How US Ignite Is Accelerating the Smart City Movement - ETI
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June 28, 2022

How US Ignite Is Accelerating the Smart City Movement

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Joe Coldebella:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. We are at Broadband Communities, 2022. Coming to you from the Harrison Edwards summit studio. I’m Joe Coldebella, along with Maya’s co-host Pete Pizzutillo. We are joined by Lee Davenport, the director of community development for US Ignite. Lee, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Welcome Lee.

Lee Davenport:

Thank you, guys. Thanks for having me.

Joe Coldebella:

So, excited to have you here. It’s a great event here at Broadband Communities. Before we dive into the topic, talk about things that are happening here, things that you guys are doing, could you give the audience a little bit of background about yourself?

Lee Davenport:

Yeah. Happy to. Born and raised in Austin, Texas. Feel quite at home here in Houston. I’d say kind of as the fast forward a bit though, right? There was an American recovery room about 12 years ago, the Broadband Technology Opportunity Project. That was my first real step into the void, right? So we’d wanted it, spend a lot of money. The government spent $7 billion or so to improve broadband connectivity. And I was working with a great tech nonprofit then, and we had received some federal money. It was like, how could we increase connectivity? How could we train kids how to use the internet, how to become smarter about it, and how to increase digital literacy? And so fast forward 12 years, we’re doing that again, right? So here we are with more federal money, 10 times that size.

Lee Davenport:

So it’s neat to think about that journey. When I look back at it and say, oh, 12 years ago, I was just a kid in this space managing a few things. Now we’re looking around the room and there are so many vendors, so many community partners, so many universities that are now put digital equity and digital access, connectivity, and affordable, what the president said, affordable connectivity for every person in the United States. I mean, it’s just a really neat way to think about where we are today and the opportunities we’re looking at.

Joe Coldebella:

That’s awesome. And so could you explain your role with the US ignite?

Lee Davenport:

Sure. Happy to. US Ignite is a tech nonprofit. We spun out of the White House in 2012. In 2015, we stood up community relationships with our first 16 communities where we accelerate the adoption, design, and deployment of smart city applications. We were first funded by NSF. National Science Foundation gave us enough to support those first 16 cities. Since then, I work now with a group of around eight or 10 of us. And we support communities, CTOs, and CIOs, in how they understand the challenges that communities face. And then how do they, the CTO, CIO, and economic development officers, leverage relationships with universities, private sector partners, infrastructure partners, and startup communities, to build the correct solutions needed to solve those harder challenging problems.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Sounds like a fun job.

Lee Davenport:

It’s a great job.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it’s important. I mean, and we’ll get into this in a little bit, but so you’ve been on the scene for many years now. What is it about this conference? So again, we’re at the Broadband Community Summit 2022. What stands out as a little bit different this year than maybe in the last few years?

Lee Davenport:

I mean, for starters, this is my first conference, right? So to have a guy who cares about communities and innovation and GovTech and CivTech to show up and see people that I recognize here, not just the fiber guys, not just the wireless guys, not just the traditional players at this conference means that I think there’s more energy now in this space than there has been previously. We just finished a conference, Smart Cities Connect, two weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio. Again, a big group of people that we had just wanted to be able to see and talk about the value of connectivity in communities. And whether you need an ecosystem manager or a fiber provider or a wireless provider, it’s going to need a big army to get us to the place we need to get, to connect every home.

Lee Davenport:

And what I’ve seen, that’s interesting to me this time is the providers who are here play such an interesting role in rural communities. In the smaller communities where you don’t have large staffs, you don’t have a big tax base to underwrite and pay these big teams that need to go out and get federal money, and state money. The providers have some interesting opportunities to work with these communities, small sound towns, villages, up to big cities and states, and help them understand the design solutions they might need so that when they go get those federal dollars, the state dollars, we can map the solution directly to that challenge that the community faced.

 Is Broadband funding the key to building smart cities faster?

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. I think there’s a lot of focus on the rural and underserved going on right now. And there are a lot of themes around funding, right? Help people break down the different types of funding. I know you all have done some work to help the general public understand how to navigate that sea of funding and understand what’s good fig. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about what you guys have come up with.

Lee Davenport:

Sure. And some of the highlights just here at the conference, just as a reminder, Treasury is here talking about their Capital Projects Fund, they’re releasing $10 billion. The NTIA they’re going to put in 40, $50 billion. I mean, these numbers are mind-boggling, right? So in addition to the coronavirus funds, the aid that came out a couple of years ago, the Cares Act Money, there was already an increase in money. And so for example, a partner that we talk about a lot that sometimes can fly under the radar economic development administration with inside commerce, their budget went from three or 400 million to 1 billion to last year, $3.2 billion, of money to give out. And so we’re tracking now on our website, us-ignite.org. We have a federal funding tool. We just launched it, which helps people map and down select 90 plus federal funding opportunities that may be a right fit for their community, their partnerships, and their ideas.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. There’s a lot of money out there, right? And we’ve talked about some of the concerns about people leaving money on the table or not having access to the table. I mean, what are some of the things that you see that are working for communities to get funding?

Lee Davenport:

I think that communities who are positioned to understand and communicate through documentation that specific needs are better felt. I was talking to a state broadband director earlier today, who is saying that, could money be used, for example, for water management? Could we have a runoff in our up river lands, there’s a management drought production, how that water reaches our water system and then restocks our reservoirs and tanks for our urban centers. We have to balance across different use cases, across different constituencies, and across different mindsets, but data drives those decisions. And whether it’s that or connectivity for kids, for example, two years ago, who just couldn’t find the way to connect to their homework or get access to a teacher. And I think that we agree then that if a kid can’t afford the internet doesn’t mean they can’t afford school.

Lee Davenport:

Well, then I think we thought, oh, that wasn’t the right thing. We should probably increase connectivity generally. And I think now the use cases as we come from COVID response into recovery and resiliency, we’re going to have to change the way we think about those specific use cases. And we may need to have a different way of thinking about adult skilled training, upskilling, job training, advanced manufacturing, and telehealth, those use cases, precision agriculture will vary by community. But, I think it’s important we keep a sharp eye on, does that community, did they express clearly what their need was? And then can they assemble the right team to go build that solution? And how does connectivity play a part in that?

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, no, I think that’s really important. And I think the communities are doing a better job of understanding that broadband is a fabric, right? It’s a utility foundational platform for many use cases. Do you see the same in the private sector? I mean, what advice would you give to the vendor side of the community when they need to align with the communities?

Lee Davenport:

The thing about the private sector is the people, the leaders who work there are also living inside communities. So they’re fully aware of not only their own needs as a resident, their own expectation of what the internet could do. No one thinks about wifi. Also, no one thinks about the electricity in the wall, but they think about what happens when you use it, right? The water itself is not a utility. It’s what happens because of it. We can survive basically, right? So not only do these large employers have a perspective, but they also have staff and teams of installers that work inside in daily interface with those communities. And so if they can help to bubble up those necessary tools that are maybe needed by a community, they then can then play a stronger role across economic cycles up and down, across mayoral cycles up and down. They can play a role as a leader in their community, wherever they are to work with other partners, to make sure that these things are happening and helping their own places.

Joe Coldebella:

Just in terms of these communities in general, there’s just like you were saying, there are so many different sorts of avenues in terms of where they can pursue funds. Is that one of the fears that you have that people are going to miss this opportunity because they just don’t know where to go.

Lee Davenport:

I don’t think they’ll miss the opportunity. I think if anything, I mean, for sure opportunities will be missed. There’ll also be opportunities that they’ve been trying to fund for a long time that just doesn’t fit. And they’ll say, “Well we don’t really have a good idea of what we wanted to do. We didn’t get our ducks in a row. The money’s now here. It’s February or March 2023, we don’t have a partnership network. We don’t have a really good idea of what the community said. We have some surveys and we have a couple of tweets, and we’re going to go write our state broadband office and say, this is what we wanted to do. This is why we want to support the development of our 20-year project of an amphitheater that’s 10 miles out of town, and we need to drop fiber from here to there. And then we’ll build a new master plan.” And the state broadband director will say, “Well, how does that compare to the needs that are clearly expressed from some other place?” And they’ll have to make decisions because there’ll be over subscription of funding requests.

Lee Davenport:

Not everybody can get their stuff funded. And so the ones that are less planned, less organized, less thought through, we think are less likely to get funding. And so we are encouraging all partners, however, their tax status goes, private sector, nonprofit, university, municipality, to get your projects in order, understand the needs, start to build solutions and test bed and pilot them now. So when it comes time to make decisions and next year, the year after, you have documentation that says we can work together. We built trust, we have this small project, and we deployed a solution. It did work like we thought it would, or it didn’t and we learned a few lessons and here we are. And we like you to do another round and help us do the next planning grant or the next deployment of some kind.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. A lot of the broadband offices this week have been talking about beyond access, right? So access, adoption, and use, right? And I think that almost flipping that on its head and starting from what I think what you’re referring to is like, what’s the application within the community that makes the most, adds the most value to the community, right? ‘Cause I think a lot of people, maybe not in the industry or outside are just saying, “Okay, we need to get everybody access so they can watch Netflix or they can game,” you know? But it’s to your point about electricity is, nobody knows what kind of wires run the electricity to your house or the plumbing to your house, right? They just know they need the water to take a shower, to cook. They need electricity to do a multitude of things, right? And I think slowly the public is understanding telehealth, right? Distance learning.

Importance of public-private partnerships in building smart cities

Pete Pizzutillo:

What I still fear about the public, what I see in the private sector is we’re still arguing over the technical and functional criteria and trying to fit those, and making the communities do the work to align. This solution will fit you. You got to figure out how it will fit you, right? And I think I’m wondering if you’re seeing any partnerships, public, private partnerships where they’ve gotten that alignment and they’re starting to get some momentum, right? ‘Cause, there’s also a window on this funding. And that’s the other concern is who’s doing it right? What are they doing that other folks can learn from to start getting the momentum in their own communities?

Lee Davenport:

Yeah. There a key study came to my mind. There’s a partnership we have that I think maps well to the current opportunity, right? So about three years ago or so we started working with the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. That city had a lot of partners. They had a lot of key anchor institutions. The innovation district executive director is our partner in this community. She, Allison Barlow, has partnered with large employers, health systems, the hospitals. They have a defined place in the innovation district. It does have a high needs population for connectivity. It also does have a university in the same space.

Lee Davenport:

We were in a meeting three years ago and they said, “How are we going to work together? How is, the spectrum charter, the partner going to get involved? How are the communities going to get involved? How are the Boys And Girls Clubs going to get involved? What’s the role for each of those partners to play?” And over the course of a meeting and then a subsequent set of meetings, we ended up deploying this technology that is an underwater reef that the kids at the Boys And Girls Cubs can help contribute to and help build. They’ve put it into Tampa Bay. It’s now got 11 cameras on it. There’s a software developed at one of the colleges that has a marine science school, an official recognition software. They’re counting fish, watching for red algae, and climate change. The marine science students are going to the Boys And Girls Clubs and talking about these things with students who may never have even gone to the beach, just two miles away.

Lee Davenport:

The mayor’s office is supporting it. The power company is getting involved in underwriting some of the outreach events. The marine science school then is watching federal promoting opportunities that are coming up and then have gone out and competed in one as a multimillion-dollar project for Noah, for underwater networking. And so all the capacity was built because the partners went through these steps with each other. No partner could have predicted at the beginning what it might look like. But by the end, they had trusted, and they had a working experience. And when the opportunity came up, they said, “Oh, we have this cool opportunity for $7 million,” and they won. It was a competitive process and they still got it, right?

Lee Davenport:

So to me, that’s an opportunity of how trust works, how you build partnerships and have access to see how the other partner makes decisions. And then you start to align those ideas of not just operational capability overlap, but an optimal creation of a public-private partnership is this idea that you have balanced the municipality, county, city, state base, whatever. Their need to return some social good to its community residents, its taxpayers, its residents, and visitors. And this private sector needs to return some ROI to its stakeholders, and investors. And when we can align and overlap on what delivers ROI for the private sector and social good for the municipal sector, that to me is when you have an optimal public-private partnership.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Do you have any fears that the partnerships have become a crutch, right? So that there’s a lot of pressure on community leaders to know that they have funding accessible, to understand how to apply it and actually have meaningful results, but there are a lot of technical and legislative issues that they still need to wade through? And there’s a lot of private energy coming into this space to take advantage of the 64 billion or a hundred million per state. And maybe not as proven to some of the existing partners, right? So this is the cynical side of me wondering, because that’s the fear that I have is, I wonder how many community leaders are either just going to outsource the whole problem to a private company that seems like they understand how they get this done, or is that just me being old and cynical?

Lee Davenport:

I think will vary by community. I think you’re probably onto something. I think that some of more advanced or more thought or more prepared, which is, again, what we’re encouraging, will hopefully have a better vision because strategic vision drives this all. When the leaders of this decision, making crew, the mayor, the city manager, department heads, whoever they are, when having a vision of what they want to get done, it’s based on the reality of what the community is saying. Community of stakeholders, businesses, of leaders. It doesn’t have to be your community of neighborhoods. It could be a community of business leaders if it’s an innovation district or a downtown main street. If your constituency is, your billion-dollar businesses or your Black-owned businesses. I think it matters that they have a vision for what they want. If they’re ready to use those relationships, then no, it’s not a crutch to me. These are empowered solutions. You’re making and what they say in other communities, its pervasive access will solve problems of any variety. It’s multi-use cases.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right. Yeah. But I would also say to the community leaders there, I know there’s an announcement coming up today at the conference around the American Association Of Public Broadband. So it’s a collection of public officials. So they’re starting to be these communities of interest that are centering around this specific issue. I know the Fiber Broadband Association also has a working group dedicated to just public policy folks. So there’s an opportunity for that, those watering holes for these folks that may be kind of behind the learning curve are still hesitant to move forward or need some help to reach out to their peers that have already kind of blazed the way.

Lee Davenport:

I will say we did a study with a partner Altman Solan that was released in March 2020. There are around 19,900 cities communities, and towns, in the United States, 138 or so or million or more. Almost a thousand that are a hundred thousand or more. Those cities we found through that study have deployed about five varieties worth of hybrid models from the Chattanooga model, which is fully municipal-owned and operated, over to anchor institutions, to conduit but not fiber, to ways in which we can leverage muni assets, rights away, expedited permitting. But there are well-known ways in which municipalities have worked with the private sector to increase access to IoT projects or city management asset tagging. In 2020, it was a thousand cities that had deployed some level of municipal access and increased access. So we’re not breaking a lot of molds here. I’m sure that number is twice, three times that already. And so I think what we expect to say is municipality will itself not ever, or it seems unlikely will have any kind of full pushover to full owned and operated because it’s a complicated environment. But, they may start to plug holes in the gaps where they see them. If there are ways in which they can augment connectivity, how can all of us work together to solve those problems? I think that’s where the opportunity is.

The roadblocks ahead in the journey of building more smart cities

Joe Coldebella:

Wow. That’s a lot there. And in terms of just everyone working together, do you see any sort of red flags or challenges down the road?

Lee Davenport:

I think you had maybe referenced it earlier. I think those cities that were less and then prepared, will be approached by vendors who will want to solve this problem. And they will say, “Oh, we can solve it for you. Just cut us a check and we’ll design a solution for you or we’ll submit the application on your behalf.” And to those overwhelmed leaders, they could say, “Oh, this is a good idea. We don’t have time to solve this. And we don’t want to miss out on all this money. Let’s just cut these guys a check.” And then you’re doing the work, but no one’s going to guarantee it. Every opportunity has been oversubscribed by 2, 3, 400, and 500%. So what’s the opportunity for them to miss, especially if you’re getting an external consultant or partner to define your strategy and define your vision. Well, it’s not going to match with anybody’s vision if it’s written by a consultant who’s a hundred miles away or a thousand miles away.

Joe Coldebella:

‘Cause, that sounds so daunting for these places because broadband has put one thing that they sort of look after. So it’s one of those things where it’s going to be an interesting few years.

Lee Davenport:

It absolutely is. I mean the 65 billion you referenced earlier for broadband money alone is but like a piece of the 2.5 trillion. There are highways, there are roads, there are trains, there are all kinds of things are going to… They’ll be making decisions because they have to balance where they’re going to get the most return that will help them solve the most intrinsic problems. And they have to balance just amazing, amazing problems. These municipal leaders are under so much stress.

Joe Coldebella:

Right, exactly. Because you’re wearing multiple hats, multiple days. And it’s daunting because the people that will raise their hand to help you might not have your best interest at heart.

Lee Davenport:

Yeah. Not that they would be malicious, even. Sure, they may just not understand what your best interests are. Not that they’d be a conflict of interest necessarily. It’s just a hard problem to solve. And that’s why, again, I think you want people to start to reach out, whether whoever’s listening, whatever sector you’re in, reach across the aisle, help them stay in their lane. You say, “I’ll do the technology. You tell me what the problem is.” The city should not be in the solution-hunting business. They should be in the problem hunting business.

Joe Coldebella:

I like that. So, Lee, it’s been an awesome conversation. One thing that we like to do is we like to ask all our guests some final questions as we begin to wrap up. The first question is our back to the future question. If I were to drop the keys to the DeLorean in your hand, and you were able to go back to the future and whisper something in your ear or someone else’s ear that would hopefully, I don’t know, shine a light on a way to attack a problem differently. What would you say to yourself or someone else?

Lee Davenport:

That’s a real tough one. I mean the first half of your question, I thought I’d answered, which was, what are we going to do differently? We’re not going to go to a bat market in Wuhan, right? We’re going to stop this pandemic from happening. The problem that came from that though is a really interesting one. So because of that, we learned how fragile infrastructure is for educating our youth.

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely.

Lee Davenport:

And so, because of that, did we do things right in response to that? We mobilize, we considered that was an important issue. And for all of 2020, as we were kind of sitting in our own homes, at least we were making decisions about public safety, about public health. And we were trying to get our kids educated in that process, not to say we didn’t stunt their social development. But, I think that there are things that we did right along that way. I think that had we done it differently, it might not have been the same.

Lee Davenport:

I worked on a nonprofit project 10 years ago, called everyone on, and connect to compete. And there we deployed a 50-state product that was 9.95 internet for school meals eligible kids. And at the time it was pretty earth-shattering to think, do kids need internet access for 9.95? All we had to do was prove that they were unable to afford their own school meals, which is not a high bar, but it was millions of kids. Even then we still thought the internet was a privilege. If you could give me $10, I’ll give you the internet, right? And that’s changed I think.

Will there be more smart cities in the US soon?

Joe Coldebella:

One other thing we like to do also is we like to ask you the crystal ball question. Because, there’s so much activity going around in this industry, it’s really overwhelming. But, where do you see things going in three to five years in terms of just things that are happening?

Lee Davenport:

Assuming that folks get connected to the internet, that cities get connected to their solutions, the things we’ve been talking about. And again, I’m relatively single track on this, but if that all works out, then each community is developing the kinds of tools they need to deliver services to its own residents and visitors that they’re getting kind of economic development opportunities, technical technology development opportunities, and community development opportunities. And that overlap just increases every day. And if we can drive new development with technology tools…

Lee Davenport:

Somebody had said earlier, the master planning that transportation departments do, we know that cars will need in 50 years, wifi, or the equivalent of wifi access for them just to even operate and inner operate. We know that health systems will need telehealth to be able to save money and increase the number of hospital beds by outsourcing that to the home of a person who’s connected. We know that kids will need to work in a way that allows them to in 20, 30 years, use the internet and computers in ways that we cannot currently imagine. And so for that to work, we’ve got to set all that work in place now.

Pete Pizzutillo:

It’s a great point. I love that. It’s like one of those things it’s like now it’s the start. And so it’s like, we got to get it right. We got to get the foundation going. Because what we’re doing now is not three to five years. It’s 20 or 30 or 50 years down the line.

Joe Coldebella:

Holograms.

Lee Davenport:

Yep. Yep. When we cut ourselves short when we don’t master plan like other departments do when we only cut ourselves into what’s right in front of us, what’s the opportunity here? What I like about the way people talk about federal funding on a panel I was on earlier, I heard earlier, that Peggy Schaeffer, the head of the state department office of Maine had said, “This document in front of you, it presents an opportunity to document how you think partnerships should work. It itself is not the challenge. It’s just writing words down. The challenge is, can you build the right opportunity to solve the right problem? And then talk about it in a way that is meaningful to the person who’s going to have to read it. The reviewers have to read it.”

Joe Coldebella:

Now, this has been an absolutely awesome conversation. So Lee, what would be the best way for folks to sort of reach out or find more stuff about you and US Ignite?

Lee Davenport:

Yeah. So the US Ignite, again, is a nonprofit here in the United States. We have a global network. We operate a platform for advanced wireless. It’s a hundred million test bed for NSF advanced wireless research. We operate several smart bases, installations, dashboards, and opportunities to incur securitization or transit on base. And then these 50 communities where we work, all that stuff can be found at us-ignite.org. We have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn just kind of find us anywhere. We’d love to work for you guys.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. Thanks for that, Lee. We’ll put the links to the funding finder and some of the other resources that you mentioned too for our listeners. So thanks for the time. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the conference.

Lee Davenport:

No, you guys are both fantastic. And I hope you recover from your barbecue.

Joe Coldebella:

All right. Well, that’s going to wrap up this episode of the Broadband Bunch at Broadband Community’s 2022. thanks a lot. And we’ll see you next time.

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