Webinar

Broadband and Bridging the Digital Divide

Thursday, April 8, 2021
Daniel Munoz/REUTERS
Speakers

Project Director, Broadband Access Initiative, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Executive Director, Next Century Cities

Presider

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Kathryn de Wit, project manager of the Broadband Access Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, and Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, discuss expanding broadband infrastructure and how communities can work to bridge the digital divide.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations state and local officials webinar. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president of the national program and outreach at CFR. We're delighted to have participants from forty-nine U.S. states and territories with us for today's discussion on broadband and bridging the digital divide. Today's discussion is on the record and will be posted on our website. As you know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focusing on U.S. foreign policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, we serve as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics. And we're also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine.

So I'm pleased and honored to introduce our two speakers today, Kathryn de Wit and Francella Ochillo who will give us their insights and analysis. We previously shared their bios with you so I'll just give you a few highlights. Kathryn de Wit is the manager of the broadband access initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts. Her research focuses on how states are approaching the connectivity gap. She was previously an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she focused on telecommunications issues. Francella Ochillo is the executive director of Next Century Cities. She's an attorney and digital rights advocate and has worked on a variety of technology and telecommunications issues. She serves on the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee and previously served on the 2020 Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee's disaster response and recovery working group. So thank you both for being with us, we really appreciate your taking the time.

Kathryn, I thought we could begin with you just to give us an overview of the state of broadband across the country and the barriers that you've seen in the national connectivity. And this of course, stepping back, President Biden just announced the $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan with a sizable amount earmarked, or that he would like to focus, on broadband. So Kathryn over to you.

DE WIT: Sure and thank you so much for inviting me to speak with all of you today, it's certainly an honor, and I'm always thrilled to share a panelist stage/screen with Francella, so I'm just really excited for a good conversation. Level setting on broadband--this is a really exciting time to be working in broadband. I'm squinting at you a little bit because it still feels a little weird to acknowledge that the pandemic has really been essential in accelerating our conversation about addressing the digital divide. And what's exciting--I think the most exciting part about that is that we're not only talking about the availability of connections, we are talking about the affordability of those connections. We will not be able to achieve universal access until we address both of those barriers. And I say that because technology of broadband, it's not just about whether or not you have this connection in your home, it's about whether you can afford it, whether or not you can use it to improve your economic outcomes, your social benefits, your access to education. We as communities don't see the benefits of those connections until we combine both the infrastructure and the usage. So when we're talking about, particularly the President's American Jobs Plan, that is one thing I know that personally got me really excited was seeing, yet again, this focus on the availability, this focus on equity, this focus on affordability, which again is why we invest public dollars in getting folks online.

So let's take a quick step back folks, I could talk about this for a while. Let's take a quick step back and do a level set on sort of where we are, which is actually not easy or quick to do but I will do my best. So when we talk about how many Americans are online, we can't actually answer that question. We can say broadly, the Federal Communications Commission says that, I think, fifteen million Americans still lack access to broadband. And that number is significantly higher than fifteen million. An estimate from, I think, 2017, Francella, from Microsoft, said that it was as high as 162. Was it 2017 or 2018?

OCHILLO: It was 2018.

DE WIT: 2018, thank you. Said that it was as high as 162 million. You know, other entities put that number somewhere around forty-two, forty-five million. So, that in and of itself, you're all policymakers we like to be able to count. Let's figure out where we're starting from, we don't know yet. So when we're talking about the role of state and local officials, this is a really important role that state and local officials can play is one, just helping us figure out what is the problem? What is the availability gap that we need to be targeting? The other element of what we don't know about our connections are the quality of those connections that are available and the cost of those connections? If we don't have an understanding of both quality, and that includes speed and reliability, and cost. We are significantly hampered in our ability to draft appropriate public policy interventions that will help us meaningfully address the digital divide. So what seems like a seemingly simple answer is not. I'm happy to detail and explain some of why we don't know this information. I'm also happy to share some research which may be a little bit easier. So we're starting at this number, at least fifteen million, and based on the pandemic, we know that it's significantly higher than that--Americans who actually don't have access to broadband. Then we have a number of Americans who have access to broadband speeds, maybe, but slightly less, and those where connections may be available but they can't afford them. So we're really looking at a pretty big group of Americans who either don't have access to a quality connection, don't have access to a connection at all, or just can't afford it, or fall in all of those categories.

So I think it's important to also look at the pre-COVID and post-COVID. Pre-COVID, a lot of the discussion was focused just on the availability of connections, most of the public funding was pushed into rural communities and exclusively focused on the "unserved," what the data told us was unserved. What the pandemic showed us very quickly, first is that the problem of unserved is not just limited to rural communities. It also emphasized why we needed to be coming up with more sustainable and holistic solutions to address the affordability crisis. Both the federal government and state governments have responded by standing up emergency affordability programs but they are short-term and they're likely not enough. So one thing that's notable about the American Jobs Plan is that the President calls out that we need more sustainable and long-term solutions to addressing affordability. I have my thoughts on what that may or may not mean, I'm sure Francella does as well, which maybe we can entertain at a later point in this discussion. So there were a couple of significant federal funding initiatives in the last year that have put money towards broadband deployment. One of them was the CARES Act, another was the December consolidated appropriations bill, and the American Rescue Plan. Look for funding announcements related to the December appropriations bill they should be coming out early summer. There's 300 million for deployment through NTIA, there's a one billion--that's with a B--program for tribal communities, and another 300 million for the Connecting Minority Communities pilot initiative. The American Rescue Plan set aside about 300 billion for states and local governments, broadband in that fund is an eligible expense. We are waiting on funding guidelines both for that 350 billion as well as another ten billion that may be exclusively used for broadband. Those funding guidelines should be coming out from Treasury again in early May. That may change, you know, it's not just up to the reporting agency as to when they can release these funding guidelines, there are a lot of layers of approval that they need to go through but right now they're targeting early May.

Going back to the update about the American Jobs Plan, the President calls out a couple of notable things. So the first is acknowledging that Americans not only don't have access to broadband, they don't have access to broadband that will be useful well into the future, it's also unaffordable. When we are talking about the affordability of connections, it's not just the affordability of connections for low-income households, it's the affordability of connections for all Americans. So the President has put a stake in the ground saying it's time for us to address this. The other piece that is noteworthy and has caused quite a bit of, we'll say, discussion in our field is the fact that the President explicitly calls out two things--that's the investment of future proof technology, that's also a focus on community-driven and community-led solutions. That includes municipal networks, cooperatives, and I'm sure that I'm forgetting something else in here. But that's what's happening, that's what shaping the national debate in DC. And I will turn it over to Francella, I guess, or Irina for the next update.

FASKIANOS: Kathryn, that was terrific. And Francella turning to you now to talk about what state and local communities are doing to bridge digital divide pre-COVID, during COVID, and what they should be doing. So over to you.

OCHILLO: Thank you so much. And I do want to just fan girl just for a second on Kathryn. She did some pretty outrageously great work last year and, to that end, she is now a director in her program at Pew Charitable Trusts, so I'm really excited just to be able to share time and space and even the stage with her. When we think about what did connectivity look like pre-COVID and post-COVID? For me, traveling from city to city, I think between July and November of last year, between July and February of 2019 and 2020, I got to eleven cities. A lot of the times I am talking to people in their city hall, their town hall meetings, in their offices, in places where they are brutally honest but also very aware of the fact that they have limited resources and limited power. And I think that a lot of the times, you know, when I go back to one of my trips, when I was in California, one of the advocates that I ran into, the student was--this was back in 2018--he would type his reports on his phone, he would send them by his cell phone to his friend who would print them out so that he could turn them in at school. And I want to make sure that we're putting this in perspective, that same community still is disconnected in 2021.

And I want to make sure that when we're thinking about, picking up something that Kathryn was talking about, you know, this not just being about making sure that people have access but that it's affordable. We have to constantly think about even if someone has digital infrastructure in their neighborhood, how do we get it across the front door? Because there are too many communities, too many towns, villages that I go to that people will tell me, "Yeah, we have internet nearby but it is $110 a month. It's $90 a month. That's one more bill that we just can't afford." So I think that COVID forced us all to have this reckoning with the very thing that so many communities already knew before COVID. That a lot of them when they're thinking about federal funding for years, at least for the last decade has been exclusively focused on infrastructure to the exclusion of adoption programs in which local and state governments were expected to fill in the gaps. It was "even if we give you the money for the infrastructure, you're expected to come up with some sort of solution to not only make sure that your people can have access to the network, that it's affordable, that they get a device and that you help support digital literacy, and tech support. You're on your own." And what we know is that that plan, it worked for the people who can afford it, and then we found out that most of the country couldn't. And so here we are in COVID, where we're having trouble measuring exactly who's disconnected. The data is actually usually limited to access. When we actually need to know about access and affordability. And now that we're in this moment that people are thinking about, well, how do we fund adoption? I think that sometimes when people get hesitant about the big numbers around broadband, it's because sometimes we don't know what to fund and so it's very difficult when you don't know exactly what the problem you're trying to solve. So for some communities, it's going to be we need infrastructure, full stop. For other communities, it's going to be we need to get upgrades because we're still working off a 5/1. We have money that is going out the door today for 10/1 networks in Alaska and that doesn't make any sense. That we actually know at 25/3 benchmarks, there are people who are saying that's still not enough but we're using public funding on these outdated networks.

So I want to go over four things. Number one, what we know from the most successful municipalities is that they treat broadband like infrastructure. One of the communities that we talked to, they actually said when they built their network, one of the smartest things that they did was they built it out of their infrastructure department just like they did for water, sewer. If you needed to call for a pothole, you called the same place that you did to get help with your broadband. The reason why is because he said, "I could do twenty-four hour response. I had much more opportunity. And I could finance it in a different way than if it was coming out of IT." So it was just a smart move. But in a way, it's now 2021 and we're just getting around to the thing that lots of successful communities knew--it's always been infrastructure. The reason why they treated it like infrastructure is because they saw the direct correlation not only just around education and telehealth that everybody talks about but the most resilient communities have reliable networks. Those are the communities that even if there's job loss, they have opportunities to upskill and retrain their residents. Those are the communities where residents actually have work from home opportunities and they're also the ones that have higher digital literacy. It's really important for us, we cannot separate this access conversation from digital literacy because when you think about the fact that even today over 60 percent of mid-skilled jobs require some element of digital literacy that means that we need to get the digital infrastructure across your front door, we need to make sure you have a device to be able to plug in, we need to make sure that you can do more than set up an email account, and make sure that you can do something with that connectivity, just to make sure that you're contributing into a digital society. So there are a lot of stars that have to align for that to be useful.

But some of the most successful municipalities are not only thinking about the funding that they have to make that happen, but also the manpower. Because, you know, I remember talking to one of the advocates on the South Side of Chicago, they applied for this grant, basically in the middle of COVID, they said, "We don't have any money, but we've got manpower, and we've got love." And so they literally locked arms, they filled out a grant application, and said, "If we can make sure that these small businesses stay open, then we all win." And so for them, it was about making sure that they can actually just do something in their neighborhood and they said, "Well, we can contribute on teaching people how to use it." And that's a resource that doesn't show up on a balance sheet but that we need because it's still not enough for them to have access nearby.

Another thing I want to point out is that when we're thinking about these great ideas and they're amazing, all sorts of the wonderful things have come out of COVID, I want us to be aware of what is the cost of inaction because sometimes we have all these amazing ideas that just sit in incubation. And if we have these great ideas that are sitting in incubation for two and three years, we already missed a very, very, very important train stop. So I want to make sure that we are taking the time to--yes, we want to get this right but we cannot let perfection be the enemy. There are over 10,000 municipalities nationwide. There are lots of communities that are going to be able to figure out the solution that's right for them but there's no solution that's going to be right for all communities. So what we need to do is we need to move on the things that are working and be able to retool on the things that need more thought. And I encourage people, when you're thinking about operationalizing your plans, maybe you don't have a plan for all of the money that you get from your grant but maybe you decide, "I'm going to start with a feasibility study and I know for sure in this neighborhood that's actually subject to digital redlining, they need our support today." So I think it's important for us to be able to see that there are going to be some parts of the community that need an immediate redress and there are others that can wait.

Another thing that I want to point out is that when we're talking about the mapping problem, it's not just about not being able to solve the problem, it's about the fact that we need to start coming up with some standardized metrics to actually say, who's actually getting it right? And so at Next Century Cities we're working on a report to actually talk about the methodologies and the contradictions that we've seen at every level of government--local, state, and federal--but what we don't have is we don't have any sort of consistent metrics. We literally studied all fifty states and territories and couldn't come up with a single benchmark. So I encourage local officials to actually speak up, ask the federal government to be able to create some sort of framework just like they would for food security, just like they use for SNAP, just like they use to decide on who actually needs healthcare. We can do that for broadband.

And finally, I just want to close this part with just saying, when I think a lot about who's disconnected, I think all the time as advocates we're always stuck in this very reactive posture, we're always trying to react to terrible things are happening, we're trying to make it less bad, you know, and it makes it hard to dream. And I think that one of the things that tech companies have on us is that they have things locked down so they actually get room to just sit in a room and just dream things up. And I encourage local officials, set aside one meeting of your entire year just say, "This one meeting, we're actually going to set aside time to say what we could do with connectivity, instead of just saying who doesn't have it?" Because I think that when you're constantly reacting, you're going to make decisions that that are short-term solutions. When quite frankly, we need to be thinking long-term. What is the speed benchmark that we need ten years from now? What is the infrastructure that you need to make sure that we can make that happen for every resident, not just the ones with resources? And also really thinking about how our ideas of digital equity fit into that plan because that is very much a part of the infrastructure as well as the adoption plans.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you both. Let's go now to all of you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

This is a great opportunity to ask questions and we already have four hands raised. Fantastic. So I'm going to go first to Amy Croover and if you could unmute yourself and state your affiliation and state would be great. Thank you.

Q: Did I raise my hand? I don't...Amy Cruver?

FASKIANOS: Yes, your hand is raised.

Q: Well, I didn't mean to. Sorry.

OCHILLO: Hi, Amy it's good to see you.

FASKIANOS: Okay, so we'll go next to Dan Kalmick who has raised his hand I think. Hi

Q: Hi, my name is Dan Kalmick. I'm a city council member in the city of Huntington Beach in Orange County in California. We're a pretty well built out city, Verizon installed Fios but digitally redlined some of our communities. We have, you know, some private areas where they wouldn't allow them to dig up the streets. Spectrum is our cable provider. And so we're a, I'd say, a socio-economic decent community, I'd say like we're doing okay but we have some low income communities. And we own all of our streetlights in our city. So we're looking at trying to move things forward but we're kind of getting stalled out on what our goals are and where all this money is coming from since we're not a rural community, we're not a tribal community. We've got some decent revenue but we'd like some help to invest in that and it looks like the state of California is going to show up with some bonds, federal government is going to show up with some money. But how do we frame I guess, this expansion to be able to provide internet? Because I think you spoke earlier, yeah, Fios is available, but it's $80 bucks a month, right? That's too expensive for folks. And we've got some senior communities where they're fixed income, so it's too expensive but it's available. And the asymmetric speeds that we have with Spectrum aren't good enough for a family of five trying to do Zoom calls all day. So if you could speak a little bit on how do you qualify in that kind of middle tier where it would be a hardship on the city to start spending money on this but we'd like to be able to qualify for some of the federal dollars.

FASKIANOS: Who wants to take that?

DE WIT: Francella, why don't you take the first pass?

OCHILLO: Okay, gotcha. So one of the good things that you have on your side is that you actually own your streetlights. I think any cities that own streetlights, you have rooftop access, you have dark fiber, all of those resources help. Because a lot of the times you can, number one, actually decide from now on anytime we do construction projects, we're going to actually install conduit in X. And so the thing is that might be on your city center, it might be within X amount of miles of whatever, you guys can decide. But I think that a lot of the times local officials don't take advantage of resources that you have in front of you. It's going to be very difficult. I remember one city in Indiana called it the "tale of the midsized city" because you don't qualify for the unserved and underserved money, but the thing is you're not quite this metropolitan area. But it doesn't matter where you are because it matters to the economics of the city.

So I think that one of the things you can also do is build community buy-in on why this is an economic development issue. I think all the time, I feel like that is an issue that it doesn't matter, it goes beyond partisan lines. When we're talking about the fact that literally eight out of ten mid-skilled jobs need some sort of digital literacy and you need some sort of access. So that means that you're bringing work from home opportunities into your community, you're being able to attract other businesses that might setup and create more jobs. I think it's important that we do the framing around what exactly it is that you're actually going to be able to bring to your community when you have consistent, reliable broadband. And also thinking about it is actually something that helps people retain their populations, and people can age in place in a way that they can't. One of the things I remember when Illinois was doing some of their work, this is back in like 2017/2018, and they were talking about some of the reasons why they were losing people in some of those cities downstate were because they didn't have reliable connectivity so people just moved across the border. And so we have to really be thinking about this in a holistic way.

And also when you mentioned the thing about the low-income populations, I think that that's going to be a challenge in every single city, being able to find what is that sweet spot of where we can help low-income populations afford it. One of the most successful things we've seen is when people partner with their HUD offices. Recently legislation was in Maryland where they actually introduced having an Office of Digital Equity in HUD and part of it was to make sure that when they're building any new housing development, they actually have options for connectivity. Just like when you go check-in with your landlord, you find out you're eligible for utility assistance, you know, any other services, that broadband would be one of those things. So I think it's a matter of you're not always going to win in your negotiations with your incumbents. I always feel like that is a long battle where I think sometimes incumbents actually take advantage of the fact that cities don't have the money to fight them in court. I'll give you an example, loose fiber is a great example of one where all of those fights lasted almost 10 years. It's a long haul when you're fighting with people to expand networks but I think that it's a good move to start with the resources that you have in your hands.

DE WIT: I would add to that. I agree with everything that Francella just said, particularly the point about planning, which is something that we haven't discussed at all which I think personally is--candidly this was, I think, the most surprising thing to come out of our research on states is the emphasis that states in particular are putting on capacity building, on planning, on data collection at the local level. Why? Because it helps them secure funding. It helps them do the community buy-in that Francella was talking about. About focusing on the economic outcomes, why are we doing this? Doing the education to help illustrate why these connections are useful and beneficial to the communities at hand.

So I think to your point about the affordability, going out and getting some of that information, not just on "what's affordable." And sorry I think somebody else asked this in the chat, it's not just about what is "affordable" for a broadband connection. First of all, I barely understand what 25/3 is, most people don't. I'm not an engineer, it's okay, this is a safe space, I'm comfortable admitting that. But you know, it's not about the speed and the numbers that we're attaching to policy, because like candidly, that really only matters to policymakers. It's about what you can use with those connections. So as you're talking about and trying to understand this notion of affordability, what can families afford? What are they willing to pay for? It's important to tie that to would you be willing to pay for faster speeds that would enable you to have multiple users on the laptop at once? Or on your connection at once? Who are video chatting? Are you willing to...? This is a terrible example. You understand what I'm saying, though. So as you're collecting this data to, one, both understand sort of where are your pockets of inequity? Where are those pockets of digital redlining occurring? But considering the flip side with the adoption and that willingness to pay what is reasonable for these families? Gathering that data is not only helpful in your discussions with providers, it also is going to be a really powerful tool for your state leaders, in particular. And I'm sorry to other folks on the call, but those of you who live in California do have a little bit more of an asset in your back pocket because you have the CPUC and you have the California Emerging Technology Fund. So being able to go to those entities and say, "Look, this is the information that we collected. This is what we think are the thresholds to pay. Can you help us?" There's a broadband adoption account within the California Advanced Services Fund but you also have two very powerful public advocates who are willing to elevate these issues and fight for these issues. And to Francella's earlier point, just to push back.

OCHILLO: And I don't want to belabor the point on this but that CPUC piece is so big. CPUC proceedings are very often the thing that other states that haven't quite figured out broadband, they're actually looking to CPUC for direction,

DE WIT: Yes, they are.

OCHILLO: Always want to encourage local officials. We have filed in the CPUC proceeding on behalf of our municipalities, we have over thirty member municipalities in California. Sometimes it's important to actually just get your city story on the record. I think that it's really important just to actually just for the sake of saying, "I'm here. We matter. Here are the statistics in our city. Here's what we need." Because I do know that some of the digital divide funding in California is limited so I'm not sure of all of the requirements there but I think it's really important that you use the social capital that you have there for people who will elevate your story in a way that they wouldn't in any other state.

FASKIANOS: So there are two questions in the chat both about mapping from Annie Bemuth of the Ohio House of Representatives and Mark Luberda from Walworth County, Wisconsin about mapping. What steps are being taken to create a map to find where there are holes in the coverage? What would be the cost of creating these maps? And how would you find the maps to determine areas that are and are not served? And then what would be the second step? So if you can walk through all of those that would be great.

DE WIT: So when it comes to mapping, I mean really, we're talking about data collection, and people just like maps because we like visuals. But when we're talking about going out to understand, you know, what is the availability that is in your state? In your county? It's surveying. It's working with local leaders to say what do you know about the state of connectivity in your locality? I know that...I'm sorry, I cannot remember the name of the representative who elevated this question in Ohio. But, you know, there have been efforts on the ground in Ohio, led by Connected Nation and others, to develop a more granular form of mapping. I don't know where those stand.

I'll be frank with all of you, we in our research did not find investing in a significant mapping effort at the outset of a broadband initiative to be always the most effective use of funds because at the end of the day you have a map. Can you spend a fraction of that money on a survey and some community outreach and engagement to get a good enough understanding of where connections are and are not, in order to, again, just get started and get the ball rolling. Additionally, as you get those projects started, as you start engaging in some of these planning efforts, these feasibility studies, these needs assessments, you'll get a more granular understanding of where connectivity is and is not. Perhaps more importantly, it will give you a better and more robust picture of the type of data that you need in order to actually solve the digital divide. Because you may get into this data collection process and realize, you know what it's not necessarily that the infrastructure isn't there, it's that the infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Or that it actually is it's about pricing and cost or it's about reliability. So I think don't necessarily focus a lot of resources and funds on getting that like premise-to-premise measure of where broadband is and is not, you'll get there eventually but get that basic understanding. But more importantly, get folks around a table to say these are what the problems are, this is what we need help solving and then that will help focus your data collection efforts from there. But in general--and this is a very hot topic, I will say, within states, in particular, of whether or not to spend on data and mapping. State leaders have some very firm opinions on this. I'm chuckling because they really do have very firm opinions on this. But really what it is, it's about why are you collecting that data and how is it being used? So in some cases, we do see state programs, in particular, using those as educational tools for policymakers to demonstrate the impact of the investments over time, to demonstrate progress. They're not necessarily to isolate where the gaps were to begin with. I'm kind of talking in circles here but my short explanation is-- start with surveys and really engage your local officials, your school leaders who will have a much better understanding now, in particular, about who has connections and who doesn't. Your community centers, your senior facilities, get those folks around the table, they will be able to give you a good understanding of the availability of connections in the community. Francella may pop in here and be like, "Kathryn you don't know you're talking about," so I'll turn it over to her.

OCHILLO: Not at all, I was honestly just thinking, if people are doing feasibility studies, one of the things I get all the time is that they'll tell me, "We got low participation in certain areas." And I was like, "Well, how did you do your survey?" Mostly online--

DE WIT: Online.

OCHILLO: --And I'm like, "Okay." So let's try to do some of those surveys in person. Let's catch people at the grocery store, in their places of faith, community centers because a lot of the times the people who you are trying to actually get a granular number, they rely on schools and libraries for regular access, and also their cell phones. So you have to decide what exactly it is, to Kathryn’s point, you're going to do with this information. But one of my favorite things that came up in our research on that over the past few months is that some states and cities are actually asking people to challenge their information so they'll give them a portal where they can challenge it on an ongoing basis so that they can make the maps better.

DE WIT: Yeah. And I don't know, sorry, I hope this was apparent from Francella and I were explaining, but the reason why we all yell about the data and maps is because they influence billions of dollars in funding every year. So that's how the federal government decides which census blocks are eligible for funds, this is how many states a lot of them use some of the FCC data for their decision-making, many of them start there, and to Francella's point they use that to initiate meaningful challenge processes, not just like. We should actually probably too, Francella, talk like meaningful community engagement and kind of what that's looking like across the country.

OCHILLO: Well, I don't want to assume anybody knows how the FCC actually determines that your community is served. Just so that you know, quick and dirty, they literally ask companies, all of your providers in your area, to submit a Form 477. On that data, they say who they're serving and if at least one household on a census track is able to be served, they do not have to actually have a subscription, but if they are able to be served, that block is counted as served. And so what happens in a lot of these communities is that you'll find out, hold on a second, that data tells a completely different story when you show up in this community. I mean, I remember when I was in Michigan, I was literally left the DFW, whatever that airport was, and it's like it falls off. Literally there's like nothing in certain patches and I pulled over at McDonald's to make sure that I can check my email, to make sure I was going to the right place but if you look we pulled up the county information and it actually said it was served. So, you know, for us, a lot of the times we'll run into cities and counties that say that the FCC's data is incorrect. They don't know how to fix it and what is more problematic is that usually the state maps start with FCC data.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let's go to raise hand. Jarett Smith.

Q: Hi, Jarett Smith, councilmember Takoma, Maryland. Maryland's eighth congressional district. Thank you guys for giving me a chance to ask a question. In the American Rescue Plan, I'm getting different information, will there be money for actual hardware purchases for people that are trying to access the internet? One. And two, can that benefit, if it is available, be combined with the $100 benefit that was in the last, I guess, CARES Act that was appropriated by Congress?

OCHILLO: So Kathryn you want to dig into EBB and that, okay? So number one, I always want to caution people, whenever you hear about money that's coming through legislation, nothing is final until the final. It does not matter how many outlines you see, nothing is final until the night that it is actually passed. So even though there's interest in being able to support not only service but also devices. And also municipalities and states will likely be able to use that funding to support it just like you would on rental assistance, utility assistance, and things like that. There is no guarantee that it will cover devices. When you're talking about the device benefit that came through the Emergency Broadband Benefit--the Emergency Broadband Benefit is a program for low-income households, those households are going to be entitled for a $50 discount. If you're in a tribal lands you're going to get up to $75 discount off of your broadband service. So you choose your service provider within the list of the participating providers that the FCC has approved. With that package, if you qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, you will get up to $100 to use on a device. It is a onetime benefit. And again, the program lasts until the money runs out, unless Congress replenishes it, but essentially, this is to ensure that low-income households are able to get competitive service throughout the pandemic.

One of the things that I worry about when we're thinking about the devices, it is still very hairy when some providers provide a device, other providers don't. And I think there is an onus on the consumers to be asking questions when they're comparing because that's part of why advocates are asking for transparency, not only in the prices that they're paying but what exactly is included in the service offerings because, quite frankly, a lot of the people who are in most need are also very suspicious and untrusting. So the thing is, it's going to be very difficult to get some of those people to sign up for the benefit, even though they rightfully qualify if they feel like it's going to cost additional obligations. So right now the FCC has opened up a portal. I'll drop the information in the chat. They've opened up a portal for community leaders to sign up for updates. They are sending out emails. They've also asked people to be partners for the program. They're going to be sharing information that's plug and play materials that you can share with community leaders and others. It's going to be in at least four languages, including English, Spanish, and four AAPI languages. And then also they are constantly updating the list of participating providers on a rolling basis. But I think it's really important, especially for local leaders, to be able to give direct feedback, whether it's to the Commissioner's offices, to their staff, to document their stories on the record. Because, again, these are programs that are developed in hallways of DC. Yes, they get input from other people but it's really important that local leaders give community level impact. If you have any trouble getting in touch with anybody, I'm happy to put you in touch to set up a meeting.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. And we will send out a follow-up note with links to the resources that you both are putting into the chat. And I encourage you also to everybody on this webinar to look at the Q&A. I see there are lots of questions but people are sharing what they're doing in their communities so you might just want to scroll through that.

There are a couple questions from people about what you would consider the city or state that you consider to be a model or has done a better job than other cities, states bridging the digital divide? And similarly...where did that go? Right, there's another question or a comment from somebody in Texas in Fort Collins. Working with municipal broadband working on it at the county level as well but it's been more difficult in the county because we're dealing with existing providers instead of our own broadband.

DE WIT: Okay, model states. This is always a fun question, to which I say there is no model state.  I say that because, by and large every state is different so, therefore, the programs that are put in place need to be different. And I say that every state is different, not just because they are, but because you're talking about different topographies, you have different policies in place within states, you have different provider footprints. Some states, going back to our California example, you're looking primarily at large incumbents who are there, they don't have a footprint of cooperatives to pull in, to help drive some of these more locally driven solutions. That's not the case in states like Minnesota and South Dakota. So that context is really important and I think that one that is not discussed enough.

But when we're talking about state programs that have been successful, these programs have been successful for a couple of reasons. First, they are pulling in that diverse stakeholder engagement. They are focusing on working with those who represent rural populations, urban populations, they pull in educators, healthcare facilities, the private sector to figure out what's the problem at hand and, more importantly, how do we actually solve it? That type of stakeholder engagement continues through drafting public-private partnerships, or in some cases, community-led networks, where they are really focused on, one, sharing risk between the public and private sectors, but, two, ensuring that communities get equitable connectivity--they get the connectivity that they were promised. So in some cases that is just in service agreements, that's making sure that providers are not just building to the most profitable areas of a service area. That means that those houses in a service area are actually served. In other cases, those are service requirements and that these internet service providers who were receiving grant funds are operating those networks for at least five years. Which invites another discussion about operations and optics that we can delve into it another point.

Another thing that some states do are they put pricing requirements in place. So in some cases, providers have to submit the prices, including low cost offers that they already have in place and they must agree to adhere to those pricing tiers throughout the course of the grant. Finally, we're seeing states also consider other factors, not just whether or not a community is unserved or underserved, they're looking at the economic impact of that network. They are looking and gauging on whether or not a provider has actually gotten out into the community and said, "Hey, I'm interested in securing some state funds to get your community online. Is that of interest to you?" Which does not happen with federal programs, that's not a requirement. And those providers are assessed and are awarded points, they're incentivized to do that through some of these state programs.

The final pieces are accountability and enforcement measures. The successful state programs are those that have those accountability measures in place, that are doing that grant oversight, that grant management to ensure not only are communities getting what they've been promised but is the public sector getting what they have also been promised? How is the public's money actually being invested? I mean, I think that this is one of the things that frustrates me the most about this conversation, is that we've invested billions and billions and billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure and internet infrastructure, and we're still trying to address this problem. So that accountability is really important. So as you think about building a state program, I think this came from a staffer from the New Jersey State Senate, those are the kinds of things that you should be considering. How do you facilitate competitive grant processes? Meaningful challenge processes? How do you set high standards? And how do you factor in what your local needs are, as you think about how to really assess where and how you want to target funds? Francella, I'll turn it over to you, though, for best practices in local.

OCHILLO:  I think the piece that you just said about how do you evaluate whether or not people kept their promises, that's one of the most serious problems not only at a federal level, but also at a local level. A lot of the times we talk to people who are either, maybe they're new to mayoral office, they're on the city council but they can't all agree and it's very difficult to evaluate whether or not--"hold on a second, did somebody in the previous administration? They made this deal and they made a deal for fifty years. So now we're going to check to see if they're doing what they said they were going to do in year thirty-one." And so it makes it very difficult when you have these legacy agreements that essentially are as long as a lifetime for people to actually enforce things. So I think it's important for people to set realistic guidelines where they're saying, "We're going to offer you X and evaluate at this date," and decide that before the money goes out the door. Because if you negotiate something, if you put out an RFP process, you're saying, "Look, we're going to open up this application portal," you can't go back and say, "Oh, by the way, you're going to need to show us that you're keeping your promises midway through." So I think it's most important to actually outline that in the parameters of the original application.

DE WIT:  I think what we are both getting at are that the public sector has a stake here, communities have a stake here. We'd have a stake either way because it's a business that's providing services in your community but when they're receiving public funds, you bet you have a stake. And I'm speaking for myself here, assuming Francella's with me, but there are some very good internet service providers who are excellent partners to their communities. Who view themselves as carriers of last resort, who are in it to make sure that their neighbors, that their families, that their friends, that their local businesses are online and have connections that they need to help their communities survive. Because that's what we're talking about here, it's community survival now. And so when we're talking about making sure that the public sector has a stake in this. That it's reclaiming that seat at the negotiation table, that's what we're talking about. And that's not an irrational ask. To do as Francella said, that if public funds are being offered, it is reasonable to say, "This is what we expect to get for those public funds. You don't have to accept them but this is what we expect to get from that." And I think that that has been what has been missing from this conversation. It's also about figuring out what is realistic, but that's really where those relationships, those open conversations are really important to figure out what's realistic. Also balancing, I think, realistic with the aspirational because sometimes people say, "Well, that's not realistic." You're like, "Well, is it? Isn't it, though? You know, we're saying that today in 2021 that, yes, we need speeds in homes that are faster than 25/3 when this network isn't going to be built for two or three years? Like this connection is already too slow." But it is important to just remember that you have a seat at the table. It's about figuring out how you want to claim that seat and how you want to exercise your authority as public leaders.

FASKIANOS:  I'm going to go next to Carrie Warren-Gully, who's raised her hand.

Q:  Hi there. My name is Carrie Warren-Gully and I'm a county commissioner in Arapahoe County, Colorado. And I have two questions for you. One is, we have a county that has unincorporated Arapahoe County, of which we're responsible for helping and maintaining and providing services to, but then we have eleven different cities that are also a part of our county. So I'm wondering if you have any examples of how counties and cities are working together so you don't have one city that has amazing service and another city that doesn't, and that is a county there to provide some kind of backup or help in doing that?

The second question I have for you is, and I've seen it in the chat here too, we are getting money right now from the American Rescue Plan and some of that money can go towards infrastructure and broadband. But I'm wondering if there's something out there that kind of tells us what are all the different pots of money? Because all of this money is, every dollar is so valuable to us, and we could spend it on a million different things. So should we be spending some of this money on this project? Or is there other money out there that we really should be utilizing instead of spending these valuable American Rescue Act monies on broadband? Thank you. This is absolutely fascinating, thank you.

OCHILLO: Carrie you asked some really good questions.

DE WIT: Excellent questions.

OCHILLO: I want to make sure that I just get to really quickly a couple of things. I'm going to drop some things in the chat just to give you a list of funding resources. I always encourage people to look beyond the FCC. There is lots of money in lots of unexpected places. You might need to partner with USDA, the other partner might be with Department of Education, somebody might need to partner with local philanthropy. There are lots of different places that we need to actually tap into partnerships. I also want to encourage people to make sure you are treating businesses as residents. And if you are asking residents to buy into your plan, then you need to ask the businesses in those communities to say, "What are you bringing to the table? We're asking them to donate manpower, what can you bring?" So this is a potluck, and we need everybody. And so I think that it's really important for us to make sure that we are tapping into those resources. Unincorporated areas have unusual challenges, because a lot of the times they don't necessarily have the same agency that an organized city or county would have.

I think of when you ask for a good example of cities and counties working together, I think of Lexington County, it's a mixed government in Kentucky. I also think of some places in New York that are trying to figure it out. I think that depending on what are the circumstances you're fighting against, sometimes that's part of what leads me to ask questions about the match. But one of the great things that you have in the state of Colorado, is that you have one of the best state broadband offices in the country and I don't say that lightly. I say that because I have rarely run into an office that gives granular instructions on how to apply for grants, that actually tells you this is the money that's available, and these are the application dates. And I think that there's a willingness to help and an expertise in that office that really only exists in about a handful of states across the country. So I'm going to drop some notes in about funding. But I just wanted to make sure I got to that.

DE WIT: I think the other thing that we've been watching. I completely agree with Francella, look at other options outside the FCC. Honestly, it's an onerous application process for many of these programs to begin with. But, I shared a resource from NTIA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, they just released an update to their federal funding guide. I flagged that because what that details are other resources that can be applied in different ways. You really are going to be looking at sort of like a puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle, of sources to help you get through this entire broadband process. So starting with planning, feasibility studies, you look at an entity like the Economic Development Administration, which has planning funds available. There are other sources in there that you may already be aware of, but I would echo Francella's encouraged to reach out to the Colorado Broadband Office and happy to get contact information for you there, if that would be useful.

With respect to the city/county collaboration, that is such a great question and a very interesting one. Yes, just very interesting. One thing that we are looking at and watching at Pew is how are states facilitating whether it's city/county collaboration or just collaboration and creating essentially economies of scale in local opportunities for network connectivity. One of them is looking at laws in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine that enable localities to form communications union districts. So essentially utilities districts for the provision of broadband, West Virginia has a law that allows localities to form cooperatives for broadband service. We're also in the process right now of debating passing a law that will allow counties to build broadband infrastructure in the same way that they would build roads and then work with internet service providers in order to actually provide service over that network and operate that network. So there are several examples out there about how states are trying to facilitate this. That is where some county and city collaboration does come into it, but no Francella is right, I think the immediate one that springs to mind is the example in Kentucky.

FASKIANOS: Right. So I'm going to go next to Linda Redman, who's in Washington state, who talks about supposedly having good access to broadband in our city of 10,000. But the main impediment for our families trying to work and attend school from home is the cost. As you mentioned, it's $120 per month for anything approaching gig speed. Others that can afford those speeds can move here and continue to work, those that can't have to drive to work. So what type of funding is there? Do cities have access to help with that disparity?

OCHILLO: I think I'll just jump in here. I think that that's one of those things that people have to approach with the digital equity lens. That's one of those questions where we decide that, "you know what, not everybody needs help but this part of the city really does need help." And where cities have to come together and you might already have certain understandings, certain agreements. I think in the wake of COVID there are a lot of cities that we're seeing digital equity for the first time. There were some that actually were thinking about, "what do we need to do to make sure that the people who need a little bit more support are able to get that?" And sometimes that means partnering with philanthropy, sometimes it means asking the philanthropic arm of business residents to do more. Where you can actually hand out, whether it's to say that it's almost like an Emergency Broadband Benefit that's happening at the local level. When essentially people are saying, "Hey, we're going to help at least offset the cost of broadband." And I thought it was really smart how in San Antonio, I remember, they use CARES Act funding to actually help cover broadband bills, just like they did for rental assistance and utilities. That type of forward thinking, where we're acknowledging not everyone in the city is going to be able to be treated the same on this issue but the truth is that some people need a little extra help.

And I want to make sure that I point out, highlight a statistic that helps give people color on why. When I think about nationwide when people say, "We don't have a digital equity problem, it doesn't really matter. It's not really our issue." I think a lot of the times when we're thinking about who's getting locked out and what it's going to cost us. It costs us money when 20/30/40 percent of residents in your area do not have connectivity. And to give you statistics from Deutsche Foundation, which is a bank that has nothing to do with broadband, but started to ask questions about what does connectivity have to do with workforce development. And they determined that 76 percent of Blacks and 62 percent of Hispanics could get shut out or be underprepared for 86 percent of the jobs nationwide by 2045. What does that mean for us? That means that whether you're connected or you're not connected, we all share the cost because we lose in workforce development, we lose in their creativity and innovation, we lose their imagination, we lose their contributions to our cities, we lose in so many different places. So I want to make sure that when we're thinking about maybe coming up with these policy prescriptions that seem like, "well, is it fair that we're giving a little bit more to somebody who needs help?" That's just what that is. And sometimes just as a city, or even as a county, or as a state, we have to decide that sometimes some people need a little bit more support to participate.

FASKIANOS: Kathryn, do you want to add on?

DE WIT: I was just going to say what Francella said. Plus one to that. But also, if you're in Washington state, call your broadband office. Russ Elliot's team there. I know, Russ is great. They're looking at really this full scope of the digital divide and trying to use the arm of the public in order to address these challenges. The state also has technical assistance teams in place that can help you come up with a plan to actually address that. Exactly what Francella was just outlining. So if you haven't reached out to your state office yet, I would encourage you to do that.

FASKIANOS: Yeah, just to follow on. The discount offered by EBB is not enough. This is Linda Redman wrote again. What other programs are available to ensure equitable access? And I think it goes back to what you were talking about, Francella, about the divide that we're going to see by, I think you said, 2045.

OCHILLO: Right. And so there are no other federal programs that provide that funding. So I just want to be clear, the Emergency Broadband Benefit is the first of its kind. The Lifeline Benefit has always been run by the Federal Communications Commission, it's actually implemented by USAC, the nonprofit arm, but essentially that is for low-income households. However, that benefit is only $9.95 a month, it is for wireless broadband or telephone wireline.

DE WIT: The other thing with the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and Francella brought this up earlier, about making sure that you're asking questions of the providers. One, confirm that providers in your area are participating in it. But as you ask them those questions, what speeds do they offer? Because the EBB program does not require that providers offer or receive this benefit--they don't have to provide broadband speeds, so those speeds that they are offering can be less than 25/3. So it's important to also gauge that question as well.

FASKIANOS: Well, we have so many questions and we are out of time. But we covered a lot of ground. You two have been fantastic. Thank you, Francella Ochillo and Kathryn de Wit for being with us. We are going to collect up all the resources that you've dropped in the chat and I'll come back to you both, if there's anything else you want to include and we will share it with all of you to refer to. They're both on Twitter so you can follow them and I hope that you will because obviously the fountain of information here and resource we just heard how helpful and useful they can be in helping you bridge the digital divide in your communities. So you can follow Francella, @FranOchillo. And Kathryn @km_dewit. You can also follow us, the State Local Officials Initiative on Twitter @CFR_local. And of course come to CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for more expertise and analysis on a broad range of issues. So again, we'll send you a link to the recording of this, resources, and if you have ideas of other topics you'd like us to cover, please email us at [email protected]. Thanks for all that you're doing in your communities, too. We know you're working hard and I hope everybody stays well and safe.

OCHILLO: Thank you so much.

DE WIT: Thank you.

(End.)

Top Stories on CFR

Taiwan

Differences over Taiwan’s status have fueled rising tensions between the island and the mainland. Conflict over Taiwan also has the potential to be a flash point in U.S.-China relations.

Ethiopia

Women and Women's Rights