoid making transactions or logging into personal accounts on this type of connection.

Travel with the essentials

When shopping, take only what you need. If you don’t plan to use specific credit cards or store credit cards, leave them at home. One card, a driver’s license and an auto insurance card can often be enough for a shopping trip. That way, a lost wallet or purse only requires you to call one or two companies to cancel accounts.

Yes, shopping online has its risks — but so does shopping in a crowded mall. Regardless of how you prepare for the holidays, know the risks, limit your exposure and monitor your accounts.

Setting the pace for education

Wartburg Central Elementary School students make use of fast Internet access.

Wartburg Central Elementary School students make use of fast Internet access.

Morgan County Schools’ fiber optic network empowers students

By Noble Sprayberry

Cables in neat rows connect a small bank of slim computer servers in the lower level of the central office for Morgan County Schools. And fiber optic lines link the room to each of the system’s eight schools.
It’s a high-tech, super-fast system moving the digital bits essential to modern education: online testing, distance learning, research tools and much, much more.

“It’s put the world at our teachers’ and students’ fingertips,” says Judy Cross, an instructional technology coach. “Research is a biggie with our students, particularly for projects or papers they’re writing. They have the capability of having a multitude of resources at their fingertips.”

A time of change

The past seven years have brought big shifts for the schools serving more than 3,000 students. When Technology Coordinator Chris Rogers came on board in 2008, he found a very different setup.

The network linking the schools required computer servers at each location. Each server could cost between $7,000 and $8,000, and keeping them all running required frequent visits by technicians. “It was a nightmare, but it was the way of life, and it’s the way we knew it,” Rogers says. “It seems like forever ago, but it really wasn’t.”

Upgrades began with the core technology connecting the schools. In 2008, T1 lines did the job. This type of connection can rely on either copper or fiber optic cables, but transmission speeds are limited to less than 2 megabits per second with copper lines.

Comparatively, a modern fiber optic system, such as the one Highland installed for the schools, can move information at gigabit speed — 1,000 megabits — far faster than the T1 lines.

Coalfield School, however, was outside the area initially served by Highland. Reliant on a national broadband provider, the school’s plight offered a contrast to the rest of the system. “Teachers couldn’t play YouTube videos,” Rogers says. “They could hardly do instruction, even typing classes. So, it was a big deal when they went to gig-fiber.”

The school system worked with Highland to extend fast broadband to the school in Coalfield, which serves students from prekindergarten through high school.

With all of the schools on the fiber optic network, the system was consolidated into the central office data center in Wartburg. “There’s less worry about maintaining the system and sync issues,” Rogers says. “We worry less about downtime. It made a big difference in supporting the network.”

Rogers works with a team of three technicians: Brian Peddicord, Cliff Ledford and Roger Liles. All four of them grew up in the county and attended Wartburg Central High School.

Each member of the group appreciates what the team is doing for the community. “I’m making a difference for the students here so they can have the best education possible,” Rogers says. “I just feel privileged to be able to make a difference.”

Education essentials

Rogers says the school system’s technology budget requires frugal choices. The fiber optic network, however, paid dividends beyond the bottom line. For example, mandatory tests must be taken online, and each Tennessee school system must meet minimum technology standards. The design of the modern Morgan County system hit the mark. “If we didn’t have all this in place, we’d still be scrambling to catch up,” Rogers says.

A high-performing computer network does more than meet mandated goals. Practical, classroom-oriented realities make it worthwhile. “It’s a whole lot smoother for the students because all of the tests are online,” he says. “We don’t want to have a student struggle on a test and say it was because the computer didn’t work or the Internet wasn’t fast enough.”

Also, educators increasingly rely on Web-based resources such as online math and reading programs. “Because it’s online, one of our tech guys no longer has to go around to each machine to update it when there’s a new version,” Cross says.

Upgrading the system and consolidating into one efficient data center allowed more money to go toward classrooms. Additions include tools such as interactive projectors, touch screens and interactive TVs, Rogers says.

And the system continues to keep pace with new innovations, such as adding wireless connections to every classroom. As many as 900 wireless devices, such as phones, tablets and laptops, might access the network at once. Fiber optics provided the capacity to support so many users, Rogers says.

Distance learning

A fast network also allows the expanded use of video, with one teacher able to communicate with multiple classes at once. A science teacher with a small in-room class can view a screen showing students at other schools. Those distant students can see and hear the educator through a setup that features a big-screen monitor.

“Right now, there is one physics teacher in the county at the vocational school, but he teaches to all four high schools,” Rogers says. “He’s doing the work of four teachers, and that saves three salaries.”
The program includes classes such as chemistry, physics and Spanish, as well as a composition class provided by Roane State Community College.

The future

While the school system has worked hard to develop a modern technology foundation, their efforts are ongoing.
Soon, select schools will join a local pilot program to evaluate if Chromebooks, small laptops that run an operating system and other software created by Google, can offer an affordable way to improve students’ access to technology, Rogers says.

Even the concept of a textbook may change. “In the future, and maybe in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to be looking very seriously at online textbooks,” Cross says.

Books represent a significant investment. Also, digital textbooks can allow schools to craft their own resources, even sharing them with other educators. “If we could start writing some of our own textbooks, that would be a huge savings,” she says.

Even while innovation continues, educators and students benefit from the current system. “Now, you’re just very, very connected,” Cross says. “It just empowers you.”

Broadband may be the greatest health care innovation for rural America

NTCA Logo

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.

Easy steps to help stop telemarketing calls!

If you are like most consumers, you are tired of being disturbed by telemarketing calls. There is help.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have established a National Do Not Call Registry. Joining this registry can drastically reduce the number of telemarketing calls you receive.

Here are some important facts about the list:

  • Once registered, telemarketers have 31 days to stop calling your number.
  • You can register up to three non-business telephone numbers. You can register cell phone numbers; there is not a separate registry for cell phones.
  • Your number will remain on the list permanently unless you disconnect the number or you choose to remove it.
  • Some businesses are exempt from the Do Not Call Registry and may still be able to call your number. These include political organizations, charities, telephone surveyors and businesses that you already have a relationship with.

Strict Federal Trade Commission rules for telemarketers make it illegal to do any of the following regardless of whether or not your number is listed on the National Do Not Call Registry:

  • Call before 8 a.m.
  • Call after 9 p.m.
  • Misrepresent what is being offered
  • Threaten, intimidate or harass you
  • Call again after you’ve asked them
    not to

Adding your number to the Do Not Call Registry is easy!
Register online at www.donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222
For TTY, call 866-290-4236
You must call from the telephone number you wish to register.

Attention local business owners: You can be penalized for not following these FCC rules

When people think of telemarketing phone calls, they usually imagine them coming from distant call centers. But local businesses that make phone calls to customers or potential customers should be aware that the same National Do Not Call Registry rules and regulations apply to them.
The Do Not Call initiative, regulated by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requires telephone service providers to notify customers of the National Do Not Call rules and regulations.

If you are a company, individual or organization that places telemarketing calls, it is very important that you familiarize yourself with the operations of the National Do Not Call Registry. Unless you fall under one of the established exceptions, such as telemarketing by charitable organizations or for prior business relationships, you may not make telemarketing calls to numbers included in the National Do Not Call Registry.

For information regarding National Do Not Call regulations, visit the National Do Not Call registry at www.telemarketing.donotcall.gov. You can find the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission rules governing telemarketing and telephone solicitation at 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200 and 16 C.F.R. Part 310, respectively.

Beware of sales calls disguised as surveys

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says they have received numerous complaints from individuals who report receiving deceptive sales calls. The callers identify themselves with Political Opinions of America and ask you to participate in a brief survey, usually consisting of about three questions. After answering the questions, the individual is transferred to someone offering them a bonus for participating in the survey — usually a sales pitch for a time-share disguised as a “free vacation.”

The FTC warns that if the purpose of the call is to try to sell something — even if it includes a survey — it is telemarketing and all Do Not Call Registry rules apply.

If you believe a call violates the FTC rules against telemarketing, you can file a complaint by calling 888-382-1222 or go to donotcall.gov.