Get a Sweet Office Suite

From free to pro-grade, find the tools you need.

Kerry Sutton
Kerry Sutton

A good office suite with its three core applications — a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation program — is essential for handling school assignments and personal finances and for getting the most from your home computer in general. But which suite should you choose?

 

  • LibreOffice is free — the result of years of development by a worldwide community of hundreds of programmers — and is almost as feature-rich and polished as any paid application. Along with word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, the suite also includes database and graphics programs. It works well with Microsoft Office files and can save to popular formats, including PDF. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux, but there is no mobile version or an option to work online. It’s free at www.libreoffice.org.

 

  • WordPerfect Office is only available for Windows and has no online version, and its spreadsheet and presentation applications are not particularly impressive. And yet, many people swear by its powerful word processor. It’s one of the few options for those who want a program that doesn’t try to copy Microsoft. Its ability to show a document’s formatting codes allows for the kind of fine tuning and changes to the way a document looks that can still frustrate many Word users. The Standard Edition is $249.99 from www.wordperfect.com.

 

  • Google has its own office suite that’s especially attractive for those who want an easy way to work collaboratively across a variety of platforms. Through Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, the search engine giant offers free word processing, spreadsheets and presentation applications that run in any browser and integrate into Google Drive. For basic use, Google’s office suite is tough to beat, especially when it lets you start writing on your home PC, keep working on your phone while waiting at a coffee shop and finish the job on your friend’s MacBook. Get it free at google.com.

 

  • iWork is what Apple calls its supergroup of free productivity apps: Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets and Keynote for presentations. As with most things Apple, the apps are elegant and user-friendly, but they don’t always play well with others in their native format. You can export to Microsoft Office, but opening an iWork document on a non-Apple machine is cumbersome. The apps are free on Apple computers and mobile devices through the App Store.

 

  • Microsoft Office is the gold standard for a reason, offering the best productivity software on the market. Most users don’t need the many advanced features included in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Feeling competition from Google, Microsoft offers a free version of its basic applications online, which work with cloud storage OneDrive. If you find you need more advanced functionality, you can always subscribe to Microsoft 365. Review your options at office.com.

The Price of Entertainment

Consumers can tap into a rushing stream of content delivered across devices ranging from TVs to smartphones. Sports, news, movies, comedies, dramas, music — the list of options is seemingly endless. But there is a cost. And for many consumers that price increases each spring. If you have it handy, take a moment to review a bill for your TV programming from three years ago. Compare it to today, and in most cases the difference is obvious — television programming is pricier.

The increases are not limited to traditional cable TV providers either. Streaming services have seen prices spike, too. When Google launched YouTube TV, the monthly price was about $35. Now, it’s $65. In cases such as Google, as well as other providers, adding new, desirable content channels helps drive the increases. For traditional networks, investment in higher-quality programming has become essential to compete with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and HBO Max. Those costs are then passed on to cable providers and their customers. But more content is not always the root cause of the higher prices. In fact, for many providers, such as the rural communications companies serving much of America, the increasing cost of content is an annual struggle to hold prices down. It’s not a push to increase profits, and their efforts to control prices illustrate the give and take behind what you see on your bill. For these companies, only a small portion of a monthly television subscription fee goes to personnel costs, equipment upgrades and tasks such as equipment maintenance. So, where does all the money go?

Much of the cost is wrapped up in agreements allowing TV providers to bring content to you. Networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox regularly renegotiate these agreements. In many cases, these are annual negotiations. A 2019 analysis of cable TV rates by Consumer Reports found that while advertised rates generally increased by 3% to 4% annually, fees for the major networks and channels airing live sports climbed between 8% and 10% each of the previous four years. How are those rates determined? Essentially, the TV provider must pay networks a fixed fee for each subscriber of the service. But each year there are fewer traditional TV subscribers to carry that load. In 2020 alone, about 6.3 million people dropped their cable or satellite TV service, according to investment research firm Moffett Nathanson. Without an expanding subscriber base to offset these increasing costs, TV providers often pass the expense on to consumers in the form of fees added to advertised prices, according to the FCC’s 18th Annual Video Competition Report.

When it comes to these hidden costs, there is one bright spot for consumers. The Television Viewer Protection Act passed at the end of 2019 requires cable and satellite companies to disclose the total monthly price of subscribers’ TV bills, including all individual fees and charges, when they sign up. That transparency won’t make your bill any lower. But it will give you an accurate picture of the full cost of your monthly TV bill.

How Fast is Broadband?

By STEPHEN V. SMITH

We as a nation need to rethink what is considered true broadband connection

speeds. That’s the message telecom industry leaders recently sent to the Federal Communications Commission. NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association joined with the Fiber Broadband Association in sending a letter to the FCC in December addressing the definition of broadband. The letter came as the FCC prepares its next report to Congress on the state of broadband deployment in America. For the past five years, the FCC has considered any connection speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to be the benchmark for broadband. “By any measure, this benchmark does not reflect what American consumers need today, let alone tomorrow,” wrote NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield and Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton. In urging the FCC to redefine what speeds are considered broadband, Bloomfield and Bolton wrote that “while all Americans would be best served by the Commission adopting a gigabit symmetric benchmark … it should at least raise the minimum broadband performance benchmark for the Sixteenth Broadband Deployment Report to 100/100 Mbps.” Raising the definition, a benchmark that impacts funding decisions and technology choices, would put the country on a path toward ensuring all Americans have broadband access that actually meets their needs, the letter

states. With millions of people using broadband at home to work, participate in school and attend doctor appointments, broadband has become essential to everyday life. Bloomfield and Bolton further concluded that redefining broadband would allow the FCC to “keep pace with broadband service that Americans both need and want,” while providing “a benchmark the Commission can then use to ensure that we build our networks right the first time by driving investment in future-proof broadband infrastructure.”

Equipping and Enabling Vibrant Rural Communities

The 2020 census data will be coming out this year — and despite what the headlines may say, I’m here to tell you that rural America is alive and well.

As you may remember, I urged everyone to participate in the 2020 census. The population counts go a long way in determining our representation in Congress and the statehouse, as well as funding for state and federal programs. According to the 2020 census website, 2020census.gov, the census will shape the future of our community for the next 10 years. While that timeframe may be a bit of an overstatement, there’s no doubt that an accurate population count is critically important. While census numbers will contribute to the allotment of funding and political clout, they will also help to tell the story of rural America. The 2020 census should provide definitive evidence of the trends shaping communities like ours. But as you probably know, I’ll be the first to say that whatever trend lines on a graph from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest, parts of rural America are more vibrant and offer more opportunities today than ever.

Some communities have no doubt fallen on hard times. But many others, including ours, are very much alive. According to experts at the USDA and the National Council of State Legislators, about one-third of rural counties are growing, one-third are stable and one-third are shrinking. Researchers point to 2016 and 2017 as years where many rural areas began showing growth after many years when the number of residents diminished. Will all the news and research taken from information contained in the census be positive for everyone in rural America? Most likely, it will highlight some of the challenges communities like ours face. Events such as the pandemic, though, have left some city dwellers intrigued by the many benefits of living in rural areas. We’ll know for sure once the data is released, but the 10-year scope of the census may well show a continuation of the gradual, decades-long shift to fast-growing cities and suburbs from small towns and rural areas. It’s possible statewide and national news outlets will use a broad brush to highlight this demographic trend as they cover the census statistics over the next few months. A few troubling statistics, however, should not be sufficient to raise concerns about the future of rural America and our small-town way of life.

Census numbers — a comparison across decades that may not fully acknowledge recent positive changes — do not tell the whole story. In many ways, the people of rural America have more opportunities now than ever before for business, education, health care, entertainment and overall quality of life. And I’m proud to say broadband makes many of those chances possible, although I’m not sure how much coverage they’ll see. In fact, our confidence in that vitality and belief in the future is why we’ve invested millions of dollars into improving the telecommunications infrastructure in our communities. You’ll never find a stronger group of advocates for our communities than our team here at HCTC. We’re proud of the rural areas and small towns we connect to the world — and we work hard every day to make our communities even stronger.

 

Bringing a Splash of Color to Comfort

Students let their creativity shine in HCTC building mural

Story by ANDREA AGARDY | Photography by GABE HERRERA

 

When Gabe Herrera, a graphic designer at HCTC, had the idea to brighten up one of the cooperative’s buildings with a mural, he also saw an opportunity to build a bond with the community. Instead of painting it himself or hiring a muralist, Herrera reached out to Penny Duncan’s art students at Comfort High School. “The mural is a tribute to Comfort,” Herrera says. “We’re all about the community at HCTC. I was very excited when they said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’” He wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Duncan’s students relished the opportunity to spend some time outdoors adding a little color to their hometown. “When Gabe asked us to do this mural, I thought, ‘This is a great community project,’” Duncan says.

The teenagers designed the mural, which covers an entire side of the building at 508 Eighth St. in Comfort’s historic downtown. The project came together like a patchwork quilt, with students

painting squares depicting their answers to Duncan’s question, “What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Comfort, Texas?” Among the items the work commemorates are wildflowers, a longhorn steer, cowboy boots and a Comfort High School football player. The young artists worked on the project for weeks during their class time, using the scaffolding, brushes and paints that HCTC provided. Future students may have the chance to share their unique visions of Comfort, as well. “We’re thinking that we might change this out every few years,” Herrera says. “That way, we keep kids involved, and we could offer different art students a chance to do something cool like this and be a part of a changing mural in the middle of town.” Herrera, who didn’t have an opportunity to take a formal art class himself until he was a college student, sees the mural not only as an opportunity for HCTC to be a part of the vibrant Comfort

community, but also as a way to demonstrate that art can be a rewarding way to earn a living. “I’m showing them you can have a career in art,” he says. “Even if you’re just doodling on paper,

don’t give up on that if it’s something you like doing. You can be successful and make money as an artist at the same time while you’re having fun with it.” Duncan hopes working on the mural inspires her students not only to continue to be creative, but also to think about what they can do to better their community and their neighbors’ lives. “I’m hoping that they take away a good foundation on community projects knowing that it’s going to benefit everyone and not just ourselves,” she says. “Just to bring some color into the community I think is really helping. I’ve had a lot of compliments on it, and I’m just proud of our students for taking on this big project.”

Here’s to Hope

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

By SHIRLEY BLOOMFIELD, CEO

In 2021 the pandemic has made it clear that every American needs broadband to thrive. We need it for work, for school, for health. And we need it for accessing government services, for growing businesses and for building communities. If there is a silver lining to 2020, which was a hard year for so many, it’s that more people are now acutely aware of the essential nature of broadband services. The new year brought new challenges, many of them playing out at our Capitol, a building I’ve had the honor of visiting many times to talk to members of Congress about the need to support broadband for all of America. But I choose to have hope that better angels of our nature will guide us to rebuild, and I believe NTCA and our members have an opportunity to help that rebuild with the work that we do supporting broadband connectivity and other critical services for rural communities. The hard-working members of NTCA have made so much progress in the past decade toward solving the rural broadband challenge. There is much work yet to do, but I have hope in the progress they are making. Through federal and state funding programs, coupled with local investments by providers themselves, we are on our way as a country to connecting everyone. There is a day in our future when we can say that everyone who needs or wants a broadband connection has access. That day is coming, sooner than later. I have hope.