STANTON, Neb. — When the Paden family bought Stanton Telephone Co. in 1980, its copper-wire, party-line phone system served most of Stanton County, much as it had for decades.
Since then, the Padens have overseen a technological makeover of what is now called Stanton Telecom Inc., most recently a $6 million, two-year project to bury fiber-optic cable throughout the local network.
The upgrade brought high-speed broadband Internet connections to the northeast Nebraska community of about 1,500 and its neighbors, said Robert Paden, vice president and general manager.
But challenges remain for Stanton and other rural phone networks nationwide. A dozen Nebraska telecommunications officials passed that message to Brendan Carr, one of five members of the Federal Communications Commission that oversees federal communications policy and regulations.
Carr and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer visited Stanton Tuesday and heard from the telecom executives, in a polite but pointed discussion held at the VFW Post 3603’s hall, that the FCC needs to take action to support rural communities.
Afterward, Carr said rural communities as well as farms and ranches need help to make the transition to next-generation Internet connectivity, whether it’s by cutting red tape, increasing federal funding or both.
“We need to do our work in D.C. to make sure that broadband and next-gen connectivity is getting out to the farmers and ranchers,” Carr said. He was an attorney for the commission and practiced communications law in Washington before being appointed by President Donald Trump last August.
Computer-connected equipment used in precision agriculture needs high-speed connections to gather and process the data that can increase farm and ranch efficiency, Carr said. He also visited a Milford feedlot where some cattle are tracked through computer chips.
So far, a primary source of funds for rural phone companies — 75 percent of Stanton Telecom’s revenue, Paden said — is from the $10 billion-a-year federal universal service fund, from fees paid by telephone users nationwide.
Many rural telephone companies borrowed money for upgrades based on what was a predictable flow of revenue from the fund, said Mike Becker, CEO of Hartelco of Hartington, Nebraska, one of those at the discussion.
“Everything changed in 2016,” he said, when the fund’s programs were altered. The companies’ future revenue became less predictable, potentially endangering their ability to repay loans and to pay for the inevitable future improvements.
Fischer said there is an “imbalance” in the way the funds are allocated.
“To see that revenue source diminish and be cut so significantly, that throws the business plan out and hurts the community,” she said, including the economically important agriculture sector.
Having good broadband infrastructure can attract people and businesses to rural areas, she said. “Not everybody wants to live in the city. Not everybody wants to live in a real small apartment.
“It’s always good to have Washington come out to Nebraska. ... We need to make a commitment to rural America, and Nebraska is rural America. That’s how we are viewed.”