The Benton Institute: Closing the Digital Divide - ETI

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December 10, 2019

The Benton Institute: Closing the Digital Divide

In this episode of the Broadband Bunch, recorded in Washington D.C. at the Broadband Communities event focused on High-Speed Broadband: Driving America’s Growth, we speak with Jon Sallet from the Benton Institute for Broadband Society.


Jon Sallet: I’ve done telecom issues for a long time. I was in the Clinton administration in the Department of Commerce when we worked on the issues that led to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I headed the first inter-agency educational technology working group out of the white house. I went to work for MCI in the late ’90s, when there was a lot of talk about competition, long distance and local. Then in 2013, Tom Wheeler, the Chairman of the FCC, asked me to go into the Federal Communications Commission to become its General Counsel, which I did. Then went to the Antitrust Division of Department of Justice where I was the Senior Deputy.

When I left government, I want it to continue to find a way to work on these issues. And Benton has done this for very long time. Is a place that takes the long view about broadband policy, about communications policy. And so I was very grateful for the opportunity to continue my work with them.


Pete Pizzutillo: You mentioned earlier that the Benton Foundation had recently rebranded its name around broadband and society. Can you provide some insight into that motivation?

Jon Sallet: Sure. The Benton Foundation was well known in communication circles, largely through the efforts of Charles Benton, the father of our current Executive Director Adrianne Furniss. But as we came into a new decade, we thought we ought to give people a better understanding of what we do. The word foundation is a pretty general one. So we thought, “Well, is it the Benton Institute for broadband?” And we thought, “No, because somebody will come and ask us how to engineer network, and we won’t know how to do that.” What we’re talking about is the impact that broadband can have on people, on communities. And so we thought the best name was the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.


Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah. Love that connection between the technology and the community that we’re trying to serve. So recently you, as of yesterday, you released the Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s.  That’s a pretty audacious plan and report that’s really comprehensive and extensive. And there’s a lot to talk about in there, but if you can help us as, a, what was the motivation for that report? What’s your goal? And what are some of the highlights that you think we should hear about?

Jon Sallet: Sure. It came out of Benton’s past work. This is what Charles Benton had done in the 80s, and then again at the beginning of this century. He sponsored agenda setting exercises, bringing together ideas to try to coalesce thought around key initiatives. Technology is moving fast, society is changing, expectations about broadband are changing. We thought it was time to do that again. And we thought the way to do it was not to pretend like everything was our idea, but to look around the country, at communities, at States, at thought leaders, and pick the best of the best, and illustrate what people know how to do, because we think that’s the foundation for future policy.

So we concentrate on four major areas. First is deployment. How to get broadband to places where there aren’t any. There is none. Secondly, competition. How to make sure consumers get the benefit of competitive broadband services. Thirdly, affordability and adoption. Issues that go together, right? For some low income people, fixed broadband isn’t accessible, in terms of its cost. And many people, more than one might think, lack the digital skills to know how to use broadband. And then finally, community institutions, what we call community anchor institutions. Schools, libraries, hospitals that use broadband to serve their communities.

Pete Pizzutillo: Thank you for that. And one of the, I think, really interesting ideas that you had in there is about the other America, right? And that there’s two Americas. And so it’s a really interesting concept that’s packed with a lot of ideas. Maybe you can help us understand what your thoughts are on that.

Jon Sallet: Yeah. Think about people who don’t have access to fixed broadband at home. They probably have less economic opportunity than other people. Their kids may find it harder to do schoolwork. They may find it harder to get training, harder to get healthcare services in their home. They’re isolated. They can be isolated in an important way. And what we’re saying is, that’s not just a digital divide. A digital divide is the term that’s traditionally been used, and used for good reason. But what we’re saying is that’s really a different America. It’s another America. It’s a place that’s isolated. And particularly in rural locations where people are already physically isolated, they then can be isolated because of lack of fixed broadband alone. It’s a place where people are more likely to rely on community institutions. It’s a place where going to the fast food restaurant is commonplace.

One of the things we heard a lot when we talk to people around the country was, “I take the kids, I put them in a car, I go to the little local McDonald’s and get broadband.” We need to understand that if these people are connected, they will benefit. But we will all benefit because we’ll have the basis for say, a stronger economy.

Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, no. I think the distinction about… It’s not simply just unplugged, right? It’s disconnected. And I think the report does a great job connecting how these people are lacking the participation in society. They can’t apply for a job online. These things that you just don’t think about, but when your phone dies, you’ve suffered that temporarily. But these are folks that are living in this day-to-day, year-over-year.

Jon Sallet: I told this story yesterday, and it’s in our report. It comes from a woman named Deb Solskjaer who’s led work on digital inclusion for a long time. She’s now in Chattanooga. And we were talking on the phone one day this year and she me, she said, “On two Sundays, I was on business trips. Two Sundays, I was sitting in two fast food restaurants in two different cities. And on each occasion, a man walked in and asked the manager, could he apply for a job using a paper application? And each occasion, the manager said, “No, you have to be online.””

Pete Pizzutillo: It’s crazy.

Jon Sallet: And Deb said to me when we were talking, what does it mean when you can’t flip a burger in America without internet access?

Pete Pizzutillo: Right. That’s crazy. And it’s interesting, because I’ve heard that story a couple times where parents are going to Starbucks for the kids to do homework, and it used to be go to the library to get your homework done. And now they’re going to all these places, these non-traditional, and I think the community-anchoring institutions is kind of… The community is defining them instead of us defining them.

Jon Sallet: Yeah. And the community-anchor institutions, libraries are doing a lot of really good work. There are experiments around the country where people can check out hotspots, wireless hotspots, right? So if their kids can do homework through the hotspots. It’s not a long-term solution, but it can be an important short-term solution.

Pete Pizzutillo: Sure. What about some of the research and educational networks out there, in the Merit Network and some of those other folks?

Jon Sallet: Merit Network in Michigan is just inspiring. It’s an inspiring story, right? It’s inspiring both because as a research and education network, it’s been so successful. But then it’s inspiring because, what they’re doing in Michigan is taking the knowledge, understanding the way middle mile operates, and they’re now working with local communities. They’re not going to supply the local retail service themselves, but they are lending their expertise to local communities that are trying to solve their problems.

I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago with Joe Sawaski, who heads the Merit Network, and he tells a great story about what’s being done in Michigan. But I think even more importantly, what the rest of the country can learn from Michigan.

Pete Pizzutillo: Absolutely. It’s a model. The [Michigan] Moonshot mission that they have, that’s what you’re asking for, right? And essentially is, first off, let’s figure out how big… As you say, the step is getting visibility, right? Let’s not argue that there is a divide. We all know there is a divide. But if we can identify the biggest areas of need, then we can attack the problem starting from there. Right?

Jon Sallet: Yes.

Pete Pizzutillo: And then, I think Moonshot is a great example. We’ve done it for cancer, we’ve done it for the space program. Let’s do it for this, and what I see as broadband as the economic engine, right? And a lot of times, the argument that I hear is, it’s a competing industry against other industries like manufacturing and retail. But it’s really enabling capability. And when do we get to make that connection? I think your report is starting to do that.


Jon Sallet: It’s what we heard from local officials around the country. We talked to them over the course of the last year as we were putting the report together, and we’d say, “Why is broadband important?” And uniformly, the answer we got back was economic growth, economic development, better jobs for our people. It just turns out to be a fundamental fact. And I want to also talk about a point you made, which is exactly right. Technologies enabled solutions. Technologies seldom solve problems by themselves. It’s the use of the technology that solves the problem.

So we’re not saying broadband by itself solves every problem. But what we do think is that the big problems in America can’t be solved without including broadband. Agriculture, climate change, education for people of all ages, the economy, health care, all of these kinds of solutions will end up riding on broadband networks.

Pete Pizzutillo: Absolutely. That’s a great quote. I highlighted that in the report. One of the things, and one of the pillars you talked about was around competition.


Pete Pizzutillo: And I think the prevailing thought is, competition leads to affordable and fair prices. But there’s a component of cooperation, I think, that’s important as well. We talked a little bit about open access networks. If everybody’s competing to build their network first, or their network best, and we’re not affording opportunity for sharing or regionalizing some of the infrastructure and shared services, we could end up in a situation where we don’t have sustainable systems in the next 20, 30 years. So have you had those conversations with folks, about how to think about competition and cooperation differently?

Jon Sallet: The starting point is that for fixed broadband, there’s pretty limited competition in America. By the FCC’s data, over 70% of America either has no choice, meaning one provider, or only one choice, meaning two providers. That’s not really a competitive marketplace. So the question is how to get more competition. We think the answer is the more the merrier. And among the more should be open access networks that localities can fund, or the federal government can fund. Because just to make the point, which you know, and I think your listeners do as well, suppose a community, this is true of the Eastern shore of Maryland and the County nearby where my wife and I have a farm. Kent County, Maryland.

Pete Pizzutillo: Okay.

Jon Sallet: Fiber connects the government buildings. Private providers can, at their own expense, build off the County fiber into a neighborhood. So the private company is supplying the last mile retail service, but the costs of deployment are cut by the fact that they get to connect to the middle mile. We’ve seen that in various places around the country, and it seems like a good tool to increase competition.

Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, I agree. And I see there’s many ways for that private-public partnership to exist, and we’re seeing a couple different models across the US, and it’s encouraging. And so I’m glad we got to hit that point. The last point I want to make is going back to the anchoring institutions, right? So you described them briefly. But how do you see their role evolving moving forward?

Jon Sallet: I think there are three important things. First, it’s really important that they get the advantage of competitive processes to get better and less expensive broadband. In the last few years, the cost of broadband to schools and libraries supported by the federal E-Rate program has been cut a lot because we’re using competitive processes more effectively to bring in more options, including the construction of fiber that over time can be the cheapest alternative. Secondly, we’re learning, of course, that a library’s users don’t sit in the library all the time, right? They used to take a book home, but now they need to have internet access at home to take advantage of the library.

And so we’re seeing experiments in how libraries, for example, in schools, can use in, a couple of places, local wireless, TV white spaces, for example, to reach users. Or as I said before, the lending of a hotspot to low income students to be able to do homework at home. But then third, and it’s my Kent County example, community institutions can act as a launching pad for more competition by bringing fiber deeper into a place. The example in Kent County, I walk into Scott Boone’s office, who runs the technology, and he shows me a map on his wall of a County correctional institution across the street from a neighborhood that doesn’t have broadband. And it’s very simple. You run the fiber to the County jail, and that’s helpful to the government. You’ve also cut the cost of deployment to that un-served neighborhood. That’s a third and important role for community institutions.


Pete Pizzutillo: Interesting. The report is, like I said, chock-full of a lot of things. We didn’t get into some of the deeper recommendations that you have. But one of them is around the driving, the authority and control to the localized level. There’s still 19 States that have restrictive regulations around broadband and being offered by the municipalities. So how do you see this report helping to unlock that regulatory gridlock that we see today?

Jon Sallet: We are seeing states beginning to revisit those policies. And I think it’s a good thing. But I hope our report helps in the following way: It shows policymakers this success stories from municipalities. Not everything will be a success story. And as you said before, there’s different models. Some will work for some places, some will work for others. Different infrastructure, different competitive circumstances. But what we are really getting now is a body of knowledge of successful efforts at the municipal level, that I think can help everybody understand the art of the possible.

Pete Pizzutillo: Right. One of the complaints… Well, I don’t know if it’s a complaint. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the slow uptake in a municipality level, versus the electrification of America back many years ago is the lack of federal funding and support. Do you see that as an obstacle?

Jon Sallet: There’s a lot of talk in DC these days, well, about many issues. But on this one about funding broadband deployment, there’s a problem we have right now, which is, we don’t actually have a very good accurate sense of where broadband is or is not deployed. That mapping problem has to be fixed. But I think there is going to be a role for more federal support, and I think it will be important. I think that support needs to be used well to build future-proof networks. If we’re going to invest in the capital costs of new networks, let’s make sure that they’re built to last the next decade.

Pete Pizzutillo: Right. And affordably.

Jon Sallet: And affordably.

Pete Pizzutillo: Right. So you launched the report yesterday. What comes next?

Jon Sallet: Well, it’s really the beginning of another year of discussion. We put out the report. It’s available for people who want to look at it on the Benton website because we want to engage in a dialogue. We set forth a series of recommendations, and we intend to put them out again a year from now, but hopefully improved. Because we think that this is a good year to be able to talk to people, “What have we missed? What should we know? We’d love to hear from people about this so that next year it’s even more robust, and hopefully a stronger set of recommendations.”

Pete Pizzutillo: And even the work that you’ve done in the past year, talking to like the Pew Charitable Trust and all the other organizations that are, I think, bringing all those, codifying all that thinking, I think that’s really a testament to the effort, but what is sorely needed for us to finally get over this hump and move forward on this broadband. It’s really important, and I think what you guys have done is tremendous work, and thank you for your time.