The latest installment of the Save Rural Broadband video series from the WTA/NTCA/OPASTCO alliance tells the story of why broadband is important to folks served by Volcano Communications Group. While professional and instilled with excellent production techniques, it only tells one slice of what could be many stories; probably the most important being that without Volcano, there would be no service at all.
I probably have a more personal connection with Volcano than with any other operator. Over the years, I have worked with them as a vendor and known them through industry events. I also knew them through my parents who lived in their service territory and were their customers for more than two decades; more about my parent’s story with Volcano later.
As mentioned in the video, Volcano’s service territory is a rugged one, ranging from the hills made famous by the California gold rush to the soaring spine of the Sierra Nevada that reaches over 8,600 feet. In some ways, the area served by Volcano reminds me of a mountainous version of parts of Florida, as there are many retirees, while many of the younger people work service jobs that support the retirees. With the unemployment rate hovering around 12%, the importance of bringing a Silicon Valley company to their area, as mentioned in the video, is critical to spurring economic development.
A part of the story that deserves emphasis is that it is the people of the Volcano are driving regional economic development. This leadership and focus on helping the community starts at the top with the ownership and management. There are multiple examples where Volcano is the one in the community that is organizing fundraisers, providing their facilities, time and talent to make the place where they live a better one. An entire column and video could be devoted to those efforts.
The story is also about two couples who, in 1949, invested their life savings to expand telephone service where Ma Bell dare not go. Since that time, successive generations have transformed single open wire plant to one that utilizes a deep fiber architecture, which supports broadband as well as one of the nation’s first, 100% digital video cable offerings.
This is a story of innovation. They are continually looking for new ways to provide the best and most cost-effective service possible to their customers. As such, they are often a test bed for new ideas and technologies. They are good at seeing through the Silicon Valley hype and bring a realism that is beneficial to any tech company looking to test their product.
One thing they recognize is that their service territory is not cookie cutter, which forces them to deploy a myriad of technologies to meet their customers’ needs. That they are able to manage such a complex network is a testament to both their people and the management style that permits their people to do their jobs.
Another part of the story is how they have brought broadband to areas outside their incumbent service area. If not for Volcano, there is a good chance these areas would not have broadband. It is the story about drilling through miles and miles of mountain to bring telecom to small businesses and scattered residences that are in areas where wireless won’t necessarily penetrate and where utility poles could be crushed in an avalanche.
It is about deploying back-up power systems that would survive Y2K. To this last point, lifeline power has always been a hallmark of the U.S. telephone network, which leads me back to the story of my parents.
In the mid-1990s, my parents faced the biggest snowstorm in their decade plus of living in the mountains. Their house was one of 10 or so on a dirt road that was a good mile from where the pavement ended. Given the relatively mild winters, my parents never saw the need for four-wheel drive. Like so many other retirees, my parents had built a dream home that was ideal for a people in their 60s, but was a bit isolated for a couple in their 70s and 80s.
The snow started falling and by the time the electricity from the grid failed, they found the dirt road impassable. They literally couldn’t leave their house. I don’t recall how long their back-up generator lasted or when we could sense that my World War II veteran, calmly confident, step-father started to worry. At around day five of the electric outage, with their wood supply diminishing, we decided to make the trek in my brother-in-law’s 4-wheel drive vehicle to rescue them from their snow prison.
None of this would have been possible without the working telephone. We wouldn’t have known my parent’s status and they wouldn’t have been able to reach out to us. Thanks to the robust design of the power back-up system, the telephone worked even when the electricity didn’t.
I have to believe that the reason there was such a robust communications infrastructure was due to the local leadership of Volcano. These leaders, with their local presence, understand the operational considerations as well as the physical network configurations necessary to survive the heat of the California summer and the occasional harshness of the Sierra winter. If they didn’t live in the community, it would be easy to cut corners to bolster profit margins. Those corners wouldn’t be missed until a tragedy.
The bottom line is whether it is broadband or multi-party voice of years past, the fundamental story of Volcano remains the same. Without Volcano, communications’ service to the communities they serve would be non-existent or marginal at best.