When the pandemic sent everyone home, small broadband providers went to work, "leaning in" said Patricia Boyers, president of Boycom Vision, a small Missouri provider, to keep their people connected.
Boyers, who is also chairman of ACA Connects, talked about the challenges and triumphs of smaller cable broadband providers during an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series. She was joined by ACA Connects president Matt Polka, who echoed her sentiments, calling what his members had done a "great untold story."
Boyers suggested Washington had not necessarily made the job easier, citing the many hoops her company has to jump through. Asked whether she found that Washington got in her way, she said: "Oh my gosh, how much time you got." She said that she has office space just for dealing with the IRS and all the public service commissions and the FCC. "Every time you turn around, somebody wants a piece of something. There's regulatory, there's EPA, there's the Department of National Resources. She did say she considered the current FCC "an ally," but past ones "not so much."
Polka, whose job it is to educate Washington about how regulation and legislation and policies impact smaller operators without the money and staff of the Comcast's and Charters of the world, framed it somewhat differently. He said that ACAC was working "hand in hand" with Washington on "sensible laws and regulations" that allowed them to invest and deploy. He said Boyers was making the point that there is a difference between serving densely populated areas and rural ones, many of them, like Boyers', "perpetually impoverished according to federal standards." He said those were remote places that were hard to serve, but cost the same or more to build as urban areas. He said ACAC was with Washington "in lockstep" on serving rural areas, but that policymakers have to understand the different challenges they face.
Boyers said that one thing she learned during the pandemic was how to keep her employees safe by keeping them in their own "bubbles," whether it was doing drops thought windows or putting modems on porches and walking subs through self-installs or getting a donation of PPE equipment from a laboratory so they could get fiber to the home when their CEO had to start working from home.
She also pointed out that she and her husband raised black angus beef cattle on the side to subsidize their small business in the early years, which wound up coming in handy. She said when ground beef became scarce, they slaughtered some of the cows to donate the ground beef to their employees. She said those were some of the ways they had "rolled their sleeves up."
Asked about the strain of the pandemic, and the use of Zoom, on her business, Boyers did not talk about it in terms of capacity, but as a personal tool for leveling the playing field in Washington. "Zoom is a great equalizer. It has allowed us to get into the offices of legislators. "If you are looking at this screen [the C-SPAN interview was a virtual one] my face is the same size as your face and Matt's face. Now if you go on the Hill in person, that old boy from Charter in front of me [one of the largest MVPDS vs. Boyer's 4,258 subs], he fills up the doorway a lot bigger than I do."
Polka stepped in to answer the underlying question about capacity. He said that as the pandemic was starting there was the underlying question of whether networks could handle the capacity of all that stay-at-home communicating and the initial "incredible surge" in demand.
He said the answer was that because of the ability of his members to invest in and deploy plant over the past four years to use new and alternative technologies, they were preparing to meet the pandemic before they even knew there would be one. He said that it turned out because of that there was capacity to spare. "Our members were ready to meet that need and continue to do so."
Polka said he thought Zoom would become part of the new normal as people prepared to move slowly back to offices, or perhaps not return.
Asked what the impact of the pandemic had been on cord-cutting, Polka said that streaming is more popular than ever and cord cutting was certainly an issue, driven by a lot of factors, including the higher cost of retransmission consent which drives cable prices higher and more customers to streaming options. But he said the good news was that a company even like Patty's can give consumers those new over-the-top services as well as traditional cable or a mix of both.
Asked if cable is still a 21st century technology, Boyers said yes "in my neck of the woods." She said that while people have talked about the pandemic putting everyone in the same boat, that was not really the case. "We were all in the same storm, but in a bunch of different little boats." She said her "boat" is different from the technology side than folks on the East and West coasts and even the metropolitan areas of the Midwest."
She said she still has subs who are elderly and impoverished and don't even have the money to pay for over-the-top services. So, yes, she said, the linear cable TV product is still viable for her subs. She said cord-cutting had slowed as the uncertainty of incomes increased.
Boyers said affordability is another challenge in the digital divide.
The Communicators interview will air Saturday, Nov. 21, at 6:30 p.m. ET on C-SPAN, and on Monday, Nov. 23, on C-SPAN2 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET.
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