After two stints at the regulatory departments of Qwest (NYSE: Q) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) , Shirley Bloomfield returned to the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) as CEO, taking over from the now retired Michael Brunner. FierceTelecom Editor Sean Buckley caught up with Bloomfield on her sixth day on the job to talk about her goals for the NTCA and the power of helping its membership navigate the often complex regulatory hurdles that they have to deal with to advance their own individual missions.
FierceTelecom: Shirley, following stints as the regulatory head at both Qwest and more recently Verizon you have recently rejoined the NTCA as its new president. To start, tell us a bit about that journey and how you ended up back at NTCA.
Bloomfield: Life is an adventure. When I went to Qwest, I actually was in charge of their Washington, D.C. office. What that did is it gave me a chance to do both the regulatory and legislative and the whole policy picture for Qwest. People said to me that 'had to be a big leap,' but in reality, Qwest is like a rural telephone company on steroids. If you look at their service territory, they have some nice markets like Minneapolis, Denver or Phoenix, but the rest of their areas have a lot of similar challenges so it wasn't as much a leap as you would think. Then, Verizon is a completely different animal. It's a great opportunity to see a company who is really very cutting edge on a lot of fronts.
At a trade association like NTCA, we work hard to pull together our members' positions and give them some ideas and services. The advantage for me to take this detour by working at these operators, gave me a chance to see how they work, how they operate and what their challenges are. I recognized that a lot of things that keep smaller telcos up at night are in some ways not all that different than what a large company is worried about. It's just a very different scope and scale and shareholders vs. your neighbors if you're a cooperative. It was actually a very easy progression for me. Again, being able to see on the micro level how those decisions get made, how your revenues are impacted by every decision you're making was really very helpful for me. When Mike announced he was retiring, it was easy to throw my hat back into the ring for NTCA's leadership. These [independent telcos] do great stuff in their communities, are really very passionate about the services they provide. Those issues, coupled with the fact that it is a very challenging time, made it seem like it would be a great opportunity. If you're going to pour your heart and soul into something it's nice to do it in a place where you feel like you can make a difference.
FierceTelecom: Okay, so were there any lessons learned that your predecessor Michael Brunner gave you after retiring from NTCA after 25-plus years?
Bloomfield: Mike was very good about recognizing and working with me and the rest of the staff on the transitions the industry was going through. You know 25 years ago, the entire industry was a really different industry. If you look at management of telephone companies at that point and folks that rose through the ranks or had been linemen, the skill sets required to run these companies required someone to know the technology, the investment and partnerships. He was good about ensuring I was aware how transitional everything (was) and the importance of connecting with our members, understanding what their needs are and doing the best customer service and advocacy we could do.
FierceTelecom: What are the main concerns on the mind of your constituency, which is smaller independent telephone companies, these days?
Bloomfield: It's a challenging sector of the industry. I think in terms of their main challenges--USF reform and the broadband plan aside--is making sure they have some financial incentives to make investments. How do you ensure you can continue to make those investments, which are costly and sometimes can be a little risky? If you look at an NTCA member, they ask if they are going to have a return on these investments or make a difference. I think also NTCA members worry about their rural customers being marginalized. They are very focused on ensuring that their customer base--whether it's consumers, small businesses or opportunities for economic development--have the same opportunities you would have in an urbanized area. Making sure that marginalization doesn't happen and also continuing to look at how they can offer comparable services. I think there will be a lot of emphasis on what technologies they should be deploying, partnership opportunities, and staying on top of the business curve as well as the regulatory advocacy.