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Advocacy: championing for rural America.

BORN OF A NEED TO PRESENT A UNIFIED VOICE ON BEHALF OF SMALL RURAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS PROVIDERS, NTCA'S UNDERLYING MISSION ALWAYS HAS BEEN FOCUSED ON ADVOCACY. AS THE ASSOCIATION COMMEMORATES ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY, IT ONLY SEEMS APPROPRIATE TO REFLECT ON NTCA'S ADVOCACY PROGRAM.

In its earliest years, the association practiced grassroots advocacy in its purest form: members alone carried out the functions of the association. NTCA's founding members were focused primarily on soliciting new members and lobbying Congress to fully fund the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Telephone Loan Program.

It wasn't until the association's third year that a full-time employee, Mort Langstaff, was hired to help with NTCA's management and operations. One of his key responsibilities was to deliver congressional testimony on behalf of the association's members.

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From the association's inception, through its first two decades, NTCA and its members were in many ways the big fish in a small pond. America as a whole was an agrarian and rural-based nation in the 1950s, and thus understood the need for rural telephony. The association and its members had no direct competitors. In addition to being the sole beneficiaries of the REA program, they were the hot new entrepreneurs of the era that were doing things that excited the rest of the country.

This era also was synonymous with a period in American political history when few corporations or industry's maintained a Washington presence. Consequently, NTCA and its members enjoyed easy and widespread access to leading policy-makers, including those as high ranking as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who spoke at the association's 14th annual meeting. About that time, the association recognized the need to form its own political action committee, the Telephone Education Committee Organization (TECO), to support political leaders sympathetic to rural America's needs. But just as it appeared the association was reaching the apex of its influence, a number of factors changed the manner in which NTCA's advocacy was conducted in Washington.

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First and foremost was the simple reality that the nation was becoming more urbanized--and at a rapid pace. This began to undermine the association's traditional base of support as more urban-based policy-makers were elected and appointed. Around the same time, the telecommunications industry itself began to change with the breakup of the old Bell system and the eventual introduction of competition and deregulation into the industry. And one cannot overlook the Watergate scandal, which grew to encompass questions of political access and openness. Each of these events led to greater competition in terms of advocacy.

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On the rural-versus-urban policy-maker count, there were simply fewer rural policy-making friends to whom the association could turn. In terms of the changing industry, it meant a growing number of telecommunications players were maintaining a Washington presence and competing to get the ear of policy-makers. The effects of the Watergate matter were twofold: it meant more open access to the policy-making process, but it also led to less direct contact with policy-makers, who were going out of their way to ensure the perception that no one was treated with special favor. Thus, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get members' voices heard.

Nevertheless, NTCA's strong grassroots program ensured that the rural industry was able to overcome these difficult hurdles. Despite the changing environment, NTCA's members remained involved and active, working closely with staff on immediate, as well as long-term advocacy projects, and traveling to Washington, D.C., each year to participate in the Legislative Conference. The members also saw to it that their political action fund, TECO, was appropriately funded to help elect congressional candidates who understood the telecommunications needs of rural America.

Today, the association's grassroots program is stronger than ever, with more than a dozen staff dedicated exclusively to legislative and regulatory advocacy. NTCA's members also are more involved than ever before, with numerous members participating in the Supporting Policy Initiatives for Rural Independent Telecommunications Companies (SPIRIT) program, which is designed to build advocacy teams that consist of NTCA members and staff, as well as key policy-makers and their staff.

Moving forward, NTCA will continue its fight to ensure the federal Rural Utilities Service telephone loan program, the successor to the REA telephone loan program, remains fully funded to aid small, independent carriers in expanding and upgrading their networks to serve rural America. In addition, the association will maintain its commitment to help retain the access charge regime and maintain adequate funding of the Universal Service Fund program.

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Advocacy is a lifelong commitment. And if the first 50 years are any kind of barometer, NTCA and its members have shown they are dedicated to meeting this responsibility well into the future.

--Tom Wacker, NTCA director of government affairs, and Brian O'Hara, NTCA government affairs representative
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Author:Wacker, Tom; O'Hara, Brian
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:792
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