Public-Private Partnerships for Broadband & Beyond

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) has been at the forefront of innovative broadband community partnerships in the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the past decade. Their partnerships do not stop where the fiber ends, however.

In this ViodiTV Real-Time Conversation, we learn from CTC CEO, Kristi Westbrock, about

  • what it takes to have successful partnerships with municipalities, other cooperatives, and local school districts.
  • how they went above and beyond regarding the FCC pledge and worked with school districts to bring WiFi hot spots and broadband to specific students.
  • how they have shifted their approach to installations with a soon-to-be trademarked program.
  • some unique ways CTC is supporting their staff, including bringing in a comedian to entertain and hosting interactive games.
  • their annual meeting, which was held online in June.

It is always inspiring to talk to leaders, like Kristi, who are the heart and soul of the independent broadband operators that provide broadband to areas that otherwise would be unserved.

Thank you to Calix for their support of today’s conversation. They first brought ViodiTV to visit CTC in 2012 and it was great to hear that the relationship between CTC and Calix is as strong as ever.

Interview Highlights:

Click the timecode below to go directly to that section of the conversation.

  • 01:22 – Kristi explains the cooperative business structure and what it means for the communities that CTC serves.
  • 04:08 – For the first-time, CTC’s annual meeting was online and not in-person. Westbrock explains that, although she missed the face-to-face interaction, there were some advantages, such as the automatic recording of and the interactivity of an online platform. It was also an opportunity to raise money for the community and CTC’s donations were leveraged by the community to bring food to people in need.
  • 08:37 – Kristi explains their soon-to-be trademarked program for helping customers self-install their fiber connections. She talks about the transition and the motivation for creating a kit that includes everything a customer needs for fiber broadband.
  • 12:45 – The discussion leads to the challenges of helping customers, which have been surprisingly few. Westbrock gives kudos to Calix for giving CTC the analytic tools to remotely diagnose issues, in real-time, in the customers’ WiFi networks. She points out the importance of maintaining USF (Universal Service Fund) for supporting rural areas that would otherwise be uneconomical.
  • 14:57 – Kristi talks about the impact on its members and the financial challenge of adhering to the FCC’s Keep America Connected Pledge.
  • 16:32 – Early on, CTC partnered with their local school district to determine which students needed broadband. She details a three-prong strategy that includes fiber and WiFi hotspots sprinkled throughout and, even beyond, CTC’s existing service area. It is more than numbers, however, as Kristi tells the heartwarming story of a mental health provider who exclaimed, “Thanks to CTC for putting up these hotspots, we were able to keep therapy going with our patients.”
  • 20:04 – Kristi talks about the partnership that brought broadband to Little Falls, MN (see these interviews from 2012 and 2015). That partnership was so successful that the network was paid off in seven years, three years ahead of plan. They are now looking at expanding to the rest of the town.
  • 24:14 – We talk about one of the first electric/telco cooperative partnerships in the U.S.; CTC’s partnerships with Arrowhead Electric Cooperative (see this interview with Joe Buttweiler when he was with Arrowhead, prior to his joining CTC).
  • 25:38 – She credits Calix’s Keith Carlson for helping bring CTC’s electric cooperative partners together. Sharing resources, particularly labor, is important to make projects feasible and sustainable.
  • 29:07 – Respect, trust, and cooperation among the leaders set the tone and are what makes the electric-telco relationships work. It also allows them to collectively react to new opportunities, such as grants, to help their respective members.
  • 31:04 – Rural communities cannot afford to be siloed and CTC and the local school district provide a great example of how to maximize the use of public dollars for the benefit of as many people as possible. The CTC auditorium is inspiring for all communities in America.
  • 34:34 – Kristi talks about some of their efforts to keep their culture intact. An example of a double-win is their fun contests, such as Quarantine Survival Bingo, whereby staff can win prizes, such as gift cards for use with local businesses. She indicates that participation in the company-wide, online meetings is greater compared to when the meetings were in-person.
  • 37:28 – We could all use some comic relief right about now and CTC delivered for its staff by bringing in C. Willi Myles, “America’s Everyday Comedian” into a staff meeting to entertain and inspire.
  • 39:35 – She ends by giving a shoutout to Calix and, specifically, to Calix’s Keith Carlson for taking care of his customers. She encourages anyone who needs advice on how to bring broadband to a given community to contact them (