NRECA Broadband participants at their first-ever in-person gathering got a chance to collaborate with one another and talk with key federal administrators in charge of billions of dollars in new funding to bridge the digital divide.

The Broadband Leadership Summit, held Nov. 17-18 in Washington, D.C., brought electric cooperative leaders face-to-face with decision-makers from the Rural Utilities Service, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Communications Commission, plus key congressional staff.

The federal officials took questions from participants, had sideline conversations with NRECA Broadband participants, exchanged business cards and even offered a cellphone number for future contacts.

“It gave us a good opportunity to let us be heard, to talk about our challenges,” said Michael Callahan, executive vice president/CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, based in Ridgeland.

“It’s one thing to hear from a lobbyist and another to hear from the people who do the work. The AT&Ts and big telcos have a lot of support. It gave us a chance to get our message across.”

Jesse Shekleton, director of broadband operations at Jo-Carroll Energy, said “the big takeaway is the energy in the room.”

“It was helpful to come together—cooperatives helping cooperatives,” said Shekleton, who traveled from the co-op’s headquarters in Elizabeth, Illinois. “Now we have a specific group in broadband to get together, to collaborate and strategize to help all of us succeed on behalf of our rural members.”

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson called the conference “a member-driven conversation” and encouraged co-ops in broadband to increase their participation and “work together to level the playing field in business decisions and learn from each other, just like we’ve done in the past 80 years.”

He also urged co-op leaders to keep communicating on how NRECA Broadband can be most effective in the regulatory and policy arenas.

“There is an interest in this town to know electric cooperatives and know how electric co-ops are moving to close the digital divide,” Matheson said. “Our voice matters.”

RUS Administrator Andy Berke addressed the summit on how his agency is working to meet the Biden administration’s call for every American “to have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet” with help from $65 billion from the 2021 infrastructure law.

“How do we make sure this truly hits every single person? Co-ops are a huge, huge piece of this,” he said.

Co-op leaders asked Berke about the ReConnect program’s onerous application requirements, which includes providing 10 years of financial records and lengthy delays before receiving funds.

Berke agreed that the requirements can be “burdensome,” but said they serve as a check on applicants that fail to follow through, which could trigger Congress to strike future funding. He said he is working to keep RUS staff levels up and to adjust policies to eliminate delays.

“We want to be faster,” he said. “For us to make these investments come alive for Americans, we have to get the loans out the door.”

NTIA is managing $42.5 billion for rural broadband and plans to give states $100 million or more to distribute to internet providers. Administrator Alan Davidson told summit attendees that partnerships with electric co-ops will be critical to universal broadband.

“We want to learn from you, and we want to work with you,” he said. “This our generation’s infrastructure moment. We need to partner to bring the vision of internet to all a reality.”

Participants told Davidson that it is particularly expensive to deliver broadband to the country’s most remote communities and that co-ops are among the few willing providers to take on that challenge. They also told officials how large telco competitors falsely decry co-op pole attachment fees as an obstacle to rural broadband.

“This is exactly the feedback we need to hear,” Davidson said.

NRECA Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Connor told participants that the conference showcased their collective strength and the power of the relationships they’ve built to serve their members.

“It matters immensely to have you all in the same room,” he said. “It really matters to policymakers to see we’ve earned a seat at the table.”

Mississippi’s Callahan called the summit “a great experience.” Like other co-op leaders in the room, he said he appreciated “the opportunity to talk amongst ourselves and about what NRECA can do to help us back home” and discussions with federal officials in charge of multibillion-dollar rural broadband programs.

“It’s been stimulating,” he said. “It gave us a chance for them to hear our perspective.”