FTC remains technology leader

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

It was a good day. Friday, February 6, marked yet another milestone in the history of FTC. With the launch of widespread Gigabit Internet Access, FTC introduced one of Alabama’s first widespread, widely deployed and affordable ultra-high-speed Broadband service. It wasn’t the first time we made headlines.

We launched the digital revolution in telecommunications technology in Alabama by initializing the state’s first digital multiplex switch on February 28, 1979. Our latest accomplishment is proof positive that 36 years later we are still at it. I like to think that speaks volumes about our commitment to those we serve and the communities in which they live, work, and raise their families.

Elsewhere, in this publication you will read what this new service level means to both residential and business customers. In fact, every town touched by our optical fiber network can now claim to be “Gig City” just like Chattanooga and a few other big cities across the nation. You will doubtless take note of the fact that our network far exceeds the minimum definition of Broadband newly adopted by the FCC. In fact, our baseline Internet access offering is now a symmetrical 100 Mbps service that is four times the capacity of the FCC’s current standard. I urge you to resist any temptation to dismiss the hype as just a faster version of Internet access. It is far more than that which leads me to the topic I really want to highlight.

In 2007, our Board of Trustees carefully spent more than a year evaluating all the options available to and facing our Cooperative. They sought much counsel and advice from leading experts at all levels of the business. They essentially decided that FTC would totally commit itself to maintaining state of the art/leading edge technology and resolved that FTC would meet the future needs of the communities, which gave it its existence. It was an “all-in” decision. There was no half-hearted commitment. Once that decision was reached we held course through unforeseen economic crisis and material changes in Federal public policy that have essentially turned the world of rural telecommunications on its end. However, thanks to the support of our members and customers, the diligence of our workforce, and, in my opinion, wisdom from the good Lord, FTC is, in several measurements, as strong today as it was at the dawn of the millennium. This is an accomplishment for which we all are wholeheartedly grateful.

Our launch was meaningful in another way as well. A favorite folk saying goes like this. “Always dance with the one that brought you to the ball.” Clearly, this serves as a reminder that you should never forget the people responsible for your success. The FTC of today is indebted to many influential men and women from years past who believed in their communities and understood that a modern telecommunications system was essential to the economic viability and prosperity of those communities. Mr. R. E. Ables was one such man. He so strongly believed in the mission of this cooperative that in 1952 he subscribed to Membership Number 1. Mr. and Mrs. Ables and their entire family were lifelong champions of FTC and its mission. We were delighted to recognize Mrs. Ables at our 60th Annual Meeting last August. Thus, it was with much gratitude and satisfaction that we returned to the Ables’ home-place on February 6, to launch our new level of service even though the service itself became instantly available across the entire optical fiber network of the Cooperative. The symbolism speaks for itself. Mr. and Mrs. Ables and their family have long demonstrated that the best hope for a community lies in the dedication of its inhabitants to constantly seek its improvement. Our respect that day for the Ables family was intended both to say thank you to a generation of people who cared enough to make a difference in their communities and to demonstrate that a succeeding generation of FTC’s leadership remains firmly committed to that very same cause.

Plotting the course ahead

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager
 
Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

WOW! That was fast. A few days ago I reached a significant milestone in my life. It never ceases to surprise me how quickly they come. Years ago, I distinctly remember wondering what that particular milestone would feel like. The quickness of passing time continues to startle me.

Okay folks, it is that time of year — time to review your New Year’s resolutions. Wait, before I lose your attention, that’s really not what this is about. After all, most people don’t make resolutions for the new year and even fewer actually keep them. In fact, it’s often a joke — “I know I just ate an entire cheesecake, but I’m going on a diet after the first of year …” So, what is my point? Let’s try this on for size.

My entire professional life has revolved around a series of annual deadlines and cycles of reporting and planning. At FTC, each year we go through a detailed process of planning and budgeting. By the time we get fully involved in executing our plans, it seems as though it is time to start the process all over again. This is perfectly normal, but I’ve noticed over the years that two things become increasingly apparent. First, as the cycles repeat over and over again, time seems to pass ever more quickly. Second, the temptation to let the cycles repeat themselves without change grows each year. Now, in and of itself, neither of these is a problem. However, it does present a challenge. What if something about the pattern needs to change? What if we don’t ask what should be done differently? In this instance, we run the risk of simply falling into a familiar pattern rather than taking a more appropriate course. The faster time seems to pass, the stronger the pressure grows to keep things the same.

On several of our walls there hangs a poster. The words “Make It Happen” appear prominently over a seascape featuring a sailboat making its way through windy seas. Additional words remind us that we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But, in any case, the main point is this: We MUST sail. Any sailor will tell you that control of the rudder is an absolute imperative. It is the rudder that gives us the ability to harness the power of the wind and sail in the right direction. Without it you are at the mercy of the wind. You will go in whichever direction it blows. Whether it’s our business or our personal life, the principle is the same; the rudder is essential. Hold onto it. What is this rudder? It is your will. It is the question, “What SHOULD I or we do?” You must ask this question early and often. You owe it to yourself to decide where you want to go and what you want to achieve at any time of your life. You should not be satisfied with simply being blown by the wind to a destination not of your choice. To avoid such a fate requires that you actively make a choice. Most of you understand this easily and likely agree with the principle. Your real challenge is facing the consistent and tiring pressure of deadlines and life cycles that repeat over and over again and with seemingly increasing frequency. Like most things in life, good results require positive action. Take heart. Good decisions are still possible and you have what it takes to make them.

A Common Thread

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager
 

Fred JohnsonYou should receive this magazine on or about the first of November. Election Day is either upon us or just passed. Veterans Day is right around the corner, with Thanksgiving close behind. Of course, Christmas comes just a few days after that. My, how time does fly. My initial intent was to write a scathing article about many of our political campaigns, but given the timing of this issue, that became unimportant. After all, the election may well be over by the time you read this. However, a thread connecting all the events of the upcoming season became apparent. So, I ask you: Is there any connection between an election and the three holidays that soon follow?

Let’s start with the right to vote, perhaps the most fundamental principle of a democracy. Yet, millions never even bother. Often the excuse is “It won’t matter anyway.” And, of course, when enough people adopt that position, it may very well not. If I could have my way, I would literally make voting a condition of citizenship and residency. Fail to vote a number of times and you have to leave. Radical, isn’t it? But consider that this and every other right and freedom we have enjoyed since the dawn of our independence were won and preserved by the struggle of honorable and brave men and women, many of whom, as the song says, “loved freedom more than life.” Think about that come Veterans Day. I am firmly possessed of a deep conviction that the only way to properly thank a veteran, living or dead, is to do all within our power to leave this country better than we found it. In my humble opinion, nothing else is acceptable and anything less is, in effect, a show of disrespect to those who gave so much.

Now let us consider Thanksgiving and Christmas. The former is born out of a sense of appreciation for all that our nation has been given and the rich resources we’ve been allowed to enjoy. The latter — though many things to many people — is still fundamentally a celebration by Christians of what is held to be the greatest gift ever given to mankind. Even non-Christians the world over celebrate the universal message of “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men.” Those of you who’ve read my column the last 12 years hopefully have no doubt where I stand on those matters, and I never miss an opportunity to reflect on all for which I have to be thankful. But I am way past simply trying to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings. True thankfulness requires responsible action. There are those in this world who are willing to sacrifice their lives to eradicate humanity of any semblance of Thanksgiving and Christmas and anyone who would celebrate either. I suggest that one very appropriate response to the liberty and blessings we enjoy is to demand that those we’ve just elected to public office remember that loyalty to anything above the cause of freedom and liberty is an affront to our heritage and will not be tolerated. Putting any political ambition ahead of the collective good of the nation is, at the end of the day, pure selfishness … no more, no less.

I truly hope the coming holiday season is a blessed and peaceful one for you all. We at FTC greatly appreciate you and the opportunity you give us to keep your lives and communities connected. But even as we must remember to never take you for granted, I challenge you to embrace the liberty you enjoy and to resist any thoughts of complacency. When you see our leaders at any level of government diverge into stubborn political posturing, demand better. Our nation was founded on the principles of respectful debate and compromise on all but the most fundamental values of freedom and personal liberty. That is what a democracy is all about. To accept anything less is to devalue the great gifts we have received as a nation and a people.

Keeping you connected for sixty years

Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager
 

The following was taken from Mr. Johnson’s annual report to the members.

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

Sixty years ago, a number of men and women gathered for the first annual meeting of FTC. Though they would not likely have described themselves as such, they were quite visionary. Perhaps they were excited at the prospect of being able to call their relatives and neighbors, but many there that day understood more was at stake. Electric power, still expanding, had been introduced 16 years earlier. If the Sand Mountain area was to prosper economically and remain a good place to live, work and raise families, a modern communications system would be essential. The investor-owned telephone companies made it clear; there wasn’t enough profit to serve Sand Mountain. If it was to be done, the home folks would have to do it. With vision, community support and funding from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, they made it happen. And here we are today, 60 years later, celebrating their vision and our continuing success.

To be certain, much has changed over the past six decades. Perhaps most fundamentally, broadband data capability has joined plain old telephone service as the economic essential. More than 3,000 of our customers now enjoy state-of-the-art digital TV, and we are adding about 130 per month. Whatever the challenge, FTC has continually shown determination to remain in the forefront of the telecommunications industry. We’re extremely proud that by the end of this year, we will have essentially completed our most recent system upgrade. About 82 percent of our membership will have direct access to optical fiber facilities and almost all of the remaining 18 percent will be close enough to fiber-served wire centers to enjoy world-class broadband access. This achievement puts FTC among the nation’s leading rural telecom firms, and we’re recognized as such. Along the way we’ve had to adjust to massive changes in the industry, technology and competitive and regulatory landscapes. Some literally threatened our foundations. FTC responded to these changes aggressively. We’ve worked very hard to be sure our costs were reduced where possible and controlled at all levels. The effort paid off. At a time when many rural telcos doubt they will survive, FTC continues to operate with sufficient margins and a strong financial position. We’ve had to raise rates occasionally over the past 60 years, but you can count the number of times we’ve done so of our own accord on one hand.

FTC has carefully expanded its service reach through our wholly owned subsidiary into adjacent territory that did not enjoy the class of service we provide. Every industrial development park in DeKalb County has access to the finest communications network you can find. The same is true for that portion of Jackson County we serve, including the Section and Dutton areas. Just as those men and women of 60 years ago understood what was needed, our current trustees have the same determination. FTC will provide the communication infrastructure necessary for a healthy DeKalb and Jackson. That is how we best accomplish our ultimate mission of improving and maintaining the quality of life for those we serve.

Each year, FTC sponsors an event for about 800 high school students from all over our service territories. I always ask them if they would choose to live and raise families in an area that had no phone, Internet or TV service. They respond exactly as you would expect, except that, perhaps, the Internet is at the top of their list. I then remind them that their parents probably would have felt the same way. Without the foresight of our founders, we would not be here today. Those men and women gave us a great gift. We intend to pass it to the next generation better than we found it. I am deeply grateful to our trustees for their leadership, to our employees for their dedication and hard work, and to you for your support of your cooperative. With that support we will continue to “Keep You Connected.”

 

 

Net neutrality is a complex issue

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager
 

The term “net neutrality” has been in the news many times this year. It’s a simple term for a complex issue that concerns how the flow of Internet traffic may someday be regulated. Here are some of the main questions people have about the issue.

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

What Is Net Neutrality? Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet is an open environment where users have the ability to access whatever legal content they choose. Whether you want to watch an action movie on Netflix or a funny video on YouTube, net neutrality says this should be treated the same as checking your email or surfing websites about your favorite hobby — no content should be given preferential treatment across the network, either through more speed or easier access.

Should Net Neutrality Be Protected? Those who support net neutrality say it is a matter of personal freedom, and that neither the government nor big businesses should be allowed to limit what content is available to you on your Internet connection. They say a free and open Internet — where no type of service is given a “fast lane” over any other — encourages people to create new technology and business ideas. There is also concern that, without net neutrality, national Internet service providers who also own cable channels could unfairly provide easier access to their own content.

Should Net Neutrality Be Changed? Those who believe net neutrality policies should be changed say that the concept actually discourages innovation. They say Internet service providers should be able to charge a fee to high-bandwidth services that place more requirements on their networks, which in turn would allow them to provide consumers with faster access to these services. An example would be giving a fast lane to video services such as Netflix and YouTube (which account for 50 percent or more of Internet traffic), allowing them access into your home at a faster speed than basic Web browsing.

What Is The Status Of Net Neutrality? In January, a federal court struck down the net neutrality rules established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2010. These rules were intended to prevent Internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to different types of content. As a result of the court order, the FCC is now in the process of creating new rules, seeking public input to develop a framework that the agency says will ensure choices for consumers and opportunity for innovators, prevent practices that can threaten the open Internet and expand transparency.

Is There A Right Or Wrong Approach? As I said in the beginning, net neutrality is a complex issue, as is the case with many public policies. There are pros and cons to each approach. And the debate is sure to continue no matter what rules the FCC adopts.

The future of the Internet will certainly be written in part by these rules, and that is why rural providers like us remain involved in the process through our combined voice, NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association. Issues like this are why FTC actively participates in national efforts both before the FCC and politically with our legislative delegation.  FTC is always representing the collective interest of our customers.

Lessons from a shoeshine

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager
 

There is a pair of black wing-tipped shoes in my closet. I do not wear them. They are there because they belonged to and remind me of my dad. He often said that you can tell a lot about a person from their shoes.

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

Dad grew up during the Great Depression. He knew what it was like to not have the shoes he needed. When he got a pair, he learned how to take exceptional care of them. The wing-tips in my closet are probably close to 60 years old. They’ve been well worn but they could easily be on a store’s display shelf. Dad also reminded me that shoes, like our lives, don’t just naturally look good. It takes a lot of effort to keep them that way, and there are some pretty good lessons to be learned from a shoeshine. Here are a few.

First, a good shoeshine begins with good shoes. Cheap shoes will never look better than when you first put them on. Good shoes can almost always be restored to their original luster. Also, if you’re not careful, the cost of replacing cheap stuff over and again will likely be more in the long run than if you just wait until you can afford quality from the start. One of our most pressing social issues today lies with our tendency, often most notable in our younger generations, to settle for anything that immediately satisfies us rather than waiting until we can obtain what we really need. You can apply that to politics, relationships or just about anything else. Regardless, the principle holds. If you want a good shine, start with good leather.

Second, the difference between a good shine and a great one is simple. Always clean the leather first. A good scrub with a quality saddle soap will wash away the grit and grime and open the leather’s pores so it will better receive the polish and wax. If you skip this step you’re just polishing dirt. The life application here should be pretty evident. Whether we are trying to sell something or just present ourselves, if there is dirt on the surface, it is best to clean it up. In the end, the world isn’t too forgiving when we simply try to gloss it over.

Next, remember that there is no substitute for “elbow grease.” Polish has to be rubbed in and buffed out. That takes extra effort. Skip it and the shine suffers. Beware of easy spray and wipe solutions. The time-honored practice of rubbing in a good wax and then buffing with brushes and cloth has even inspired music. Remember “Get Rhythm” from Johnny Cash? It is the extra effort that results in the proper shine of a job done right. Many things in our lives would shine brighter if we just took the time and effort to make it happen.

Finally, never forget the heel. It is so sad to see any worthwhile job ultimately left undone. What does it say about us if our shoes look great — until someone looks at the heel? Remember, anything worth starting should be worth finishing — right?

Your FTC has served you for sixty years. We started with good leather and we’ve done our best to keep it looking bright and shiny. With your support we’ll keep it up, and don’t worry: we won’t forget to finish the heel. Thanks for letting us serve you.

A life of enthusiastic service

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager

This past Christmas Eve was marked by the passing of Miss Kay Keith. Kay served FTC for 37 years before retiring in 2006.

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

She was a remarkable individual and very special to us. She took great pride in the fact that her family played a unique role in the early history of FTC, being associated with one of the original switchboards that became part of our system. The Keiths provided a wealth of information when we compiled a documentary celebrating our first 50 years of service.

At her memorial service, the minister described Kay as someone who literally gave her life in service to her God and His church, to her family, and to her job. From every observation I made during the 40-some years I knew Kay, he got it absolutely right.

Kay’s spirit to serve was exceptional here. Not to detract from anyone else, I must candidly say that I don’t know of anyone I’ve worked with who had more pride in being a part of FTC. Kay supported this cooperative on and off the job in ways that were absolutely amazing. Many times after her retirement, I spotted her wearing FTC apparel or her service pin and acting as our unofficial ambassador in a way that made us all proud. Kay had a unique and fundamental understanding of how a good communications infrastructure is important to a community. That understanding and her willingness to do anything she could do to help promote our success instilled in me a deep appreciation of, and respect for, Kay.

Thankfully, Kay was not alone in her sense of pride. It is the norm here. There is hardly a week that passes without someone from our workforce expressing gratitude for the opportunity they have or, better yet, demonstrating their commitment to our customers and their pride in a job well done. FTC is not some faceless corporation that advertises the cheapest possible price and tries to offer the worst service it can get away with. We are your friends and neighbors. We are doing our best to deliver on the mission we were first given some 61 years ago. That mission is to make sure you have communications services at your disposal that are second to none. The economic health of our community depends upon it and we intend to deliver on that commitment.

Kay Keith was an example of someone committed to a life of service to others. I am told that on the Sunday before her passing, she spoke publicly, expressing thankfulness for the happiness and fulfillment such a life had brought. May her life and her example continue to inspire us all.

A very special thanks

By Fred Johnson
Executive Vice President and General Manager

June 14, 2013, was marked by the passing of a distinguished leader in rural electrification. James A. Vann, Jr. was a man of remarkable talent and influence.

Fred Johnson

Fred Johnson

He contributed significantly to Rural America while serving as the leader of a local electric cooperative, the CEO of one of our nation’s leading electric generation and transmission utilities, and a guiding force at the state and national levels of the industry. Mr. Vann was a well respected Director and Past President of the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation and was instrumental in the founding of one of our most important business partners, the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

I am indebted to Mr. Vann on a more personal level. He taught me one of the most important professional lessons of my life. It was not a pleasant experience! I must regretfully say that, in my late twenties, I possessed far more confidence than competence. Placed in a position of leadership that, in retrospect, I probably was not prepared for, I was called upon to represent an organization in an important meeting. Though accompanied by two gentlemen far superior to me in age, wisdom and standing, I was assigned spokesman duty. Worse yet, I was prepped for potential controversy and encouraged to “stand my ground.” Mr. Vann led the delegation with whom we were meeting. The meeting did not last long at all and neither did I. It is actually important to note that my position was a correct one; I even expressed it well. My dreadful mistake was in failing to realize that Jim Vann already knew that. In fact, he knew more about the issue than I would ever dream of. There really was no real conflict and the last thing in the world he needed was for some smart aleck upstart like me to “tell him what he needed to know.” Mr. Vann put me in my place and ended the meeting as quickly as it began. In the face of his rebuke, my older and wiser colleagues folded in a heartbeat and threw me under the bus without the slightest hesitation. It remains to this date the most humiliating moment of my professional career — and without a doubt, one of the most important and beneficial!

It is not always those who make us feel warm and fuzzy who contribute the most to our lives. The lesson I learned that day from Mr. Vann had more to do with understanding the importance of proper respect for those who’ve earned such respect than it did with being right or wrong. I will be forever grateful to him for teaching me that lesson even though it took me years to fully understand and appreciate how important it was. That lesson and the wisdom it imparted ultimately made a tremendous difference in my life and in my career. By the way, a short while later, I encountered Mr. Vann in a very close setting. I was terrified. He, however, could not have been more gracious or gentlemanly. It was another lesson from a great man. Having set me on a proper course, there was no need for further rebuke. I’ve learned from others this was the type of person that Jim Vann was. Despite good intentions, I must admit much regret that I failed to personally thank him for his contribution to my life. I have written this article with his family’s permission. I hope the message somehow makes up for at least part of my inexcusable negligence. I am sincerely thankful to Mr. Vann for making a difference in Rural America and in my life.