Real Time Communications Featured Article

Rural Communities and Real Time Communications are Bound to Meet

April 10, 2015

It's not quite appropriate to say that rural communities are "hot," but they are certainly getting more attention from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and carriers willing to invest in underserved and unserved areas.   Last week, a bill was introduced in the Senate to get basic quality standards established for phone call completion.  There's also the ongoing debate/rallying cry to get broadband extended to everywhere.  Real time communications (RTC) technologies are going to be part of the discussion moving forward.

At last count, around $8.8 billion in taxes was collected last year for the Universal Service Fund (USF).  Reclassifying broadband as a utility may, according to some, result in higher taxes on Internet bills in order to feed and broaden the USF piggy bank.  FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says USF contributions should be a wash, with taxes split between phone and broadband services, but he couldn't guarantee that people might end up paying more overall.

Under USF, there are four programs to provide support for high-cost areas -- rural communities -- help low income consumers, provide connections to rural health care, and connect schools and libraries. USF hasn't done so well in years past since people are moving away from taxable long-distance calls and moving to untaxed real time communications services such as instant messaging, voice, and video calling.

Needless to say, rural carriers have been seeing their chunk of money from long-distance calling going downward for a while. They would like to find a way to get more money back into their pockets, both for infrastructure investment and profitability.  Cable companies and some carriers don't like the idea of more taxes as it may discourage customers from buying more services, especially in a time of (TV) cable cutting with customers moving to all-Internet solutions.

Some carriers are being contrarian.  Frontier, Dish Networks, CoBank and the Weather Channel are sponsoring the "Americas Best Communities" competition.  There are 138 teams representing 347 communities competing for $10 million in funding.  Later this month, 50 teams will get $35,000 each to help finance the development of a Community Revitalization Plan with the top three communities getting a total of $6 million in prize money.

To be fair, $10 million total is a drop in the bucket compared to $3.8 billion in FCC USF money, but the $35,000 times 50 communities will result in sharper grants and business plans for FCC money and the billions more Department of Agriculture and NTIA grants and loans that are available.

Real time communications has a big play in rural health care.  Currently, telemedicine options are expensive, proprietary, and require significant engineering setup.  Bringing doctors and specialists to rural areas will be a lot easier and cost effective using RTC to provide voice and video conferencing via desktop PC, tablet, and smartphone, enabling more people to get better care via clinic and at home.

Beyond health care, real time communications opens up better and more affordable collaboration for rural businesses to collaborate with urban centers.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the localvore/farm-to-table movement.  Restaurants are emphasizing sourcing from nearby farms and suppliers. RTC enables restaurants to more closely work with suppliers, discussing arrangements, showing the latest crops and animals in videoconference, maybe throwing in some screen sharing to provide maps and the appropriate business documents.  There may be a day in the not-too-distance future where you will sit down at a table and be offered a tablet that enables you to "click" to see live video of the farm where your vegetables and meat came from (Some patrons may not want that sort of intimacy with their food while others will figuratively (as well as literally) eat it up).

Regardless of the business model or type, real time communications will provide rural firms deeper and more rich ways to interact with customers and suppliers around the country.  In a world of big brands and generic, saturated pitches, being able to establish more intimate communications will result in more and better quality business for rural communities to reach out to larger markets.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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