Ken Pfister, Vice President, Strategic Policy, Great Plains Communications
Tell us about Great Plains Communications
Great Plains Communications is the largest privately-owned telecommunications provider in Nebraska, serving over 90 communities throughout the state. Residential services include high-speed Internet, cable TV, and local and long-distance phone service. Business and enterprise services range from voice and data products to installation and support of large networks with scalable Ethernet solutions. The company also prides ourselves on our progressive approach to accommodating the unique needs of carrier and wholesale customers including regional and national telecommunications carriers, local exchange carriers, Internet service providers, wireless carriers and other providers utilizing superior custom engineering and custom-build strategies. At the core of our service offerings is an extensive 9,500-mile regional fiber network, fully supported by a 24x7x365, TL9000-certified Network Operations Center.
The company is based in Blair, Nebraska, and is in our fourth generation of family ownership. Over half of our 225 employees live and work in the rural towns where they provide service.
What’s your biggest or most recent corporate accomplishment?
A major accomplishment for the company was the FCC implementing the optional Alternative Connect America Model in 2017. Doing so has created the opportunity for thousands of Great Plains Communications customers to receive new or upgraded broadband services over the next decade. A-CAM has provided companies like ours with the predictability that is necessary to make the investment in broadband services in rural America. It is a real game changer for our company and, more importantly, for our customers.
When you think about your company’s future, what, if anything, keeps you up at night?
Among the things that keep me up at night is the future of universal service contributions reforms both at the federal level and in the state of Nebraska. First, on the federal side the contributions factor is approaching 20 percent, which obviously is a high level. With the Nebraska Universal Service Fund, we have been experiencing a decline in the contributions base for years. To address this decline, the Nebraska Public Service Commission recently issued an order in a years-long proceeding to move to a connections-based system. But the commission is still wrestling with fund size and surcharge levels, as well as an appeal of the order, so we’re at least another year from implementation of the new mechanism.
The state and federal universal service funds are critical to Great Plains Communications’ ability to meet our rural customers’ needs and expectations, especially with broadband being the focus A-CAM and the state USF. Ultimately, we believe it makes sense that if we’re targeting universal service funding to build and operate broadband networks in rural America, broadband should be included among the services that are assessed. From what we see happening on the federal side, however, we are a long way from having that happen. Without the FCC moving ahead on broadband in the contributions base, the states aren’t going to be able to do so. The future of contributions reform for the federal and state funds is of great concern.
What unique challenges does your company face while serving rural communities across Nebraska?
A unique challenge that a rural provider like Great Plains Communications faces is reaching as many customers as possible with broadband in an efficient manner. Companies like ours don’t have the same opportunities as urban providers; our overall customer density is less than two per square mile. Therefore, we have been very active advocates on the need for stable universal service funding to reach as many underserved and unserved customers as possible in rural areas.
Another challenge is the fact that the population in rural areas continues to dwindle. As a provider, we continually try to combat that challenge by keeping our network robust to provide technology that can support advanced healthcare, higher education and business initiatives. By bringing advanced technology to rural Nebraska, we believe we are helping sustain and advance these communities by attracting new residents and business opportunities.
What are two websites that you can’t get through the day without checking?
I check the FCC’s website daily to try to keep track of what the Commission is doing. And I also check traditional news source websites such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC News on a regular basis. I guess it’s the former journalist in me.